This article was originally published on LowKickMMA.
After 13 months of speculation, the MMA world got an answer to the myriad of questions that surrounded the return of former bantamweight queen Ronda Rousey when she lost in quick and destructive fashion at last week’s UFC 207.
No, the Holly Holm loss was not a fluke. No, the “focused Rousey” hadn’t dramatically improved her stand-up skills such to justify standing with “The Lioness”. Yes, the UFC’s decision to basically refrain from promoting Amanda Nunes in the build up to her first title defense was an embarrassing mistake. No, Rousey was not going to finally acknowledge the media and the droves of fans that came out to support her.
In the aftermath of possibly the most violent 48 seconds in the history of the female bantamweight division, more questions have arisen about Rousey’s future. Amongst them are whether she can (or will return) to fighting; whether, if she does, she will finally do it with an established camp behind her rather than her longtime coach (and controversy magnet) Edmond Tarverdyan; and whether, all criticism aside, she is mentally capable of dealing with the second brutal KO loss of her once-illustrious career.
Before assessing the wisdom – and feasibility – of a second comeback tour, let’s take a moment to reflect on Rousey’s legacy that may well have come to a spectacular and vicious end just a few days ago.
Her ascension to fame hardly needs retelling – at least, not if you watched any of the UFC’s promotional videos in the build up to UFC 207.
It was her propensity for first-round finishes and natural charisma that convinced UFC president Dana White to introduce a women’s bantamweight division into the promotion. It was her sustained run of dominance as champion of that division – defending her crown six times via finish – that made her a mainstream star. It was her unremitting work ethic, appearing on the covers of countless magazines, earning parts in Hollywood films like Fast and Furious, The Expendables, and Entourage and doing more interviews than any other MMA fighter in history that permanently inscribed her in the popular psyche.
Her book, My Fight Your Fight, was a bestseller and detailed her intense and challenging relationship with her mother, her battles with eating disorders, homelessness, and her insatiable, borderline-psychotic need to win.
In 2015 it was announced that Paramount pictures was making a film about Rousey’s biography with her as the star. That same year she was the first MMA fighter ever to appear on the cover of Ring Magazine, with the headline: “Is boxing next?”
She was a transcendent star and heralded as an icon for women and combat sports.
But despite her incredible, unparalleled success, Rousey’s ascension was marred with more than its fair share of road bumps. Many of these were overlooked or downplayed by the mainstream media’s portrayal of the UFC’s favorite daughter – and informed the backlash against her when her reign as champion ended.
Legitimate questions were raised about Rousey’s character and temperament during her tenure as coach of The Ultimate Fighter 18. Reports emerged that she had lashed out at producers on the show. On one episode she became inexplicably infuriated at opposing coach Miesha Tate for celebrating her fighter’s win over Team Rousey. She displayed a marked absence of sportsmanship, on one occasion screaming “F**k you b***h” to Tate after winning the coaches’ challenge. She then doubled down on her petulance by refusing to shake Tate’s hand in the Octagon after the two fought at UFC 168 – something that was almost unprecedented in championship fights.
Others questioned Rousey’s status as a role model for young women. Whilst her physicality and tenacity challenged the still-prevailing notion that femininity was synonymous with physical inferiority, and she openly spoke out against body shaming in 2015, she likewise attacked other females at the apex of MMA with clearly sexist undertones.
In April 2014 she brazenly labeled Cris Cyborg –who was at that time every bit as dominant a champion at featherweight as Rousey was at bantamweight – an “it” and “not a woman” because she’d failed a drug test some five years prior. From 2012 to 2015, Rousey had a longstanding feud with ring-girl Arianny Celeste, which culminated in the Celeste labeling Rousey a bully and suggesting she should do more to empower women – rather than denigrate them for their roles as models.
After the Holly Holm loss, Rousey was ferociously criticized for her hypocrisy. The woman who was credited with introducing trash talk to women’s MMA and had once disparaged Miesha Tate and other opponents in Strikeforce for their “sense of entitlement” when it came to criticism or confrontation, was now accusing the MMA media of “turning on her” after her violent fall from grace. She attacked anyone who congratulated Holm for her victory, and shut herself off from the legions of fans that had made her a star. It turned out, despite all the role model talk generated by the mainstream media that Rousey was as much sore loser as she was a sore winner.
Comparisons were (and continue to be) made with her trash-talking contemporaries who’d fallen from similar heights – among them Conor McGregor, who was defeated by Nate Diaz in March last year. Where McGregor had vowed to come back stronger than ever and revelled in the fact he had made his adversary a millionaire, Rousey shunned the spotlight and refused to do any media, in turn compromising Nunes’ chance – who was earning less than a tenth of Rousey’s purse – to increase her own star power (and pay-per-view earnings).
In the aftermath of UFC 207, she has returned to the solace from which she came, releasing a generic statement that thanked her fans for supporting her and indicating she would take some time to consider whether or not to retire.
Now comes the question of what is next.
Criticism notwithstanding, she is not in any way obligated to the UFC or the fans to make a second return to competition. She has rightfully earned her status as the woman who “built women’s MMA,” and her successors are forever indebted to her for raising the profile of women in the biggest fight promotion in the world. No one would seriously question the wisdom of retirement after her second brutal loss, and opportunities in Hollywood and writing still exist notwithstanding her fall from grace.
If she returns, things are a lot more complicated. Rousey is entitled to millions under her UFC contract, and if she fights again it will likely be in the main event slot with a comparable degree of promotional hype and media attention. She will not be permitted to hide from the cameras as she did this time, and another loss would permanently tarnish her legacy or more importantly, compromise her long-term health.
If she is adamant about returning to the Octagon, few would disagree that she must make changes in her approach to competition. Loyalties aside, there are serious questions surrounding Edmond Tarverdyan’s competency as an MMA coach, and given the relentless evolution of MMA fighters, a successful comeback likely depends on her joining a major MMA gym with a stable of the UFC’s best to sharpen her iron.
She must also change her mental preparation. Gone are the days where Rousey had a Mike Tyson-esque mystique and could psychologically beat her opponents before stepping into the cage. If she has future fights she will need to face the media, her detractors, and her opponent not as a transcendent and seemingly unstoppable champion, but as a challenger who has twice been violently outmatched in front of millions of spectators.
If she can do that and recapture UFC gold, it will be one of, if not the, greatest comeback stories in the history of combat sports. If she doesn’t, she will rightfully be revered as a trailblazer for women’s MMA whose departure from competition was as swift and ferocious (or perhaps even more so) as her epic arrival into the UFC less than four years ago.
Whatever happens next, the world will be waiting with baited breath, proving that the UFC is no longer about wins and losses. It’s about stars, and Rousey is still very much just that.