LAS VEGAS — Nearly two years ago, Ronda Rousey was in the midst of training for a bout that many mixed martial arts experts thought would be difficult for her. Coming off her second submission win over Miesha Tate, the 8-0 Rousey was preparing for a women’s bantamweight title defense against Sara McMann, an Olympic silver-medal winning wrestler, at UFC 170.
Yet despite the whispered concerns, Rousey won that fight in just 66 seconds, stopping McMann with a knee to the midsection, and the legend of her invincibility simply grew.
There were warning signs, however, of the impending doom that was to come.
When Rousey streaked out of her corner and attacked McMann to try to get into the clinch, where she could use her feared arm bar, she ate five or six clean punches. She shrugged them off, however, and got into the position she needed to be in to finish McMann.
Given how quickly Rousey won, few talked about the clean strikes she’d absorbed afterwards, even though it should have sent a message that this champion was not without her flaws.
The McMann fight stands out much more now after Rousey has been stopped in back-to-back fights. She was knocked out with a kick to the head by Holly Holm on Nov. 14, 2015, at UFC 193 in what remains one of the most stunning upsets in the sport’s history. Then, on Friday in the main event of UFC 207 at T-Mobile Arena, it happened again, just worse. Rousey was completely out of her element against Amanda Nunes, who pelted Rousey with punch after punch before the referee jumped in to stopped things just 48 seconds into the fight.
And so now, a few days removed from that shocking stoppage, Rousey is at a crossroads.
MMA is evolving rapidly and what worked 18 months ago isn’t necessarily going to work now because the athletes are doing a better job of not only shoring up their weaknesses but improving their strengths.
Rousey’s coach, Edmond Tarverdyan, is yet again taking heat. Rousey became one of the sport’s most iconic figures under his tutelage, but there has been little growth evident in her game.
Before the loss to Holm, Tarverdyan spoke glowingly of Rousey’s striking, even as it was obvious that she had serious holes in her stand-up game. Prior to her match with Holm, Tarverdyan stood by while Rousey said one of her goals was to win a boxing world title, a jiu-jitsu world title and the WWE Divas title while retaining her UFC belt.
He needed to disabuse her of the notion that she was a boxer, and one of his failings is that he did not. There is nothing wrong with having confidence, but there is a difference between having self-belief and false confidence.
This clearly was the latter.
A guy like Tarverdyan, who came from the boxing world, should have known that Rousey’s lack of head movement and questionable footwork were major flaws in her striking that he needed to address.
But the swiftness of her victories overshadowed her very real flaws. When she followed the McMann fight with wins that came in 16, 14 and 34 seconds, many got caught up in the image of an unbeatable superwoman.
Perhaps the worst thing that happened to Rousey came when UFC broadcast analyst Joe Rogan, one of the sport’s most astute and well-respected observers, suggested she could defeat half the men in the bantamweight division. Rousey may well have believed that and gotten caught up in her own hype.
It seems unlikely she’ll fight again. She’s well off financially and has numerous ways to make money that do not involve being kicked or punched in the head.
If she chooses to compete, though, a legitimate question now exists about how big of a star she’ll continue to be. It seems hard to believe that she can, without a few dominant wins in a row, continue to sell-out arenas and sell more than 1 million pay-per-views on her name alone.
She’ll remain big with the MMA media, but the mainstream media that was so eager to write and talk about her may be gone for a while. And who will get too excited if she returns mid-card against a B-level opponent?
This sport has no mercy, and selling a lot of tickets in the past only gets you another shot in the future. But it does nothing to stop anyone from punching you hard in the face or kicking you in the head.
Rousey’s future is most likely outside of MMA, where she can use the fame she made for herself in the sport to her advantage.
But if she opts to come back – for her to regain the impact she once had – she’ll need to evolve the way so many others have done.