It was barely two years ago when UFC held its first women's MMA fight, and like any major change, there was all kinds of criticism.
The focal point of the criticism was Ronda Rousey, put front and center as the star and women's bantamweight champion before she even had her first fight with the UFC. There was the criticism that people didn't want to see women fight. This criticism seemed silly because the UFC was actually well behind the curve on that one, as a number of organizations that had television exposure, including Strikeforce, Bellator and Elite XC, had regularly featured women's fights, and they were often well-received.
However, women headlining a pay-per-view on their first night in the promotion was a risk. Yet, the first show was an unqualified success, with tremendous promotion and media attention that kicked off the division. Some tried to dismiss its early success as a novelty people would get tired of, but those were the same remarks people said when UFC first hit it big. Also, we've just hit the 10-year anniversary of the debut of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), and business seems at its strongest point consistently in some time.
After two successful pay-per-views that Rousey headlined on her own, Saturday night was another step, not planned at first but working out that way due to injuries and card changes, where women were in the top two fights. So far there is no sign that was a negative.
It was a big night for Rousey, who became the first champion to have three sub-one minute wins in UFC history. It's actually four on her current title reign if you date it back to the Strikeforce title belt that the UFC belt came from. She was a record of division dominance ranking with the greatest fights of all-time.
She now has 10 first-round finishes, only two of which got past 66 seconds. You can also add three to both of those numbers if you include her first three amateur fights, none of which lasted a full minute. Her win over Cat Zingano, officially 14 seconds, even if coach "Judo" Gene LeBell's stopwatch had it at 12.8 seconds, was the fastest finish in UFC title fight history. Zingano was supposed to be her toughest and most durable challenger.
It was the most impressive quick submission in UFC history, two seconds faster, and even more spectacular than Frank Shamrock's 16-second submission win in the first UFC middleweight (now light heavyweight ) championship fight in 1997. It was the fastest submission, title fight or not, in modern era UFC history.
There were two other 14-second submissions, Justin Martin over Eric Martin at UFC 12 in 1997, and Joe Charles over Kevin Rosier at UFC 4 in 1994. Neither of those was against a BJJ black belt who had extensive experience on the ground. Rosier, in fact, was a kickboxer who was a novice on the ground. There was a nine-second submission in 1995 that is still the record for quickest submission, where Oleg Taktarov in a tournament, finished Anthony Macias at UFC 5. But that one has always been suspicious given that the two were training partners under the same management, and it was to Taktarov's major benefit not to have a tough second round fight, since he had a no time limit fight later that evening.
That wasn't the only record set. The reported crowd of 17,654 fans at Staples Center in Los Angeles was not only UFC's largest crowd ever in California, but the largest combat sports crowd ever headlined by a female fight in U.S. history. Similarly, the reported gate of $2,675,560 nearly doubled the prior record for a live gate for a show headlined by women, breaking the mark of $1,558,870, set one year ago at UFC 170 for Rousey's title defense against Sara McMann.
You could put an asterisk next to those numbers, because a large number of the tickets sold came when the advertised main event was Chris Weidman vs. Vitor Belfort for the middleweight title, and Rousey vs. Zingano was listed as the co-main.
However, if the PPV numbers are good, Rousey will have pulled it off on a card with very little star-power depth, and a show headlined by two women's fights. If the numbers are even at the current average level, this show will kill any arguments left about people not being willing to pay to see a show built around women fights at a nearly $60 price tag.
UFC President Dana White sounded optimistic about things after the show, saying all of their pay-per-view indicators were trending strongly.
While even the most preliminary pay-per-view numbers won't be available for a few days, early outside signs look good. A number of reports from sports bars around the country indicated major show level interest and attendance.
General public interest was ridiculously high. While Google searches don't always perfectly correlate to pay-per-view numbers, more often than they are a good indicator.
On Saturday, there were more than 1 million Google searches in the U.S. for Rousey, more than any other topic in the country, sports or otherwise. That's a number that hasn't been seen for a UFC fighter on a single day since Anderson Silva broke his leg. On Friday, there were 500,000 searches for UFC 184 and another 200,000 for Rousey, making them the No. 2 and No. 3 most searched for topic on that day, behind the death of Leonard Nimoy.
There was a second story coming out of Saturday night, of a fighter whose name value and historical drawing power is even bigger than that of Rousey--former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar.
Just days after an argument with World Wrestling Entertainment head honcho Vince McMahon backstage in Nashville, Tenn., during a live television taping that Lesnar was scheduled to appear on and didn't, Lesnar couldn't be missed sitting with White and Lorenzo Fertitta.
While this will, and from Lesnar's side, probably was probably designed to set the rumors in motion of his considering leaving pro wrestling and returning to UFC, there were some very ominous warning signs Saturday almost right before his eyes.
Just before Lesnar took his seat at ringside, Mark Munoz, a former top contender at middleweight, looked remarkably non-competitive in being choked out by Roan Carneiro, a fighter who was returning to the UFC after six plus years of working smaller shows. Shortly after Lesnar had come to ringside, Josh Koscheck looked like a completely different fighter than in the past, and lost via submission to Jake Ellenberger.
Munoz and Koscheck were wrestling contemporaries of Lesnar. Both are 37, the same age as Lesnar. Both, like Lesnar, were NCAA champions, Munoz and Koscheck in 2001, Lesnar in 2000. All three had success in UFC. But Munoz and Koscheck looked completely done as fighters. Koscheck was one of the best wrestlers in the sport for the past decade, but his speed and explosiveness aren't there like in the past.
Unlike Lesnar, Munoz and Koscheck have lived the sport for years, both expanding greatly on their wrestling base to become all-around fighters. On the flip side, by being in the sport for so long, they've taken more punishment. And while neither ever wore a championship belt, Koscheck had the misfortune to be a contemporary of a peak Georges St-Pierre. That was a roadblock the likes of which Lesnar didn't have to face in his rise to the top. The reality is that this sport is not a good place for even great athletes and national champion wrestlers who are 37. Granted, there have been exceptions like Randy Couture, Yoel Romero and Dan Henderson, but they were also far more well-rounded and experienced, and all developed their stand-up game far more than Lesnar has.
The X-factor for Lesnar has always been his sheer physical power, combined with surprising quickness and wrestling ability. But quickness fades with age and wrestling ability fades with lack of use and age.
Still, a Lesnar return against Frank Mir, the name that pops up the most in that discussion, will probably garner a lot of interest. Lesnar did dominate their last meeting. But UFC 100 was almost six years ago, which is a lifetime in this sport. Six years ago, Jon Jones was fighting in prelims (in fact, he was in a prelim on that show), and Rousey had yet to take her first MMA lesson.
Years ago, Lesnar told me he got out of pro wrestling when it hit him one day, looking around the locker room, seeing guys in their late 30s all physically beaten up from the years of punishment, and realizing that if he didn't get out, that would be him. He escaped that world, and came back on his own terms, with a minimal schedule meaning very limited wear-and-tear.
But now that he seems to be flirting with the idea of a return, in Munoz and Koscheck's performance on Saturday, that is a cautionary tale to consider.
Let's look at how Fortunes Changed for Five stars of Saturday night's show:
RONDA ROUSEY - Rousey has taken division dominance to almost a new meaning with her last three championship defenses totaling 96 seconds.
Rousey talked after the fight about taking time off to do a movie. She also was vague about when she wanted to fight again. Dana White brought up names like Bethe Correia (9-0) and Jessica Eye (11-2) as possible contenders. Correia has the storyline advantage of having beaten two of the Four Horsewomen and Rousey roommates and training partners, Shayna Baszler and Jessamyn Duke. White said that Correia wanted to go into the cage and challenge Rousey after the fight and was pushing hard for the match. White brought up Eye, and if Rousey is out for a while, they could match the two up with the winner getting Rousey.
While Rousey has thus far proven she can draw reasonably well on her own, with little support in the way of an opponent or even an undercard, there is only one opponent right now that she can do monster business with - Cris "Cyborg" Justino. That fight is contingent on only one issue, which is Cyborg proving she can make 135 pounds. Cyborg has known for two years that her big money fight was contingent on making 135 pounds. But as of this weekend, she has dropped no size at all.
HOLLY HOLM - Holm (8-0) was hyped as a potential title contender coming in. Rousey even mentioned her name as a possible future opponent. While Holm took the measure of Raquel Pennington (5-6), it was a split decision against a mid-level fighter that clearly showed Holm is not ready for a championship bout.
Holm showed good speed and footwork, and was clearly the better athlete than Pennington. Still, Pennington fought her competitively and even knocked her down in the third round. A good next test for Holm could be Marion Reneau (6-1), who pulled off a great submission win last week over Jessica Andrade.
JAKE ELLENBERGER - Ellenberger (30-9), coming off three losses in a row, had enough to finish Koscheck via North-South choke in the second round. Even in winning, he looked physically off his peak.
Ellenberger could make a good opponent for Carlos Condit (29-8) as he returns after knee surgery. They fought in 2009, with Condit winning via split decision. Another good potential opponent would be Thiago Alves (21-9), who came off an impressive win over Jordan Mein.
TONY FERGUSON - Ferguson (19-3) finished Gleison Tibau (40-11) on Saturday night in the first round, something none of Tibau's previous 50 opponents were able to do. Tibau, taking the fight on short notice, would be the biggest win so far in Ferguson's four-year UFC career. The former Ultimate Fighter winner, at the post-fight press conference, issued a challenge to anyone in the top ten, mentioning everyone from Bobby Green (23-6), ranked No. 10 on up.
It was Ferguson's fifth straight win, and he's 7-1 in his UFC career, the only loss coming in 2012 to Michael Johnson. Johnson, now at No. 6, coming off his win over Edson Barboza, may be a little too high for Ferguson, but the winner of the April 4 fight with Jorge Masvidal (28-8) and Al Iaquinta (12-3-1) would make sense as top 15 opponents, particularly since Iaquinta has some momentum right now.
While Ferguson pushed for anyone in the top ten, perhaps the best name he could push for would be Nate Diaz (17-10), who is not in the top ten, but he is a bigger name than most in the top ten. It would put Ferguson in a high profile fight and such a win would help his star power more than a higher ranked but less-known fighter.
ROAN CARNEIRO - Returning to UFC after winning the eight-man one-night Battleground tournament in October, Carneiro (20-9) scored win No. 6 in a row in a major upset over Munoz. There are three welterweights coming off impressive wins on recent shows in Derek Brunson (13-3), Sam Alvey (25-6) and Rafael Natal (19-6-1), who are all trying to claw their way to the top. In the case of Carneiro, who is 36, he has to make his move now. He couldn't have looked better. But it looked so easy that more of the response to his win was about Munoz looking bad than Carneiro looking good.