Some 15 minutes after leaving the Octagon at UFC 170 in Las Vegas, Ronda Rousey ran into UFC president Dana White backstage.
They were each in the midst of a lightning round of on-camera interviews, which is standard procedure these days following every UFC pay-per-view event. Rousey gave her patented, “aw shucks” smile while White commented on the fight.
The first thing he addressed, beyond an obvious congratulation, was the end of the fight. For those who didn’t see it, Rousey defended her UFC bantamweight title over Sara McMann via TKO in the first round. The finish came quickly, when Rousey caught McMann with a knee to the liver.
McMann doubled over and referee Herb Dean immediately stepped in. Milliseconds later, however, McMann stood back up, looking mostly recovered. It prompted an immediate reaction from fans and media alike that the fight was stopped early.
White, who has seen his share of liver kick/punch/knee knockouts wanted Rousey to know he felt the stoppage was justified. Plenty disagree, he said, but they don’t know what liver shots feel like.
I snapped a photo of the encounter between Rousey and White and posted it to Twitter, along with a brief description of what they were saying. The overwhelming reaction I got: Of course White is happy, he needs Rousey to win. She is the most protected fighter in mixed martial arts.
This idea that Rousey is being protected of a difficult fight has started to grow legs. It’s something that can happen in combat sports. Champs duck challengers. Promoters pad their fighters’ resumes -- groom them, if you will.
Is it happening with Rousey and the UFC, though? The answer is "no."
First, the UFC doesn’t have a history of “protecting” its champions. There are probably some individual cases we could argue about, but overall, the company isn’t known for that habit.
The best example of this is Brock Lesnar. Lesnar, a gift sent from the heavens. A pre-packaged heavyweight star with a perfect pay-per-view personality and a giant sword tattooed to his chest.
If there was ever a commodity the UFC should have kept entirely away from the wolves, it was Lesnar. They didn’t, though. He won the heavyweight title in 2008. His first defense was against a guy who had already beaten him in Frank Mir. Then he fought an undefeated, terrifying Shane Carwin, followed by the meat grinder that is known as Cain Velasquez. Then Alistair Overeem, who if you recall, fled the country when he was asked to provide a random drug test prior to the bout.
In short, the UFC doesn’t have a history of feeding champions easy fights.
Forget all that, though. The strongest arguments against the UFC protecting Rousey lie in the details of her first year as its champion.
Many point to White’s dismissive attitude of a potential fight between Rousey and Cristiane Justino, aka “Cyborg,” as evidence he’s shielding her from a potential loss. If it were that black and white, they might have a point -- but it’s not.
White tried to sign Justino to a unique contract last year, which would have kept her under Zuffa rights but allow her to stay busy in Invicta FC. According to White, Zuffa would have paid Justino’s fight purses even when she fought in Invicta.
What purpose did the UFC have for offering a deal like that? Simple: White knows how big a fight between Rousey and Justino would be. One year ago, he was willing to pay money just to keep the possibility of that fight alive.
Justino, at the advice of her manager Tito Ortiz, declined the offer and signed exclusively with Invicta. Not necessarily a bad move by the way, as we don’t know all the details of the UFC deal, in terms of finances and pay-per-view incentives.
But then one year later, White is asked about Justino (who picked his archenemy to be her manager and already turned down a UFC contract offer once) while he’s promoting a fight between Rousey and McMann. His response -- ranting about Justino’s drug suspension in 2011 and overall irrelevance -- was predictable.
It's very likely the UFC will try to make the Rousey-Justino fight happen. Whether or not it does happen relies on a lot of factors. I’m not throwing down a blanket defense of White here; but I’m saying in this situation, he’s done what any promoter would do.
He’s tried to direct attention toward fights that can exist in the UFC, while dismissing one that, right now, can’t.
Meanwhile, Rousey has fought the best the promotion has had to offer. Liz Carmouche might not have been an obvious choice as her first opponent, but history was being made and Carmouche had a good story. She fit the role.
Rousey’s next fight was supposed to be against Cat Zingano, who many think could give her a serious challenge. The fight didn’t happen due to injury and Zingano was replaced with Miesha Tate, who nearly beat her when they fought in April.
And last weekend, there was McMann. The fight was a blowout, but no one really knew that would be the case. I predicted Rousey to win by first-round armbar, but even so, I figured McMann would make it more difficult than she did.
There is no current bantamweight out there in the UFC who Rousey should have fought already and hasn’t. She’s expected to fight Zingano next, which is the most dangerous fight available. Who has she been protected from?
If the Justino fight happens, it should happen at bantamweight. There is no sense in the UFC having Rousey fight higher than 135 pounds if they don’t even have a 145-pound weight class.
If Rousey beats Zingano, Justino proves she can drop to 135 pounds and the UFC is still claiming that fight is irrelevant -- then you can say Rousey is being protected. Until then, I think she’s just so good, she’s making it seem that way.