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Ronda Rousey: Victim of choice and chance in MMA’s field of bullets

Was UFC 207 Ronda Rousey's exit from this sport? If so, it had less to do with big sponsors and psychology, and more to do with the 'kill curve' of female MMA's landscape.

MMA: UFC 207-Nunes vs Rousey Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Statistical paleontology has a unique frame of reference for species loss; something the University of Chicago’s David M. Raup calls the kill curve. The crudely named graph has a simple purpose, which is to depict the average species kill for a series of waiting times.

For Raup and others, the kill curve helps delineate context for a historical question: do species go extinct because of bad genes? Or bad luck?

The bad luck scenario is what paleontology calls The Field of Bullets Theory. The bad genes scenario is what paleontology calls the Overkill theory. Each (sadistically named) theory has its own chain of evidence. In the field of bullets scenario, the biological place a species originates in its taxonomy isn’t discriminated against by extinction because extinctions are stochastic (or random). In the Overkill hypothesis, there is a degree of selectivity during extinction. The Ice Age, for example, discriminated against mammals in general, and large mammals more specifically (which experienced a 72 percent species kill compared to 10 percent among small mammals).

MMA offers a similar question for Rousey. Are her failures the fault of chance, or choice?

At UFC 207, Rousey wasn’t just beaten against Amanda Nunes. She was discarded. She wasn’t simply punched. She was erased. The Octagon no longer looked like her ecosystem, and the talents nature had selected for her to be so efficient suddenly looked anachronistic. Is the grim outlook of Rousey’s future embedded in the very DNA of her promising past?

From the beginning Rousey has been a potent vehicle of clinch trauma. Her honest approach begat honest violence.

This was her second pro fight against Charmaine Tweet. Grappling has seen its share of evolutionary change in MMA. When Royce Gracie showed up, the revelation wasn’t simply that jiu jitsu was important for success, but that fight schemes needed to be as elaborate on the feet as they were on the ground. MMA wasn’t dynamic in the beginning. The best fighters were specialists. Or more specifically, the first MMA fighters were static situation oriented pugilists.

Like Gracie, Mark Coleman, Maurice Smith, or Bas Rutten, these were all fighters who gamed a static system by focusing on specific modes of combat rather than the layered interaction across modes of combat. Static situations are still important, however. In the fight against Tweet, Rousey is phenomenal on the feet. Grappling is a chess match of grip. Right away she grabs a single collar tie to initiate the clinch. The brilliance is in the way she shifts from gripping Tweet’s left arm with her right arm, to using both to secure the first takedown.

Ronda’s skillset was, and is a kind of scaffold between static situations and dynamic situations.

In her Strikeforce debut against Sarah D’Alelio, MMA observers saw another facet of this bridge. This finish was, for all intents and purposes, a flying armbar. It’s not quite as theatrical as Rumina Sato’s, but it was another display of what was to come.

Over the next several years Rousey would do this again and again. However, the division never challenged her in fully dimensional dynamic situations. She had won her first seven fights by armbar in the first round. At least until an old friend earned herself a rematch.

Rousey vs. Tate II is the version of Rousey vs. Nunes where power, accuracy, and speed aren’t the elements of punching Ronda needed to panic over. Watch the 5:27-5:37 mark. Even with a fighter coming forward, Rousey displayed the same habits in victory that would characterize her later failures. In boxing, the fighter calibrates movement by working in a straight line at range (forward and back), or side to side in close. The dynamics of movement are obviously more complicated, but you see why these fundamentals are critical in the above.

Because Rousey moves in a straight line, whether in close or at range, Miesha Tate always has good options for strike selection. Left jab, straight right, overhand right... Tate lands pretty much everything within the span of 15 seconds. By this point Rousey had already been training at Hayastan MMA Academy, where Manny Gamburyan and Karo Parisyan would introduce her to Edmond Tarverdyan.

Edmond is often criticized by MMA observers, and for good reason. At no point in Rousey’s career has she ever displayed the groundwork for educated striking, neither in terms of movement, nor shot selection. Other than Bethe Correia, nothing in Rousey’s oeuvre provides any evidence on the contrary (her TKO win over Sara McMann was the result of clinchwork, not boxing), and even then, that was because Bethe had equally bad head movement, and zero power.

In Overkill theory, carbon dating and archaeology combine to reveal that patterns of human habitation present a degree selectivity in species extinction. Human hunters didn’t like the woolly mammoth much, and so the mammoth went extinct. For Ronda, the selectivity of being loyal to a coach who has failed to identify deficiencies, or coax out a design that accentuates her strengths is a problem of choice.

But let’s consider this idea of MMA’s own field of bullets. Phil MacKenzie opened the floor for this debate in his brilliant breakdown of Rousey’s loss, explaining it as not just a specific decline of Ronda, but as a general decline of grappling as an efficient art. Perhaps Rousey’s failures are a kind of collateral damage to the shifting MMA landscape.

I like this idea, however incomplete. It projects to have more explanatory power than an analysis of her psychology. Ronda's distractions as a Pantene promo, or Vin Diesal costar might be far grander in scope, but this ignores Rousey's identity as a transitional fossil of pugilism.

She was always great at submissions. But the environment never challenged her to be dynamic beyond that. Wrestling, not striking, might have benefited her style most. Her issue in the Holm and Nunes losses was that she didn't have the finesse to close the distance. Grappling doesn't teach you distance control in the specific way that striking and to a lesser extent, wrestling, does.

In addition, women's MMA has finally hit its growth spurt at the same time. Just as you saw the Colemans and Ruttens transform into the Mauricio Ruas, and George St. Pierres, fighters like Nunes and Holm represent a female metagame in which the aegis of success depends on sequestering specific martial arts.

It's not that you need to hide one skill at the expense of others, but that skillsets in modern MMA rely on specific pronunciation rather than collective integration. If you're gonna be good at one thing, don't work on what you're bad at. Instead learn to buy yourself time so that the fight timeline favors the probability of being in situations you excel.

Ronda has never been able to expand that timeline, which brings me back to this somewhat morbid analogy. There are different types of species extinction. Mass extinctions, and background extinctions. Mass extinctions are typically explained in macro terms, such as global climate. Background extinctions are explained in micro terms; the rate of erosion as sediments are exiled into the oceans, for example.

You could say Rousey's career has been a "fall from grace", or that the complexities of celebrity conspired to shift her focus away from the sport. But fighters are like creatures of the natural world. And Rousey suffered because the general climate of MMA (the rise of meta-strikers in the division) mutated at the same time the specific terrain (read: coaching) beneath her eroded. Ronda may not be ready to say goodbye to MMA, but the sport has already whispered its own five knuckle swan song to her in its own savage tune.