As I’ve bragged repeatedly, perhaps because I’m so rarely ahead of the curve on such on things, I was touting Ronda Rousey as a future MMA star even before the 2008 Olympics. She was a badass, she was quotable, and she won a lot of her judo bouts by armbar — a good way of winning MMA fights.
So why am I a little concerned upon waking up this morning (no, I didn’t get a chance to see the fight — glad to see full highlights available) to see that Rousey has taken the Strikeforce title — again by armbar, again in the first round?
Perhaps it’s because I was impressed with Miesha Tate when I interviewed her for espnW. She’s a terrific spokeswoman for her sport. But honestly, I had a few misgivings before chatting with Tate.
Maybe because I don’t like bullies and brash attitudes. I’ll stand by my distaste for Chael Sonnen’s entire approach to the sport. I frankly don’t want to see Sonnen fight Anderson Silva again.
But beyond that, it’s a concern about the state of women’s MMA, a young sport within a young sport.
Think back to boxer James Toney fighting Randy Couture. Toney seemed to think his boxing skills, along with a brief introduction to the other aspects of the sport, would be sufficient for competing in the Octagon. A few boxing scribes turned up in Boston eager to heap dirt upon mixed martial arts, and the “no cheering on press row” ideal went out the window. When Couture wisely used a mix of mixed martial arts skills — a wrestling takedown, a jiu-jitsu finish and the MMA-specific skill of ground-and-pound — to subdue Toney, the crowd released a roar that was equal parts excitement, validation and relief.
To be fair, Rousey isn’t James Toney. Her MMA career has been brief, but she has still worked her way up a ladder. A judo base is also a lot better preparation for MMA than a boxing base — once she gets in a clinch or takes the fight to the ground, she’s in her element.
A better comparison might be Brock Lesnar, who fought for the UFC heavyweight title with a 2-1 record, beating no one of consequence. Like Rousey, Lesnar was a tough, powerful athlete with a grappling base. Even in his loss to Frank Mir, he showed a good set of MMA skills, adding ground-and-pound to his wrestling before showing his inexperience and falling into a submission.
Yet Lesnar’s rapid rise also pointed to a weak division of UFC heavyweights. The heavyweight class isn’t the deepest in MMA, and the UFC at the time was lacking a lot of the world’s best.
So what does Rousey’s rapid rise tell us about the state of women’s MMA?
Michael David Smith takes the half-full view. And he’s right that Rousey’s next fight could be a more compelling test than Tate was. Tate tried swarming Rousey with punches and kicks early, but she’s not a standout striker, and Compustrike only counted eight strikes that landed in 4:27 of fight time. By comparison, Sarah Kaufman landed 141 standing arm strikes — not just leg kicks and ground strikes that are easier to accumulate — in her win over Alexis Davis, even though Davis put her on the ground most of round 3 and wound up outstriking her in the total numbers. (Yes, I really wish I had seen that fight, and it’s a pity Strikeforce/Showtime didn’t put it on the main card.)
Maybe Kaufman will fill the Cain Velasquez role, beating the new champion in a standup battle, or at least the Shane Carwin role, taking it to the champion and forcing a comeback win. Then again, if Kaufman couldn’t keep Davis from taking her down even after punishing her for two rounds, can she keep Rousey at bay?
Like Lesnar (and unlike Toney), Rousey has built nicely on her grappling base, and she finally got a chance to show more of her skills against Tate. Rousey’s previous bouts hadn’t lasted more than a minute, and she was never put in any danger. Rousey had to work for this one. Tate at least got in a few punches and even got on her back at one point. She also got out of Rousey’s first armbar attempt. Rousey even showed off some ground-and-pound skills. Tate held on until her arm reached this gruesome point. (Warning: Not kidding about “gruesome.”)
So we can’t complain too much about her worthiness as a champion, even if she talked her way into the title shot. She’s a terrific fighter. And she’s exciting — fellow fighters lit up Twitter last night to gush about what they had seen.
Perhaps she’ll be the first of a new wave. Already, fellow Olympic-bred badass Sara McMann is blazing a trail through MMA. Men’s MMA evolved when elite wrestlers like Couture and Dan Henderson embraced the new sport. Maybe Rousey, McMann and company can do the same thing.
But just as MMA fans fondly recall the men’s trailblazers, even those who wouldn’t be competitive in the modern era, we should remember the people who fought before fighting was cool. And perhaps a few old-school fans will be rooting for Kaufman to win one for the old guard and teach these new folks some humility.