Back when Ronda Rousey started pushing for a title fight with Strikeforce 135-pound women’s champion Miesha Tate, she built her case on a very simple logic. Despite her relative inexperience in MMA, she argued, the two of them should fight because people would want to see it.
Whether those people wanted to see it because it was a compelling match-up or because they just wanted to see two pretty girls in sports bras sweating on each other hardly mattered, she insisted. Women’s MMA needed fans more than it needed the ethical high ground.
The fact that she got what she asked for tells us that someone, somewhere agreed with her. On Tuesday’s media call, even Tate had to admit that Rousey’s argument made some degree of sense. The sheer amount of PR work the champ has been called upon to do is proof that people are interested, she admitted.
"I’m not in denial about that," Tate said. "I understand the logistics behind it and why this fight would want to be put together and how it has the ability to do bigger things than if Sarah Kaufman and I were fighting each other. Just the hype, the selling points, the marketing points -- I understand all of that, because it’s not just a sport. To me, the sport is the most important part. But honestly, like I said, if nobody wants to watch it, it’s more of a detriment than anything else."
And yet, Tate repeated several times over the course of the more than 40-minute call, "I don’t feel she’s earned it, at 4-0 and having never fought at 135 [pounds]."
Maybe the question is: does it matter? If Rousey is right, and this fight becomes the most anticipated women’s MMA bout since "Cyborg" Santos-Gina Carano, will it make any difference why it happened, or why fans wanted to see it?
Not if you believe Rousey, who makes a convincing, if admittedly self-serving case for the importance of exposure over legitimacy. She picked a fight with Tate because it was the biggest match-up out there, she said. If the two had met under different circumstances, Rousey said, "then we probably would have ended up being friends."
"But I created this rivalry on purpose because I have enough friends," she added. "What I really could use is a few enemies. I think the result of how much attention this fight has been getting proves me right."
She has a point. The Strikeforce women’s title itself typically isn’t enough to move the needle with fans and media. When Tate took the belt from Marloes Coenen in July, the fight took a backseat to the non-title affair between Dan Henderson and Fedor Emelianenko. In fact, in the four title fights that the former champ Coenen fought under the Strikeforce banner, not one was a main event bout. Barring Challengers events, the only other time two women have occupied the top spot on a Strikeforce card was also the first time, when Carano and Santos did it.
The fact that Tate and Rousey have generated enough heat to change that now must mean something, even if it’s just that fans are more interested in women’s MMA when the participants are both good-looking.
"I think that’s part of what makes this fight so exciting, so anticipated," said Rousey. "We’re pretty much getting into unarmed combat, anything’s possible. Someone could die. When you see two girls that pretty much look like Xena: Warrior Princess going at it, that was a show on TV for a reason. People want to watch it. It’s going to be a huge fight and it’s going to change women’s MMA."
At the same time, that one quote tells us that Rousey doesn’t consider any potential appeal to be off-limits. Whether you’re tuning in because you want to see death and dismemberment or something with a more erotic feel to it, she doesn’t particularly seem to care. All that matters is you’re watching and she’s getting paid.
Or, as she put it: "This day a year ago I was working three jobs and struggling to train and do all this stuff, and I just wanted to be done with all of that. I just wanted to be able to support myself through fighting and I wanted to do it as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to sit around and do that for a few more years and slowly work my way up while telling everybody ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and bowing my head. I knew that I could win the title the day that I started, and the quicker I could get it the better. If giving a couple more entertaining interviews than some of the girls helps me out, then I’m going to do that."
In hyping the fight with Tate, Rousey admitted, "I’ve been being pretty much overtly rude. I haven’t been lying or saying anything I didn’t think [was] true, but I’ve been saying things I wouldn’t say to people’s faces usually because it’s not polite."
You have to admit that it’s worked. Or at least, it’s worked if the goal is to advance the career of Ronda Rousey. As for the goal of shining a bigger spotlight on women’s MMA? It’s doing that too, for the moment. Then again, as the Carano-Cyborg fight showed, that spotlight doesn’t necessarily carry over to the rest of the division once the big fight is over.
Does that matter? Tate seems to think so. She acknowledged the appeal of a fight between herself and Rousey reluctantly at first, and still rarely misses an opportunity to point out that she doesn’t think Rousey deserves it. While Rousey seems primarily motivated by self-interest, Tate insisted that the fight needed to deliver for the good of the division as a whole, especially considering how rare these chances are.
"We have a responsibility as women to stick together and really try to help other girls," Tate said. "...Ronda and I are getting the opportunity for the limelight. The thing about women’s MMA, when you have very little opportunity for mass exposure, you’ve got to make the most out of it. It’s got to be the most bang for your buck."
It’s a consideration that, at least in the present day, men’s MMA simply doesn’t have. You don’t hear male fighters talking about the need to put on a good show in order to help other men. You don’t hear them pushing for certain fights purely on the basis that it will get more people interesting in the sport in general. You definitely wouldn’t catch two male fighters in a promo video that seems like it should have the phrase ‘...after dark’ tacked on somewhere.
And yet, for a women’s sport appealing to a primarily male audience, it’s an angle that works. It’s working for Tate and Rousey so far, as well as for Strikeforce and for Showtime.
That’s good news if you think that what women’s MMA needs is more eyeballs on the final product, by any means necessary. If you’re the type who can’t help but think about how the hype sausage is made, however, the answers aren’t so simple. Especially when it’s this difficult to even agree on which questions we should be asking.