December 29th, 2013. 'Rowdy' Ronda Rousey awakes. She basks in the glory of beating her bitter rival for the second time and has a chuckle to herself about how many chicken wings she ingested while celebrating with her team last night. Miesha 'Cupcake' Tate awakes. Bitterly disappointed and dejected; but she at least had a couple of small moral victories in taking the champion further than anyone ever has, and in getting some vociferous support from large sections of the Las Vegas UFC 168 crowd. And hey, at least she won't have to deal with her arch-nemesis and her team for a while: filming a reality show for 6 weeks followed by promoting a huge title fight alongside her must have been taxing.
What does the future hold? For Rousey, we already know. She will fight Olympic silver medallist and unbeaten Women's Bantamweight rival Sara McMann in late February. Assuming the Rowdy one keeps winning, Tate has a long road ahead of her to re-establish herself as a viable title challenger. You get the impression that she has the drive and determination to try and do just that. How many wins do you think we'd be talking about here, before she'd be back in contention? Three? Four? Who would they be against?
In early 2014, the main contenders are the likes of Alexis Davis, Sara McMann, Jessica Eye, and Sarah Kaufman. Cat Zingano is still rehabbing her knee and is going through some severe and unfortunate personal problems, but if she should come back, she should get her deserved title shot. Other names in the division include former title challenger Liz Carmouche. So, 3+ wins over some of these Women's Bantamweights should be enough, right? Maybe not. I think she needs to demonstrate that she can pose more of a challenge to the rampaging Rousey. Perhaps by developing her striking. She actually looked good in the standing boxing exchanges with Rousey, but appears to lack power and technical ability in that department. There's also a significant strength discrepancy between herself and the undefeated champ.
20th March, 2015. The next challenger for Ronda Rousey's 135-pound title is....Bethe Correia. Currently ranked around the bottom half of the top 10. Unbeaten. Two of her victims include Rousey's 'Four Horsewomen' friends Jessamyn Duke and Shayna Baszler. At any stage of their UFC careers, have the aforementioned Duke and Baszler been ranked in the top 15, let alone the top 10? But let's put that aside for a moment: Rousey has beef with her (and there's more to come on that front, too). The fight will be in Brazil. You can already make a case that Rousey has began putting the finishing touches to cleaning out the division. Sure, there's emerging fighters like Holly Holm and Julianna Pena, but surely it'll be a considerable amount of time before they're ready; at this point they also lack those signature, eyebrow-raising wins that can catapult you to the top. So this is okay. It might look like a mismatch on paper but it's going to be fun. After this one, surely a legitimate number 1 contender will have emerged?
15th July, 2015. With Ronda Rousey preparing for her title defence against Correia, and the number 1 contender fight (according to Dana White and the UFC) between Miesha Tate and Jessica Eye ten days away, women's boxing legend and unbeaten Bantamweight Holly Holm scores a dominant unanimous decision win over Marion Reneau. The win isn't enough to silence all the doubters and detractors, though. There seems to be a feeling amongst a lot of fans and media that Holm is reluctant to engage and pull the trigger as much as she should. Quite literally, the polar opposite of the current queen of the division. The overall post-mortem seems to conclude that she has a lot of tools, is developing well but lacks the killer instinct and signature wins that will enable her to challenge for the belt. This is later reflected in her landing at number 9 in the official UFC rankings, which are generated by a voting panel made up of media members. A big win over a fellow member of the top 10 in the future should really help her to stake her claim for a shot at gold.
25th July, 2015. Miesha Tate scores her fourth win in a row since falling to Rousey and is verbally promised the next title shot by none another than Uncle Dana. It's announced on the FOX broadcast, at the post-fight press conference and in an interview conducted by respected and affable media member Karyn Bryant.
"Do you think she is guaranteed, now, to fight the winner of Ronda Rousey and Bethe Correia?"
"Yes, she is."
How did 'Cupcake' look in defeating Jessica Eye? Very good. She scored two knockdowns over someone who many thought was a superior striker. She also showed how far she has come under the tutelage of Xtreme Couture head coach Robert Follis, and striking coach Jimmy Gifford. Let's go back to that day in 2013, sandwiched in between Christmas and New Year: what would you, as a fight fan, need to see from Miesha to make her case for a second UFC title shot? Wins. Improvements. The fact that Rousey's wins have been far more impressive and her developmental trajectory is significantly steeper is, quite frankly, irrelevant. There's nobody in MMA, period, who improves at the rate she does. So, let's see what happens between Ronda and Bethe in Brazil. The vast majority of us (putting it mildly) think Rousey will make short work of the confident Brazilian.
August 1st, 2015. 34 seconds. That's all it takes for Bethe Correia to end up face down on the canvas. A highlight-reel knockout that has people from all walks of life salivating. Celebrities who have never before mentioned MMA are popping up on our Twitter feeds talking about the undisputed superstar of the sport. Joe Rogan is almost in tears interviewing her. It's a special night. It's an emotional one. It's an unforgettable one. But one niggling thing remains in the back of a lot of hardcores' minds: Ronda Rousey just beat someone who doesn't have a top-15 win, who took up MMA 3-4 years ago 'to lose weight' and whose own number 5 ranking was embarrassingly inaccurate and perhaps gave credence to those who question whether those official rankings are manipulated (whether intentionally or otherwise) by the UFC based on who is currently fighting for the title and/or needs a little promotional 'push'.
Now we have Rousey vs Tate III to look forward to. Or do we? MMAFighting's very own Ariel Helwani has made no secret of his opinion that a third fight isn't particularly compelling. No, he wants Rousey vs. Cris 'Cyborg' Justino....the woman who has never in her life made 135 pounds nor fought in the UFC. When a prominent MMA voice like Ariel's is broadcast to 250k+ followers on social media, you better believe the UFC will be watching. Not to mention, Lorenzo Fertitta himself watches The MMA Beat to get a feel for what opinions and consensuses are floating around in the MMA community. Other media members like Dave Doyle and Luke Thomas seem okay with Rousey vs Tate III. Thomas in particular seems to have the ability to see a bigger picture going forward, and perhaps he feels it would allow other contenders to emerge and stake their claims, not to mention it would give Cyborg ample time to get her weight down and prove to the UFC that they could trust her to be clean, on weight and ready to fight at the best of her ability.
How do fans feel about the prospect of Rousey vs. Tate III? As is often the case, there's a lot of sensationalised all-or-nothing opinions out there: 'Nobody wants that fight!'; 'I'm not paying $60 to watch Ronda break her arm again!'; 'Tate's the only one who can give her a fight'; 'Tate rocked her in the second fight, she can KO her this time!'. You know the way it goes. Through these eyes (which spend a lot of time on social media, MMA forums and MMA websites like this one) I come to the conclusion that there is perhaps something like 30-40% who want it; and the other 60-70% consists of those who either have the 'there's nobody else; Tate is the #1 contender' or the 'this fight is pointless' perspective. Most of that 60-70% would surely be okay with Rousey vs. Cyborg; how many of us can honestly say that fight doesn't excite us? And that's despite all the complicated circumstances surrounding it.
If I'm right, and it's only 30-40% (it could even be lower) who want Rousey vs. Tate III then we really should take a look at why....but we should also look at the alternatives and consider what their percentages should be.
First of all...we obviously know Rousey and Tate have tangled twice already. The first time, Miesha was defending the Strikeforce title she won by submitting Marloes Coenen. Rousey ripped it from her grasp, quite literally. But was it a good fight? Was it a competitive fight? Yes to both. Only the all-out bloody war of Kaufman vs Davis II prevented it from being awarded Fight of The Night on that March night in 2012 in Columbus, Ohio. Rousey may have temporarily mangled Tate's arm in the end, but for those emotionally-charged 4-and-a-half minutes, both had their moments. While there was a noticeable discrepancy in grappling ability (same for their UFC 168 fight) between the two combatants, Tate showed she could tag Rousey on the feet (even with some questionable technical striking ability), defend at least one of her deadly armbar attempts and even take her back. Even in a losing effort to a bitter enemy, Miesha showed the world that she's determined, resilient and you better believe she will leave absolutely everything in that cage.
Let me quickly put this to you: Miesha Tate didn't 'earn' her rematch and first (currently only) UFC title shot. She stepped in for the injured Cat Zingano (who defeated her via TKO months earlier) both for The Ultimate Fighter and the title fight. Who on earth else would have wanted all that? At that time, I don't believe anyone was really prepared to step up. And would the UFC have been confident whoever stepped up would have drawn the viewership Rousey vs. Tate could?
That UFC 168 fight is thought of as completely one-sided, by most. But I feel this is a short-sighted, and unfair view of things. I've watched the fight countless times. Forget this whole 'Miesha's the only one to take her into the third round' thing you often hear for a moment. Consider what happened during those 10 minutes and 58 seconds these beautiful, badass warriors were locked in the Octagon together. Rousey used her elite judo to take Tate to the ground with relative ease, multiple times. She landed considerably more strikes. No arguments against those two facts. But what did Tate do? While upright, she caught Rousey (particularly with hooks) multiple times with punches. Not concussive, knockdown punches. But pretty notable ones, especially when you consider Rousey's outspoken striking coach likely thought she offered nothing in that particular department. She took Rousey down. She reversed her. She got out of bad spots and back to her feet. She defended an armbar attempt.
Listen: I'm not disputing that Rousey won both rounds and the fight pretty handily, or even that she might not have been at her best herself that night due to a shortened camp (Expendables 3 filming); I'm disputing that it was a one-sided beatdown like (for instance) Joanna Champion vs. Esparza was. No, it wasn't a back-and-forth war like Jones vs Gustafsson either. But go back and listen to what the champion herself said about Miesha after the fight. She knows she had to work hard for that win. Now if only Tate had more strength and power for the third fight....who knows what could happen. She's already been written off (completely understandable when you've lost twice to an opponent), but you won't find many in the sport more driven and determined than 'Cupcake'. You also won't find many who are more underestimated and disrespected, unfortunately.
August 21st, 2015.
Ronda Rousey announces on Good Morning America that she will be facing Holly Holm, not Miesha Tate, on January 2nd 2016 to defend her title. The MMA world reacts. And when the MMA reacts, boy does it react. So, the number 9-ranked (that's one place below Bethe Correia) Women's Bantamweight gets a title shot after two decision wins in the UFC, neither of which has ever sniffed the top 10. But that's not all! The UFC lacks the courtesy to inform Miesha Tate or her management of this change in plans. Nope. She finds out like us fight fans did. Did she deserve better? Of course she did. It's an indisputable fact that she's lost to Rousey twice. That she is a company woman through-and-through, and gives up lots of her time to promote herself and the organisation she works for, should also be an indisputable fact, too.
The Final Diagnosis and What The Division Needs
Holly Holm getting a title shot over the number 1 contender is merely a symptom of a wider problem in this 135-pound Women's division. It's the second time in a row someone towards the bottom end of the top 10 has got a title shot. It's the second time in a row someone with no particularly notable wins has got a title shot. But look a little deeper: the UFC clearly regards the Women's Bantamweight division as a one-woman show. Yes, she's an incredible champion that transcends the sport and has rapidly become a superstar. Yes, she's shown she's head-and-shoulders above everyone else in her division. But why doesn't the organisation do more to promote the rest of the division? In Rousey's own words: 'I need a dance partner'. She fought an undefeated Olympian and the UFC didn't exactly go above and beyond with anything to promote it. Of course, Sara McMann's quiet, humble, privacy-seeking demeanour didn't exactly help matters. As it happens, Holm appears to have a very similar demeanour. Will she get the promotional push she needs, or will it continue to be a one-woman show? Will those celebrities who appear seemingly out of nowhere to watch this superstar know all about Holm's boxing pedigree and accomplishments? Will they have watched her two previous UFC fights?
Sean Shelby is responsible for matchmaking in all divisions from Featherweight down. I am of the opinion that he needs help with the two women's divisions, or someone else altogether should be tasked with that job. As a fight fan, how often do you find yourself scratching your head at a Strawweight or Bantamweight booking? How often do you see frustrated women campaigning on social media for fights? How often do you see healthy, motivated female fighters going long periods of time without fights booked? (Just to add, I doubt Mr Shelby had much to do with Rousey vs Holm being made).
The bottom line: Ronda Rousey (as well as her male counterpart, in terms of 'moving the needle', Conor McGregor) is papering over a considerable a number of cracks that keep appearing. Yes, her Pay Per Views will do incredible numbers. Yes, celebrities will salivate over her and excitedly tweet about the history they are watching that night. But if the UFC is going to have an official rankings system, they should attach more importance to those nearer to the top of it when it comes to title shots being handed out. They should also remember that there are plenty of women in Ronda Rousey's division who want what she has: in addition to their ultimate goal of that shiny gold strap; they want fights booked, some promotion, some fairness and some loyalty. After all, like Ronda Rousey - they're human beings who put their health on the line for our entertainment. I hope their employers appreciate them like many of us do.