A little more than 13 months after she lost her first fight, her aura of invincibility and at least some measure of her self-confidence, Ronda Rousey will return to the Octagon.
Rousey will take on current champion Amanda Nunes on Dec. 30 at UFC 207 in Las Vegas, the promotion announced.
It may prove to be the biggest fight of Rousey’s career and not simply because absence can make the pay-per-views grow fonder. This is more than the return of a champion, more than the return of the big-time atmosphere Rousey brings to her fights, and more than an intriguing matchup of the best female fighter of all time against a fast-improving and very dangerous Brazilian making her first title defense.
This is also a return to normalcy, a jolt of relief that Ronda Rousey is not just back to being Ronda Rousey, but that she’s back where she belongs.
“#FeartheReturn,” Rousey tweeted out Wednesday.
The 29-year-old Californian has always been a trailblazer by being unapologetically herself. Her over-the-top intensity, the viciousness of her attack and her photogenic/personality-based style merged to make her an overnight sensation and established women’s mixed martial arts as a legitimate part of the sport, not some sideshow.
That uniqueness continued in the wake of her stunning defeat to Holly Holm on Nov. 15, 2015. A massive betting favorite, Rousey was incapable of handling the bigger, stronger and more athletic Holm. The lasting vision is of Holm drilling Rousey in the head with a kick, a far cry from Ronda’s string of quick arm-bar submissions.
Rousey didn’t accept the defeat like most fighters. At least not publicly. She laid her emotions on her sleeve, displaying the vulnerability often missing from such a violent pursuit.
She acknowledged embarrassment. She sought solitude and cover from the cameras. She didn’t attempt to put on a brave face. She said she felt she lost some of her love of living and part of whom she was.
“I’m just really [expletive] sad,” she told ESPN the Magazine last December.
Those comments and an extended vacation led to plenty of speculation that the UFC’s biggest star would be gone, retiring with a 12-1 record. She went on vacations. She took time to film a couple movies. She disappeared from the public eye.
Everyone hoped this was a break, not a permanent retirement. No one knew for sure. The single-biggest speculative conversation starter in MMA over the last year was whether Rousey would fight again.
“The thing with Ronda was she wanted time off,” UFC president Dana White said on Fox Sports Radio in announcing the fight. “She said ‘I want to go away, I want to relax,’ but this girl worked hard for us for three years, non-stop, fight after fight, promotion after promotion and she wanted time off.”
Time off is understandable. In combat sports, there is no room for anything except 100 percent motivation. You might be able to coast through a game in some pursuits, but you can’t here. It’s too dangerous.
“I say it all the time — if you even hint that ‘I want to retire, or I want time off,’ you need to do it in this sport,” White said. “You’ve got to be all in, in this sport. You’ve got to be all in, you’ve got to be a killer, you’ve got to want it, you’ve got to want to be a world champion.”
Rousey had the money and the fame and the career outside the cage to never need fighting again. Yet apparently there is still a need to fight. Her appeal has always been partially rooted in her ruthlessness, best displayed through that scowl she wears walking to the Octagon and the attack mode she displays in most bouts. She’s a competitor, a former Judo champion and Olympic medalist.
Holm was able to neutralize her with better timing, harder punches and too much power. The thing with women’s MMA is that it is essentially a new sport, with more and more athletes joining its ranks by the day. Rousey showed there are millions to be made here and as a result, the sport gets better and better.
Holm was a former boxing champion and all-around athlete who buckled down for a year of training and massive improvement. Yet she’s lost twice since defeating Rousey. Meisha Tate took the title from Holm in March, but then Tate lost to Nunes in July. It stands to reason that the skill level of the fighters is spinning upward rapidly.
So where does that leave Rousey? Is she still the most dominant out there, now looking to shake off a bad performance against Holm? Does Rousey need better coaching, better training, an even more serious approach to the fight game? Or can she still overwhelm everyone, defeat Nunes and then set up a mega-match with Cris Cyborg and perhaps a Holm rematch down the line?
“Ronda Rousey has been the biggest, baddest female fighter on the planet since we got into women’s fighting,” White said. “Ronda had a bad loss obviously and lost her title, but she’s still Ronda Rousey at the end of the day.”
Is she, or did that knockout take her out for good? Those are the questions that will be answered inside the cage at the end of the year. The physical questions. The competition questions.
The more important one is already taken care of – it turns out a loss that was as emotionally and spiritually painful as it was physically didn’t break Ronda Rousey.
The champ is back.