The emergence of a superstar in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts is a rare thing. Rarer still is a phenomenon like Ronda Rousey.
From Olympic Judoka to full contact fighter, Rousey cruised through the opposition on her way to the UFC. Culminating that phase of her career with her fifth first-round armbar victory, she dislocated Miesha Tate’s elbow to take the Strikeforce world title. Five months later the UFC would absorb Strikeforce and Rousey would step into the Octagon as the inaugural UFC women’s bantamweight champion. She added seven more stoppage wins to her record, all in the first round, bar one third round armbar against her old rival, Tate.
Rousey was a breakthrough star. Never before had a UFC fighter penetrated the mainstream like Ronda did, and it wasn’t long before Hollywood recognised that draw and she began making movies with some of the biggest names in the industry.
Her brand grew as did public intrigue around this unusually talented athlete. In the Octagon Rousey was a fierce competitor, but outside she was friendly and conversational, albeit inundated with requests for media and appearances. It must have been an exhausting time. Taking on so many new projects and experiencing this new demand for her time, yet at the same time preparing for the toughest the UFC had to offer.
It all came to a head in Melbourne, Australia, at the end of 2015. As Ronda defended her belt in front of the largest live audience the UFC has ever hosted, against easily the toughest fighter that she had ever shared the Octagon with. Holly Holm did what most thought was impossible. After weathering the expected storm in the first she returned to her corner full of confidence. Ronda sat across the canvas taking in frantic instructions from her long-time trainer, Edmund Tarverdyan. She looked flustered and tired, realising that Holm was presenting her with issues for which she didn’t have answers.
As the second round began Holm cracked her with a huge headkick that caused Rousey to fall to the canvas in a limp state and as a result, the crowd in attendance fell silent. The following months left everyone wondering what would happen next for Rousey. With such a huge fan base it was no surprise that she was hounded about her return, and then about her mental state when no answer came.
Rousey stands triumphant following her victory against Sara McMann in UFC 170 (AP)
The next eighteen months would see the belt change hands again. Twice in fact. Firstly Ronda’s old rival would take it from Holm with a dramatic fifth round submission, and then at UFC 200 Amanda Nunes would dominate Miesha, taking the belt and putting the division on notice that there was a new queen.
One of the first things that Nunes did upon winning the belt was to state that a bout with Ronda was at the top of her list of priorities. Although the loss to Holm was a big setback, and the biggest that Rousey had experienced in her MMA career, the demand to see her return grew daily. Dana White was pestered at every opportunity until one day he had news. Rousey was ready to return and had her steely gaze set upon the new champion and her old belt. Nunes will get what she desires at UFC 207. Ronda will step into the Octagon as a challenger for the first time in her UFC career and attempt to pry the title from the tight grip of ‘The Lioness’.
This is undoubtedly the biggest test that Nunes has faced. She has wins over excellent opposition, and beat the likes of Sarah McMann and Valentina Shevchenko to gain a title shot, but facing Ronda is an entirely different experience.
Rousey during her weigh-in (AP)
It was the performance over Tate that Rousey should pay close attention to though. Nunes was disciplined and concise, picking Tate off with long range boxing and defending her takedown attempts. It was the ideal game-plan for Tate and it’s the ideal game-plan for Ronda. As we all remember though, Rousey is a competitor like no other, and although the loss to Holm did a lot to humanise her and burst that bubble of invincibility, she is still a very dangerous and well respected athlete.
To see Rousey return is a very special event, and one that many have been waiting a long time for. There can be no doubt though that the division is vastly different from when she stepped away a couple of years ago. During Ronda’s reign every other athlete within striking distance of the UFC was focused on her. She was the benchmark that everyone was aiming for, and when Holm shattered that she raised the level. Since then Tate has contributed, and then Nunes smashed all expectations again. Can she do it one more time and defeat, not only the biggest UFC star on the planet (hotly debated with McGregor, of course) but the woman that paved the way and opened the public’s eyes to the beauty of women’s MMA?
Watch UFC 207: Nunes vs. Rousey live on BT Sport from 1am GMT on the morning of Saturday December 31st or catch the Early Prelims from 11:30pm GMT on Friday night on UFC Fight Pass.