One year ago, Ronda Rousey made her heavily-hyped UFC debut, which was basically promoted as The Ronda Rousey Show, Featuring Ronda Rousey—The Girl Who's Just Like A Bro, Bro—And Some Other Lady, Who Will Be Fighting Ronda Rousey. With the UFC returning to this well ahead of Rousey's bantamweight title defense against Sara McMann this weekend, it's a good time to look back at Tomas Rios's piece on the subject from last year. (McMann, incidentally, is actually pretty interesting—an Olympic medalist in wrestling who's admirably unconcerned about her personal brand—and was the subject of a nice piece by ESPN's Kate Fagan that you can read here.)
The UFC would like very much for you to care about its women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, and you probably should. She is, beyond being quite good at hurting people, nothing short of fascinating. There really is no other explanation for how a once-anonymous Olympic judoka, who then transitioned to the equally far-out-on-the-fringe sport of women's MMA, could have garnered attention from mainstream attention-purveyors as diverse as Sports Illustrated, TMZ, ESPN, and Conan O'Brien.
Most of Rousey's appeal is not quite revolutionary, and not at all hard to understand. She's uniquely skilled at her profession and has the personality to keep folks from tuning out the second she's done tourniqueting the arm ligaments of whatever poor soul had the misfortune of being locked in a cage with her. That last bit is an exceedingly rare talent in the age of the athlete as dead-eyed corporate cipher, and a talent that was on full display in Rousey's breakout fight, a graphic first-round armbar submission of Strikeforce's women's bantamweight champion at the time, Miesha Tate.
That's how all of Rousey's six professional fights have gone thus far. Tate managed the anomalous feat of making it past the first minute of the first round and remains the only person to do so. All she got for her troubles was a dislocated elbow, which was oddly impressive given that this is what Rousey did to her arm. Again, Rousey is really fucking good at hurting people.
With the image of Tate's arm bent twice at unnatural right angles still fresh in the minds of viewers, Rousey's post-fight interview began with a tear-jerking paean to her deceased father before segueing into a callous dismissal of any guilt over her arm-mangling ways and a parting shot at Tate that branded her a cowardly choke artist. Pro wrestling heels spend their careers struggling to capture a fraction of the emotional complexity and go-fuck-yourself-ness that Rousey summoned at will. So yeah: a star was born.
It's just too bad that the UFC has no idea what to do with her. This is a bit of a problem given that she makes her UFC debut Saturday night in a defense of her freshly minted UFC title against Liz Carmouche, the first women's match in UFC history.
None of this is surprising given what the UFC is and what it's selling and for what kind of male insecurities it acts as a salve. Watching Rousey or any other female mixed martial artist raises an uncomfortable reality for the men who line the UFC's pockets—namely that women can be amazing athletes who are fully capable of sticking your dick in the dirt at a moment's notice. Luckily, the UFC and compliant media have already devised and executed an end-around whatever gender discomfort a female mixed martial artist may inspire. They turned Ronda Rousey into a bro.
This … something by Yahoo's Dan Wetzel captures the gist of that end-around quite nicely. Over the course of however many words Wetzel wastes pretending to know the subject he's writing about, a narrative emerges that paints UFC's president, Dana White, as the noble Bro King who plucked Rousey from obscurity to be his fair Bro Queen. Think along the lines of every Maxim bro-babe interview a young, up-and-coming actress has ever been wrangled into and you're basically there. Talented women like Rousey live in a society that demands women put the comfort of men first and foremost. The quease factor is only enhanced by the fact that this whole Bro Queen narrative is plainly bullshit—Rousey made her name in Strikeforce, not just among hardcore fans, but a mainstream audience as well thanks to the now-defunct promotion's broadcast deal with Showtime.
Beyond all that general bullshit, White also says Rousey is "a guy in a woman's body," plainly equating masculinity with athleticism and echoing the lazy, gendered assumptions that render women's sports as a sort of quaint distaff pantomime of the real thing. White even expressed discomfort with the very idea of women fighting. Wetzel, like virtually everyone else who has filed a piece on Rousey in the past two weeks, not only allows this sexist mythmaking to go by unchallenged, but comes up just short of sanctifying White for his newly enlightened viewpoints on women in sports. Meanwhile, Carmouche is all but ignored since there isn't enough bullshit in the world to make an out lesbian who did three tours of military duty in the Middle East palatable to dudes who wear Affliction t-shirts.
Taken in as a whole, it all amounts to some bald guy taking credit for the success of women. Sure, the ladies will get their pat on the rear for a job well done, but they'll know enough to make sure they stay in line with the UFC's preferred narrative. Regardless of gender, breaking kayfabe with the UFC is a fine way to fuck your money up and most of the fighters the UFC has under contract don't make enough to begin with.
This whole sad spectacle is playing out in agonizing real time and it's all being done for the sake of making a bunch of insecure man-children OK with the idea that women can do something other than the laundry. Functioning as a safe haven for the insecure male is obviously not the only hook the UFC has since there are the fights, which are sometimes quite good and worth watching as long as you mute the commentary. But the UFC has always put a premium on brand identity at the expense of sporting legitimacy. In a marketplace dominated by the NFL, NBA, MLB, and other powerful sounding acronyms, the UFC has engineered its success by appealing to non-sports fans. The gist of that appeal is the aggressively bro-ish brand identity that the company is, for better and worse, married to for as long as bros will bro. Proof can be readily summoned by watching literally any UFC show, but the fact that it took a Fox broadcasting deal for the UFC to stop using this and this as its stock intro says what needs to be said. The end result of all this mess is a vocal majority of fans who resemble the bastard offspring of Reddit's men's-rights crusaders and the fedora-and-goggles-clad denizens of any pick-up-artist forum. Having covered a few UFC shows, I can report that it's a bit of a bummer to witness firsthand.
How exactly Rousey and women's MMA fits into the sporting equivalent of NO MA'AM, if at all, is a question the UFC isn't so much struggling to answer as failing to address. Dana White effectively abdicated his role as a promoter of women's MMA by declaring that the entirety of the product is "The Ronda Rousey Show"—a fact rammed home by the UFC's bare-bones roster of female fighters and the promotion's failure to secure the services of Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos, who is maybe the only person anyone is truly interested in seeing Rousey fight. The UFC's habit of taking ugly contract negotiations public and making them even uglier certainly did not help the process along.
So, the sport will live or die based on Rousey's ability to make an overwhelmingly male audience care about her and her alone. That's the same overwhelmingly male audience conditioned to view a woman's role in MMA as ring-card holder slash bulwark against the overt homoeroticism of two near-naked men getting all up in each other's business.
This tactic is no different from what Don King did with women's boxing in the early '90s by making Christy Martin the sport's star and lining her up to face anonymous opponents no one cared about. The WWE and WCW mimicked that approach with Debrah Miceli all through the same decade. Considering no one cares about women's professional boxing or wrestling, the UFC's willingness to go down this path speaks volumes about how little it's considered the self-imposed obstacles it now faces.
A possible solution came when the UFC and Fox chose to make Rousey and her opponent-to-be Carmouche the subjects of a UFC Primetime documentary. To their collective credit, the series has been met with justifiably positive reviews. Both fighters are shown to be actual human beings with compelling stories to share—a quantum leap for the UFC in terms of storytelling. However, the series airs late-night on Fuel TV, which is more or less the same as not airing it at all. So instead of hearing Rousey tell the story of her father's suicide or Carmouche talk about being an openly lesbian mixed-martial artist, the vast majority of fans are getting nothing but "Hey, Ronda Rousey is a good sports person and you should watch her do sports because UFC. Also, face the pain and step to this … bro." I'm sure whoever came up with "They'll break more than your heart" as the tagline is awfully fucking proud of themselves.
If Martin and Miceli are any indication, this is just not going to work. There will be buzz because women fighting remains something of a cultural taboo and a curio in any case, but what happens after the initial interest fades is the real measure of success. The UFC already comes off as more than a bit of a sideshow and its shouting-heads live production is an instant turn-off to anyone not already part of the fold. As for those already in the fold, these are the same people who laugh when fighters make rape jokes. That's not a demographic that seems ready to process the idea that a female fighter deserves the same respect a male fighter gets by default.
Strikeforce, the promotion that nurtured Rousey's starpower, had the good sense to invest in developing a roster of female fighters and capitalizing when Rousey emerged as the fan favorite. The UFC signed her, put a title belt on her waist, and then placed the burden of its promotional responsibilities entirely on her shoulders. Now she's headlining a $45 pay-per-view event with no proven draws backing her up. Oh, and the buying audience is mostly non-traditional sports fans with little, if any, interest in women's sports.
Rousey is good enough and interesting enough to be the person remembered for making women's MMA. It would be nice if the UFC remembered that it has a role to play in making that happen. If it doesn't, some solace can be taken in the fact that there will be fights and they might be quite good and worth watching. Just remember to mute the commentary.
Top image by Devin Rochford.