On the 15th of November Ronda Rousey will meet Holly Holm in the centre of the Octagon at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne. Rousey is the champion, a former Olympic judoka and bona fide Hollywood star. Holm is the challenger, a former boxing world champion. Two undefeated pugilists set to collide in the biggest Mixed Martial Arts contest in history.
70,000 spectators, myself among them, will chant Rousey’s name as she, in all likelihood, clobbers another ‘contender’ and further solidifies her legacy as one of the greatest combatants in history.
But there are issues underlying this matchup that the majority of Rousey fans aren’t aware of. They’re not coming up on Ellen or ESPN Sportcentre – even expert MMA journalists seem at times reluctant to address them. These issues go to the heart of MMA’s legitimacy as an athletic competition, its place in mainstream culture and the UFC’s future viability after stars like Rousey retire.
First among these issues is the sheer ludicrousness of no. 8 ranked Holly Holm getting to be Rousey’s dancing partner in the biggest fighting spectacle in history.
The fact is, despite all of Holm’s boxing ‘accolades’, the UFC (and Rousey in particular) have been so determined to emphasise Holm has not earned her shot at gold as an MMA fighter – a fact she all but conceded when the matchup was announced. She has only had two fights in the UFC, both of which were against unranked competition, and both of which ended in decisions (rather than submissions or KOs). One of them was even split, which means that one judge scored her as losing the fight. She is not “the greatest challenge [Rousey] has ever had”. She is not “the biggest threat to the 135lb crown”. She is a sacrifice. And everyone who knows anything about MMA is aware of that.
The second issue is that there are at least three women who the majority of the MMA community regard as more deserving than Holm. Miesha Tate (ranked no. 3), Amanda Nunes (no. 5) and Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino (no. 1 in featherweight) each have a far more legitimate claim to challenge Rousey’s throne, but have each been passed over for largely unsatisfactory reasons.
Tate has been vanquished twice by Rousey, but is the only woman to have made it three rounds with her in by far the most competitive fight of Rousey’s career. Since then, she has pieced together an impressive 4-fight win streak (three of her opponents being ranked in the top-10) and Rousey has gone on record as stating that Tate is one of her biggest challenges. Oh, and the UFC also publicized that Tate was next in line, later changing their mind and announcing Rousey-Holm without even letting Tate know of their decision.
Nunes is 4-1 in the UFC and is fresh off a dominant finish win over top-ranked Sarah McMann. She’s a new face in the division and, from an athletic perspective, a far more intriguing match-up for Rousey than Holm. Even Joe Rogan – the UFC’s colour commentator – expressed confusion over how Holm could leapfrog Nunes, publicly proclaiming the latter to be the “more dangerous fighter” and disagreeing with his employer on their decision.
Cyborg is a slightly more difficult case because she’s in the 145lbs division (which currently doesn’t exist in the UFC) and has tested positive for performance enhancers in the past, but few would argue with the proposition that she’s Rousey’s toughest test to date. The no.1 ranked featherweight and no.3 ranked pound-for-pound, Cyborg has finished 12 of her 13 professional fights, the last two in a combined 1 minute 32 seconds. Her and Rousey also have mad beef:
So what gives? Well, from a modern day (post-2005) fan’s perspective, the Rousey-Holm matchup is just another signal that the UFC has begun to shift from a legitimate athletic competition to a global entertainment product. Overtly prioritising pay-cheques and mainstream attention over legitimate competition and the MMA community that supported the organisation through its dark ages.
The rationale seems to be that the Holm story is superficially more compelling than any of the other matchups. An undefeated challenger with boxing “world titles” and a strong PR team is enough to convince the majority of Rousey fans, who’ve probably watched 2 minutes of MMA in their lives (Rousey’s last 4 fights combined) that this matchup is compelling and “competitive” – and this is clearly the UFC’s target market.
Of course, it very seriously compromises the true fans of the sport, who were told one thing and delivered another; who know that Holm is not a legitimate challenger and are tired of seeing the baddest woman on the planet fed cans to crush; who roll their eyes when Rousey says crap like “Holm is the most decorated striker in all of Mixed Martial Arts”.
I mean sure, the UFC is also a business just as much as it is a sport. Without the promotion’s dexterity in blending athleticism with showmanship and a slick production game, the UFC would have died a long time ago. Hell, the closest thing to a “competing” MMA organisation in Bellator just announced that Kimbo Slice – otherwise known as “that guy from YouTube” – would headline their February show, notwithstanding the wealth of young talent fighting for the promotion.
But there’s a point where the entertainment side of things starts to undermine and ultimately destroy what the UFC claim to be their key objective – to see who the best fighters in the world are.
Holm’s opportunity closely resembles that of another undeserving contender in Bethe Corriea – a wild-eyed Brazilian “striker” who lasted a laughable 32 seconds against Rousey in August. Like Holm, Corriea had only fought unranked opponents and was selected to fight Rousey because of the narrative the PR team could craft about her beating Rousey’s training partners and friends, the “four horsewomen”.
In June, the UFC announced that welterweight champion Robbie Lawler would next fight no. 5 Carlos Condit. Whilst it is no doubt a compelling matchup, Condit is a meagre 2-3 in his last five bouts and coming off a 14 month absence from injury. At least two men are more deserving than him – Tyron Woodley and Johnny Hendricks – both of whom have beaten Condit and are ranked ahead of him. So, why Condit? Because he has a lot of fans and a more exciting fighting style than his counterparts, of course.
In July, the UFC announced that Alexander Gustafson, only 1-2 in his last three fights and coming off a first-round KO loss to Anthony Johnson, would fight for the Light Heavy Weight crown against Daniel Cormier. Ryan Bader, on a 4-fight tear, was ignored. Why? Because Bader is a boring wrestler and lacks a big fan-base. Gustafson, by contrast, is a European mega-star with an entire continent in his corner.
In August it was announced that the newly-crowned UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum would rematch the man he had just beat-down and submitted, Cain Velasquez. Why? Because Cain has the best pay-per-view buys as a heavyweight and a strong Latino fan-base, and the UFC are desperate for him to win back his mantel.
Going forward I have no doubt the UFC will increasingly succeed in injecting itself into the mainstream. The unprecedented ascent of Rousey is the clearest sign of this.
But if the UFC has to get there by padding the resumés of its biggest stars, and making matchups on the basis of casual fans with more interest in advertising than athleticism, you can bet that the legitimate fans of the sport will become disillusioned.
The fact is that MMA is a brutal sport where few are fairly rewarded for their efforts. The financial disparity between the champ and the challenger is yawning, and fighters are getting tired of being treated like pawns. Decisions made arbitrarily and divorced from merit are fundamentally unfair to the athletes and to the fans.
I fear that if the UFC continues to do business as it does, a time will come where the Rousey’s retire and MMA will be forced to retreat into relative obscurity, where it has existed for such a long period of time. And if it does, I don’t know whether the true fans of the sport will still be there to support it.