Ronda Rousey photo from Sherdog

On August 15, 2009 I sat in media row to witness the first ever big-time MMA main event headlined by women. MMA (most of you know it as the UFC) is a male-dominated sport. Currently, the UFC, which is the number one MMA organization in the world, doesn’t even have womens’ divisions. President Dana White has consistently said that there isn’t enough quality women fighters out there and until there is, we won’t see them in the UFC octagon.

But just three years ago, Strikeforce, the number two MMA company in the world (and now part of Zuffa, UFC’s parent company, after its purchase in March of 2011), headlined with two young female stars. It was the perfect storm for one evening. One of Maxim’s hottest 100, Gina Carano faced off against hulkish Brazillian fighter, Cristiane Santos, aka Cris Cyborg. It didn’t set any attendance records and I’d been to Strikeforce shows before with louder, more vociferous crowds, but you could feel the special in the air. Carano perspires charisma and has movie star looks (which she now uses to star in, um, movies). And Cyborg was the perfect foil. If you were plotting a movie, Carano would be your protagonist and Cyborg, your antagonist. Yet on that August evening, the antagonist won, and won in pretty devastating fashion to become the first ever Strikeforce Featherweight champion. Carano hasn’t fought since. She may never fight again. Most of that is probably because of her burgeoning movie career (Haywire and the upcoming Fast & Furious 6). But some of it may be because of the beating she took that night.

Looking back, the best chance for women’s MMA to break into the mainstream died on that evening when Carano lost. Carano had “it” and while Cyborg was tremendous as champion, she didn’t look like Gina Carano nor have a modicum of her charisma. She later failed a steroid test and was stripped of her title. It wasn’t shocking that she failed either. Strikeforce continues to put on women’s MMA fights, but when Carano left, many eye balls left too. But that has a chance to change. There’s a new sheriff in town and her name ain’t Reggie Hammond. It’s Ronda Rousey and she defends her Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight championship on Saturday night on Showtime in the main event against Sarah Kaufman.

Everything you need in a fighter, she has. Yet she’s a woman and she’s beautiful. The Ronda Rousey package is different than any other package we’ve ever seen. She’s incredibly talented. She’s mean. She’s nasty. And she’s dangerous. She’s got the whole package. I don’t care if you’re a man or a woman, if you’re a professional fighter, when you become a star, you have what’s called the “it” factor. That thing that people are attracted to. You can’t teach it. You have it or you don’t. And Ronda Rousey has “it”. I will not miss a Ronda Rousey fight ever. I’m a Ronda Rousey fan.

That quote comes from Dana White — the same Dana White who I described above who doesn’t think there are enough good women fighters to compete in the UFC. Since Strikeforce is the UFC’s sister company, White can continue to test the waters with women’s MMA while not having to give in and put fights on the bigger and more important brand. But if Rousey continues to succeed, she can be the game changer that people hoped Carano would become.

In 2008, Ronda Rousey won a bronze medal at the Summer Olympics in judo in Beijing. She became the first American female to medal in the sport since women judoka were first awarded medals at the 1992 Summer Olympics. (Two US women judoka won medals at the 2012 Summer games including Marti Malloy who won bronze and Kayla Harrison, the first ever US woman judoka to win a gold medal.) Much like world class wrestlers have taken to MMA, Rousey’s pedigree in judo legitimizes her immediately. She’s used an arm bar to finish every fight including her first seven fights which didn’t last longer than a minute (three of them were amateur).

In her eighth MMA fight (and only 5th pro fight) on March 3rd of this year, she faced Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight champion Miesha Tate. Some wondered if the step up in competition was going to be too much, too soon for Rousey. Tate is a well-rounded fighter with a strong wrestling base. More importantly, at the time, she was a veteran with fourteen fights and had previously won her title by submitting Marloes Coenen with an arm triangle in a competitive fight. Showtime marketed the fight strongly, putting it in the main event and both women sparred with words before their fight on Twitter. At the weigh-ins, they squared off for photos and Tate touched her forehead against Rousey’s and Rousey responded by pushing Tate’s head with hers. While it wasn’t the greatest showing of sportsmanship (sportswomanship?), it did create more excitement for the bout.

The fight was competitive early on as Tate nailed Rousey immediately with a jab in the first round, and then put her head down and starting swinging wildly. The scouting report on Rousey is keep the fight standing, both so that she can’t work for the arm bar and because she hasn’t had her chin tested yet. But Tate’s mistake was not keeping her distance. Because of Rousey’s expertise, she wants her opponent close to her so that she can take her down and set up the arm bar. Tate was on her back less than twenty seconds into the bout. And in less than fifty seconds of the first round, Rousey already had the arm bar sunk in. Even though it looked like her elbow was dislocated, Tate recovered and soon had Rousey’s back. Rousey provided too strong and soon they were back on their feet and Rousey used a judo hip toss to get Tate in position for the arm bar again. This time, Tate wouldn’t get out. Her arm was bent in an odd fashion and the fight was soon over.

Ronda Rousey’s ESPN cover

With just five professional fights, Rousey was the champion. And with that came recognition, publicity, and heightened expectation. Recently, she was on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue, following in — you guessed it — Gina Carano’s footsteps. Carano was in the 2009 version of the same issue. For her upcoming title defense in the main event on Showtime this Saturday against Sarah Kaufman, the focus is all on her. Showtime produced an All Access series on her to promote the fight. Kaufman was shown little throughout.

Kaufman isn’t someone who should be taken lightly. She was the first Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight champion. She’s also currently 15-1 with 8 stoppages from punches, which is where some believe Rousey can be beat. But she doesn’t have the same charm and charisma that Rousey does. How much of that should matter? In a televised sport, it matters a lot. In a televised sport dominated by male viewers, it matters more than it probably should. Carano had “it” in droves with looks, personality, and charisma. Rousey has “it” as well, though not like Carano. But she’s the closest thing we’ve seen to Carano. She’s going to have to win, market herself strong, and not slip up in order to help bring women’s MMA to the limelight and hopefully to the UFC. Kaufman is good enough to spoil that plan. Can Rousey step her game up yet again? If so, there’s a fight waiting in the wings that could bring women’s MMA to the forefront for one night again. It’s against the woman who beat Carano; Cris Cyborg.

One other thing that Rousey has to combat is her own fame. Has it all come too soon? Can she continue to be in the public eye and improve her game at the same time? She recently published a video making fun of Sarah Kaufman’s video contest which asked fans to send in their Rousey impressions. It was silly with one funny moment, but very reactive. Maybe she’s just trying to market the fight. But it has caused some fans to think that the fame has gotten to her head a bit. I emailed Dave Meltzer, editor of The Wrestling Observer and someone who has been reporting on MMA in the US since the inaugural UFC show, and asked for his thoughts on Rousey’s new fame and how she may deal with it.

He said:

I’ve seen a lot of athletes derailed by it, when you go from someone almost nobody knows, (even with the bronze medal in judo, she never got the attention she gets now) to being marketed as a sex symbol and super athlete. I do think she’s suffering in a sense from the perils of someone thrust into the spotlight. Gina Carano, when she started making her name, was protected by a management team. Rousey has done great on some interviews and tries to be controversial. She’s done a good job of getting her name out but I wonder if she’s trying too hard and overdoing it. I guess it doesn’t matter, because as long as she keeps winning, there is going to be the demand for her.

Can Ronda Rousey carry the torch for women’s MMA? Winning on Saturday night would be a nice first stride.

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