Opinion: The ‘Return’ of MMA’s Not-So-Gone Girl

By Jordan Breen Oct 12, 2016

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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As we all found out Wednesday courtesy of UFC President Dana White sitting down to chat with Colin Cowherd, Ronda Rousey is “back.” I personally found this surprising, as I wasn’t aware Rousey had actually “left” or gone anywhere.

Rousey will return to the Octagon on Dec. 30, headlining UFC 207 in Las Vegas against new UFC women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes and giving the UFC one last blockbuster for its massive pile of 2016 pay-per-view revenue; and when I say “Rousey will return,” I don’t mean in the melodramatic “Guess who’s baaaaack?!” kind of way. I mean to say this is literally the next sequential fight in her career.

I say all of this because I’ve been fascinated watching the mythos of Rousey evolve over the last 11 months. Throughout this time period, I’ve listened to lunatic revisionists re-imagine a world where Rousey’s past wins were insignificant (they’re not) and she’s not the most achieved woman in the history of the sport (she still is). I’ve listened to human beings who have never met Rousey -- folks with no real insights into her personal life beyond her mother’s social media shade-throwing and TMZ articles -- endlessly opine about how badly she wants to retire, or go to Hollywood, or be a stay-at-home mom, or become an astronaut. I’ve watched a whole bunch of irrationally-but-deeply convicted onlookers proclaim she’s running from Cris Cyborg or a Holly Holm rematch and would never, ever dream of stepping into the Octagon against them.

Please return to the first sentence of the previous paragraph. How long has it been since Rousey last fought? Eleven months. Yes, eleven months. By the time Miesha Tate upset Holm for the title in March, these mutated Rousey narratives were already alive and flourishing. This time last year, Conor McGregor hadn’t even one-punched Jose Aldo yet, and Rafael dos Anjos, who isn’t even UFC lightweight champion any longer, had yet to defend his title. For the last 15 years, we’ve seen UFC champions go 12 and 18 months in some cases between title defenses, whether related to injuries or politics.

Now, Rousey never said “OK, team, I’m taking 11 months off until I announce my next fight. See you just before 2017,” and I appreciate that the unique complexion of her celebrity, especially by mixed martial arts standards, created a different level of uncertainty about her future. On the other hand, Rousey had constructed an invincible aura that even she believed, and that was shattered by Holm; that kind of mental recovery can take time, even if you’re not filming Reebok commercials philosophizing about it. More importantly, she’s a 29-year-old Olympic bronze medalist in judo famous for fighting in a cage. Her film oeuvre is inherently limited to action or action-comedy vehicles and her acting is, well, not good. Also, lest we forget, when she puts on the gloves and steps into a cage -- no matter if it lasts less than 30 seconds, as it often does for Rousey -- she makes a couple million dollars. Even if we accept that Rousey’s loss to Holm was potentially scarring for her in a way most MMA losses aren’t, the signs of sanity always pointed to Rousey fighting again. She doesn’t need to fight forever, sure, but who would leave the next $10 million over a couple fights on the table?

These ideas don’t exist in a vacuum, either. The attempted rewriting of Rousey-related history and half-cooked ideas about her future directly play into the conversations I’m watching play out in regards to Rousey’s title challenge against Nunes.

In all seriousness, Nunes is the most complete fighter Rousey will have faced. She may not have the pedigree and standup technique of a Holm, but she’s infinitely more aggressive, better adapted to the MMA striking environment and a much harder natural hitter. In conjunction with Nunes’ talents on the feet, she’s also a strong grappler and explosive athlete. Then again, we could’ve perhaps said such things about Cat Zingano prior to her challenging Rousey, and she lasted all of 14 seconds. However, for all of the advantages she holds in a stylistic clash against Rousey, the “Rowdy” one has always been able to equalize by armbarring just about everybody. If you think that there’s just no way, no how she can armbar Nunes, and in less than 60 seconds at that, you’re both mistaken and a rube.

Yes, Rousey opened as a three-to-one favorite over Nunes, but this is a betting line; it is set in such a fashion to entice action, knowing that Rousey’s name value -- especially come Dec. 30 in Las Vegas – will seduce big-money squares to throw down tons of money on her and to protect the sports books from taking a bath if Rousey does in fact take out Nunes. In a mere matter of hours, Nunes had already been hammered from +250 to +170 on most books.

Again, imagine this is 11 months ago. Nunes has just destroyed Rousey’s homie, Shayna Baszler, and fellow Olympic medalist Sara McMann. Never mind the betting implications: How many folks would feel good about hammering underdog Nunes? Even after watching Nunes run out of gas late against Valentina Shevchenko in March, would people feel so similarly?

It’s not that Nunes can’t win; she absolutely can. Nunes is a fast and dynamic starter like Rousey. Plus, Rousey is returning from her first pro defeat, a crushing and humiliating loss that could possibly be the most-watched knockout in MMA history, given Rousey’s celebrity and how often it was replayed. Rousey may run across the cage, still delusionally confident in her boxing, and get socked right in the face by Nunes.

Much of the Rousey hysteria is centered on uncertainty, but that uncertainty is hinged on the unknowable facts of how she has dealt and coped with her Holm loss. It is possible Rousey’s confidence is compromised and her ongoing training relationship with Edmond Tarverdyan is her undoing once more against Nunes, but we simply cannot know this until we’re ready to hop into the new year. What is actually provable and observable is that Rousey, outside of the Holm fight, spent her entire amateur and pro career positively trashing every woman in sight, and other than the times when Miesha Tate and Liz Carmouche got her back briefly, no one has even generated offense against her.

Even if you’re the sort of person who bemoans Rousey not leaving Tarverdyan and tapping into whatever her unrealized potential might be, do remember that even with demonstrably poor coaching, she became the greatest woman to ever step into a cage; she’s overcome her own bad training before and consistently so.

This is not a column about how Rousey is going to whoop Nunes. As I said, Rousey may very well get punched in the grill quickly and end up being humiliated. However, this is a reminder that Rousey is not some myth from years past. She is not some champion of yesteryear with a record full of smoke-and-mirrors victories, retired for a half decade and hoping to come back for some cash. Eleven months ago, you and I and everybody else were waiting for her to incinerate Holm. She may have rattled Rousey’s brain with her counter crosses and that head kick, but Rousey didn’t forget how to fight.

Realizing this has implications for the UFC’s current champion, too. If Nunes clatters Rousey and replicates what Holm did, this should not be dismissed as Rousey being spoiled goods; Nunes should not have the most significant and glorious win of her career undermined because Rousey’s fame, persona and decision to date Travis Browne led hardcore fans to revile her. Ignoring Rousey’s historical greatness and incredible skill in favor of mockery only serves to contaminate what would be the biggest win of Nunes’ career. While I’ve already decried focusing on the unknowable, even the hypothetical thought of doing “Beatdown After the Bell” for UFC 207 and taking calls about how Rousey was pure hype all along and how Nunes’ win isn’t a massive deal, makes my insides hurt already.

You don’t have to think Rousey is going to beat Nunes; you don’t even have to like the woman. Just don’t call it a “comeback” and act as if she’s an unruly MMA poltergeist back from the dead or some kind of relic from an arcane era over whom time has passed. She has been here for years, and only gone 11 months.

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