Women's MMA can be a strange thing sometimes. It's a mix of some great talents, some inexperienced fighters, an internal conflict of selling sex vs. athleticism and a constant self-evaluation of where the sport is to date.
That's why I've been so fascinated as to what's happened this week following Ronda Rousey's much-discussed victory at Strikeforce Challengers and the subsequent fallout from her post-fight callout of current 135-pound champion Miesha Tate.
In case you missed it, Rousey (4-0) continued her dominant run with a 39-second armbar win over Julia Budd. In four fights, the 24-year-old Rousey has needed just over two minutes combined to garner four armbar submission wins. Following the win over Budd, she said she wanted Tate and would even fight top contender Sarah Kaufman first to prevent anything from messing that up.
The Rousey victory went viral within MMA circles, an impressive kickoff to one of the best MMA weekends in years. In just her fourth pro fight, Rousey was put in the co-main event slot and is the only thing anyone is talking about from a show that featured four quick finishes (even with virtually no one watching).
This set off a bit of a firestorm within the women's MMA community with many current fighters unhappy with the attention Rousey got, ripping the idea that she's the new 'face of women's MMA' and that she was brazen enough to suggest she be given a title shot at this stage of her career. Tate, in particular, has been on the Twitter offensive most of the week about the possibility of Rousey getting an opportunity this soon in her career.
Here's where my fascination turns into advice: people want to see Tate vs. Rousey and women's MMA needs it to happen.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there simply isn't the widespread market for women's MMA as some of those competing within it may think. If you need some proof, take a look at the recent activity for five of the most well-known names:
- Gina Carano: The former 'face of women's MMA' last competed over two years ago, teased a 2011 comeback and is preparing to revel in the spotlight of her first major movie role.
- Cris Santos: The current Strikeforce 145-pound champion finally has a fight booked in December against Hiroko Yamanaka, who makes her promotional debut and therefore will be unknown to most watching. Santos hasn't fought since June of 2010 because, well, they didn't have anyone for her to fight.
- Liz Carmouche in July and may have earned a title shot against Tate with the win…we think. It's been five months and nothing has been mentioned, said or discussed about it since then. : After losing her Strikeforce 135-pound title in October 2010, the Canadian was last seen beating up
- Tate: Since defeating Marloes Coenen in late-July for the 135-pound title, there's nary been a mention of her on Strikeforce either. She's apparently healthy and there's been events, so apparently they forgot about her as well.
- Coenen: After losing her title and being cut from Strikeforce due to the Golden Glory fiasco, she signed a deal with a regional promotion and may debut early next year. How Zuffa didn't bring her back or Bellator not make an offer, I'm not quite sure.
The above are just five names that don't include Tara LaRosa (one of the more well-known names that has never appeared in Strikeforce or Bellator), Zoila Frausto-Gurgel (current Bellator champion that is hurt) and...who else that the casual MMA fan might have possible heard of? When one of your main names is someone that is essentially retired, that's a problem for women's MMA. It can be fixed and I have a potential solution, but more on that later this week.
Of course, the promotions aren't exactly making an effort to build female challengers either. We know what the UFC and Dana White's stance is on female fighters. Bellator has shown exactly one female fight on air this season. Strikeforce has aired a small handful of fights in 2011, but it may be less than five. There are talents out there, but no one is willing to put the effort in to build anything on the mainstream stage.
Given all of that information, women's MMA needs any help it can get to sustain itself and draw interest when it has the opportunity to do so. That's why Tate vs. Rousey needs to happen as it's the only fight other than a rematch of Santos/Carano that would pop any type of viewer rating and ultimately, the viewers and paying public drive the sport. (Yes, Carano is retired but she's still a star. Deal with it.)
So what about Tate/Kaufman, you ask?
I would be interested in seeing it, but I'm a hardcore fan at heart that watches every UFC, Strikeforce and Bellator show regardless of quality. I really don't count in this equation. Kaufman has earned the opportunity to get a title shot, but there's a reason why we haven't seen it. It's because Strikeforce doesn't see the value as there's no steam behind seeing these two go at it. Tate can talk up a fight but Kaufman has practically disappeared from the MMA public eye. She's talented, but she doesn't have that "come see me fight!" charisma that can make or break a career. Why else would Strikeforce just abandon a recent champion like this?
If and when Strikeforce is interested in promoting a Tate title fight, they will likely look to Rousey, who has that charisma, the good looks that bring in the 18-34 male demographic, the Olympic background that attracts mainstream media and plenty of steam behind her thanks to how she's winning. That might not be fair to "rankings" but c'mon now. Everyone knows there is no such thing as rankings in the UFC or Strikeforce. It's about what draws interest with a nod toward win streaks and competitive fights. To think otherwise is naive.
Unfair? Yep. That's the fight game. Ask Carlos Condit about fairness. Tate should be thrilled that there's a legit buzz about a challenger to her belt and that she might actually get to defend it someday. I asked her about this on Twitter and while she said her pay stays the same no matter who she fights, she felt it would be a buzzkill to have the fight so soon without having more hype behind it. By 'more hype', I assume she meant more wins for Rousey, but in this situation, I think that's irrelevant which leads into my final point.
People need to stop complaining about Rousey calling out the champion.
That's what she should be doing. Doing the meek "Well, I'll take anyone Strikeforce has to give me" is boring and doesn't get anyone anywhere. She's been running through opponents at a blistering pace and took an opportunity in a co-main event spot to move the needle. People are now talking about her and are talking about women's MMA. In other words, it worked.
Lest we forget another title challenger in 2008 that many said was underqualified for a title shot. That person was just 2-1 and got a shot at one of the biggest names in MMA for one of the biggest prizes in the sport. That person was Brock Lesnar and he did just fine in beating Randy Couture for the UFC Heavyweight Championship.
While no one is suggesting Rousey will be anywhere the level of draw Lesnar is, the UFC knew they had something and he jumped the line in front of a few more qualified contenders thanks to a fanbase that wanted to see him fight and with the athletic background to back it up. Rousey getting a shot after just four pro bouts isn't unprecedented and frankly, women's MMA could use the attention.
It might not be fair, but it's business. The alternative of women's MMA disappearing from all major promotions is much worse.