Ronda Rousey And The UFC's Long Con

A few thoughts, in no particular order, on last night's UFC fight card, which featured Ronda Rousey's successful defense of the bantamweight title against Sara McMann and Daniel Cormier knocking out a guy from off the street:

1) The UFC is, in essence, a professional wrestling promotion. Its business strategy—the construction of a cult of personality around a vulgar, authoritarian frontman; the use of mainly disposable talent that has most of the obligations and few of the benefits of employees; the way it's aimed principally at cultish devotees—is derived from the WWE model. Its matchmaking, company higher-ups freely concede in private, is patterned after that of old-school wrestling, oriented more around building up marketable characters than finding out who the best fighters in the various weight classes are. Many of its biggest stars, from Ken Shamrock to Brock Lesnar, have been professional wrestlers. Most significant of all, it sells the exact same fantasy of consequence-free violence.

This, as much as anything else (and there is a lot of anything else), probably explains the public revulsion to the sport. While the UFC promotes itself as a successor to boxing, it's in fact an evolutionary variant of something that is, at its core, a kind of confidence game. Boxing, as ugly and corrupt as it can be, is a sport that involves a great deal of athletic spectacle. Fighting, at least as presently sold, is the precise opposite, a contrived spectacle based mainly on what can be sold to whom that almost incidentally happens to involve a sport.

2) What makes the UFC worth following despite all of this is that the deceit happens to work in service of an intricate, occasionally beautiful sport that has, as it's grown, drawn in an ever-larger number of world-class athletes. The implicit promise the promotion makes to fans is that in exchange for everything awful—the nü-metal demands to face the pain and step to this, the corrupt and co-opted press, the increasingly thin cards featuring poorly tattooed try-hards and semi-athletes, the disrespect shown even the greatest fighters once they seem to have exhausted their usefulness, and so on—they'll keep the signal separate from the noise and present contests that are, at their best, as compelling as anything any other sport can offer.

3) What was so irritating about Saturday night's card was the way it violated this implicit bargain. The sell was that the top two bouts would feature three Olympians, which is to say that they would present genuinely sophisticated fighting. The truth was that they featured Ronda Rousey and Daniel Cormier—two of the more gifted fighters the sport has to offer—in against overmatched competition. The issue, in other words, was less that the most heavily promoted fights were terrible than that they were designed to be that way. They amounted to a bait-and-switch, a con; these fights involved the promotion playing the public for suckers.

4) The main event was the less bad of the two, if just because while Sara McMann, an Olympic medalist in wrestling who hasn't had enough experience to evolve from a wrestler into a fighter, wasn't a viable contender, she was at least vaguely credible. The problem wasn't that she lost—that was inevitable—but how.

Rousey is the biggest star in the sport and more or less the ideal fighter. She's a technically proficient freak athlete who's smart enough to understand that her role is to play the villain, and charismatic enough to do so. Her bouts, which always feature outmatched opponents because she's operating on a different level than any other woman in her weight class, tend to work less as athletic contests than as psychodramas, matching her against bro-ish ideas of what a woman can and should be. Before Saturday every one of them ended decisively, with her making her opponent quit.

McMann was probably headed that way, but didn't get the chance. Less than a minute into the fight, after walking through some awfully hard shots, Rousey had her backed up against the cage and taking knees to the liver, a brutal technique that can completely shut a fighter's body down. When one landed perfectly, McMann collapsed, Rousey started reeling off shots as she lay prone on the canvas, and referee Herb Dean stepped in to call it off, as McMann was getting up.

From one angle, there was nothing much wrong here: McMann's body had shut down, if only momentarily, and you want a referee to err on the side of caution and call fights too early rather than too late. From another, though, this was a purportedly major fight that ended in a quick, confusing, and seemingly arbitrary botch. If the unsatisfying outcome wasn't exactly the UFC's fault—it has nothing to do with the officiating, which is the province of state commissions—it still felt like the one it deserved, having matched its biggest star with someone who had basically no chance of doing anything against her.

5) If the main event left a sour aftertaste, that may well have been because the fight that preceded it was a joke, featuring former Olympic wrestling captain Daniel Cormier—the top contender in two weight classes, and the one fighter perhaps most feared by other fighters—in against a barista.

The back story here is ridiculous. It involves Cormier's original opponent dropping out due to injury, and the UFC swapping in Pat Cummins, a part-time coffee shop worker and former collegiate wrestler who's struggled against bar fighter-level opposition on the regional circuits, after he volunteered on Twitter. Broadly, the hook was that Cummins was Rocky Balboa; specifically, it was that Cormier—whose infant daughter had recently died, and who was working 21-minute drills that involved him taking on a fresh man every three minutes—had broken down crying while training against Cummins in the run up to the 2004 Olympics. All of this was dumb and awful, and so was the fight, which lasted just more than a minute and consisted mainly of Cummins looking for a safe place to land once Cormier was done mauling him.

6) These fights were insulting, and so was the way they were promoted. It was insulting that whoever runs their Twitter account decided to pass along Marlon Wayans's stated wish to smell Rousey's gloves and feet, and it was insulting that announcer Joe Rogan went on, as she made her way out to the cage, about how beautiful she is, just as it was insulting that they decided to match Cormier against some guy, and that promotional figurehead Dana White insisted that the some guy in question had every chance of winning because anything can happen in the UFC. In all, it amounted to saying that the sport is random, that the skill and talent of top fighters don't matter, and that there's no real point to any of it past hustling the public into the tent.

7) In the end, though, the public gets what it deserves. The UFC is different from other promotional entities in its adversarial relationship with its own athletes, its contempt for the public, and its belief in a crude version of the efficient-markets hypothesis, but the differences are of degree, not kind. In better and worse ways, fighting is like any other sport, only more so: a reductio ad absurdum, a living thought experiment in what would happen if we took everything that's cheap and cynical and coarsening about modern sports and made it a bit cheaper and more cynical and even more coarsening, and then sold tickets. Would the public still turn up? Apparently so; and as much as you might like to think that it's in spite of, not because of, it's probably not.

Photo via Associated Press