The UFC announced recently that Ronda Rousey is to be inducted into their hall of fame, something that elicited a mixed response from the MMA community.
Fans of mixed martial arts tend to have short memories. Making a point of noting this is not headline news by any means but over the years we have seen fan opinion do a U-turn overnight on countless occasions.
The UFC announced during UFC 225’s fight-week that the former women’s bantamweight champion of the world Ronda Rousey would be among the latest to be inducted into their Hall of Fame’s modern-wing.
— UFC (@ufc) June 10, 2018
Unsurprisingly, the response from the MMA community was one that contained anger, joy, confusion and everything in between. The reaction as a whole and the subsequent reflection it brought about allowed me to learn a lot about the sport’s fanbase and above all else, the standards we set for those we call ‘legends’.
So is Ronda Rousey deserving of that title?
We all know her story. She was the first American woman to medal in judo at the Olympics – taking home bronze at Beijing 2008 – and after making the transition to MMA, she became the final Strikeforce champion at 135lb before its eventual dissolution.
Dana White famously said in the past that women would never fight in the UFC while he was in charge and love her or hate her, you are batsh*t crazy if you don’t acknowledge the fact that Rousey single-handedly changed his mind.
Allowing for the inclusion of women in the world’s premier mixed martial arts promotion has and will continue to provide hundreds of women – past, present and future – with the opportunity to compete under the brightest lights possible, changing the lives and aspirations of all of those who had aimed to make a splash in what had been a male-dominated game up until that point.
It might have happened eventually, sure, but immense levels of credit must be given to Ronda for being the one who did it, because if she hadn’t, who knows how long it would have taken.
Being a pioneer is one thing, but the absolute frenzy this elite-judoka caused upon her arrival into the mainstream eye was like nothing we had ever seen until that point. She was a pioneer not only for women’s MMA but for MMA as a whole – bringing it to a level of public exposure that allowed others to push on. It’s easy to forget exactly how huge she was with us now in the midst of the Conor McGregor-era
She had everything, the looks, the personality, the attitude, and most importantly, she could fight.
There are few fighters in the history of this sport who carried the same threat as the Rowdy one when she made her walk to that octagon. I know there are many who will protest the comparison but there was almost a Mike Tyson-esque feel to an event with her name on it. It wasn’t a question of whether Ronda Rousey would win, it was a question of how quickly she’d get it done.
Those early day bantamweights were lambs to the slaughter – and while we will get into the reasons for her dominance later – do not forget so easily how you felt when Ronda was in her prime.
Three things defined her style as a fighter. Her relentless pressure, her elite-level judo and, of course, her signature move – the armbar. Nobody who has ever competed in MMA has been able to snatch arms the way she could. Now, the great question that looms over her career as we view it in hindsight.
How good were the women that Ronda Rousey was beating so handily?
This is where we take a look at the flipside.
If you harken back to the early days of mixed martial arts when things were slowly coming together, it did take some time for the actual ‘mixed martial artists’ to emerge. Several years, really.
The sport was obviously devised as a way of allowing the various disciplines to compete in order to figure out exactly which one was the most effective in combat but in those early days, it was more of a ‘mix’ of martial arts than a showdown between two athletes who ‘mixed’ martial arts.
Gradually, the level of competition increased and after a while – if you came in with a one-dimensional skillset, you would more-than-likely be found out in a very sudden and violent fashion.
Over time, mixed martial arts in itself became a fighting style (of course with huge room for diversity and uniqueness) but as far as women’s MMA was concerned in the Ronda Rousey-era, something similar was happening.
It’s not that the women who entered the UFC in the first wave were as limited as the guys competing in the nineties, but without the years of development and incentive to compete at the highest level – there just wasn’t a pool of talent strong enough to compete with the men’s divisions.
You can see that development now, though. You’ve got high-level grapplers like Claudia Gadelha, Carla Esparza and Ketlen Vieira who have adapted their game to suit the multi-faceted sport and then technicians like Valentina Shevchenko, Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Karolina Kowalkiewicz who have honed their striking to such a level that they can compete with the grapplers and dictate where the fight would end up.
Then, as one of the first pure striking maestros to really make waves at 135lbs, you had Holly Holm.
And when she was scheduled to face the champ at UFC 193, the world had no idea what was in store.
It wasn’t supposed to be competitive. Not even remotely, and how could it have been? It was Ronda Rousey, the woman who had only seen a second round once, the woman who many had picked as a favourite over most men – one who tore arms off for a living and then bounced.
Holm’s striking pedigree as a kickboxer and, in particular, as a boxer – still mattered little when she was picked as an underdog to the reigning champ.
It is easy to get drawn into hype but in the defence of those who were, how could we not? Rousey was running through absolutely everyone she fought with the kind of ruthlessness you just didn’t expect to see from a 135lb woman at the time.
A round-and-a-half of pure dominance from Holm was followed by perhaps the most famous head-kick KO we have ever seen and just like that, the Ronda-era was over.
So at that point. With the curtain pulled back and all of the now-glaring holes in her game exposed, how were we meant to view Ronda? Well, like we’ve seen from our champions in the past – a lot of it has to do with how you handle yourself in the immediate aftermath of a defeat.
Dominick Cruz put forth a masterclass on how to handle a loss after his UFC 207 bantamweight title defeat to Cody Garbrandt (which coincidentally was the card that featured Rousey’s final fight).
Cruz was as shocked as any of us when the unbeaten prospect Garbrandt beat him in every facet of the fight. His boxing was superb, his head-movement impeccable and his timing allowed him to catch the usually-elusive Cruz more than anyone he had ever fought.
It was a crushing blow for a fighter who has endured so much in the last few years but when all was said and done, Cruz cleaned himself off, dressed himself up and, declining a seat, stood before the media and took questions.
He didn’t make excuses, didn’t cite injuries or anything, he simply stood there and took it like a champion. The manner in which he did it directly after his lowest moment stood as the direct opposite of what Ronda did.
And here’s where things get tricky.
We all know how reluctant Ronda Rousey has been to even mention the UFC or her former glories since her loss to Holm and her subsequent disaster matchup against Amanda Nunes at UFC 207. We didn’t learn anything new about her ability to cope with adversity between those two fights. She did no media for her ‘comeback’, would not acknowledge a mention of the words ‘Holly’ or ‘Holm’ and overall, things seemed to be geared up towards a fall.
And boy, did she fall.
So the question here becomes, do we call her a legend because of what she was able to do for the sport? For the countless women who now have a future in fighting to strive for on the biggest stage? The UFC weren’t letting them in and if you know Dana White, to change his mind like that required a bomb to go off.
Ronda provided that explosion.
So as a pioneer for women’s MMA and the sport as a whole, she gets two thumbs up. I doubt anyone would dispute that at this stage.
With that settled, do we hold Rousey accountable for the lack of talent at 135lbs when she was competing? Do we hold Royce Gracie accountable for submitting a bunch of grappling rookies when it all started back in the early 90’s?
I suppose there’s an argument to be made for both sides but with the fighters that were in front of her, all Ronda could do is beat them emphatically and there’s no question over the fact that she did.
Her record of 12-2 contains a 0:14 SUB, a 0:16 KO, a 0:34 KO and a 1:06 KO and they’re just from her six UFC wins. She ran through her opponents as well as she could have realistically and who knows, had she entered into the women’s bantamweight division in its makeup today with a clear head, she could have gone on to be successful.
I think the one thing that has damaged Ronda more than anything is that when we look at the legends of this sport who find themselves in the Hall of Fame presently, the likes of Randy Couture, Matt Hughes, Don Frye, Urijah Faber, Forrest Griffin and so on, the one thing they all encompass more than anything else is the heart of a fighter.
Ronda’s legacy could well have been ruined by her inability to deal with her failure to win.
She has said in interviews in the past that she doesn’t know how to lose. Growing up she was bred as a winner, she became a world-class judoka as a winner and in the UFC, she became the winner to end all winners.
A large part of the reason that so many people have turned on Ronda Rousey is that she showed herself to be exactly what a fighter shouldn’t be. She was never particularly humble in victory and when it all fell apart for her on the biggest stage possible, she crumbled and refused to do what virtually every other fighter has done in the past in dealing with it.
Of course, we don’t know the in’s and out’s of Rousey as a person but from the perspective of the fans who watched her rise before her eventual fall, this is exactly how it looks.
Rousey does deserve her spot in the UFC Hall of Fame. There are few fighters who managed to capture the imagination of the public quite like her and perhaps there won’t ever be again but in reality, her reputation in this unforgiving sport is in tatters and her legacy, a shadow of what it could have been.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena