Rousey thinks that, when it comes to selling a fight and getting MMA fans interested in what's happening with the women's division, fair doesn't enter into it. She's also got a point.
It's an argument that -- especially among female MMA fighters -- isn't new and isn't unique. The fact is, when you're trying to scratch out a living in the women's division of a sport marketed primarily to young men, it helps to be pretty. It might not be fair, and it might not be right, but we need only look at who's getting paid and who's getting ignored to know that, at least for now, it's the way things are.
But watching Tate and Rousey present their respective sides of the issue while my colleague Ariel Helwani struggled to get a word in, I couldn't help but wonder if it's always going to be this way, and whether we'll ever stop arguing over it. And if we don't, is that necessarily such a bad thing?
To be fair, this particular iteration of the argument isn't as simple as beauty versus the beast. You might look at Rousey and see Judo Barbie, but there's more to her than just eye candy. For starters, she's an Olympic bronze medalist. If you want to hear about that, just ask her. If you don't want to hear about it, fine, but she'll probably tell you anyway, and who can blame her?
Sure, she's only had four pro fights in MMA, but none of them have been even the least bit competitive. You could call her career one long armbar clinic, except that a) it hasn't even been that long, and b) any clinic that injures that many people isn't going to get a whole lot of repeat customers.
Still, Rousey knows what she's doing. She's attractive, she's got an attitude, and she's using both to get herself noticed. When Tate told her, "If you weren't pretty, it wouldn't matter what you said or didn't say," she's probably right. But then, is that so wrong?
If Tate thinks so, she must have come around to that conclusion pretty recently. Seems like she's had no problem playing up her own good looks when it served her purposes (exhibit A: the background of her Twitter page). Then again, as Tate pointed out, she also won a bunch of fights. Being good-looking is, as she tells it, "just a bonus" for a female fighter, since at the end of the day each woman still has to acquit herself in the cage, where a pretty face won't help you.
But then, the problem for women's MMA hasn't been a lack of skill from the fighters -- it's a lack of interest from the fans. For whatever reason, a lot of the same people who love to see two men beat each other up just aren't into watching two women do the same thing. I don't know why that is, honestly, and I'm not sure it matters. You can tell people that they should like and support women's MMA. You can tell them they're a bunch of jerks if they only want to see pretty girls fighting. That might make a few people feel bad about themselves, but it won't create many new fans.
You know what will, though? Stuff like this Tate-Rousey rivalry. Already it's produced what might be the best segment in MMA Hour history (no offense to "The Mitrione Minute"). For the first time in a long time, the MMA world is buzzing about women's MMA. And, contrary to how it might seem on the surface, it's not their looks that's driving the interest (though, okay, it doesn't hurt). Really, it's the argument over their looks and over how much it matters, and it's the same argument women's MMA has been having with itself for years.
It shouldn't be enough to be pretty. I don't just mean in MMA, either. Whether you're a man or a woman, good looks might be a minor win in the genetic lottery, but they don't make you a good or talented or even worthwhile person. We know this, even if we don't always act like it. To give a good-looking person special considerations just because we like looking at their face is embarrassingly dumb, not to mention unfair. That's why it makes for such a fascinating internal conflict for a women's division that's still struggling with its own identity.
No one wants to see women's MMA become a sideshow where untalented, untrained pretty girls fight it out in sports bras for the sexual satisfaction of a caveman crowd. At least, I hope no one wants that, and if they do there are websites specifically for them (I've heard there are, anyway). At the same time, just as in the men's division, promote-ability matters. Brock Lesnar got a title shot after three fights -- which, in retrospect, still seems insane -- because he sold tickets and pay-per-views.
Some fans and fighters might want to see MMA become an egalitarian utopia where none of that matters, but in the meantime promoters still have to market their product to the world that is rather than the world that could or should be.
The good news is, MMA has a built-in lie detector to keep anyone from skating by on looks or attitude or popularity for too long, and that's the same for the women as it is for the men. If you can't fight, we'll find out soon enough. Eventually some ugly, boring person will punch you in the face until you can't stand up, and that will be that. Facial symmetry might be a useful gift, but it doesn't hold up too well in a sport that allows elbow strikes on the ground.
By forcing this discussion, both Tate and Rousey have done women's MMA a favor, whether either of them realize it or not. As much as female fighters love to frame their sport as a battle for attention and respect that they're all waging together, they don't always act in their own self-interest. It doesn't help them at all to be nice or to be friends or even to be fair to one another. What helps them is selling fights. What helps them -- just as it helps the men -- is getting fans interested in what's about to happen a few Saturday nights from now.
That's the business of fighting. As Josh Barnett likes to say, the business of fighting has very little to do with actual fighting, but that doesn't mean it isn't important. This conflict -- trying to give fans what they want but without losing your identity or self-respect in the process -- might turn out to be an ongoing and inescapable struggle for women's MMA. And maybe that's okay. In a sport that's all about conflict in its various forms, you could do a lot worse than have public arguments that lead to publicized fights.
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