Ronda Rousey key to future growth of women’s MMA
The fate of women’s MMA rests squarely on the shoulders of 25-year-old Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. As Rousey goes, so goes women’s MMA.
There are a lot of people who probably won’t like me saying that, but history shows us that continued exposure for female fighters is tied to the success or failure of their most marketable star.
Like Gina Carano before her, Rousey is the unquestioned “Face of Women’s MMA” right now. Unlike Carano, the former two-time Olympian has (thus far) completely justified her wearing that title by steamrolling her way to the Strikeforce bantamweight title.
She defends the title she won from Miesha Tate this weekend against former champion Sarah Kaufman in a match-up that is not only Rousey’s toughest to date, but also a perfect pairing to illustrate the importance of having someone with an undeniable “It Factor” as the top talent in the sport.
I know Sarah Kaufman – we live in the same city, I’ve spent time hanging out with her and the rest of the team at ZUMA, and have interviewed her a number of times. She is a wonderful person, a tremendous fighter, and someone I would label as “One of the Good Ones.” That being said, she doesn’t have the same type of magnetism as Rousey.
During her time at the top of the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight division, the polite, articulate, and at that point unbeaten Canadian had to plead to be put on the main card of a major Strikeforce event, played second fiddle to up-and-comers on Challengers Series shows when she was champion, and was never much of a draw.
In just over one year of competing inside the Strikeforce cage, Rousey has become a certified superstar.
Pre-Rousey, only one pair of females headlined an event that featured male fighters competing as well – the historic meeting between Carano and Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos in August 2009.
This weekend, when 2004 Olympic judo bronze medalist takes on Kaufman in San Diego, California, it will be the second consecutive fight where Rousey has been a part of the main event, and for good reason: her bout with Tate drew more viewers than July’s event that was headlined by a pair of title fights on the men’s side.
Simply put, people want to see Ronda Rousey. They want to see her compete, on the Conan O’Brien Show, on magazine covers, and spotlighted in a behind-the-scenes “All Access” special in advance of this weekend’s fight.
It’s not a coincidence that the profile of women’s MMA as a whole has increased since Rousey’s arrival on the scene. Invicta FC President Shannon Knapp joked that she should be paying Rousey for all the attention she’s bringing to women’s MMA and – by extension – Invicta FC, even though she doesn’t work with or for the upstart all-female fight promotion.
She is everything you want from an organisational standpoint: a tremendous athlete and talented fighter, charismatic, engaging, attractive, and the right amount of cocky to rub some people the wrong way.
That last one might sound out of place to some, but whether you’re tuning in and paying attention because you want to see her win or lose is irrelevant; at least you’re tuning in.
Plus, Rousey has backed up her big talk outside of the cage when she’s set foot on the canvas thus far, proving she was ready to challenge Tate for the title despite having just four professional fights under her belt when she won the title back in March.
That’s what makes this fight with Kaufman such a pivotal affair. A Rousey victory means the momentum women’s MMA has built over the past year keeps growing, opening the door to a super-fight with “Cyborg” when she returns from suspension, and a potential rematch with Tate.
Keeping the belt around her waist means Rousey can remain in the spotlight without ruffling any feathers, making the media rounds, and continuing to be one of the leading names in the sport of mixed martial arts.
All that is a little harder to continue if she is not the champion, at least not without stepping on some toes.
Despite proving herself to be the dominant force when she defeated Carano in August 2009, “Cyborg” wasn’t able to carry women’s MMA to new heights during her reign atop the 145-pound featherweight division.
Kaufman couldn’t generate enough interest to garner a place on the main card of a major event until she fought Marloes Coenen, and while the Dutch veteran Coenen and Tate squared off as the co-main event of a major event when they fought and generated more interest than Kaufman, neither came close to creating the kind of buzz that follows Rousey.
Women’s MMA isn’t going away – not when industry veterans like Knapp are giving female fighters an organisation of the their own and the opportunity to shine on a regular basis, and not when Strikeforce continues to give women a chance to compete in televised events on one of the larger stages in the business.
It could, however, continue to grow and develop, and a lot of that will depend on how long Ronda Rousey remains on top.
Follow The Roar’s UFC Expert E. Spencer Kyte on Twitter (@spencerkyte).