It was February 23, 2013: the night ‘Rowdy’ Ronda Rousey made history by being the first woman to compete and win inside the Ultimate Fighting Championship. She headlined UFC 157. Her enemy that night was Liz Carmouche, a respected former marine and Strikeforce veteran. Carmouche certainly played her part — but this was the Ronda Rousey Show, and everybody knew it. However, it wasn’t just that fight, the newly inaugurated women’s bantamweight division was the Ronda Rousey Show.
But what happens if Ronda Rousey is no longer a part of that show?
That was the big question, and it’s not hyperbole either. The UFC president Dana White admitted as much in an interview with Ariel Helwani when this thing was just getting started.
“I’m putting my toe in the water, and I’m checking it out,” he said. “There’s no doubt, for people who say, ‘Oh, this is the Ronda Rousey show,’ [expletive] right it is. You’re absolutely right. I’m not trying to shy away from that and say, ‘Oh no, we’re getting into women’s MMA.’ This is the Ronda Rousey Show.”
For the rest of the female fighters lining up for a shot in the promotion, it wasn’t a very convincing caveat from the big boss-man. It felt like he was a batter, closing his eyes, and swinging for the fences to see if he could hit a homerun.
Fortunately, he did.
However, months prior to this historic milestone, the idea of a women fighting in the UFC, the world’s biggest mixed martial arts promotion, was a mere pipe-dream. In a now-infamous TMZ segment, Dana White stated that women would never fight in the UFC, and for a while he kept that promise. Gina Carano and Cris “Cyborg” Justino, two box-office draws in their own-right, didn’t manage it.
But Rousey, the Olympic silver medallist, did it.
Immediately after Rousey’s debut success, it was clear it wasn’t going to be a one-and-done. However, the question still lingered: what happens when Rousey is gone? Nobody knew and White was as noncommittal as ever.
As time passed, Rousey continued to dispatch the top contenders with relative ease, but you could feel that this one-time pet-project was transforming into something bigger. The UFC signed more women to contracts and promoted more fights with success. It was evident that the fans were catching on to the supporting cast which featured Rousey’s arch-enemy Miesha Tate; the first mother to win a fight inside the octagon Cat Zingano; and, of course, the always-exciting future champion Amanda Nunes.
The promotion also featured women for the first time on their Ultimate Fighter series in late 2013, introducing current top-contenders like Raquel Pennington and Julianna Pena. The division was developing fast, and you have to wonder if Dana White expected that by this stage his whole leg would be submerged way past his proverbial toe.
What followed was an all-female season of The Ultimate Fighter and a second women’s division in the form of a 115lbs strawweight class, introducing an all-new cast of characters – to the casual viewer anyway. The Rose Namajunas’, Joanne Calderwood’s and Carla Esparza’s of the world were well-known for their time in the likes of Invicta FC by the fans who wondered outside of just the UFC.
However, although both divisions were developing and fans were taking notice of the other talents, Rousey still cast a long shadow over her division and women’s MMA as a whole. She still felt unbeatable and her star was continuing to rise way above everybody else’s in the space.
But you’re only unbeatable until you lose.
In late November of 2015, Rousey lost to Holly Holm, by knockout, in the most devastating fashion. It drove her away from the spotlight, but the women’s bantamweight division stayed firmly in it. The historic UFC 200 was headlined by then-champion Miesha Tate vs. now-champion Amanda Nunes. Tate captured the title from Holm in dramatic fashion at UFC 196, another blockbuster card.
The division didn’t sink without its biggest star and women’s MMA is as stable as it’s ever been.
However, UFC 207 will host “The Ronda Rousey Show” once again, but a win or loss for the superstar won’t change the fact that Rousey is no longer the only show in town.