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Bethe Correia: How far is too far?

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UFC Middleweight Josh Samman takes a look at the recent comments of women bantamweight contender Bethe Correia, and wonders how much is too much when it comes to tactics behind selling a fight.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Vale Tudo- (IPA: [ˈvali ˈtudu]; English: anything goes)

The date was December 7th, 2013. Bethe Correia was making her UFC debut Down Under, facing veteran and WMMA pioneer Julie Kedzie at UFC Fight Night 33. She would go on that evening to eek out a split decision, looking nowhere near a fighter close to title contention.

The fight was three weeks removed from the last time we had seen Chael Sonnen in the Octagon. By this time Chael had solidified his place in the annals of MMA history as the most media savvy pugilist to have graced our sport. He had managed to claw his way to three title shots in three years, in what many felt was thanks to his artistry outside the cage as opposed to inside of it. He had become a face of the company, secured an analyst job at Fox Sports 1, and would move on to an eventual gig at ESPN. He was great with his hands, but was truly something special with a microphone.

Chael said outrageous things, he got plenty of folks upset, but most importantly he got all of us personally invested. Many fans didn’t appreciate his perceived antics, writing him off as tasteless and xenophobic. Many fighters saw the conflict he presented as contrived, and tried their best to duplicate it. Some just sat back, and took notes.

The tactic has been used for decades, creating a "heel" and a "face," in MMA and other combat sports alike. Boxing and Pro Wrestling had long since learned that people were much more likely to tune into an eventual confrontation if there was a narrative behind it. On the most simple level, reduced and boiled down, many folks, and especially casual fans, need to be able to identify the good guy, and the bad guy.

One of the fighters taking note of Chael’s expedited title shots and other perks may have been Bethe Correia. Unhappy with the speed at which her 85% decision rate was setting the world on fire, she set her sights on the newly formed "Four Horsewomen" of MMA: Marina Shafir, Jessamyn Duke, Shayna Baszler, and Ronda Rousey. Nevermind that one of the four, Shafir, fought outside of the UFC, in a completely different weight division no less. Bethe had a plan and she was going to see it out.

Perhaps it was all by chance. Perhaps she got the call to fight Jessamyn Duke and decided somewhere along the way to try to parlay a potential victory into a title run. Maybe she called Sean Shelby and asked for the fight, intending it all along. However it happened, she would go on to face Duke at UFC 172, and after another uninspiring bout, Bethe was awarded the decision. She held up four fingers to signify her targets, before lowering one finger to represent her most recent victim.

The trap had been set, bait in place, and the Horsewomen bit perfectly. Next on Bethe’s list was Shayna Baszler, another seasoned fighter, like Kedzie, with 14 of 15 wins coming via submission. She was more seasoned than Duke, represented a steeper challenge, but was still not enough to defeat Correira. Bethe would go on to pick up just the second finish of her career, and continue her journey towards undefeated champion Ronda Rousey.

Enter UFC 184. Originally a card meant to showcase the men’s middleweight division in a title fight between Weidman and Belfort, and a title eliminator with Jacare Souza and Yoel Romero, both fights were lost due to injury, and Rousey found herself headlining the card against long time contender Cat Zingano.

Bethe sat in the wings, front row, awaiting to see who her next potential opponent may be. Were Zingano to win, an immediate rematch with Rousey likely would have been the next women’s bantamweight championship bout. If the 7:1 favorite Rousey won, the title shot was all but guaranteed to Correira. There simply were no more challengers left.

The UFC sat me in the fighter section for that event, directly behind Correia. I watched her after the 14 second destruction of Cat, trying to gauge a reaction. The camera zoomed in on Bethe immediately following the fight. She held her thumb to her throat, and in a slashing motion, did her best to look intimidating in the wake of the fastest title defense we had ever seen.

And so it was, Bethe was announced as the next challenger to the throne. Like some sort of child star with too much fame, she didn’t know what to do with the attention. Keep talking? Keep cultivating a personality that is conducive to big name fights? Cross the line, unequivocally and categorically, in the most distasteful and outrageous sound bite in UFC history? Check, check, and check.

In a recent interview with Combate, Bethe used the following choice of words to antagonize her future opponent:

"Under pressure, she’s showing she’s weak. When mommy put some pressure, she ran away from home. When she lost, she did drugs... There are a lot of people around her, she’s winning, but when she realizes that’s not everything, I don’t know what might happen. I hope she doesn’t commit suicide [laughs]."

The interviewer is sure to include that Bethe is laughing, incase the sociopathic behavior was lost on any of the readers. The cherry atop the icing of coldheartedness, of course, is the manner in which Rousey’s father died, and the non-chalantness in which Correia is willing to bring it up. She's since backpedaled, claiming innocence, and expecting fans to believe that as immersed as she has become in Rousey’s story, as invested as she has become in this rivalry, as specific as she was in the other details of Rousey’s past, that she had no clue how Rousey’s father died. And to that I say: bullshit.

Fight promotion doesn’t mean simply mean talking more. It doesn’t mean shoving your opponent at face offs. It doesn’t mean digging for skeletons to pull out of closets and put on display. To me, it means thinking outside the box to draw more attention, but not at the cost of making the rest of us look bad. There are several thousand of us; coaches, fighters, journalists, promoters, all of whom make our living off of this sport, and being that MMA is already an uphill battle, we have to hold accountable those that take steps backwards in our name, starting with those in title fights on the biggest stage in the world.

The bottom line is that there are boundaries that have to be respected. I don’t have a problem with fighters saying they’re going to try to kill each other. I don’t think anyone is going to kill someone in the cage any more than I think Conor McGregor is going to literally rip anyone’s head off. Imagine though, the outrage that would have been dealt had Dan Miller or Jorge Rivera’s children been even remotely brought up in pre fight banter? Different, absolutely, but in the same vein, using the deceased as a weapon to cut deeply.

Even now, I don’t know what the correct response to Bethe is, as a collective. A public shaming? A wag of the finger, a slap on the wrist? A come to Jesus meeting? Perhaps the response was meant to come from one person and one person only.

"@bethecorreira suicide is no joke or selling point. My father will be with me the day I hand you the comeuppance you deserve." -Ronda Rousey

A much more measured approach than I may have taken, but worded perfectly, and chillingly. And despite all of this, there is still some element of Bethe winning here. Not the fight of course, because frankly I don't think she's very good, but in the whole "Operation: Headlines." The MMA bubble is talking about her, more people are mentioning the fight, and there is an element of her objective being fulfilled.

Offensive, distasteful, inappropriate, and yet, in some guilty corner of my mind, I’ve unquestionably been nailed down as a mark that is going to pay money, in hopes of seeing physical pain inflicted on the bad guy. Thinking of Bethe’s comments makes my blood boil, gives me goosebumps to imagine Rousey’s reaction as she read them. It makes me root for a person that I’ve never actively rooted for in my life. It makes me feel as if there isn’t even enough time in 25 minutes to inflict the kind of retribution and "comeuppance" that I want to see. There’s a part of me that knows that angry Ronda is an exciting Ronda, and I can’t help but look forward to that.

UFC 190 is a PPV I’ll be purchasing, and in the moment I realize I’ve successfully been sold, and even as I write this, I realize also that I'm perpetuating and encouraging Correia's behavior. Knowing that, it’s difficult to not be faced with a bigger question here, which is, do any of us really watch or participate in this sport without some internal conflict about what it is we are seeing and doing? When we are faced with the uglier side of combat sports, are there any of us that actually live in this bubble that don't harbor at least a sliver of cognitive dissonance about where it is we reside?