It’s not just women such as Rose Namajunas, Amanda Nunes and Joanna Jedrzejczyk who are in Ronda Rousey’s debt for what she did for mixed martial arts.
It’s men such as Francis Ngannou, Max Holloway and Darren Till, as well, who have benefitted from Rousey’s brief but magical time in the UFC.
Rousey was named the first UFC women’s bantamweight champion in Seattle on Dec. 6, 2012. Five years to the day later, USA Today’s Martin Rogers reported that
That will effectively end Rousey’s MMA career, one that impacted her sport in ways obvious and subtle in much the way that Tiger Woods impacted professional golf when he shot onto the scene in 1996.
Rousey changed the game, much like Woods did.
The talent, top to bottom, is deeper on the PGA Tour than it has ever been. Players are hitting the ball farther than ever and making more money than ever.
In large part, they have Woods to thank for that. The crowds were bigger when Woods played. The television ratings higher, the frenzy almost out of control. It angered many of the existing stars, who felt the newcomer hadn’t proven himself when he was getting front-page headlines everywhere he went after turning pro late in the 1996 season.
But Woods defeated Davis Love III, then one of the top players in the world, in a playoff to win in Las Vegas in 1996 and won The Masters in a rout in 1997 during his first full season on Tour.
Woods hit the ball so much farther than virtually all of the other players at the time that there was talk of Tiger-proofing the courses. In 1997, Woods’ first full year on the PGA Tour, he averaged 294.8 yards a drive to finish second on the tour standings in driving distance. In 2017, Jason Dufner averaged 294.6 yards a drive and finished 77th.
That’s because Woods forced his peers to think of fitness and to take their jobs as seriously away from the course as they did on it. Pre-Woods, players would go to the local bar and knock a few back after a round. Post-Woods, they’d be in the fitness trailer.
That’s the kind of impact that Rousey has had upon the UFC. Women most likely still wouldn’t be fighting in the UFC were it not for Rousey.
Strikeforce had great success with women’s fighting and was getting good ratings on television with fighters like Cris “Cyborg” Justino, Gina Carano and Marloes Coenen, among others, but that didn’t move UFC president Dana White a bit.
But in 2012, White and Rousey met backstage at a UFC event. Rousey asked to speak to White privately and she convinced him to add a women’s division after he famously told TMZ in 2011 that he’d never put on women’s fights.
The UFC was highly successful by the time Rousey made her promotional debut for the company by submitting Liz Carmouche in the first round on Feb. 23, 2013, in Anaheim, California, at UFC 157.
But the Honda Center became, for that night, the Ronda Center. There was a huge media buildup prior to that bout and a shockingly large crowd showed up at the UFC Gym in Torrance, California, to watch Rousey go through a pre-fight workout.
That crowd, though, was much different from the typical UFC crowd. There were many more women and children than was typical for such a UFC event. Rousey seemed overwhelmed at the sheer volume of people who wanted to see her, to take a photo, to get an autograph, to wish her luck, or just be in her presence.
Rousey’s presence caused people who wouldn’t otherwise have given MMA a second thought to take a chance on it.
Prior to Rousey’s arrival, White had long said that all it took for the UFC to capture someone as a fan was to get them at one live event. After Rousey joined the roster, that job became much easier.
White was correct: The fans who tried MMA found that they liked it, and they came back for more. That led to more and better sponsors and more pay-per-view sales and far greater media exposure.
The New York Times paid attention. HBO’s Real Sports did a segment on Rousey. “Good Morning America” was breaking news about her next fight. She was a staple on Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel and Conan.
Rousey, and the UFC brand, were everywhere. That exposure not only raised Rousey’s profile, and helped her to land significant roles in major motion pictures, but it created more awareness for the sport in general. That simply made the UFC more attractive to athletes, fans and sponsors alike.
Her peers saw the way she worked and realized that if the star of the show was busting her butt making appearances, doing interviews and generally preaching the gospel of MMA, they’d have to do the same to garner attention.
Rousey was a phenom in the cage as well as out, winning fights so quickly and in such a one-sided manner that Sports Illustrated put her on its cover and dubbed her the world’s most dominant athlete.
Some would say she was exposed in her losses to Holly Holm at UFC 193 and Nunes at UFC 207, but it was more than that. Just like what happened when Woods joined the PGA Tour, Rousey forced her peers to get better.
And so the quality of the women’s game is much better now than it was in 2013, when Rousey made the long, slow walk to the cage at the Honda Center.
Her career was incredibly brief, but no one in the history of the sport had a greater impact than Ronda Rousey.
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