Greg Bartram-US PRESSWIRE
UFC President Dana White has expressed a reluctance to involve the UFC with women's MMA. That's largely due to how thin the talent pool is among women. White's apprehension is prudent and while regrettable, the right call. While that may keep women out of the UFC for the foreseeable future, the scarcity of talent in women's MMA is not entirely a bad thing. The rise of Ronda Rousey is proof.
The truth is the thinness cuts both ways. Women's MMA is not as developed as it could be. There aren't nearly as many competitors among the female ranks as there are among the men, skilled or otherwise. That creates a host of difficulties from creating fights to treating contenders properly to even generating any interest at all.
There is, however, a good side to the situation: the thin divisions leave open a window for talented, marketable opportunists who can lift the entire sport.
Dave Meltzer ably made this point about the state of today's men's MMA. In short, Meltzer argued there is never going to be another 'Brock Lesnar'. What does that mean? Meltzer argues there's never going to be another crossover star from a related combat sport who can enter MMA and within a few fights, have success at the true, highest level of the game.
There are three key reasons for this. First, the men's game is too evolved at this point. A talented wrestler, judoka or other combat athlete can probably find some success or have a decent career, but the quality of athlete and MMA best practices are advanced enough that top mastery in one aspect of MMA is plainly insufficient to earn a UFC title.
Second, many of the former collegiate wrestlers who would've chosen professional wrestling or Olympic glory in the absence of MMA now flock to the sport directly after college. Lesnar himself admitted had MMA existed as it does today when he graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2000, he never would've joined the ranks of the WWE. That means these athletes don't take a circuitous route after college that could end up building their popularity as it did for Lesnar. Now they go right into MMA. Consider recent standouts like Phil Davis, Bubba Jenkins and Chad Mendes (among many others) as evidence.
But what about Olympic crossovers, wrestlers or judokas? Can't they do what Lesnar did? It's unlikely, and that's where the third reason comes into play. By the time they've accomplished the highest level of achievement in their sport and earned some notoriety (or built up a marketable background), they won't have the time to really develop the skills necessary to compete at the highest levels in MMA.
If those athletes show some measure of aptitude, promoters will be eager to push them against the elite of the division on an accelerated timeline. That may not give them time to properly mature their game or steel their psychological preparedness. It's not a foregone conclusion these crossover athletes will fail to rise to the occasion, but it's a hugely risky proposition to push them so quickly. Satoshi Ishii's pathetic decline is the sort of career mishandling and promotional malpractice that should make promoters think twice about how they groom blue chip prospects.
Consider amateur wrestling's two best potential crossovers who've expressed interest in mixed martial arts: Jordan Burroughs and Henry Cejudo. Cejudo's chances for success are better. He's got at least some background in boxing and would ostensibly enter the UFC's flyweight division. He's hugely marketable, speaks fluent Spanish and has natural promotional instincts. But will he really have the skills to dominate division stalwarts like Ian McCall or Joseph Benavidez? I'm not so sure.
Burroughs could make an impact at lightweight or welterweight, but again, just how much is unclear. He has what is widely regarded as the best double leg takedown among active American wrestlers, but admitted he's worried about being hit. He'll likely have some success, but it's fair to doubt whether he'll be able to make a splash like Lesnar did at heavyweight or Rousey is doing at bantamweight.
It's true the opening Rousey is taking advantage of means women's MMA has a lot of growth and development to do. And it's virtually impossible to argue it wouldn't be preferable to have women's divisions fully populated with talent. Sure, the barriers to entry would be tough to get through, but you'd have cleaner hierarchy, higher participatory rates and a naturally stronger sport. In other words, you'd have what men's MMA enjoys today.
In the interim, though, there's a lot of open spacing. It's also not going away tomorrow. Given the limitations women's MMA currently faces, is it so bad Ronda Rousey can sneak through and cause a stir? She has one hell of a story, a marketable look and can legitimately defeat her best peers (for now, anyway). Her uniqueness gives a wide swathe of the curious public a reason to pay attention. And because there aren't a lot of other distractions among her female contemporaries, her star can shine very bright.
That's not the best of all possibilities for women's MMA, but it makes the current predicament a lot better. I, for one, will take it.
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