A year can be a long time in MMA. Such is the dynamic – and let’s face it, brutal – nature of the sport that in that time careers could be ended or shot into the stratosphere, reputations could be built up out or torn to pieces and title belts can be won, lost, then won and lost again. For Ronda Rousey, the woman who used to sit atop her UFC throne, untouchable and undefeated, it’s actually been less than a year. And yet, how her world has changed.
When she walked into the octagon at UFC193 on the 15th of November 2015, Rousey wasn’t just at the summit of her sport. She WAS the summit. She WAS the sport. Such was the size of her profile, her fame, her utter and complete dominance over the women’s bantamweight division that few were even bothered about her opponents. It could be anyone, it could be any discipline. Rousey would go in and probably be out of there again before the first round had counted up its first or second minute. Rousey at her fighting best wasn’t a challenge. She wasn’t a fighting riddle to be solved. She was simply without equal. She could not be stopped. She was a terrifying prospect for any fighter. A world class judoka, the arm-bar and submission queen, who slowly but surely elevated the rest of her game under the tutelage of her long-time coach Edmond Tarverdyan.
At UFC193 it all came crashing down and much like her reign was absolute, so too was her downfall. Just as her dominance over all comers could not be denied, so her spectacular dismantling at the hands of Holly Holm could not be undone. It could not be unseen. Executing a perfect game plan, Holm kept Rousey at distance, jabbing and stinging her constantly, making her lose focus, making her lunge wildly, until finally “the kick that shocked the world” took her down. Out cold. Her lip busted, her title taken, her spirit shattered. Of all the things that we saw during that night and the days that followed, that was by far the most spectacular and shocking. Losses are not an alien concept to any fighter. They come barrelling into you and some of them can be devastating. But that’s the life of an MMA athlete. It was not the case with Rousey. In the moments directly after her emphatic defeat and the interviews and quotes that followed, Rousey appeared broken, beyond repair, an emotional mess that openly admitted to contemplating suicide after her loss. This was no fighter dealing with a KO. This was a human being engulfed in despair. And the media loved it.
Many believed her fighting days were over. Rumours swirled about Rousey being pregnant, about quitting the world of MMA for good and focusing on her budding movie career. Unbelievably, many started doubting her based on the very things she was previously praised and celebrated for. Her attitude, her fighting style, the holes in her stand-up game, her insistence on her training regime.
But she’s back. After months upon months of people talking, of people saying, of people doubting, Rousey’s return is a done deal. At UFC207, Rousey will once again step back into the octagon, to face current champ Amanda ‘the Lioness’ Nunes, a fierce competitor and fighter who swept past Miesha Tate at UFC200 to claim the title of champion and patiently wait for her opportunity at a big money fight with the one-time champion. Nunes has been vocal about wanting the fight, respectful but with the air of a person who is standing strongly at the moment. Rousey on the other hand has so far said nothing, maintaining complete radio silence, in a move that does little to dispel the idea, that the former champ is still unsure of herself, of her manner and ultimately of who she now is.
It’s no secret that the bantamweight division has been more competitive since Rousey has been out of the picture. The title has changed hands three times since her loss to Holm and a host of new fighters have started making waves in there. But it has lacked a sizeable amount of pomp and shine. It’s fully understandable. However soundly Rousey was beaten, her star power remains almost untouched. People still want to see her. UFC head honcho Dana White admitted that she is still the company’s superstar, even further ahead than Irish loudmouth Conor McGregor. The vacuum that she left when she vanished from sight has not been filled, nor can it. This isn’t just a woman taking part in a sport. For all her faults, Rousey single handedly pulled women’s MMA by the scruff of the neck and pushed it to the front of the line. She is a pioneer, a torchbearer and anything she does will be scrutinised, criticized and analysed.
There is no way of knowing how the former champ will be when she steps back into the octagon. Will the cracks in her façade be gone? Will she have developed something else, a new angle, a new plan of attack? Or will the wounds still be raw, stripping her of the power of that steely glare that she used time and time again to stare her opponents down? It’s impossible to say.
What we can say for sure is that Rousey’s bout at UFC207 is one of the most hotly anticipated comeback bouts of all time. The once untouchable champion, returning to take back her kingdom. It’s a tale of redemption that curls itself around the very core of what fighting sports are about. Few athletes can focus so much attention on themselves simply by mouthing “I’m back”.
She may well lose. She may well win. But you can bet all eyes will most certainly be on her. Let’s see what she brings back from the wilderness.