On March 3, 2012, 4 minutes and 27 seconds into the first round of her 5th professional MMAfight, Ronda Rousey beat Strikeforce 135 lbs. women’s champion Miesha Tate by submission via armbar to become the new champion.
Rousey, however, became more than just the new champion with that result. She solidified her standing as the new face of women’s MMA.
Women’s MMA is a niche sport right now, and quite frankly, if Showtime had not renewed its contract with Strikeforce for 2012, chances are it would have gotten dropped because Zuffa did not seem like they wanted to absorb the women’s division into the ranks of the UFC.
What had made matters worse for women’s MMA in terms of gaining more popularity was that Gina Carano, its biggest and most recognizable star, is now making movies. And the woman who beat her, Cris Cyborg, got suspended for steroids. Carano got more attention for her looks than for her fighting skills (which is not bad, really, it’s not just at an elite level). Cyborg, on the other hand, got more attention for the pure violence she brought to her fights. When those two met in August 2009, the end result was Cyborg totally destroying Carano by TKO in the first round; that event became the highest rated Strikeforce show on Showtime until that point (it is now only the 3rd highest rated).
Cyborg’s victory however did not make her the popular draw that Carano was, as her next fights did not get anywhere near those ratings levels. Maybe it was because she was too overwhelming against her opponents and no one thought she could lose, or that a lot of people thought she was on steroids, or that she just wasn’t as good looking as Carano, or that her personality did not seem that engaging since she was not a native English speaker.
Enter Ronda Rousey.
Rousey, like her mother Ann Maria Rousey DeMars, is one of the most decorated women’s judoka in history. In 1984, Ann Maria became the first American – not first American woman, but first American – to ever win the World Judo Championships. Ronda, meanwhile, became the first American woman to win a medal in Judo in the Olympics when she won Bronze in 2008 at the Beijing Games.
Rousey then started fighting in amateur MMA fights in 2010, fighting in a total of 3. She won all of them by armbar in the first round; her first fight lasted 23 seconds, her second 57 seconds, her third 24 seconds.
She then turned pro in 2011 and once again her judo skills were at such a high level that she was beating everybody in the first round via armbar. Prior to the Tate fight, she fought 4 times, winning by armbar submission in the first round each time. The length of those fights? 25 seconds, 49 seconds, 25 seconds, 39 seconds.
Rousey was getting some attention now. Here was an attractive young lady with a legitimate athletic background, who was plowing through her opponents with ease in spite of her inexperience. And she was doing that by using a trademark finishing move. Ronda also showed this charismatic personality in her interviews which made people even take notice of her more.
The original plan was for Rousey to get more experience then eventually fight Cyborg in a super fight. Then Cyborg got popped for steroids. Rousey started lobbying for a match against Miesha Tate, who felt Rousey did not deserve a title shot 5 fights into her tenure. But Rousey got her wish, and the build up for the title fight was one of the most memorable in recent MMA history, with Rousey doing an amazing job selling the fight via the press with quotes like this one and this one. This led to legitimate bad blood between the two. Rousey and Tate even ended up forehead to forehead at the weigh-ins the day before.
The fight itself was a very good one. And while it lasted longer than all of Rousey’s previous fights combined, the result was the same – a Rousey submission win by armbar in the first round (be forewarned, it’s rather graphic).
Rousey has since appeared on ESPN and other mainstream publications and media since that victory, and it’s become clear that the immediate (and possibly long-term) future of women’s MMA is in her armbar applying hands. She could potentially become a bigger star than Carano ever was, mostly because she has the athletic credentials that Carano never had, and she has a much more engaging personality than Carano as well, as evidenced by their interviews.
Of course, for this to happen, Rousey has to keep winning. If she does, that super fight with Cyborg when she comes back from suspension just might finally happen and be the next step in making women’s MMA less of a niche.