If you haven’t heard, the first woman’s fight in UFC history happens tonight. And it’s the main event.
Ronda Rousey’s career has been the source of both polarizing views and controversy for more than a year now. From her talking her way into a Strikeforce title match after only four pro fights - and then winning the belt decisively - to becoming UFC’s most talked about fighter before she’s ever stepped foot competitively in the Octagon.
She clearly has her supporters as well as her critics. For a year straight, she’s made critics look foolish with two first-round armbar wins, and in putting women in MMA on a stage it has never been before.
She’s appealed of late to a fan base that otherwise would have little interest in the sport. She’s gotten a level of media attention that UFC has rarely seen, and that few if any individual fighters have ever received.
On the flip side, from the day her fight with Liz Carmouche was announced as a pay-per-view main event, the reaction has been like no show in company history. Not so just in volume, but in vehemence.
You couldn’t help but see it all over message boards and social media, the numbers of people who wanted to see Saturday’s show fail.
Some don’t want women in MMA. Some don’t like the fact someone who has never fought in UFC has been given so much attention. Some have been mad her fight was put in the main event slot. Some were mad about her opponent, who was clearly not the top contender and was almost a complete unknown until the recent whirlwind of publicity for the bout.
Some are mad she’s the UFC women’s bantamweight champion and has been strutting around with a belt without having ever won a fight in the company. Some want to see a Dana White project fail, and seized onto the idea that two women in a main event that people have to pay $45 or more to see was the one where he would fall flat on his face publicly.
The irony of it being some of the most hardcore and vocal MMA fans who have been the loudest in salivating over a box office disaster, is what I call the Rip Van Winkle effect.
If you fell asleep in 2006 and woke up this week, all of those comments about how people don’t want to see women fight would make for an interesting argument. In 2013, there is only one point that can be argued without being out-of-touch. Can a woman’s main event draw on pay-per-view?
A disclaimer is that a lot of people will question Wanderlei Silva not being on the list. Silva, one of the biggest stars in Pride history, came to UFC on December 29, 2007, for a long-anticipated fight with Chuck Liddell, a spectacular fight won by Liddell via decision. But while most modern fans weren’t aware at the time, Silva had three prior UFC fights during the promotion’s dark ages in 1998 and 1999.
MIRKO "CRO COP" FILIPOVIC - The signing of Cro Cop in December 2006 was at the time among the biggest moves in UFC history.
UFC was a distant second on the world stage to the Japanese Pride organization. A combination of problems in Japan, and the spectacular success of UFC’s gimmick matches, matching UFC’s original stars against its modern stars, with Royce Gracie vs. Matt Hughes vs. Royce Gracie and the two Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz fights, exploded both the popularity and the bank account of UFC.
Suddenly, the balance of power in the sport had changed.
Dana White’s goal by the end of 2006, before Pride was purchased, was to strip Pride of its marquee heavyweights: Cro Cop, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Fedor Emelianenko.
While Emelianenko was untouched and had beaten Nogueira and Cro Cop in Japan - when UFC signed Cro Cop - he was the hottest heavyweight in the sport. Cro Cop was, by far, the most popular foreign fighter in Japan. He had just won the 2006 Open weight Grand Prix tournament, finishing Wanderlei Silva and Josh Barnett on the same night, and won virtually every Fighter of the Year award.
UFC was almost counting the money they would make with the Croatian knockout artist as champion, particularly after Randy Couture, a far bigger star, had upset Tim Sylvia to become UFC heavyweight champion.
But the reality was different. Cro Cop’s success in Japan included feasting on smaller fighters, pro wrestlers and amateur wrestlers who couldn’t hang with his striking. Not that he wasn’t very good. He was a world-class striker with strong takedown defense. But his left high kick knockouts, the hottest move in the sport at the time, came because Pride was in the business of creating superstars, not testing its moneymakers often in difficult stylistic match ups.
Cro Cop shattered his ankle delivering his patented move on Silva in the Grand Prix tournament and had surgery before coming to UFC. The devastating power of the kick was never the same, nor was Cro Cop’s aggressiveness and confidence.
When the 32-year-old Cro Cop debuted in UFC on Feb. 3, 2007, at UFC 67, he was not the killer people had seen for years in Japan. While he finished journeyman Eddie Sanchez in 4:37, he was lethargic against someone who he was put in to feast on. Something was clearly missing.
Cro Cop’s second fight was more memorable, as Gabriel Gonzaga scored what at the time was one of the biggest upsets in history, knocking Cro Cop out with his own left high kick in 4:51.
While Cro Cop remained one of the most popular fighters in UFC as his matches from Japan started airing in the U.S., his UFC run was one of the great disappointments in the promotion’s history. He only won four of his 10 UFC bouts. He finished his UFC run with a TKO loss to Roy Nelson on Oct. 29, 2011. He’s since announced his retirement a number of times, but has come back to compete in both MMA and kickboxing matches in Japan and Europe against unheralded opposition.
MAURICIO "SHOGUN" RUA - While not the recipient of the kind of media attention Cro Cop received on his debut, Rua was considered by many as the best light heavyweight fighter in the world, when Pride shut down and he was brought to UFC in 2007.
Rua, at the time, was 16-2. In his 13 fights in Pride, he only lost once - a fluke where he dislocated his elbow in the first minute against Mark Coleman and couldn’t continue.
In 2005, at the age of 23, he had one of the greatest years of any fighter in history, beating Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem and Ricardo Arona to win Pride’s middleweight (205 pound weight class) Grand Prix. At that point it was considered a lock he would one day be considered an all-time great.
He debuted at UFC 76 on Sept. 22, 2007, at the same Honda Center (then called the Arrowhead Pond) in Anaheim, Calif., where Saturday’s show is taking place. He was an overwhelming favorite against Forrest Griffin, considered at the time a very popular mid-level fighter. But Rua, with knee problems, got tired and lost via choke in the third running in a stunning upset.
Rua rebounded. At UFC 113 in Montreal on May 8, 2010, he won the UFC light heavyweight title from Lyoto Machida. But he lost to Jon Jones on March 19, 2011, in Newark, N.J. in his first title defense. Rua, who later avenged his loss to Griffin, has remained a star fighter. But with a 5-5 record in UFC competition, but never came close to the expectations there were for him when he debuted.
BROCK LESNAR - There are a lot of similarities between Lesnar and Rousey. Both established themselves as world-class athletes long before MMA. Rousey was a bronze medalist in judo and had a shot at winning gold in 2012, but gave up the sport at the age of 21.
Lesnar bulldozed through the college wrestling ranks. At the age of 21, he lost by one point in the NCAA finals to Stephen Neal. Neal later that year won the world championships. The next year, Lesnar won the NCAA championships. Many talked of him with his physical gifts of strength and speed as a potential Olympian, but after winning the NCAA’s, he never wrestled again.
Lesnar instead became a superstar in the world of pro wrestling. At 6-3 ½ and 290 pounds of muscle, he was a wrestling promoter’s dream. He became the world champion in the WWE’s world of scripted entertainment, gaining him international fame. But he hated the travel. At the age of 26, he quit the company.
A guy who looked like Lesnar, with his name recognition from pro wrestling and his very real athletic ability seemed like a fit for MMA. UFC had interest in him from the day he quit the WWF. But after getting a $500,000 offer, he debuted for K-1 at a show at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Lesnar was 30 by the time he debuted at UFC 81, on February 2, 2008, in Las Vegas, against Frank Mir. To say the reaction was overwhelming would be an understatement.
UFC was heavily criticized for using a pro wrestler, even though they had used a number of pro wrestlers over the years including previous champions like Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn. Rival Pride was built on the back of pro wrestlers, most notably Kazushi Sakuraba, Naoya Ogawa and Kazuyuki Fujita.
UFC purchased rights to use WWE footage to market Lesnar, and the match was billed as former WWE champion vs. former UFC champion.
No fighter had ever walked into a UFC arena and garnered the level of hatred Lesnar did for his debut. People saw him as representing the fake world of pro wrestling against real fighters. Yet, he was so physically huge and intimidating looking, and such a great athlete that he looked like he could tear through the competition. It was a combination of hatred for fans thinking their non-MMA fan friends would tease them, and the fear that Lesnar, at least visually, looked like he could do just that.
Lesnar, completely undisciplined, knocked Mir down a few times early with jabs, but fell into a trap and lost to a kneebar, a rookie mistake, in just 90 seconds. But the show did 600,000 buys on pay-per-view, roughly half of which had never ordered a UFC show previously.
Lesnar brought a new audience to the sport. He ended up having a successful career, beating Randy Couture for the heavyweight title on November, 15, 2008. He became the biggest pay-per-view drawing card in company history. At first people were buying to see someone from UFC wipe the smirk off the fake wrestlers’ face. But after a life threatening battle with diverticulitis, he became a more sympathetic figure and became embraced, to a degree, by the UFC fan base.
But he was never the same after the illness, losing his title to Cain Velasquez, and retiring after a Dec. 30, 2011, loss to Alistair Overeem.
Today, he’s back where he started, as one of the biggest stars in WWE. But due to his stature as a former UFC champion, he makes far more money than he ever did before. And travel is no longer a concern, because his contract only calls for three matches a year.
KIMBO SLICE - Kevin Ferguson was a high school football star who had a great look. He was marketed under the name Kimbo Slice, the world’s baddest street fighter, after achieving fame as a street brawler on YouTube videos.
It was the right gimmick at the right time. MMA was new enough that enough people had a fantasy about what it was. Instead of being a sport that required a solid skill base in a number of disciplines, every town had its guy who was known as the toughest guy in town. People thought if that guy showed up in UFC, he’d walk in and knock everyone out.
Slice, who looked the part, represented that fantasy. Even when he lost in one of his YouTube street fights to Sean Gannon, a Boston police officer who parlayed that win to having a one-and-done career in UFC, the myth continued. Eventually Slice started in MMA with the Elite XC group. He drew strong ratings on CBS, but the promotion had to do everything in its power to protect the myth.
Slice was exposed when light heavyweight journeyman Seth Petruzelli knocked him out in 14 seconds, which started a chain of events that wound up with the promotion folding.
UFC brought him in as the big attraction for season ten of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) reality show. By this point, the idea that the guy in the YouTube videos would walk in and knock out all the UFC fighters had been disproven.
So UFC tried a new angle. Instead, Slice would be taught the tools of MMA fighting on the reality show while the public watched. They did, and it was, by far, the highest rated season in the history of the show.
His Octagon debut actually took place in the UFC Gym in June of 2009. One of the fighters in the house secretly texted the results: Roy Nelson finished Slice in the second round. By the time word reached the outside world, it spread like wildfire. Still, interest in Slice was such that there were 6.1 million people watching the episode when it aired on September 30, 2009.
It was, by far, the most watched episode in the history of the show. To this day, it is the second most-watched MMA fight ever on U.S. cable television, trailing only the 2007 Ken Shamrock vs. Ortiz fight.
Slice, who remained popular even after it became clear he was not, nor would he ever be, a top level MMA fighter, fought twice more in the UFC. It was clear he was out of his league and injuries and age would keep him from every being a serious heavyweight. He was cut after a loss to Matt Mitrione.