From the start, UFC 157 was themed as a night that would be making history. And no matter what happened Saturday night when Ronda Rousey made her first defense of the newly-created UFC women’s bantamweight title, that wasn’t going to be an overstatement. The only question is what that history was going to be.
There may be bigger fights this year, in the sense that they sell more tickets and do more pay-per-views. In fact, there will be one in just three weeks, when Georges-St. Pierre faces Nick Diaz. But 20 years from now, unless the company can finally produce the elusive Anderson Silva dream match with St-Pierre or Jon Jones, Saturday night’s main event from the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., will be the most historically significant fight of the year.
It was a series of firsts all rolled into one. It was the first women’s fight in UFC history. And part of that was the debut of Rousey, one of the most most-hyped debuts in company history. And it was a title fight, the main event as well as it being on pay-per-view. But there was another part of history. Would the public accept it? Would they grudgingly put up with it, reject it, or embrace it?
Because of the historical ramifications, it was more important than most main events that the fight wasn’t sloppy, came across as unskilled, amateurish, or worst of all, boring. Instead, it was almost a perfect storm, a night that will be the happy ending, or the happy beginning, when the book or movie about the story of women in MMA is written. The sellout crowd of 15,525 fans was the largest crowd UFC has ever put into a building that already housed a few historical heavyweight fights of its own. It was the site where Cain Velasquez beat Brock Lesnar for the heavyweight title as well as the site UFC’s first-ever network broadcast on FOX, when Junior Dos Santos took the title from Velasquez. Just that fact alone goes against everything one would expect about fighting and selling tickets.
As crazy as it sounds to say, Velasquez, the first Hispanic world heavyweight champion in a major combat sports organization headlining in a Hispanic fight market, was no more of a star on his big nights than Rousey. When Rousey was being introduced just as the fight started, much of the building was standing, with camera phones shooting from everywhere, a moment perhaps only duplicated in MMA when sports legend Herschel Walker fought. Every time she appeared on the screen, there was a big roar from the crowd. It was the kind of a reaction reminiscent of only the most popular fighters in the sport’s history at their respective peaks, people like Georges St-Pierre, Chuck Liddell, B.J. Penn, Randy Couture, and maybe Urijah Faber in Sacramento.
For all the negativity and criticism in social media, those voices were quiet in the building. Nobody left early. Even though Dan Henderson and Faber were both received like very popular former champions who will both go down as legends, it was just as clear neither were the stars of this show to the ticket buyers.
"There’s a lot of things I’m really naive to," said Dana White at the post-fight press conference. "It’s 2013. I never expected such goofy backlash from people. What’s awesome is the way the media handled this fight. The mainstream media was awesome. It got the respect it deserved. SportsCenter was Tweeting all night about the fight. They’ve never done that before. It was on the front page of CNN, Sports Illustrated.com, the way the media treated this fight was amazing and those two went in and delivered tonight."
For all the talk that the hardcore UFC fan base - the people who spend hundreds of dollars on tickets - would be resentful of a women’s fight in the first place (let alone in the main event) that argument was blown out of the water.
Generally speaking, this show drew the typical UFC audience: males, mostly between the ages of 20 and 40. There were more women than usual to be sure, including some women who came in groups. There were those sporting home-made T-shirts with one or both women’s faces on them. There were some older women, past 40, the likes that you would almost never see at a UFC event. There were virtually no teenagers. While the soccer moms and teenage girls were cheering for Rousey like a pop star a few days earlier at the public workouts, on fight night this was the same fight fan audience than UFC usually draws in Los Angeles or Anaheim, but only more of them.
Indeed, if you were in the building, the idea this match and event was subject of great debates for weeks seemed almost laughable. After the show, Dana White was calling it the biggest women’s fight in combat sports history. That was a bold statement, but it’s hard to argue, partially because there isn’t that much competition to that throne. No fight, not the gimmick Laila Ali vs. Jaqui Frazier-Lyde "IV" boxing match in 2001, which showcased the daughters of the participants in arguably boxing’s all-time most-storied rivalry, ever had this kind of media attention. That show did 125,000 buys on pay-per-view, the all-time record for women. It’s a number UFC 157 will almost surely beat by a huge margin.
As big as the 2009 Gina Carano vs. Cris "Cyborg" Santos fight was at the time, it didn’t have anywhere close to the level of media interest. That event drew the largest crowd in Strikeforce history for a show not headlined by Frank Shamrock. It still holds the record for the highest-rated full broadcast Showtime ever did for MMA. And its place in history now is as the major forerunner to Saturday night.
Still, the most important part of the history still was what took place in the cage. All of the 5 a.m. wake-up calls that both women had all week to do endless media to promote the fight could have backfired had the fight not delivered. As a fight promotion went, it ranked with the best in UFC history. The three-week Primetime shows rivaled those for St-Pierre and Penn, Rashad Evans and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, and Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir, as the most compelling the promotion has ever done.
But in many ways, this was the most impressive. For one, all of those names were established stars and there would have been great interest in those fights under any circumstances. This was a fight built from nothing. And the Primetime shows mostly aired on Fuel, drawing only a tiny percentage of audience as when previous shows had aired on FX or Spike.
Only 4,000 tickets were sold to the fight the first weekend they were put on sale. People were not beating the door down to see this fight when it was first announced. Instead, it really all came together in the last three weeks. More tickets were sold after the first weekend than any fight in UFC history with the exception of the 2007 fight with Randy Couture vs. Tim Sylvia. And even that isn’t a fair comparison because tickets were on sale for that show before Couture was announced on it.
"I believed in this fight and I knew it was good enough to be the main event," said White. "I felt like this was going to be big. I’d be a complete liar if I said I thought the media would treat this fight the way they did."
"I’m glad it was a great fight," said Rousey. "I feel it really did live up to the hype. The place was going nuts. I’m glad it was a full house and I was honored to be part of it. This was something really special. It may take a while for it to sink in."