UFC 184 offered viewers a lot to love and hate. There were quick finishes, solid preliminary bouts and the rise of one of the sport's biggest stars. There were also aging fighters likely hanging on too long for their own good, weird narratives that emerged post fight and more.
It's time to separate the best from the worst, the winners from the losers and the signal from the noise.
Best Cause to Celebrate: Ronda Rousey's Greatness
There's been a ton of praise heaped on Rousey the past few days. I can't add much to the volume that's already there, so I'll squeeze in two smaller points.
First, we don't even really know much about Rousey's greatness. We know a lot about her dominance, but that's not exactly the same thing. Dominance is a form of greatness, but it's not a synonym for it. Greatness can also be found and witnessed in the face of real adversity. I don't know if we'll ever get to see it, but my hope is someone comes along capable of pushing Rousey to her limits. At that horizon, you'll truly get a sense of what Rousey is made of. Beyond her technical skills (which can also be more fully shown under pressure), we will better see what kind of other attributes that make her a sensational fighter exist as they're revealed through the crucible of fear, punishment, pain, doubt and the dominance or success of another. I'm not saying she'll lose, nor do I wish to necessarily see it (I don't care either way). What I am saying is there's a level to who she is that will help us better understand her greatness that we haven't even seen yet.
Second, and I've made this point about Jon Jones, you really should take the time to appreciate her while she's here. She's establishing herself as the defining female fighting icon of this sport. There will be others who climb great heights. There may even eventually be someone who will defeat her. But it's already too late to undercut what she's become. Rousey's already won. She is one of the most important fighters in the history of the sport, male or female, and has the time and space to do the impossible. She is special beyond compare.
Most Peculiar Fallout: Who is Ronda Rousey?
I don't know if Ronda Rousey is the new Mike Tyson. Maybe she is. The suggestion doesn't necessarily rob Rousey of her identity as a female athlete simply because she's put up for comparison opposite a man. There are enough real parallels irrespective of gender to offer up the comparison. Besides, combat sports is historically mostly a man's game. Rousey isn't just a record setter, but a pioneer. We're also trying to wrap our heads around her greatness. If we're fumbling the attempt, it's because Rousey's outrageous level of professional success can be hard to grasp.
That said, I have no idea if she can beat half of the male bantamweights on the roster. I don't know if she can beat any of them or all of them. I also know we're likely never going to find out one way or the other, and neither is she. This is where trying to quantify her greatness wanders into territory where her accomplishments can be undermined by the relative measurement of gender. The problem is if her worth is determined by the extent to which, in some theoretical universe, we believe she can beat a sufficient amount of men, we're already robbing her of her very real and laudable achievements. She's accomplished a lot. We only need to use that to tell us how spectacular a fighter she is.
Least Understandable Game Plan: Cat Zingano
I've publicly stated I have had a difficult time understanding the logic of Zingano's game plan. Of all possibilities of attack, charging across the Octagon for an extremely low-percentage strike only to initiate a position where Rousey begins her attacks seems, at best, hugely risky. At worst, it's risky to the point of being foolish. The outcome of the bout reflects as much.
Some have suggested, however, two different responses. First, it is argued, at least she didn't start slow. She attempted to correct for a known problem by making a change. Second, they claim, who cares? It's not like anything else Zingano would've done would've made much of a difference in the end. Both of these arguments are deeply, deeply misguided.
As for the first charge, it is true Zingano made a correction: an over correction. There is something to be said for accounting for one's weaknesses and trying to work around them. It is quite another to avoid those weaknesses by playing directly into your opponent's strengths while simultaneously opening up another array of shortcomings. The key to effective game planning is to find the space where you can win. That means where you're not weak and where they're not strong, and where that space ultimately tips the balance enough in your favor. Effective game planning is not merely doing different than before.
In terms of the latter, it is possible the outcome for Rousey was never much in doubt irrespective of what Zingano did or could have done. Stating as much, however, isn't just wrong because it's speculative. It's wrong because it elevates Rousey to a non-existent position of invulnerability.
Rousey is accomplished as any fighter can be, but she is beatable. She is utterly and totally human. Her contemporaries aren't able to make us appreciate this fact, but it's important we remind ourselves. There is a tendency in MMA to elevate our greats to a phony status of unaccountability. Recall the insults, guffaws and repudiation some received for the mere suggestion Chris Weidman could defeat Anderson Silva prior to the first encounter.
The fact that she's beatable isn't controversial in theory, but becomes as much when one attempts to carve a pathway to her defeat. That pathway might exist even if the fighter necessary to walk down it doesn't, at least not right now.
No one is paying me to corner fighters or concoct strategies for UFC title fights, but if past is prologue, removing the typical conditions for a fighter's success is at least a decent idea to entertain. Rousey likes to attack quickly, she's superb in transition on the ground and has massively improved her striking entries. It doesn't feel particularly controversial to say, from a macro perspective, removing these conditions increases one's chances of victory.
We also know Rousey's never been physically hurt in any meaningful way in the course of a bout. Perhaps finding a way in fight where matters are slowed could prove fruitful. Further, it's not clear she has a particularly threatening array of submissions beyond the armbar. She might, of course, but there's no much present evidence to suggest it. That means if caught in a bad spot, doing everything possible to keep elbows cemented to ribs is a good idea to try. It's a hell of a lot better than extending.
I could elaborate on this theory. I could also entertain others that work with basic premises of how Rousey competes and how to use that advantageously. Whatever the case, creating one does not mean executing it is a matter of procedure or that anyone within a country mile is capable of doing it. Rousey is beyond special. This, though, is MMA. Things fall apart. Everyone loses, including the special. It just takes more time than normal.
Most Important Performance: Holly Holm
This was an critical fight not merely for Holm, but for those who have carried unrealistic expectations of her. I don't think the fight opposite Raquel Pennington was particularly good, but how could it have been? In terms of MMA, Pennington is, by far, the best fighter she's faced. This was her UFC debut. Holm dealt with those two challenges in mostly adequate ways.
The problem for Holm is that she likely lost the perception battle. She walked into that cage facing expectations she couldn't possibly meet. She's an accomplished combat athlete, but it's hard to square the outsized/unfair/uninformed impressions of her with what she's done in her MMA career (and other sports, too). Holm is capable of a lot, but isn't a particularly devastating puncher or kicker. She uses good movement, but can get caught up in the clinch with forward movement that's too strong. These are minor criticisms, of course, but relative to what others thought she could do? They're abject failings.
If there is a benefit to be had, it's that she won and has time to work on her craft while Rousey takes a break from fighting. With more progress, maybe the UFC will be able to create a title fight between the two. If they do, though, it'll happen with a much clearer and more grounded sense of who Holm is and what's actually capable of doing.
It's virtually impossible to exit the fight game on one's own terms. That's because it never is about your terms. They're always shared. A fighter who wishes to leave on a high note must do so by force of will opposite a fighter who is trying to rob his or her opponent of that glory. The attempting-to-retire fighter is also doing so at the edge of what was once their ability. That makes the exiting process perilous, to say the least.
None of the three fighters above has said retirement is imminent, although Koscheck hasn't denied it either. Still, all are 37 years of age. All of them look like lesser versions of themselves. All of them, it appears, aren't willing to call it quits until they've created a more appealing circumstance for leaving the game, however illusory or hard to reach that may be.
We often talk of Georges St-Pierre's greatness as a function of his resume. That's a fine way to go about it, but it might be time to include how he walked away as part of that conversation. Yes, the fight with Johny Hendricks was close, but GSP didn't look poor or feeble. He did, however, appear to keenly understand what was next. That's why he gave the belt back to the division he dominated. It was his way of offering a sacrifice to the utterly ruthless and unforgiving gods of MMA for allowing him to quit without humiliation. We likely won't find a more graceful departure from the fight game. Greatness isn't just what a fighter does, but how they stop doing it.
Time to Go Award: Ruan Potts
The South African heavyweight has lost all three of his UFC, either by TKO or KO. He's been deep vein thrombosis bruised up, viciously punched and blooded by the likes of Soa Palelei, Anthony Hamilton and now Derrick Lewis. Even if the three losses had been close, he'd likely still be on the chopping block. They weren't and so it's all but guaranteed. At least he won't have to take anymore outsized beatings, though. Losing like that should not only result in the loss of UFC employment, but time away from the cage, generally.
Time to Take Notice Award: Tim Means
Means has been a fighter who has shown flashes of ability, but fits of frustration as he puts the pieces of his game together while collecting experience. He's changed weight classes, been cut from the UFC, but has now returned. It appears the maturation process is paying off. He isn't the world's most explosive athlete, but he is at the intersection of born fighter and ferocious competitor. He's also a student of the game, which enables him to marry technical acumen with just enough savagery to underscore those techniques' effectiveness. It's too early to say how far he'll go, but it's comforting to watch a fighter effectively use the development process for career success. Many can't or don't or get lost by the wayside in the industry. Means never let a less than auspicious beginning determine a permanent path.