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UFC 207 fighters react to Ronda Rousey’s media refusal: ‘This could open the floodgates’

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LAS VEGAS — If 2016 was the year of chaos, and good lord it most certainly was, then it is only fitting that it ends with a fight week every bit as bizarre as the 12 months that preceded it. And UFC 207 is nothing if not bizarre.

For the first time in a long time, the pageantry of fight week has seemingly been replaced by dead air. The mainstays of the UFC’s promotional routine — open workouts, pre-fight press conferences, monolithic staredowns — are nowhere to be found on the Las Vegas Strip. Instead, they have been replaced by murmurs and whispers, 10-second sound bytes and swiped photos of the ghost that MMA has been missing for 13 months. Dana White even held an old-school media scrum on Wednesday, the UFC president holding court for the first time in two years, not because he wanted to, but because Ronda Rousey’s absence has left an unavoidable void in a show that should’ve been a guaranteed blockbuster.

It’s a curious situation for the UFC. What do you do with a headliner so staunchly opposed to hype in a game so staunchly driven by hype? If nothing else, it remains a awkward look, considering that the only other prizefighter out there right now to rival Rousey’s superstar stature was pulled from a similarly blockbuster event just eight months ago for refusing to attend one single press conference. Such an offense looks awfully slight in comparison to what the UFC’s New Year’s celebration has become.

But yet, this isn’t much of a surprise either. Rousey’s return was never going to be normal. The familiarity of routine was never going to feel right after the slow burn of the past 13 months, after the fight world watched as seemingly every positive narrative around the sport’s first true mainstream star flipped itself on its head then lit itself afire.

So at least for UFC 207 co-headliner Dominick Cruz — whose pay-per-view points make him one of the only fighters to actually be financially impacted by Rousey’s terms — this grand spectacle, or lack thereof, makes all the sense in the world, even if it wouldn’t be his first choice.

“I understand it,” said Cruz. “This isn’t easy, what I’m doing here. It’s not easy what any of us have to do as fighters. We’re one of the only sports in the world that’s forced to do as much media as we do have to do, and go out there and compete at the highest level in the world or else you get your head kicked off your shoulders. And that’s the missing link, is a lot of these other athletes are playing games. This is not a game. This is life or death. I’m going to war in two days, a day-and-a-half, and so that can wear on people’s minds.

“Then you add to the fact that you’ve got all these cameras and everybody wants a piece of you, and everybody’s calling you and saying they want to be your friend and want to cut your hair, want you to wear their stuff and want you to be on their Instagram posts. It can wear on you. So, each person has their own path. Ronda was a judo Olympian, and I doubt she had even an ounce of this (media) work in front of her to become the judoka that she is, and I think that she’s just getting back to her roots. And you can’t blame somebody for that who’s been the best in the world at anything.”

Cruz was not alone in his understanding. Nearly all of the fighters made available for UFC 207 media day appreciated in some capacity where Rousey is coming from. Several of them disagreed with the UFC granting her such an unprecedented concession, some vehemently so, but they all at least understood. Fighting is already a difficult endeavor, and it is rare to find any athlete who enjoys facing the music to the media after a dramatic loss.

But what was most telling was that Rousey’s absence stirred equal parts respect as much as umbrage, and several fighters noted the implications of what this could mean moving forward.

“I think they’re opening the floodgates for more fighters to start doing this,” said former bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw, who fights John Lineker on the main card of UFC 207. “They are creating fighters to be bigger than the UFC. Dana has always said that no one fighter can be bigger than the promotion, and it’s happening. Look at Conor McGregor, he makes his own decisions. He does what he wants. He gets the fights that he wants. Ronda’s not having to show up to media when she doesn’t want to. So, who knows? What if Jon Jones comes back and doesn’t want to do this stuff? He’s big enough to where he could say no. They are creating these big names that, this could open the floodgates for people to do what they want.”

White asserted several times on Wednesday that this was only a one-time thing, even for Rousey, and that she would be doing all of her usual media for her next fight — if that time were to ever come. He also demurred at the idea that the UFC having relented on this issue for the first time in its history could set the stage for future refusals from major stars. If somebody wants to miss a press conference, White declared, they’re still going to be pulled from a card, no ifs, ands, or buts.

But now more than ever, policies previously thought to be mandatory have been skewed when the situation calls for it under the brief reign of WME-IMG, and it’s clear that the dollar has never mattered more when it comes to the rules of the Octagon.

“For her to just say, ‘hey, you know what, I might need to sit this out and focus on my fight,’ I respect that 100-percent,” said Neil Magny, who fights on the undercard of UFC 207. “She built her platform to be able to do that. I’m in a position where I’m trying to get to where she’s at. So for me, the media obligations and things like that are important for me. I need to be here talking to the fans. I need to be here talking with the media. I need to be here engaging with everyone in order to build my fanbase, things like that. So I don’t see it as being disrespectful at all. I actually congratulate her for being able to do so.”

“She’s kind of footing the bill for most of us,” agreed UFC 207 main-carder Louis Smolka. “I mean, people are paying to watch her fight. They’re not paying to watch us fight. Some people might be, but pretty much everyone is here to watch Ronda fight, so we’re basically getting paid because of her. So I don’t mind. She can do whatever she wants.”

That line of thinking is not uncommon, or even incorrect — the belief that this still is The Ronda Rousey Show, as White once famously said upon opening the first UFC women’s division. Because of it, Rousey’s opponent on Dec. 30, reigning bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, has been thrust into the background in the days ahead of the biggest fight of her life.

Nunes, like Cruz, has a pay-per-view stake in the success of UFC 207, so Rousey’s lack of promotion could very well hurt the champion’s wallet in the long run.

But for now, that is simply one ‘what if’ among hundreds. And if 2016 has taught us anything, it is that everything we think we know about the fight game could very well be completely and totally wrong. The time will come to find out soon enough.

“I think it’s creating more mystique behind Ronda,” Cruz said. “I mean, she’s been gone how long? She’s huge already. She is the face of women’s mixed martial arts. You can’t word it any other way. People want to see how she comes back. And then it almost adds a different level of curiosity, in the fact of will she come back better without all this media in her face. You tell me. If these cameras where switched and pointing at you in the face, how much would you all cheese up? I guarantee you wouldn’t say a word. Your face would turn red, you’d start sweating, and you guys would probably need some deodorant. So, the point is, it’s hard. And maybe it’ll make her better.”