The worst kept secret in MMA was finally made official by UFC President Dana White when he confirmed that current Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey will be headed into the largest MMA organization in the world as the UFC’s first woman fighter and inaugural women’s 135 pound champion.
White had been infamously against the idea of women in the UFC for a long time, citing concerns of the amount of depth such a division would hold. But the sudden stardom of Rousey has convinced him to abandon that train of thought and see if Rousey’s star continues to rise with the UFC promotional machine behind her.
Many of the specifics of Rousey’s arrival are as of yet unknown, including her opponent. Names such as fellow Olympian Sara McMann and a possible rematch with former Strikeforce champion Miesha Tate have been rumoured, as well as a possible fight against former women’s 145 pound champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos.
Santos has campaigned for Rousey to come up to 145 pounds to fight her, even finding a doctor who said that cutting to 135 pounds would be hazardous to Santos’ health. But White was adamant at the UFC 154 post-fight media scrum that if Santos wants Rousey, she will have to come down to fight the champion at her weight class.
I’m trying this whole women’s thing out. Obviously, Ronda is the champ. I think Ronda has the potential to be a big star. She’s already getting media that we’ve never even gotten before, and she’s never even set foot in the UFC yet. That’s the division that we’re bringing in. We’re bringing in the 135-pound division.
What remains to be seen is what immediate impact Rousey will have on UFC business indicators. Rousey’s manager boasted recently that a Rousey-Cyborg showdown could possibly break one million buys on PPV, but the math doesn’t seem to bear that out.
Rousey’s strongest performance on US cable network Showtime has been her latest title defense against Canadian Sarah Kaufman. That event averaged 529,000 viewers. The all-time record for Showtime is held by the former women’s MMA “it girl” and current action movie star Gina Carano and Santos, whose fight averaged 576,000 viewers.
While those are fine numbers for a premium cable network, conventional wisdom dictates if you can’t draw a million pairs of eyeballs for free, convincing them to pay $50 for the fight will prove difficult.
That isn’t to say that Rousey can’t be a major star for the UFC. White is clearly enamored with the potential she possesses, referring to her as a “rock star” and referencing her external beauty while adding that she’s “a Diaz brother” on the inside. It never hurts to have the boss singing your praises before you’ve had a single fight for the promotion.
Rousey has also proven her mainstream potential, becoming a favourite of TMZ after she called out Kim Kardashian. It is that sort of mainstream media attention that White covets. While an athlete like Georges St. Pierre can be featured on a program like ESPN’s SportsCenter, Rousey’s “TMZ” fame is being followed by a demographic that doesn’t traditionally follow UFC, or perhaps indeed most major sports. It is the prospect of drawing those people to the UFC that makes White salivate. It’s the same reason someone like Chael Sonnen gets opportunities above other perhaps more deserving athletes. Drawing from a larger base of people gives everyone the chance to make more money.
But Rousey may not be PPV-ready yet. The smartest course of action may be to showcase her first UFC fight on network television via their Fox deal. That way, Rousey gets to be introduced to the entire continent of North America and show off both her media savvy and deadly armbar attack. The result is a much broader base of people with their appetites whetted and ready to spend money on Rousey’s next fight.
Whether Rousey’s arrival in UFC signals a seismic shift in UFC’s attitude towards a robust women’s division or whether it will be left to Rousey vs. Opponents is yet to be seen. But this is a landmark change for the sport to have women recognized on the big stage and could be the launch of a whole new kind of superstar.
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