The decision to bring women into the UFC and put a strong PR push behind champion Ronda Rousey is the biggest risk the UFC has taken since leaving the comfy confines of Spike TV for the big horizons of broadcast television and Fox.
Whenever the UFC does something new, the haters and the doubters can be counted on to crawl out of the woodwork. Sometimes they wring their hands in faux concern, sometimes they just start throwing rocks and rotten tomatoes. Usually Kid Nate is right at the front of the pack, but not this time.
First let's hear from the worry-warts. Oh hey it's Ben Fowlkes reporting from the 'ZOMG what if Carmouche wins??' camp:
...when was the last time "Real Sports" did a piece all about one MMA fighter? When was the last time a 6-0 fighter had this kind of buzz, both within the MMA sphere and beyond? At some point, you're a superstar because enough people say you are.
It's just that, in a sport like professional fighting, it's a tricky thing to be a superstar all by yourself. And when you've got the entire women's division on your back, you're not the only with a stake in the outcome.
But as anyone who's followed MMA for any length of time already knows, things don't always go according to the script in the world of four-ounce gloves. Even superstars can get knocked out. Sometimes it feels like the more the promotion has riding on one particular fighter, the more likely it is that something terrible will happen to that person.
In this case though, it isn't just the UFC that has a lot of eggs in the Ronda basket - it's women's MMA as a whole. If you believe that Rousey is the "brightest rising star" in all of MMA, that would make her far and away the most important female fighter in the world. She's the reason why even those people who generally don't care about women's MMA will end up caring about it on Saturday night.
Fowlkes has a valid enough point that Rousey herself felt compelled to rebut it at the UFC 157 media call (transcribed by MMA Weekly):
"I love the fact that even before this fight has happened that they're already scheduling more girl fights, so all the people that think, oh the outcome of this fight determines the future of the women's division, well it's obviously not true. They're already investing in a longer-term vision of what they have for the girls that are (hitting home)."
Count Zach Arnold amongst the skeptics who consider Rousey an MMA novelty act ala Kimbo Slice or Gina Carano:
We're witnessing Rousey go the Danica Patrick route in terms of appealing to the masses and low-information MMA fans. The kind of soap opera we're seeing with Danica Patrick is what we're seeing now with Rousey. The difference, of course, is that Rousey is far more accomplished in her sport than Danica is in her sport. However, it's the same playbook. Ronda talks sex symbolism and sex before fights and testosterone... and Danica Patrick spends years and years doing endless Go Daddy sexploitation commercials that the Darren Rovells and Michelle Beadles of the world applaud for because, hey, you can't take yourself too seriously and you need that crossover marketing going on.
I will be fascinated to see how well Rousey's fight draws on PPV given the absolute media saturation going on. I can't recall a UFC fight getting so many ad barker plays on Comcast and satellite dish ad time segments as I can for this fight. At least you can't say that UFC didn't go all-in on Rousey and that there isn't a complicit media to help them along with the marketing push. I would be interested to see how UFC fans compare the way Rousey is being marketed versus the way Gary Shaw marketed Gina Carano and Kimbo Slice.
Here's the deal fellas, the UFC is playing the long game with Rousey. The positive PR she's generated has been a huge boon for the organization. Whereas previous mainstream press attention has focused on MMA as a novelty, now the novelty is that a woman is making her mark in the sport. The important thing about that is that it normalizes MMA as something men have been doing for a while. That's crucial.
The UFC is in a crucial post-fad phase of their growth arc. The combination of the Fox TV deal which puts MMA on the mainstream sports menu of millions of sports fans four times a year and Rousey becoming the media face of the organization means that mixed martial arts is now just a part of the American sports landscape and that's a huge win, even if she loses to Carmouche.