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Top MMA storylines of 2016: 8. Ronda Rousey’s absence, 135-pound rollercoaster

Ronda Rousey UFC 193 Media Day
Ronda Rousey
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For all the UFC’s financial success this year — and by all accounts, it was the promotion’s best 12 months ever — there was one key cog missing: Ronda Rousey.

The UFC’s biggest mainstream star, the Hollywood supernova, the face of the sport and one of the most dominant champions ever was off the radar. If you wanted to see Rousey, you had to tune in to “Saturday Night Live” in January or “Ellen” in February or Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue.

Ronda Rousey Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When Rousey does finally get back in the Octagon, at UFC 207, it’ll be about 24 hours before the calendar turns to 2017.

Rousey’s loss to Holly Holm via knockout in November 2015 was one of the biggest storylines of last year, a stunning fall for someone who ran roughshod over the women’s bantamweight division for almost three years. Afterward, she put herself into exile. Rousey told Ellen DeGeneres that she contemplated suicide immediately after her first MMA defeat in a shocking interview.

Rousey, 29, went away for a while after that. And honestly, it was a much-needed and well-deserved break for her. Because not only was Rousey running through opponents, she was constantly moving — from fights to promoting fights to filming movies to shooting commercials to writing a book.

In an interview with ESPN that published last week, Rousey admitted being exhausted before the fight with Holm. It’s obvious why.

She fought in August 2015, knocking out Bethe Correia in 34 seconds in an emotional rivalry matchup. Rousey was supposed to fight Holm in January 2016, but when the UFC lost a main event for UFC 193 inside a stadium in Australia, the promotion tabbed one of its meal tickets. And Rousey so rarely said no.

“No” is now Rousey’s word of choice. She’s not doing much promotion ahead of her return fight with Amanda Nunes for the women’s bantamweight title Dec. 30, sticking to the big talk shows and high-profile print interviews. She also decided to forego a main event slot at the UFC’s first show in New York City to give herself more time to prepare.

Rousey reportedly feels scorned by the media and fans. She probably feels like she gave so much of herself and has only gotten criticism and vitriol in return. It’s the hard lesson of celebrity. What’s that Batman cliché about dying a hero or living long enough to see yourself become the villain?

In Rousey’s absence, the 135-pound women’s division — the one created for her by the UFC — went into upheaval. Holm lost the belt at UFC 196 in March to Miesha Tate. Tate dropped it to Nunes at UFC 200 in July. The gold bauble has been something of a hot potato.

UFC 196 photos
Miesha Tate chokes out Holly Holm at UFC 196 to become women’s bantamweight champion.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Which brings us back to Rousey. Somehow, 2016 has a chance to end with her back in place as the UFC women’s bantamweight champion. For a year marked by the conspicuousness of her absence, it could all come to an end with her once again being the big story, a comeback for the ages.

Of course, it all has to fall that way. Rousey still has to beat the fearsome Nunes after beating back all the reporters trying to stick a microphone in her face in the lead up.

Rousey told DeGeneres recently that she’s in the final stretch of her short but legendary fighting career. There’s probably a chance that, win or lose, this will be the last time we see Rousey in the cage, where, criticisms aside, she has been nothing short of brilliant.

If so, it’ll be a shame. Not for her; she’ll be fine. But for us. Someone like Rousey doesn’t come along very often in MMA, if ever.

Whether she fights again in 2017 or not, she’ll be a part of the conversation. It’ll either be “There’s Ronda!” or “Where’s Ronda?” That goes for next year and beyond.

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