Rousey vs. Carmouche brings with it plenty of box office risks

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If Dana White wanted to shut up critics and prove that Ronda Rousey can headline on her own, he put her in a situation where she could do so in one night. But in doing so, he's also rolling the dice.

The UFC made two separate announcements of championship matches in a 24-hour period on Thursday that on the surface don't appear to be related. But in conjunction, they speak volumes.

The Renan Barao vs. Michael McDonald interim bantamweight championship fight will take place on Feb. 16 in London, England at Wembley Arena, and will air on Fuel in an afternoon time slot. Due to the limitations of the station clearances - let alone not being live in prime time - that a very limited audience will see.

The Ronda Rousey vs. Liz Carmouche women's bantamweight championship fight takes place seven days later, in Anaheim, Calif., at the Honda Center. It's the main event of UFC 157, a show that not only the vast majority of UFC fans can see, but to do so, they are being asked to pay significant coin to do so.

This is probably the first time in combat sports history such a decision was made where a women's title fight in the same weight class was both positioned and being counted on by a promotion to be a bigger deal then a men's fight. The decision wasn't even made to put the two of them on the same show. And this decision was made even though Carmouche is a complete unknown to the majority of people who usually purchase pay-per-views.

That's how much confidence Dana White has in Ronda Rousey, on her own as a true box office star. And he's putting her in a position to prove him right or wrong very quickly.

Make no mistake about it, without having one fight in the UFC, Rousey is already among their most sought-after athletes for media appearances. She can already get on television shows that even their biggest stars would have trouble getting on. If the chips fall right, which means a little bit of luck, winning most of her fights, and having a positive public image, the sky may be the limit on endorsements regardless of the reaction of some of the hardcore fans.

You can't watch sports on television and not see Danica Patrick commercials, and she isn't even one of the best race car drivers in her sport. And the hardcore fans in that world bemoan her getting publicity and marketing pushes that far better men can't get a whiff of, but her popularity and marketability has long since become a proven commodity.

But this is completely different. NASCAR isn't a pay-per-view entity where the range may be from 150,000 buys to perhaps as much as ten times that amount, dependent upon as much as anything, how badly the public wants to see the main event.

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to know that Carmouche wasn't the first choice for this spot. White confirmed the original idea was for Rousey vs. Cris "Cyborg" Santos, in what would be the biggest women's MMA fight in history and arguably the biggest women's combat sport bout of this generation. Santos nixed it, saying she needs more time to downsize her body to where she can make a 135-pound weigh-in. And White said that he still expects Santos to get the next shot.

White also said Carmouche (7-2) got the fight because others contacted didn't want it.

"Let me put it to you this way," White said. "You ask me these questions and I tell you the truth. A lot of people don't like the truth when I say it, but that's who wanted to fight her. People aren't kicking the doors down at Zuffa to fight her."

Carmouche, a former U.S. Marine who served in the Middle East, is physically strong for the division and has good takedowns. But she's only fought two top-tier opponents, both of which she lost to. She was beating then-champion Marloes Coenen for three rounds based on takedowns, control and some ground and pound, before being submitted with a triangle from the bottom in round four. Later, when facing Sarah Kaufman, she wasn't able to get the fight to the ground enough, and Kaufman dominated her standing to take a decision.

Since Kaufman was dispatched in 54 seconds by Rousey, and Coenen is under contract elsewhere, the two obvious names besides Santos as a potential first opponent would have been Miesha Tate (13-3) and Sara McMann (6-0).

Rousey beat Tate via armbar in the first round, tearing her arm up in the process, on March 3 in the bout where Rousey earned the Strikeforce bantamweight title. The belt has now became the UFC belt. It was Rousey's first television main event and still her most talked-about fight. There is a legitimate grudge match aspect to it and both women are marketable in very different ways. Tate also earned a rematch by coming back in one of the best fights, men or women, of 2012, when she finished Julie Kedzie with an armbar on Aug. 18. If there was an opponent other than Cyborg who could have helped Rousey draw the first time out, Tate would be the pick. But after the Kedzie fight, where she took a real beating before winning, she talked of wanting time off.

McMann's main claim to fame is an undefeated record and a silver medal in wrestling at the 2004 Olympics, meaning this could be promoted as an Olympic medalist in wrestling against an Olympic medalist in judo. For people on the outside wanting to put down women's fighting as a sideshow, having that level of athletes opposing each other in the first main event shuts that line up.

If those two really didn't want the fight, it's telling anyone would turn it down unless they were injured. This is a once-in-a-lifetime history making event, not only the first women's fight ever in UFC, but appearing in a pay-per-view main event. Even in losing, the fighter will garner a level of exposure and be able to make a name for themselves in a way they may never get another chance to. And winning would be that much bigger.

Rousey has proven she can draw television viewers and garner attention. She has not proven she can sell tickets. But the UFC in 2013 is a very different animal as far as being able to draw than Strikeforce in 2012. And pay-per-view is something different from that.

Make no mistake about it: this is a risk. If Rousey can pull 250,000 buys the first time out, she's solid. No UFC champion south of 170 could do that with a complete unknown opponent.

If she can beat 300,000 under these circumstances, then all questions about women headlining, or at the least, this woman headlining, are answered. If she tops 350,000, she shows that her media fame is transferable into being a pay-per-view and she would already be one of the company's big money players. Realistically, Anderson Silva and Jon Jones would be hard-pressed to draw that kind of a number with a complete unknown.

A secondary aspect is the location. The Los Angeles/Anaheim market is far from one of those places, like Seattle this weekend, where UFC can walk in and sell out no matter what they present.

On Oct. 24, 2009, Shogun Rua vs. Lyoto Machida battled for the light heavyweight title at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and the company had to paper heavily and even then couldn't fill the house. Only 9,111 paid and 5,781 were comps. On Oct. 23, 2010, with heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar defending against Hispanic star Cain Velasquez, it came just shy of selling out with 12,976 tickets sold and a normal level of comps. Most recently, at the Honda Center, with Velasquez defending the heavyweight title against Junior Dos Santos, on Nov. 12, 2001, in the first show on FOX, they drew 9,864 paid and 11,607 total with lower ticket prices, although it was expected to be harder to draw live with it being on free television.

Point being, UFC name or not, selling out the building isn't likely. But if it can't sell 7,000 tickets for a pay-per-view event, there will be people quick to say it's proof that people won't pay to see women in a UFC main event.

The show has a few aspects going for it. Rousey is from Southern California. Dan Henderson, also from Southern California, against Machida is a solid No. 2 fight, something Rousey has never had the benefit of in her Strikeforce main events. It's notable that part of the decision making was not to put Barao vs. McDonald on this show to give it two title matches, and give it that kind of a hook. When all is said and done, this show's success or failure at the box office when it's over will be attributed to Rousey.

And if she doesn't sell tickets or draw on pay-per-view as a headliner? This is still a long-term race. Many of the UFC lighter weight champions aren't draws right now.

A win by Carmouche changes the dynamics of the division completely, and not for the better. It would be extremely difficult for her as champion to be main eventing pay-per-view shows. But she is a huge underdog.

And the second time out, if it is Rousey vs. Santos, that is likely to be a success on pay-per-view no matter how the first fight draws. But the first fight may be more indicative of the future. Fights like the second aren't going to come around very often. As long as Rousey wins, the second fight is out there and it's not like a failure here has any shot at scrapping the idea of pushing women at an equal level, or in this case, actually ahead of the men of the same size.

But it will set a tone and give a narrative.

As this fight approaches, it is going to be a hotly debated topic between those who want to see it succeed, and those who want to see it fail, both sides of which will be very vocal as the fight approaches. And as far as a first fight goes, the reality is it is the latter group right now the one that would be smiling and licking their chops. But they are also the group that can be proven wrong and have the argument ended in one night.

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