Lack of rival hurts credibility
MMA is all about dominance
When Ronda Rousey trots into the Octagon on Saturday night, she will be an enormous favorite. The UFC bantamweight champion has defended her title three times, and only once has she been taken past the first round. As it concerns the general public, Rousey and her armbar are to modern women's MMA what Chuck Liddell and his Mohawk were to the UFC in 2005 and 2006: everything.
That rarified position is bad for Rousey, the UFC and women's MMA.
The Rousey brand is profitable, but in being the only marketable commodity in the sports landscape she occupies, Rousey and women's MMA are weakened by her lack of credible competition. Most great champions have benefited from a nemesis of equal or greater stature -- Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in boxing or Randy Couture and Liddell in MMA.
To be proved a once-in-a-lifetime talent, Rousey will need a female opponent to keep her skill set honest. Right now, there is no fighter available to test Rousey's grit. So for the foreseeable future, Rousey will have no equal. She's a great white shark circling Nantucket beachgoers.
The UFC knows where to find the next class of female fighter; it's the same place it found six of its eight male champions. Whether it's world silver medalist Helen Maroulis of the U.S. or 2012 Olympic champion Natalia Vorobieva of Russia, there are talented female wrestlers who would give Rousey and the UFC the type of antagonist deserving of the champ's talents.
These women won't flock from their current sports midcareer, and maybe they shouldn't, but the UFC and Rousey need the challengers to be selected, recruited and paid to compete in MMA. Rousey needs reasonable opponents to legitimize her talents.
Rousey deserves to be tested against real athletes with the ability to train up on the basics of armbar defense. If the UFC gives lifelong female wrestlers like Maroulis and Vorobieva the training, they will be the first to line up around the Octagon for their chance to challenge the champ. Until then, Rousey is too dominant for her own good and for the good of the sport.
It's a fair question, but one with only one defensible answer: absolutely not.
For starters, there is really no such thing as "too dominant" when it comes to MMA, a sport in which a single mistake can mean the difference between victory and unconsciousness. In other words, the second a fighter is not dominant, he or she is extremely vulnerable.
In terms of mass appeal, there is an argument that Ronda Rousey finishing off each and every one of her opponents via armbar in the first minute of a fight might be a bad thing. Unlike a Mike Tyson right hand, which was a visual spectacle even when you knew it was coming, an armbar isn't something a casual fan will likely fall in love with.
Each of Rousey's eight professional armbars has featured a unique technical setup, but to the untrained eye they can look identical. Asking a fan to purchase a $54.95 pay-per-view to see that result over and over again might turn into a difficult sell for the UFC.
One secret about Rousey some casual fans might be unaware of, however, is that she really is a fighter's fighter. Despite her looks, charisma and (we'll see) acting ability, she truly loves to step into a cage and fight. Because of that, she's not just a former U.S. Olympian catching armbars anymore. She's evolving.
She showcased that in her most recent title defense in February. Instead of locking up with another strong grappler in Sara McMann, Rousey didn't force a ground fight and knocked McMann out with a knee to the body 66 seconds in.
It was a quick finish that probably left some observers slightly unsatisfied, but it also opened a new world of appeal for Rousey as a fighter. An armbar finish is no longer a foregone formality.
Even if Rousey's dominance turns some of her audience away, she has made cameos in three Hollywood films with scheduled releases scattered over the next 12 months. Her appeal is only going to benefit from that kind of exposure.
And actually, her existence in Hollywood most likely depends on Rousey's continuing to dominate her day job. In a sport as dangerous as MMA and in a business as fluid as the film industry, being dominant is the only way to survive.