It’s not easy to carry the entire weight of a sport on your shoulders, but who ever said life was fair?
Certainly not anyone familiar with women’s mixed martial arts (MMA), which has waxed and waned from sport to spectacle in recent years, occasionally flirting with solidifying a foothold on the mainstream consciousness, then retreating (and thanks for the memories, Gina Carano).
Yet for all the expectations coming into her headliner bout at UFC 157 last night (Feb. 23, 2013) at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., Ronda Rousey delivered a pitch-perfect performance in dispatching challenger Liz Carmouche in the first-ever women’s bout under the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) banner.
Rousey displayed her signature vicious submission, fought through some early dramatic moments as Carmouche threatened with a rear naked choke, and gave fans a memorable taste they’ll surely want more of – watching two skilled, world-class women battle it out is a helluva lot of fan with the right ingredients in the mix, and the Ronda Rousey vs. Liz Carmouche recipe was a definite hit (watch the video highlights here).
I think this outcome was much better for the UFC than if Rousey had simply blown through Carmouche to land yet another first-round armbar win. For while fans like dominant champions, competition, or perception of the threat of it, goes a long way, especially in building new elements of the brand. It also legitimizes Carmouche single-handedly, as she provided more viable trouble than all six of Rousey’s previous foes combined.
As women’s MMA solidifies a great start to the proverbial foothold, new talent and faces will emerge. And with a huge developmental upside, don’t be surprised to see Rousey improve on her stand up, and in doing so, become an exponentially worse assignment for opponents. It’s scary enough to see how she physically dominates people on the mat – given some basic comfort level with the standing attack, it only gets worse for future challengers.
But, they’ll be improving as well, and a massively expanded talent pool means huge returns to the level of competition. Just look at how much the average skill level of fighters has improved now compared to the pre-The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) days in the mid-2000s. Exposure means dollars, which is exactly what MMA’s done in the last six years – once relegated as a weird sideshow, a career in MMA can mean a viable living for ex-college wrestlers and martial artists of various disciplines.
Given its nascent status, women’s MMA, skill-wise, isn’t even that far along relative to its potential. It’s more like the mid-1990s. Right now, Rousey reminds me of Mark Coleman in those early UFC days, manhandling and dominating people. Yet for how unbeatable he seemed in UFC 10 and 11, the emerge of Maurice Smith and the evolution of sprawl and brawl solved the Coleman riddle and sent many a wrestler back to the drawing board.
It’ll be interesting to see how women’s MMA evolves in response to Rousey’s dominance. For now, however, everyone associated with the sport can give her and Carmouche a standing ovation because they made a helluva' debut on the big stage, one whose impacts will resonate in ways we can only begin to understand.
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst