“When are we going to see, uh, women in the UFC, man?” was the question a TMZ reporter posed to UFC President Dana White in January of 2011. White’s answer was definitive and delivered with his usual self-certain smirk, “Never.”
Two months later, current UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey made her professional MMA debut at a nickel-and-dime show held in a Tarzana, California country club. No one could have guessed back then that White would end up not just eating his words, but radically altering the UFC’s brand-first promotional strategy to accommodate the first female pay-per-view star in the history of combat sports.
This shift’s significance can be seen in the fact that White has gone as far to claim that the UFC is bigger than the NFL and “neck-and-neck” with soccer in a 2012 Wall Street Journal interview — both claims remain light speed stupid, but demonstrate the company’s delusional brand-first mentality. Reality soon came calling as pay-per-view buyrates steadily slipped from an average of 625,000 buys per event in 2009 to 260,000 buys per event in 2014.
White’s proclamation that the UFC’s women’s bantamweight division would be the “Ronda Rousey show” marked her as the test case for the company putting its faith in an individual over the brand. Again, no one could have guessed what Rousey would pull off.
The average buyrate of pay-per-views headlined by Rousey stands at 463,000 and her last fight posted 590,000 buys — numbers that mark her as a bigger draw than every male title holder in the UFC save for interim featherweight champion Conor McGregor and perhaps middleweight kingpin Chris Weidman. This Saturday’s bantamweight title defense against Bethe Correia is expected to eclipse Rousey’s past pay-per-view numbers despite an undercard loaded with no-names slash has-beens and a borderline absurd -1500 betting line in Rousey’s favor — for the uninitiated, that -1500 number means you’d have to bet $1,500 on Rousey to make $100 in profit.
Straight up, it’s all on Rousey, a woman competing in a sport that is all but definitionally male and occupies a sector of the sporting world that makes the aggro masculinity obsession of American football look like an intersectional feminism convention. Rousey has managed this trick by hewing closely to the norms of MMA stardom, for better and, sometimes, worse.
Above all, the key to Rousey’s success as a box office draw is the fact that she has beaten the brakes off of anyone foolish enough to enter a cage with her. Rousey’s five UFC fights have lasted an average of 208 seconds — barely more than half a round — and her last two fights ended in less than 20 seconds. There is dominance and then there’s the rarefied air of dominance so stark that it compels the public to drop $60 just so they can say they witnessed it. For a woman in MMA to manage the same feat Mike Tyson once did is a feat that transcends context and stands on its own as a game-changing moment. There has never before been a Ronda Rousey and there is no promise that there will be another.
Dominance alone isnt what makes Rousey such an anomaly, however, there’s also her tongue of unswept glass. While being a sports superstar usually boils down to being one of the best, that’s never been the case in combat sports — much like pro wrestling, you have to make the people feel some type of way. Rousey’s tact is hardly revolutionary in this regard, she spews a stream of serrated shit coated with heartfelt disdain.
Her shit-talk high water mark came in the form of a concise, cutting 1-2 after winning Best Fighter over Floyd Mayweather Jr. at this year’s ESPYs. In reference to Mayweather’s long history of violence against women, she was gleeful over him getting beat by a woman for once and then basked in the certainty that he knows who she is now — Mayweather had previously feigned ignorance of her in interviews.
That’s usually how it goes with Rousey on the mic, any and all slights become high-octane rage fuel for one of the few elite athletes around who’s willing to be as petty and cruel as the rest of us. Fight fans and the mainstream alike will always come flocking for that. She just doesn’t always do well in picking her targets or words.
The most sideways examples being a pair of deluded transphobic rants aimed at Fallon Fox, the first openly transgender fighter in women’s MMA. Rousey’s first rant against Fox came in April of 2013 and included not only the predictably wrong opinion that post-hormone therapy transgender fighters hold some mythical physical advantage, but also came with retrograde word slop such as “chop her pecker off.”
While Rousey came off far more measured when questioned by TMZ on the matter in 2014, she still peddled pseudo-science as fact in the name of reifying the oppression transgender people face in their everyday lives. Fox later responded via an editorial that serves as a ready guide to debunking the transphobic talking points aimed at transgender athletes. Rousey has yet to respond and, really, no one should be surprised that she acted the way she did in the first place.
For all Rousey has done to get the UFC thinking outside the brand, she is as close as a woman could get to being a perfect reflection of the UFC’s brand. She is violent and crass and emotional and insecure and, sometimes, outright ignorant. The prior sentence doubles as a brief history of the UFC. Rousey is one of the chosen few who is promoted ahead of the UFC brand because she is the brand writ large. As for Dana White, you’d think a man promoting a sport that plays out in the theater of the unexpected would know the one word he should never use: Never.
Then again, your average UFC fan could probably use a reminder that life usually boils down to a woman taking on a man’s mess and making it into something worthwhile.
Tomás Ríos is an editor and writer. He will never stop going in.