It became obvious that Ronda Rousey was a mainstream superstar at UFC 190, when the then-UFC women’s bantamweight champion knocked out Bethe Correia in the first round of a title defense in Rio de Janeiro.
Stars from every walk of life – athletes and musicians, actors and comedians, and so many more – tweeted to her or about her that night.
She was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the world’s most dominant athlete, which was hard to argue against since she’d won her previous three fights in a combined total of 64 seconds.
Rousey was as dominant outside the cage as she was in it. She was far and away the UFC’s biggest star. She had a New York Times best-selling book. She was appearing in major movies. She had already been in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and at the time of UFC 193, plans were in the works for her to be on the cover of the another upcoming issue.
Her surprise appearance at WrestleMania 31 on March 31, 2015, nearly broke the internet. Demi Lovato wrote a song that included a line about Rousey. Millions bought her pay-per-views and tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, talked about it on social media.
When she entered the cage on Nov. 15, 2015, to defend her belt against Holly Holm, it seemed a foregone conclusion to many that she’d win. The question was how long it would take.
Holm was a striker, and even going into the fight, that was acknowledged as the weakest link in Rousey’s game. But to most experts, it wasn’t expected to be anything more than a blip, as Rousey was heavily favored to do to Holm what she’d done to Correia (34-second knockout); Cat Zingano (14-second submission); Alexis Davis (16-second knockout); and Sarah McMann (1:06 knockout).
But in five minutes, 59 seconds of fight time, the UFC was forever changed.
Holm pummeled Rousey, exposing her striking weaknesses for all the world to see. A former boxing world champion, Holm was expertly prepared for Rousey’s clinch game and grappling by coaches Mike Winkeljohn and Greg Jackson.
Rousey couldn’t get past Holm’s strikes to get into the clinch, where she could maneuver to get her arm bar, which was the dominant move in her arsenal.
The arm bar had set up everything for Rousey in her previous 12 fights. Even when she won fights by knockout, it was because of what concern about her arm bar had done to her opponents.
But when Holm figured how to neutralize the arm bar, Rousey was exposed, left with no offense, a porous striking defense and no answers.
She was overwhelmed and knocked out with a vicious head kick at 59 seconds of the second round.
The UFC hasn’t been the same since.
Oh, Conor McGregor, who was already a major star at that point, knocked out Jose Aldo a month later to not only become the featherweight champion, but to claim Rousey’s throne as the sport’s most iconic figure.
With Rousey and McGregor, the UFC had a tandem of superstars who could garner unprecedented media attention, sell extraordinary numbers of pay-per-views and boost the value of the company.
Nine months after Rousey lost to Holm, when it was still unclear whether she’d fight again, the UFC was sold for $4 billion in what at the time was the biggest sale price for a sports property in history. The sale of Formula One subsequently passed it, but it remains a mindbogglingly high price for a property Dana White and partners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta purchased off the scrap heap for $2 million in 2001.
It’s neither fair nor accurate to tap Rousey as solely responsible for that jaw-dropping $4 billion price tag, but she played an inordinately large role in it.
She was 28 at the time of her loss, and there was reason to think she could fight for several more years.
Rousey, though, went underground after her loss to Holm. When she returned to her home in Los Angeles from Australia, she wore large sunglasses with a hood on her head and pulled a pillow to her face to avoid the suddenly unwanted paparazzi who showed to document her return.
She hosted “Saturday Night Live” two months later, but she was largely out of the public eye. She didn’t speak to the media after the Holm fight save for an interview with ESPN The Magazine that had been largely completed prior to the fight, with the expectation being she would win.
Rousey appeared disconsolate on her return home, but her true feelings were worse than was obvious. She admitted in an appearance on “The Ellen Show” that she harbored thoughts of suicide after the defeat and that only the sight of her then-boyfriend and now-husband Travis Browne snapped her out of it.
She seemingly retired, though she never formally announced it.
Rousey eventually did return at UFC 207, but she was finished by Amanda Nunes in just 48 seconds and looked like a shell of the fighter she once had been. Mostly, Rousey’s confidence never seemed to recover from the beating from Holm.
The UFC misses her, but it will move on. UFC president Dana White said following UFC 217 in New York earlier this month that the company is in the midst of its most successful year ever. Mostly, though, that is due to the boxing match between McGregor and Floyd Mayweather, which sold more than 4 million pay-per-views.
It’s a different story solely with MMA fights.
Rousey’s loss is being felt, even if it is a natural part of the business. Fighters develop into attractions and a few, like Rousey, McGregor, Chuck Liddell and Jon Jones, become superstars.
But careers are typically short in combat sports and not even the greatest remain on top for extended periods. The UFC is used to the churn because the fight game exacts such a great toll.
Rousey’s departure undoubtedly came a little earlier than the UFC likely expected, and it still hasn’t found someone to replace her. No one who follows the sport closely would argue that, were she to return, she’d immediately shoot to the top of the list in terms of attractions, side-to-side with McGregor. And she’d probably defeat the vast majority of fighters in the UFC.
She’s 30 now, and married, and planning to have a family. The odds are astronomically against her returning to competition, and it’s probably wise. She’s making money without being kicked or punched, using the name she developed in her fight career to support herself. That’s ideally the way it should work for all fighters.
It’s disappointing the way she’s almost totally disappeared from the MMA scene, as if the fans and media were at fault for her defeat. But that doesn’t diminish her accomplishments in her three-plus years in the UFC. No one made more of that short time on top than Rousey.
Let her story be a lesson for those ambitious young fighters who come after her: Nothing is guaranteed, and so no opportunity to promote or improve oneself should be skipped. A career in fighting is too short or too unpredictable to do so.
For a reminder, one only needs to look back to UFC 193 just two short years ago for proof positive that it won’t last forever.