Ronda Rousey’s UFC debut will certainly be among the most scrutinized events of 2013. Walking into the promotion with a title waiting for her, a pay-per-view main event slot given to her above two of the sport’s proven best and an opponent that opened at a 15-1 underdog…these things do leave someone open to criticism.
The semi-main event on the Rousey card features Dan Henderson in his long-awaited return to the cage against Lyoto Machida. Henderson last competed in what some have called the “Fight of the Century”, a five round war against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. He also carries the pedigree of being a former Strikeforce champion (a title he never lost), as well as carrying the Pride 205 and 185 pound titles simultaneously. He is, in every respect, a legend of the sport.
Machida is also a revered fighter, being a former UFC light heavyweight champion and earning that title with a tremendous KO victory over Rashad Evans that caused Joe Rogan to announce “welcome to the Machida era”. While the “Machida era” may not have panned out, he has remained one of the top contenders and most difficult match-ups in the UFC’s centerpiece division.
Playing second-fiddle to UFC newcomer Rousey is understandably sticking in the craw of the two competitors, particularly Henderson, who was a knee injury away from facing off against Jon Jones for the light heavyweight title and has a rocky relationship with Dana White at the best of times.
Henderson’s striking coach, Gus Pugliese, recently went public with his displeasure. He voiced his opinion in a Facebook post and told MMASucka.com that “if [Dana] feels Ronda has a better market value than Hendo or Machida, he is gonna risk it. But Ronda never fought for the UFC, she was given the belt without a fight there. I believe in pecking order, and paying dues. In this particular case, it wasn’t applied.”
It’s hard to argue with Pugliese’s point of view, Henderson and Machida has fight of the year potential and because of it’s slot on the card will now be relegated to three rounds instead of five. Rousey, for her part, has never been out of the first round. Carmouche, for all her considerable talents, may as well come to the cage wearing a robe bearing the name “victim” as far as the UFC is concerned.
That begs the question, why not just move Rousey down to semi-main status and move Hendo-Lyoto to the main event? According to White, that’s impossible. He recently told the media throng at the TUF 16 finale that “You will never see a situation in any fight, whether men, women, the lightest weight division there is. If you’re the champion, you’re the headliner. You’re the top of the card”
In that statement, White seems to exhibit a short memory. Back at UFC 51, White allowed Tito Ortiz vs. Vitor Belfort to headline the event while relegating both the heavyweight title fight between Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia and the middleweight title fight pitting Evan Tanner against David Terrell to semi-main status.
Fans and pundits who are championing the decision to have Rousey’s UFC debut be a PPV headliner are making bold predictions that her TMZ fame will result in UFC 157 being one of the top three grossing UFC cards in history. No, really. Not just wishful thinking fans, either. People who have a track record in the sport are actually predicting that Rousey’s debut will outdraw such box-office behemoths as Chuck Liddell, Brock Lesnar and Anderson Silva.
While everyone involved, and indeed the sport itself, would benefit from a successful Rousey PPV debut, those projections are astronomically high. Rousey’s high-water viewership mark was 529,000 viewers on Showtime for her fight against Sarah Kaufman. That is a solid number to be certain, but to suggest almost double the people who last saw Rousey fight for free will pony up their hard-earned dollars to see her this time around seems foolhardy.
Women’s MMA has seen an explosion of growth over the past couple of years, thanks to Rousey, Gina Carano and the fledgling Invicta FC promotion. There’s no reason not to believe that women’s MMA won’t continue to trend upwards. But Rousey’s numbers on Showtime aren’t even as high as the former WMMA “it girl” Carano, who has since given up on the sport and crossed over to acting.
Henderson on the other hand, has been a part of higher viewership fights on Showtime, as well as on Spike TV. As a PPV headliner, his numbers have fallen in the 300,000-375,000 range. His PPV numbers are not world-beaters by any standard, but he has a demonstrated track record of people wanting to part with their money to see him fight. Machida has also shown to be a demonstrable draw, with his headlining stints averaging around 500,000 buys, with a high of 635,000 for his fight against Rashad Evans. Rousey has no such track record and objectively, if her PPV numbers match Hendo’s then the MMA world should consider that a success.
Henderson’s camp has a right to feel slighted, and while Rousey may be the UFC’s next big thing, it would be wise to temper expectations for her debut event.
All numbers come from MMAPayout.com’s Blue Book