Why UFC 170 may put MMA on the path to mainstream status

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

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Ronda Rousey (in blue) and Anastasia Krivosta compete during the U.S. Olympic trials in 2004. (Getty)

LAS VEGAS – The significance of having three former Olympians, including two medalists, competing in the main and co-main events of UFC 170 on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center cannot be overstated in terms of potential impact on the future of mixed martial arts.

The sport is still in its relative infancy; it's been 20 years since the UFC was created, but the sport came into the modern era once Zuffa purchased it in 2001.

In those 13 years, the quality of the athletes has steadily increased. The elite fighters now are more well-rounded and more skilled than the elite fighters of 2001, and there are far more of them. Still, organizers of sports like football, baseball, basketball, soccer, track and the like aren't concerned at this point that their best athletes are going into MMA instead.

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Daniel Cormier celebrates his win over Damion Hahn during the 2008 USA Olympic trials. (Getty)

That's where 2008 judo bronze medalist Ronda Rousey, 2004 wrestling silver medalist Sara McMann and 2008 U.S. Olympic wrestling captain Daniel Cormier come in. They're an example to kids and their parents that MMA is a viable career path and that it's not some crazy notion that needs to be immediately dissuaded.

The medals won by Rousey, the UFC women's bantamweight champion, and McMann, the No. 1 contender who will challenge for the title in Saturday's main event, are the most tangible reminders of that.

A two-time Olympian, Cormier calls having the medalists headline the show "huge" for the sport, even if Rousey's not that good at keeping track of her medal.

Rousey, who does not have the medal displayed prominently in her home, said she's lost it multiple times. She said she took her medal with her many times to bars in order to get free drinks. The bad part is that several times, she left the medal in the bar.

One time, a friend of hers woke up on an airplane with the medal stuffed in his pocket.

Rousey said the medal itself wouldn't have even meant anything to her had it been gold rather than bronze.

"If I had an Olympic gold medal and I lost it the next day, I'd be like, 'Whatever,' " she said. " … [In Beijing] I was wearing my medal under my clothes when I left the arena. Thank God I was because the gi I fought in, all my stuff, my podium sweats, everything was in the back of some taxi in China. It drove off and I never saw it again.

"I was like, 'Oh look, my stuff. OK, let's eat.' It's just stuff."

Though the medal itself means little to Rousey, the accomplishment was significant. And that accomplishment, as well as McMann's silver, could have long-term implications.

The sport is only going to grow by attracting better athletes. And the best athletes are generally the ones who have worked all their lives, from their earliest days, at perfecting it. Tiger Woods was breaking 50 for nine holes when he was three years old.

If parents of young children happen to see UFC 170 or, at the least, read about it and see that highly regarded Olympians are succeeding in MMA, it could lead to them allowing their children to start training in the sport.

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When there is a full roster of fighters in the sport who have grown up training in MMA from the beginning and not adopting it after, say, their wrestling career ended, is when it will take off.

Cormier raved about the impact it could have.

"It's huge for the sport of mixed martial arts to have people who have competed at the highest level of sports," Cormier said. "I think the Olympics is the pinnacle of all sports and to have three Olympians on one card is huge. … It's a big deal, man, especially with the sport going on now.

"Before, we'd get an NCAA champion to come in, but now we're getting the cream of the crop with Olympians. It's Olympic medalists with Sara and Ronda. They took it to an even higher level. They made me go on a media tour with them in [Los Angeles] and I'm sitting there with no medal. Talk about cutting me off at the knees."

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Sara McMann flips China's Lili Meng during the women's Freestyle wrestling  at the Athens Games. (Getty)

McMann, who medaled in the first year women's wrestling was included in the Olympics, believes Saturday's bout with Rousey is a sign of the growth of the women's game.

UFC president Dana White for years didn't want women in the UFC because he didn't believe there were enough quality athletes. He relented when he saw Rousey and his belief in the women's version now extends beyond her.

"It means that women's MMA is now having the best athletes in the world enter into the sport and be successful," McMann said. "I think that for years, the men have been drawing upon more and more high-level athletes to enter into men's MMA and make very deep divisions.

"I think that you're witnessing the beginning of that for women."

In the short-term, the impact of having these Olympians on one card may be simply to sell a few extra tickets and pay-per-views to UFC 170. It could also just be a curiosity.

The real impact though may not be felt for 10, 15, even 20 years later, when athletes who were inspired by Rousey and McMann to learn the sport turn professional and begin their own journeys.

From that perspective, UFC 170 might be viewed as the night that put MMA on the path to mainstream status.

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