As Ronda Rousey becomes heralded as the first woman fighter in the UFC, it's amazing how quickly this has all happened.
Even more, one asks the questions, where is this going and what is the ceiling?
It's impossible to answer. But in cases like this, timing is everything. And the timing looks awfully good.
There are still some who cling to the notion that MMA fans don't want to see women battle in the cage, and it won't work in the UFC. But there is already years of evidence in Strikeforce and other organizations that prove differently.
Women have already shown they are viable on the card. And it's also been proven that with the right mix of personalities, women can be successful headlining major shows.
Still, some say the public doesn't want to see women in that position. Others feel that because top women athletes don't possess the strength and speed of a top male athlete, and that they aren't marketable in a professional fight setting. And for years, some of the power brokers at UFC, including Dana White, would publicly champion that opinion. Of course, that also could have been because the top women fighters were under contract to a rival promotion.
It's been apparent from the night Rousey beat Miesha Tate just nine months ago in Columbus, Ohio, that she was someone who had the potential to be far more than just another champion in this sport, but a genuine breakthrough star. She is not there yet, but between being the first MMA fighter to get a feature story in Sports Illustrated magazine and getting an ESPN Magazine body issue cover, people who see her as more than just another fighter aren't limited to those in the MMA world.
It may have seemed to have taken nine months since Rousey won the Strikeforce women's bantamweight title to cause the turnaround of opinions. But it was more likely less than five minutes. There were people in the UFC organization sold on Rousey having potential to be one of the sport's biggest stars months before she started catching on in the building of the Tate fight. White publicly joined that club after the fight. The only reason it's taken so long for this to happen is the contract that prohibited UFC from signing anyone who was on the list of Strikeforce fighters for as long as the Zuffa/Showtime/Strikeforce television deal was in place.
With the deal expiring in the spring, and the apparent decision to not have it renewed, UFC looks to fold Strikeforce. The subsequent step is to bring over, not just Rousey, but all the major stars of the organization.
Rousey had her first televised fight only 15 months ago. The combination of her mouth, her looks and her proficiencies at armbars had made her the second most talked about female MMA fighter in history, even before she was able to talk her way into her title fight.
Without her, it's very questionable if UFC would have opened its cage door to women.
Even before Rousey came on the scene, Gina Carano had proven that a woman could be a viable headliner and one of the major stars in this sport. Carano's legacy will be as a women who parlayed some big fights on television into becoming a big screen action star. She opened some doors in getting women MMA fights on television almost six years ago.
But Rousey can be the one who kicks down far bigger doors, by headlining in the highest-profile organization.
Carano proved that women can sell tickets and draw television ratings. Her fights on CBS saw viewers flock to their sets like only a few fighters in history. Carano's two fights on CBS each drew well over 1 million new viewers from start-to-finish, a figure less than ten MMA fights on U.S. television have ever reached. Her fight with Cris "Cyborg" Santos in 2009 drew the largest crowd for a Strikeforce show that wasn't headlined by Frank Shamrock. It was also the second-highest rated MMA fight in the history of Showtime.
There is an obvious comparison of the two. But their only real similarities is both are pretty, and both fight in MMA. From there, they are different animals with completely different appeals.
Carano was able to have tremendous popularity to women and teenage boys in a different way as the male fighters.
People were drawn to her by a movie star look, a smile and a cute shyness. Rousey is blessed with a personality that is a hit on talk shows, an aggressive edge, a quotable mouth, unquestioned skill and an interesting life story. She's got the same appeal as a star male fighter.
Carano's critics claimed was someone marketed because she had a pretty face, and there was some truth to that. Rousey's looks are part of the package, but she has unquestioned credentials as a world-class athlete and as a fighter.
Her Olympic bronze medal in judo was followed by nine fights, three amateur and six pro, all ending with armbar submissions in the first round. Only one lasted past 57 seconds. The last two were against the best competition around in her weight class.
Perhaps the best measure of star power of a fighter is how much interest the casual public has in them. Anyone who covers MMA for a mainstream outlet will tell you that stories on Rousey garner more interest than all but the biggest names in UFC. From January through August, the only MMA fighters who were searched for more than Rousey on Google were Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Chael Sonnen and Georges St-Pierre. Without one fight in the UFC, she walks into the organization as its fifth-biggest star. There is genuine potential to be the biggest mainstream name in the sport in North America within one year if the breaks fall her way.
The flip side is that if she becomes as big as expected with that win, it's a lock that Hollywood will take notice, so she may end up with a similar career path as Carano, meaning an exit from the sport at a young age.
But before that is likely to happen, she's walking in at the right time. There is a ready made perfect opponent, in Cyborg.
Carano vs. Cyborg matched the pretty American with the jacked up foreign monster, with Cyborg winning handily. Cyborg's later steroid test failure after a bout last year only adds another layer to the Rousey match story. It's just one more thing for the two to argue over in building a fight.
Cyborg's kickboxing game, the area Rousey is completely untested at, puts Rousey in a position where she's comes in at great risk. But Rousey's ground skill, her ability to beat good fighters quickly with armbars that they knew were coming and couldn't stop, brings her into the fight with far more than just a prayer.
The UFC platform, whether this fight were to take place on pay-per-view, or on FOX, would likely make this the biggest women's combat sports event of our generation.
Of course, there are all kinds of obstacles that can get in the way. The obvious one is the weight issue, since Cyborg is refusing to drop to 135 pounds and Rousey is refusing to budge from her title weight. And this is MMA. There is always the chance that, unless it is each woman's next fight, which would be too early for maximum impact, that one of the two may stumble.
The best proposition for marketing the fight is to introduce both to the UFC audience with a strong build up against different opponents, to get more people talking about the match for months instead of going to it immediately. The best scenario long-term for women in MMA would be to have the two coach the fall 2013 season of Ultimate Fighter, and have it be an all-women's show. This would serve to introduce women who could add depth to the division. But there's also the obvious risk of them fighting against other opponents before a December 2013 date that doing that such would necessitate.
The usual rule of thumb in UFC matchmaking is when a big fight is available, you make it right away, because trying to build it over time risks it being ruined.
Either way, the personality contrast, ethnic contrast, looks contrast and in-ring style contrast, combined with personal hatred, both real and manufactured, could make this one of the most anticipated fights in history.
There is almost no question such a fight on FOX would be a huge hit. The novelty of the first UFC main event with women, and it being on free television, by itself is a big hook. Carano, and to a lesser extent Rousey, have already proven that women on top can draw strong television ratings. And if the idea is to build women's fighting for the future, that's your venue
But pay-per-view is a different animal. Ultimately, UFC survives and thrives based on creating stars who can draw on pay-per-view. In this case, there is simply no precedent. Some people have thought this could be one of the bigger matches ever. Others believe that while people will watch a big woman's fight for free, they're not as sure they will buy them in a main event spot on pay-per-view.
The only woman's fight in history that headlined a major pay-per-view was in boxing, when Laila Ali fought Jacqui Frazier. That was a pure novelty act, the two daughters of the most famous sports rivalry of its time. It did 125,000 buys, which doesn't sound like a lot compared to numbers UFC gets today. But in 2001, when the fight took place, most were stunned by that figure. But looking back with hindsight, it was a one-off attraction that meant nothing, and built nothing.
Whatever direction is chosen, if they can make this fight, it has the potential to change the history of the sport.