Ali-Frazier and the legacy of Ronda Rousey

An esteemed MMA and boxing writer recently compared Ronda Rousey vs. Cat Zingano to the 1971 “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The basis, it seems, is that the fight is attracting a “horde of celebrities” (Jennifer Lopez! Will and Jada Pinkett Smith! Mandy Moore! Vin Diesel! It’s a millennium super party!) and Rousey and Zingano, like Ali and Frazier, both head into the fight with unblemished records.

It’s nonsense, of course. Ronda Rousey is a star, but not a cultural icon like Ali. (Yet, anyway). Rousey and Zingano combine for slightly more than two-thirds the fights Frazier had headed into Madison Square Garden in 1971 (19 to 26). Women’s bantamweight is still quite young in its maturation process; heavyweight boxing had been established for close to a century.

Iole specifically compared the fights to one another, though. Ronda Rousey vs. Cat Zingano, like Ali vs. Frazier, “could be the match that, 10 years from now, 25 years from now, 50 years from now, is [what] all other women’s bouts are judged against” Ali and Frazier each were guaranteed $2.5 million. Rousey and Zingano are guaranteed $65k/$65k and $100k/$100k to show/win, respectively. Rousey is also reportedly set to earn over $1 million in pay-per-view points. Ali vs. Frazier pulled in $1.5 million in gate revenues. Ronda Rousey pulled in a similar number in her last headlining role against Sara McMann at UFC 170, and tickets are still available for UFC 184 at 10:30 a.m. ET the morning of.

Of course, those Ali-Frazier numbers are from 1971. Translated into 2015 dollars, Ali and Frazier earned close to $15 million each and pulled in a gate of $8.65 million, which the UFC has only surpassed with an event that took place in a baseball stadium.

There’s a deeper point to be made than simply dismissing a bad fight analogy, though. Part of Ali’s legacy was built on the political and cultural events that surrounded and included him. But Ali would have been an interesting footnote if not for his success in the ring, and it’s the multiple career-defining rivalries – Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman – that cemented his place in the sport of boxing. Ali was fortunate to fight during a period when heavyweight boxing peaked with talent just as it was “fortunate” for Ali’s legacy that he lived through the Vietnam War and civil rights movement.

Rousey, for all her stardom, doesn’t have the same cultural environment to thrive on that front. Yes, she played a leading role in bringing women’s MMA to the forefront, but she came after Gina Carano, let alone Billie Jean King and Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

Few athletes ever reach the cultural heights of Ali, though, and it’s Rousey’s legacy in the cage that we’ll discuss in 10 years, 25 years, 50 years from now.

Ronda Rousey’s in-cage legacy won’t match up to Ali. It’s unlikely to match up to Anderson Silva or Jon Jones or Georges St-Pierre or Fedor Emelianenko. In fifty years, we’ll look at Ronda Rousey like we look at Royce Gracie today.

That’s not anything to be ashamed about, of course. Royce Gracie is as important a name in the sport of mixed martial arts as any of those other men. But we don’t talk about Royce Gracie as one of the greatest of all time like we do Silva or Jones or St-Pierre or Emelianenko. Gracie’s legacy was built on being light-years ahead of the competition.

Miesha Tate and Cat Zingano and Sara McMann are not Liston and Frazier and Foreman. Hell, they’re not Ken Shamrock or Dan Severn. Maybe they’re all Kimo Leopoldos. But without a foil, we’ll look back on Ronda Rousey’s career as a time when she dominated an emerging division.

Because there’s someone better than Ronda Rousey out there. Just like St-Pierre and Silva supplanted Fedor and Jones (and Jose Aldo?) supplanted them, someone will supplant Rousey. And it won’t take long, either. As women’s MMA grows, more talent will emerge, more elite fighters will develop, and those elite fighters will fight one another and build their own legacies.

And maybe things change. Maybe Zingano is more equipped to handle Rousey than we think. Maybe Rousey takes a fight against logical-foil Cyborg Justino. Maybe Rousey sticks around MMA for longer than we think and runs into those next-generation talents. Those are big maybes, though. It’s more likely that Ronda Rousey is too good for her own legacy.


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