All week long, the UFC was pushing the idea in its brave new world of 2014, where Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva are not around (at least for the foreseeable future) the company's biggest star is Ronda Rousey.
Rousey is a heat magnet to begin with, between her antics on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) reality show, and simply the very idea of a woman in a male-dominated sport being even under consideration as its biggest star, something that may have never been the case at any time in any combat sport.
But this heat wasn't her doing. Thus far, if you bet against Rousey, either in her fights or against her success, whether it be in pay-per-view, ratings or ability to garner interest outside of MMA, you're on a bad losing streak so far.
Still, the day will come. And when it comes to selling a fight, most of the time, it takes two to tango. With women's fights, that may be even more true.
There are two truths the last year of Rousey have shown. The people who were crying WNBA last year about the UFC audience not wanting women to invade their sacred ground, forgetting that other organizations had success for years for women fights, ended up as wrong as wrong can be. And suddenly, after just two years in the spotlight and one year in UFC, by default, yes, she garners more attention than any fighter in the company.
But there is a second truth. While Rousey is the exception to this rule to a degree, it is much harder to get people to buy tickets or pay-per-views on a show headlined by women. Attempts to do so in boxing usually failed badly. In pro wrestling, the idea of women as regular headliners as opposed to attractions had a run during World War II, but that era was done more than 60 years ago.
For all the talk Dana White would say about how big Rousey is, and he's not wrong, he's also well aware of gender limitations that he won't say publicly. The two major shows headlined by Rousey, with no strong male support, were priced lower than most pay-per-view shows would be in the same arena, and priced more like a FOX show. That's why last year's show at the Honda Center, which sold out, still generated a lower gate than non-sold out pay-per-view events in the same building. That's why UFC 170, even though the Mandalay Bay Events Center was packed and tickets were selling at a normal level for a non-major show, did the lowest Las Vegas gate since UFC exploded in popularity from television.
When UFC returns to Las Vegas on May 24 for Chris Weidman vs. Vitor Belfort, while neither may be in Hollywood or get nearly the requests from non-MMA talk shows, you can bet ticket prices will be significantly higher.
There's also another issue.
Provided Rousey keeps winning and headlining, she has one potential opponent that, with the right marketing, could be the company's biggest fight of 2014. Everyone knows who that is.
Cris "Cyborg" Justino, whose name is always talked about in conjunction with Rousey, even though she has never fought in the UFC. Justino has remained, to most fans, either that jacked up girl who beat up Gina Carano on Showtime a few years ago, or the woman who beat up a bunch of women, tested positive and nobody has ever heard from again. Yes, some people saw her demolish Marloes Coenen in Invicta, but that number was tiny compared to her days on CBS and Showtime.
To make the fight come anywhere near its potential, Justino has to get back on the mainstream radar. Cutting weight is only a small part of it. She's going to have to fight in the UFC, it would be best at least two times. If Justino was put on a major television show or pay-per-view, so the average fan who makes the difference between the 200,000 buy shows and the 750,000 buy shows sees her either for the first time, or the first time in years, in their minds, very quickly, they'll be thinking about the fight with Rousey whether the UFC talks about it or not.
Of course, in MMA, the longer you wait to build someone, the greater the chances that something goes wrong, whether it be an upset loss, or a serious injury.
Whatever Dana White will say publicly about the fight, he's fully aware of its marketability. And its risks. Cyborg beat Carano. And interest in women's MMA dwindled, until the first Rousey controversy. That's the one from early 2012 when Rousey talked her way ahead of Sarah Kaufman into a title shot with Miesha Tate in Strikeforce. It was decried when she got it, because many were offended by the message that either her mouth or her face, or both, gave her an opportunity she otherwise would have had to have waited another year or two to get.
With the benefit of hindsight, anyone thinks that was bad for any woman in the sport in the big picture, including Kaufman, who rode Rousey's wave of popularity to a much bigger main event with her, and to fighting on the UFC stage, was proven wrong.
The reality is one of Las Vegas' big gamblers has to weigh the reward vs. the risk. And he also has to make the call at the right time to get maximum reward for the risk. The sooner Justino appears on UFC broadcasts, the sooner the fans who make the difference between an average show and a big show tell their friends about her, and it becomes likely the biggest women's fight of this generation. The longer Justino fights elsewhere, the longer it will take to build that interest and the larger the risk that something happens for it to lose its luster before it becomes the superfight that got away.
And yes, history has already told us what the risk is. If Justino wins decisively, women's MMA will be around, there will be fun fights and personalities on TV and pay-per-view. But you can also say goodbye to big money main events from women until the law of fighting evolution does what always happens, somebody gets old and somebody new charismatic shows up knocking on that person's door.
Let's look at how fortunes changed, in this case, for five UFC 170 winners.
RONDA ROUSEY - After winning her ninth straight fight, and eighth first-round stoppage, Rousey will film the movie "Entourage," and then prepare to fight again. At the press conference, she targeted late summer, if not a little sooner. July 5 in Las Vegas is a traditional big show, and fighting on that date would allow her to be ready for the company's other traditional big event over New Year's weekend.
For the short-term, there is another issue. Sara McMann was supposed to be competitive, and give Rousey the toughest and most grueling fight of her career. This was supposed to be a battle of world-class judo vs. world-class wrestling, takedowns vs. throws, ground control vs. submission skill, and back-and-forth stand-up in between.
Instead, the fighter on the roster who had been talked about for a year as her ultimately toughest competitor, was done in 66 seconds. Yes, it was controversial as far as whether the stoppage was early. And we've seen plenty of people come back from a lot worse first minute predicaments to win fights. But that didn't happen here.
After seeing Alexis Davis (16-5) take a decision earlier in the show over Jessica Eye that could have easily gone the other way, and seeing Rousey headline, I don't think anyone's imagination was working overtime about not being able to wait for Rousey vs. Davis. The most likely next opponent, Cat Zingano (8-0), earned the title shot that Miesha Tate got, but her life has been a nightmare since that time, with operations on both knees and her estranged husband committing suicide.
Past that, the division is filled with contenders either coming off losses like Tate, Kaufman, Liz Carmouche, McMann and Eye, or Julianna Pena, who had a knee injury so bad she's not even in the discussion until late 2015.
DANIEL CORMIER - The quickness of Cormier's first win at light heavyweight over Patrick Cummins only led to more questions than answers.
Cummins had never fought in the UFC, and took the fight with less than two weeks to spare, most of which was spent doing promotion. Cummins is a gifted athlete and a bad ass wrestler. But he was giving up far too much in MMA experience and was facing the worst style match-up possible for him, a better wrestler.
What Cormier proved more than anything was his ability to make weight with no issues. Obviously the goal is the light heavyweight title.
Cormier is now 14-0, and even more impressive, he is one of only two title contenders in UFC to have never lost a round in competition (Rousey being the other).
Jon Jones, the current champion, faces Glover Teixeira on Apr. 26 in Baltimore. The other key division fight is Alexander Gustafsson vs. Jimi Manuwa on Mar. 8 in London, England.
If Jones and Gustafsson win, they will almost surely face each other, leaving Cormier's most logical next foe as the winner of the Apr. 26 fight with Phil Davis vs. Anthony Johnson, a fight Davis would be favored in. Like he was with Cummins, Cormier looks like the worst possible problem for Cummins former Penn State University wrestling teammate, a former NCAA champion in Davis whose rest of his game is still well behind his wrestling.
If Jones wins and Gustafsson loses, Cormier should get the next shot. If Teixeira and Gustafsson win, they should face off, and Cormier vs. Jones should take place without the title at stake. If Teixeira and Manuwa both win, Cormier could easily get the shot at Teixeira.
RORY MACDONALD - After his loss to Robbie Lawler on Nov. 16, there was some question where MacDonald (16-2) was the victim of over hype.
Sure, he beat a sleepwalking Jake Ellenberger, threw around a Nate Diaz who belonged in a lower weight class, and beat up on a much smaller B.J. Penn. But his biggest claims to fame was really that he came from the same gym as Georges St-Pierre, so he got asked whether he'd fight the champion so many times that people just figured he must be the next superstar of the division. That, and at the age of 20, he beat Carlos Condit for two rounds before being finished late in the third.
But Demian Maia as a welterweight was no joke. MacDonald was on his back against one of the most dangerous ground fighters in the world for almost the entire first round, and was never in serious trouble. From there, his sprawl-and-brawl, as well as a conditioning edge took over, as Maia has trouble keeping up and at times seemed like a punching bag.
Now 24, with GSP out of the picture, the win puts MacDonald in the hunt for his next title shot. The key fights are both on March 15 in Dallas, as Johny Hendricks faces Lawler for the vacant title, and Condit faces Tyron Woodley. If Hendricks and Condit win, given Hendricks has already beaten Condit, then MacDonald would likely be the next contender. The exception would be if Condit's win next time is very impressive. If Lawler and Condit win, Condit would have the edge, unless his win was lackluster.
RAPHAEL ASSUNCAO - Assuncao (21-4), won all three rounds over previously unbeaten late replacement Pedro Munhoz (10-1) with quicker stand-up in a battle of high-level jiu-jitsu practitioners. Even though he was on FOX Sports 1 and not the pay-per-view, Assuncao should be in line for a bantamweight title shot at Renan Barao, and 35-fight unbeaten streak over nearly nine years.
Assuncao holds a win over T.J. Dillashaw, who along with Takeya Mizugaki are active top bantamweights left standing after Barao finished Michael McDonald, Eddie Wineland and Urijah Faber. But also in the decision making process would be Dominick Cruz, the champion who never lost, but has been out of action for more than two years with one injury after another.
Assuncao's title aspirations really depend more on the mentality with Cruz. Do they have him do a tune-up fight after so long off, just to see if he can get through camp and get the ring rust out? Or do they go with Barao vs. Cruz, and perhaps keep Assuncao on stand-by?
ZACH MAKOVSKY - The former Bellator champion at bantamweight is now 4-0 since moving to flyweight, with UFC wins over Scott Jorgensen and Josh Sampo.
Makovsky (18-4) may be able to take advantage of a weight class with minimal depth and a champion, in Demetrious Johnson, who has run through everyone in short order.
Makovsky, the former captain of the Drexel wrestling team, was able to take Sampo down whenever he needed, to take the decision. The decision on the next challenger for Johnson should come down to either he or Ali Bagautinov (13-2), who defeated John Lineker via decision three weeks ago.
Bagautinov (13-2) has three UFC wins with quality of UFC opposition not all that different and no real popularity or marketability edge over Makovsky.