Tears in the octagon. So many were shed, so many others held in by a state of shock.
Holly Holm cried her face red as she ran circles inside the cage late Saturday night, looking for someone to share the moment with, a moment that just couldn’t be real, could it? The UFC 193 main event had just ended suddenly and stunningly, and Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, was rocking to the festive clamor of a record crowd of 56,214 who’ll all forever tell the world They Were There When.
When? When Ronda Rousey lay silent and still on the canvas, her aura of invulnerability smashed to bits around her.
After a bloodied, glazed-over Rousey was attended to by medical personnel and her cornermen, she was helped to her feet just in time to hear Bruce Buffer bellow “… and NEW, undisputed UFC bantamweight champion of the world!” Rousey stood there at the center of the octagon, her head bowed, with referee Herb Dean standing between her and Holm, holding one of each fighter’s hands in each of his. Then, for the first time in Rousey’s 13-fight MMA career, the arm the referee raised was not hers.
Rousey looked like she was about to break into tears, but what spilled out of her was nothing but a vacant stare. She’d just been felled by a ferocious head-kick knockout 59 seconds into Round 2 of a fight that she improbably never seemed to be in. Holm was solid from the moment the women first engaged, while Rousey was betrayed by holes in her game that never before had been seen.
In the space of six minutes, Holm went from no-chance underdog to sky’s-the-limit champion. Rousey went from superhuman to defenseless, her standup game picked apart and revealing a Plan B that involved awkward bull rushes that were unable to come to grips with her matador challenger. The winner cried her way through post-fight interview after interview, through hugs with her coaches, her husband, and her preacher father right there in the reverberating octagon, and through the long, glorious walk through a gauntlet of fan adoration on the way to her dressing room. If the loser cried, she did so in the semi-privacy of an ambulance on the way to the hospital, a sad ending to her reign.
No one should shed a tear for the sport, though.
Sure, the invincibility plot line of The Ronda Rousey Show now needs to go to rewrite, and the UFC no longer can simply book Ronda vs. Warm Body and lazily wait for the cash to flow in. But suddenly the women’s bantamweight division has come alive with game-changing possibilities. Think heavyweight boxing post-Buster Douglas. Think the PGA Tour after Tiger crashed his Escalade.
Holm’s victory was the biggest upset in MMA history not because she lacks the credentials of elite fighter but because in her two previous UFC bouts we’d seen barely a trace of what had won her multiple world championships during a 33-2-3 boxing career. Even more so, the magnitude of this shocking result has to do with what Rousey had done to everyone who’d come before. She had finished her 12 previous opponents, all but one of them in the first round, eight in the very first minute. Her three most recent defenses had lasted 16, 14, and 34 seconds. Oddsmakers favored “Rowdy Ronda” by anywhere from 8-1 to 15-1.
If the fight had gone the way the pundits (including this typist) predicted, what would we have been left with? Calls for an elusive showdown between Rousey and the brawny Cris “Cyborg” Justino would have intensified. Maybe Miesha Tate finally would have gotten her third Wile Coyote shot. Or perhaps next in line would have been Amanda Nunes and another case of double-digit odds.
Instead, the 135-pound division is wide open. All those vanquished by Rousey -- Tate, Cat Zingano, Sarah Kaufman, Alexis Davis -- now have Holm in their crosshairs. Toss Cyborg and Nunes into that mix. Or put any of those women in with a humbled Rousey. So many juxtapositions.
And if, as UFC president Dana White confirmed afterward is most likely, a Holm vs. Rousey II is booked, that also would change the narrative. A second win by “The Preacher’s Daughter” would establish her as a dominant champion, just as Chris Weidman’s sequel triumph over Anderson Silva put him on solid ground. And even if Rousey were to recapture the belt, she will never be what she was. Remember what Mike Tyson looked like after Buster? What Brock Lesnar looked like after being exposed as one-dimensional by Cain Velasquez? The same challengers Rousey has seen before would walk in the cage for a redo with renewed confidence. Tthey’ve seen what they’ve seen. And Rousey has lived through it.
All of women’s MMA got a boost on Saturday night, really. In the co-main event, Joanna Jedrzejczyk retained her strawweight belt, but it wasn’t easy. Her challenger, Valerie Letourneau, was an even heavier underdog than Holm, but she got the better of the champ early on and pushed her the whole way. Of course, “Joanna Champion” hasn’t been the domineering force that Rousey has -- this was just the second title defense for the Pole, to seven for the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in judo -- but she’d beat up her last two opponents pretty brutally. She was on a roll. This fight slowed her hype train a wee bit, as emboldened challengers wait at the station to climb aboard.
So you might say that on an unprecedented night for women’s MMA -- the main and co-main event of a card with the biggest attendance in UFC history and pay-per-view sales expected to be around a million -- the sport came up big, erasing an uneven, even predictable past and opening a future of delicious possibilities.