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She didn't change the game, she invented it: Ronda Rousey's undeniable UFC legacy

Dan Wetzel
Columnist
Ronda Rousey, 31, is now a member of the UFC Hall of Fame. (Getty)

Over and over Dana White declared there would be no women fighting in his UFC. The thought of females beating on each other inside a caged Octagon was a step too far for a man who built an industry on regulating and packaging ruthless violence among men.

“Never,” the UFC president said.

That was 2010. And 2011. And even most of 2012. Many were with him on it, even as women’s fights sprung up in other, smaller promotions and the athleticism and action were clear to see. Call prejudice or bias or double standards or just a too-slow acceptance, but women’s cage fighting felt wrong.

Then Ronda Rousey came along.

Rousey was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame on Thursday. She is just 31, which she noted felt a little young to be a Hall of Famer. She did note she has suffered arthritis since before she became a medalist in judo at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, so maybe that’s her entry into old age.

This was a celebration for Rousey, who’s moved onto the scripted ranks of WWE. There was also plenty of mockery among those who see her for her failures, not her successes. Rousey continues to deal with a complicated, if mostly misunderstood legacy.

Rousey’s skills and salesmanship eventually wore White down. In late 2012, with hesitation, he created a women’s division. Rousey was the first woman signed. She won the brand new bantamweight title in her first fight and then defended it five times, all in quick and spectacular fashion.

The UFC gave women’s fighting credibility, exposure and money. Rousey was the star. She was the biggest sensation in the sport, igniting crowds and pay-per-view cards. She didn’t change the game, she invented it. She also changed the business model. An activity deemed too uncomfortable for the UFC was quickly everywhere, with Rousey appearing in commercials and movies, on magazine covers and red carpets.

Then in November 2015, she was kicked senseless by Holly Holm and it all came crashing down. A little over a year later, she returned following bouts of depression and anxiety, and got destroyed by Amanda Nunes.

Then she retired for good.

Ronda Rousey’s UFC dominance came to a shocking halt in November 2015, when Holly Holm stripped her of the bantamweight belt with a brutal kick to the head. (Getty)

To critics, she was a fraud, nothing more than a propped-up marketing sensation. She had been hailed as invincible and unbeatable, and then she was getting beat.

Most of that was based on ignorance of the sport and the circumstances surrounding her rise and fall. In MMA, everyone loses eventually. No one is invincible or unbeatable. Rousey didn’t help herself by saying outlandish things, or embracing the role of a heel and engaging in ridiculous weigh-in antics. Still, her loudest skeptics were often fans or media who only began paying attention because of her — she got too much hype, then too much hate. This is a sport that constantly evolves and grows. What is dominant today, isn’t in a year. It’s true of every fighter, man or woman.

Holm, for instance, was a gifted athlete and former professional boxer who never trained full-time in MMA until Rousey made it economically feasible. With big money now available, a year of dedication turned her into a dangerous fighter. When she stepped into the Octagon with Rousey, she was bigger and faster.

It wasn’t that the UFC hid Rousey from opponents like Holm or Nunes. It’s that they didn’t exist until Rousey blazed a trail. The men’s fighters who dominated the UFC’s early days were non-competitive by the time Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture took over, then Anderson Silva and Jon Jones made them obsolete, and so on and so on.

In the end, Rousey’s meteoric rise is more important than the spectacular fall. Her impact is undeniable.

Women’s MMA went from being considered a bit of a freak show that would “never” occur to fully integrated in the sport. The UFC is one of the most naturally progressive sports in the world. There is no longer a division between men’s UFC and women’s UFC — the way there is in say basketball or soccer.

It’s a meritocracy. Interest and quality is rewarded. Cards are staged, one fight is with two men, the next is two women, then back to men, then two more women. The fans don’t blink. They want a good fight and women have proven to deliver that in spades through equal athleticism, toughness, creativity and courage.

Women’s fights headline pay-per-view cards and even headlined a signature UFC 200. Thrilling fighters such as Nunes, Cris Cyborg, Rose Namajunas, Joanna Jedrzejczyk are fully established as name stars within the sport. Do they get the mainstream attention of Rousey? No. But for MMA fans who watch the most, getting to watch one of them compete is must-see.

That doesn’t occur without Ronda Rousey.

Rousey ended her MMA career at 12-2, including 6-2 in the UFC. To some, those two losses define her like a curtain that exposed the fraud.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Ronda Rousey blazed a trail for female UFC fighters and brought an entire new fan base onboard. (Getty)

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