Ronda Rousey's loss to Holly Holm on Saturday night got more mainstream coverage and water cooler talk than any fight in UFC history.
Whether it was Australia, the U.K., North America and other places in the world, it was among the leading sports stories of the weekend. Over the weekend, the name Ronda Rousey got 15 million Google searches, an all-time record for the promotion and more than anything else except the Paris terrorist attack. That's Mayweather-Pacquiao levels of public interest. For a comparison, only one football trend over the weekend, "Seahawks," did more than 500,000 searches.
The big question coming out is what does the upset mean in the big picture.
It's a hard question to answer because Rousey's popularity was completely different from any UFC fighter to date, reaching a women's audience that normally wouldn't even follow UFC. A recent Nielsen survey claimed that Rousey fans are more likely to be interested in Extreme Sports, the NBA, boxing and even WWE than UFC in general. But a few times a year, Rousey brought them in, which is why everything related to her from pay-per-view buys to social media interest trends far higher than any other fighter on the roster.
There are a lot of reasons for her appeal. There are the looks. There is the outspoken personality who understands and works hard at promotion, both of herself and her fights. But the key reason it worked was because the company got behind her in a big way, and she upheld her part in ways a company could only dream of with her continual quick victories.
Even three years ago, the idea a woman's fight could headline a stadium show and draw 50,000 fans, even in a hot new market like Melbourne, would have been unheard of, let alone the kind of pay-per-view numbers she has delivered.
The normal rule of thumb in sports is that one loss doesn't hurt. Everyone loses in sports at some point (well, except Floyd Mayweather). Historically, for the UFC, one loss has never fully killed a drawing card.
Brock Lesnar lost his first UFC fight and came back to be a monster draw. Georges St-Pierre and B.J. Penn were far bigger draws after their first losses than before. Chuck Liddell lost several times and drew until the end of his career. Anderson Silva's biggest pay-per-view number was the rematch after his loss to Chris Weidman. Mike Tyson remained a gigantic pay-per-view draw a dozen years after his loss to Buster Douglas.
But the key in most of those situations, and you can argue only with Tyson it wasn't as relevant, became the opponent, and remaining in the title picture. Liddell did well with name fighters, but not nearly so well when matched with Keith Jardine. Penn's drawing power fell after he fall out of the title picture. Lesnar's numbers fall greatly after losing the title to Cain Velasquez, when he faced Alistair Overeem, but some of that may have been the UFC running a show on a rare Friday night.
But again, those numbers are from people who were fight fans, and not people who were fans of a female sports personality. Rousey is closer to the "in-girl" in sports, whose activity just happened to be MMA rather than a hero to women that are fight fans. There is a huge difference. Most of those fans are likely to be gone from MMA when she's not fighting.
Will they be interested in her comeback fight with Holm? Probably, even more than any of her fights to date, but winning that one may be the breaking point. Being unbeatable was part of her aura, but regaining the title after a devastating loss could add to her appeal. But will they be interested in her to the point of buying pay-per-views when she's no longer a contender? That's impossible to say, and there are questions whether she'll even continue to fight in that situation.
For that reason, the rematch, particularly if it's at UFC 200, a show likely to have far more of a loaded undercard than any previous Rousey event, should be one of the two biggest pay-per-views the company has ever done. It's also the one where the main event result will have the largest future dollar implications
Going forward, Rousey has her back against the wall. But she's also got endless doors open to her outside of fighting as she remains a personality to the public.
In the short term, the biggest loser is Cris Cyborg, who with one kick to the jaw went from the dream opponent for the biggest fight of 2015, to someone who is going to be patient a lot longer. Now, she has to either hope Rousey wins, and she gets the next shot, in which case it's a waiting game, or hope Rousey will face her in a non-championship fight if Rousey loses. And in that situation, the fight will still be big, but nowhere near what it could have been.
Let's look at how fortunes changed for the stars of UFC 193.
HOLLY HOLM - No fighter in UFC history has ever gained more with a win than Holm. While people have won championships and become big stars, in most cases they were far bigger stars going in. Holm hadn't wowed crowds in her previous UFC appearances. On this show, whatever appeal she brought to the table past being Rousey's expected next victim, was her boxing championship credentials.
Now, she's the first person ever to win championships at the top level in both boxing and MMA and she's expected to be headlining what should be the biggest women's fight in any combat sport in world history.
But there is a second option of what is next. Historically, Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta are gamblers. They've gambled on big fights in the past. Forrest Griffin vs. Chuck Liddell never happened because they put Liddell against Rashad Evans. Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen II almost didn't happen because they put Sonnen against Michael Bisping, and Sonnen was lucky to win a close decision. Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans was put at risk by putting Evans against Phil Davis, a better-credentialed wrestler, but who Evans ended up outwrestling.
If Rousey's schedule doesn't allow her to fight until July, there is time for Holm to defend, and there are viable opponents out there, Miesha Tate, who was first promised the shot that Holm got, Amanda Nunes, and even Cyborg if she can make weight by March. Rousey against the person who beats Holm for the title would be big, but not at the level of a Holm rematch. But there are a lot of shows to fill between now and July and Holm is now one of the company's best-known stars.
RONDA ROUSEY - In her case, the situation is that she faced an opponent that had spent years training to beat her strengths. The story of Holm vs. Rousey is that of a multi-year quest to teach an athletic boxer how to defend takedowns, and defend armbars, get strong enough to not to be thrown around, and to use Rousey's aggression against her. When that all fell into play, Holm was able to use her superior kickboxing skills to control the fight.
Rousey now needs to have people who can set up a game plan to reprogram her and not make her as predictable, and create a style to take advantage of Holm's tendencies. This is difficult, because a major story of this fight is that Rousey, by nature, is an aggressor, and Holm is a counter fighter. But Rousey as a counter fighter wouldn't be playing her game.
The UFC doesn't need Rousey to win the rematch, as the company is bigger than any fighter. But even if Holm beats Rousey twice, that doesn't mean she gets her marketability level. If that happens, women's MMA will lose popularity to at least some degree. And perhaps to a great degree. Cain Velasquez destroyed Brock Lesnar but was never as big a star. Chris Weidman is still not the star Anderson Silva is. Frankie Edgar never became the star B.J. Penn was.
JOANNA JEDRZEJCZYK - From a marketing perspective, putting Jedrzejczyk on the undercard of a Rousey fight made all the sense in the world. You have a charismatic, but far lesser known female champion fighting on a show with an audience that has already proven to be interested in a charismatic female champion.
Jedrzejczyk (11-0), remained unbeaten, and looked good in the process. But it was a workmanlike performance, certainly not a negative, but not a home run either. She helped her cause, but didn't come out of the show like a supernova.
Next up looks to be Claudia Gadelha (13-1), Many felt Gadelha beat Jedrzejczyk in their Dec. 13 fight, which ended in a split decision. It's a very simple fight. Can Gadelha get it to the ground and keep it there? The first fight showed two things. Gadelha could take her down and keep her on the ground long enough to win rounds. But Gadelha can't win a standing fight. Nobody has been able to keep Jedrzejczyk on the ground since.
MARK HUNT - A 41-year-old, who is 11-10-1, and 2-3-1 in his last six fights with three knockout losses, hardly sounds like a future contender. But the weakness of the heavyweight division, and the fact Hunt's fights usually have spectacular endings, keeps him booked high on cards. He did look good against current champion Fabricio Werdum before the Mexico City altitude, and a massive weight since he took the fight on short notice, took its toll.
After knocking out Antonio Silva in the first round, with Hunt's appeal in Australia, he makes a likely headliner for UFC's return on March 20 in Brisbane.
Right now, there are too many who have beaten him, Junior Dos Santos and Spice Miocic in particular, who deserve title shots ahead of him.
Hunt's next foe could be the winner of either the Dec. 19 Alistair Overeem (39-14) vs. Dos Santos (17-3) fight, or the winner of the Andrei Arlovski (25-10) vs. Miocic (13-2) fight. But there are timing issues. Either winner could get the winner of the Werdum vs. Velasquez title match, which doesn't look to happen until March. So the UFC may keep the winners of the December and January fights in holding patterns until the dust clears in the title fight. That would leave Hunt with one of the two losers in those fights, or perhaps Josh Barnett (34-7) or Ben Rothwell (35-9) next.
ROBERT WHITTAKER - If Hunt is Australia's veteran star, Whittaker (16-4), at 24, could be one of its up-and-comers. Whittaker got his best career win on Saturday over Uriah Hall.
Originally, Whittaker was to face Michael Bisping (27-7), a fight that would make the most sense for Whittaker, but it's not of as much benefit to Bisping.
If not Bisping, an opponent who makes sense is Gegard Mousasi (37-6-2). Mousasi isn't as big a name to the
public as Bisping, but is higher ranked and to hardcore fight fans, a win over Mousasi would mean more. Middleweight is one of UFC's deepest divisions for talent, and while Whittaker won over Hall, he didn't do so in a way that would make him seem like a threat to the division's big four of Weidman, Luke Rockhold, Yoel Romero and Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza.
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