August 15, 2009: A trailblazer in women’s athletics, Gina Carano, led an unprecedented evening of mixed martial arts in San Jose, Calif. The red-hot, undefeated Carano met the then-Cris “Cyborg” Santos in the main event of a Strikeforce card. Nearly 14,000 people showed up for the novelty of a women’s fighting main event, which set a Showtime-record rating for an MMA card.
Santos went out and scored a one-sided TKO victory. Carano heeded Hollywood’s call and never fought again.
Nov. 15, 2015: The leader of the next generation in women’s MMA, Ronda Rousey, took the sport beyond what even the wildest of imaginations could have conceived on the night of the Carano-Santos fight. A crowd of 56,214, the biggest in the UFC’s 22-year history, showed up at Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium to see the undefeated Rousey take on Holly Holm, who was also undefeated, but assumed by too many people just to be happy to be there.
Under a spotlight orders of magnitude larger than Carano and Cyborg before them, Holm thoroughly outclassed Rousey in the main event of UFC 193 at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, before finishing her early in the second round with a head kick and taking her bantamweight title. Not only did it seem an updated version of Carano-Cyborg, but the comparisons to Mike Tyson’s infamous 1990 loss to Buster Douglas in Tokyo weren’t far off.
Like Carano, Rousey also has Hollywood offers on her plate, at a scale to which Carano could have only dreamed.
So the multimillion-dollar question is, where does Rousey go from here?
It’s worth remembering, here in her career-low mark, just how much Rousey has accomplished in a few short years. Rousey’s final bout as Strikeforce champion in August 2012 against Sarah Kaufman drew just 3,500 fans to a 15,000-seat arena in San Diego.
From there, Rousey not only broke the UFC’s gender barrier, but rocketed to a crossover level of stardom never seen in the mixed martial arts space. Rousey gave a rough business a veneer of class as she effortlessly glided from late-night talk shows to "Ellen" to a "SportsCenter" co-hosting gig to movie roles and magazine covers.
By the time Rousey finished off Bethe Correia at UFC 190 in August, her third-straight victory in less than one minute, she was regularly name-checked alongside the likes of tennis superstar Serena Williams as an A-list celebrity athlete.
One loss isn’t going to ruin all that, just like Williams doesn’t lose her stardom overnight because she loses a Grand Slam tourney.
But Rousey has two distinct choices. One path takes her full-time to the movies, with lots of money to be made without getting punched in the face.
The other – coming back to avenge her loss – is more physically demanding, but also promises to be lucrative.
The second option also seems to demand changes to an approach that served her very well up until it didn’t. While Rousey seemed unflappable for much of the past several years, she also seemed to be on the verge of cracking in the buildup to UFC 193, from problems swirling around her camp to losing her composure at Friday’s weigh-ins. A good, hard look at what’s worked, what no longer works and whether she needs a change of scenery will play a major role in whether she’ll be able to regain her lost glory.
Rousey wasn’t at the post-fight news conference, as she was held at a local hospital overnight for observation. But while no clues have come forth from her camp, here’s betting that Rousey chooses to return and pursue a Holm rematch. While Carano was a good fighter who got in on the ground floor and got favorable matchmaking for as long as possible, Rousey is a world-class athlete, an Olympic medalist in judo, one who possesses the otherworldly drive required to make it to the medal stand.
Rousey’s sheer force of will was such that she not only got the equally stubborn Dana White to drop his stance against women in the UFC, but the UFC now has two women’s weight classes – 135 pounds and 115 – and the UFC’s online Fight Pass service hosts live events by the all-women’s Invicta FC promotion.
When the sting of the loss to Holm subsides, it’s hard to imagine Rousey being OK with letting UFC 193 be the last chapter of her athletic career.
After all, while a loud segment of our culture loves to kick the mighty when they’re down, they also tend to enjoy redemption stories even more. Before the loss to Holm, Rousey had indicated she next wants to fight at the landmark UFC 200, scheduled for July 9, 2016, at the new 20,000-seat arena in Las Vegas. A returning Rousey, looking to avenge her only career loss against the woman who embarrassed her in front of a record crowd, seems like a better script than anything Hollywood could write.
Folow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @DaveDoyleMMA