"She wants nothing to do with Ronda Rousey. She does not want to fight Ronda Rousey."
That was UFC president Dana White talking a few weeks ago on the fight promotion's weekly show on Fuel TV, his appearance ostensibly to hype the first women's bout in company history. But his bitter words were not aimed at Liz Carmouche, who'll make history along with Rousey in the main event of UFC 157 on Saturday night in Anaheim, Calif. No, White was trash talking Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos, whom he'd like us to believe is afraid of his women's champion.
But Santos isn't the one running scared. The UFC is.
Dana & Co. have a good thing going. They've created an attention-grabbing women's division solely upon the star power of Rousey, the former Olympian with the looks and charisma to draw the interest of the ESPN the Magazine "Body Issue," the HBO show Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and other media avenues that otherwise have little use for this sport. She has captivated the mainstream like no mixed martial artist before her.
Rousey also has dominated her fights like no mixed martial artist before her. You know the resume by now: Six professional bouts, six first-round finishes, five of them in 49 seconds or faster. That's a vital ingredient of the Rousey narrative, even as it relates to her Hollywood red carpet and TV talk show appearances. "I probably get more attention fighting because of how I look," she acknowledges during the HBO show, which has been airing this week. "But if I didn't know how to fight, and I just looked the way I did, no one would know who I am."
If there's a question mark still lingering amid all of the exclamation points in the success story of Ronda Rousey, it has to do with the quality of the opposition she's faced. Sure, her last two conquests have been a reigning champion and a former champ. And Saturday night's opponent, known as the "GirlRilla," is toughness personified, from her military background to the grit she's shown in the cage against more experienced fighters. But those impressive labels - "champion" and "toughness" - are weighed down by the perception that women's MMA is lacking in depth. It's a perception that's both pervasive and longstanding. The women's game was viewed the same way back when a different fighter was the clear alpha female.
That fighter, of course, was Santos. And the only reason we're talking about her in the past tense is that she hasn't won a fight since the summer of 2010. Well, she actually did return to the Strikeforce cage a year and a half after that, and her stay lasted only 16 seconds before she TKO'd Hiroko Yamanaka. But the result later was changed to a no contest after "Cyborg" tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol.
There's the rub. Though Santos is once again eligible to fight after having her license suspended for a year by the California State Athletic Commission, the UFC hasn't exactly rolled out the red carpet. "Cyborg" vs. "Rowdy Ronda" would have been the logical choice for the promotion's historic first. It's the one fight that even those with little regard for women's MMA would be intrigued to see. But Dana White & Co. have invested much in this new division, a venture they had no interest in undertaking until Rousey came along. What if their Olympic-hero, sex-symbol champ were to be vanquished by a brutish Brazilian with the steroid-tainted resume? How does that fit into the marketing plan?
Well, there is no "Cyborg" marketing plan. There's not even a "Cyborg" in the UFC anymore. Santos was granted her release from the company (and signed by the all-women Invicta promotion) after she, Rousey and White couldn't come to a resolution in a dispute over not dollars but pounds. And I'm not talking British currency. Santos has fought at 145 pounds throughout her career, and Rousey, though she started at 145, is the champ at 135. Ronda's position: Since I wear the belt, you've got to come to where I am if you want a piece of me. Cris's position: No can do, but how about we meet halfway?
This is where White could have stepped in if he wanted to see the fight happen. A summit meeting at 140 pounds sounded reasonable ... to anyone who wanted to be reasonable, that is.
"So you don't want to make 135, but you want to talk about fighting Ronda," White told reporters following a recent press conference. "First of all, you tested positive for steroids and got stripped of your title. And you're trying to talk about how Ronda doesn't want to fight you, but she's the champion at 135. If Ronda goes and does the fight at 140, it's not even for a title. The fight just makes no sense."
Yeah, sure, Dana, it's all about those championship belts and the organized process that goes into creating a hierarchy of contenders. Like the one that took place in the light heavyweight division and now has your champion, Jon Jones, preparing for his second straight title defense against a middleweight, this time one who's coming off a loss. Or the orderly procedure that is giving us welterweight belt holder Georges St-Pierre against a challenger coming off a loss and a suspension. Or heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez in a rematch with a guy he battered from the start last time.
The point is, the UFC can make any fight it wants to make. As much as White talks about being a fight fan -- and he no doubt is one, judging by his passion when he's around the fights -- let there be no mistaking that his behemoth MMA promotion is a business, not a meritocracy. There's no metaphoric ladder to climb in order to become a champion. You have to be a good fighter, yes, but to truly advance you must put no less effort into positioning your career strategically, like a manufacturer positions its products in the marketplace. The title belts? They're props.
So White can't be serious in dismissing the possibility of a catch-weight meeting between Rousey and Santos simply because the belt would not be at stake. This is a belt that has never once been put on the line. Does he think fans would turn their noses up at the fight because some brass-and-leather strap, so new that it probably still has its department store tags attached, wouldn't be on the line? Nonsense.
Or, to use the words White used in characterizing Santos' position that she'd be jeopardizing her health by dropping to 135 pounds: "It's wacky beyond wackiness."
Cris Santos is "irrelevant" to the UFC, to again use White's word, because the UFC has made her irrelevant. She's not afraid to fight Ronda Rousey, and Rousey isn't afraid to fight her. I think Ronda actually would relish the challenge, and with her virtuosic ground game and, thanks to her work with boxer extraordinaire Lucia Rijker, swiftly evolving standup, she might very well handle Cyborg like no one before her has. But the UFC isn't ready to take that chance.
It's not a matter of protecting Rousey. It's a matter of the company protecting its own interests. If Liz Carmouche overcomes staggering odds on Saturday night and walks out of the Honda Center with the belt slung over her shoulder, Dana and his team will live with that. In fact, they'll embrace it. A U.S. Marine as champ? A woman who will have broken not one but two barriers by also being the first openly gay fighter in the UFC? And in addition to being tough, she's well spoken and poised? The marketing folks will work with that. Gladly.
Not so with the woman whom Rousey disdainfully refers to as "Cyroid." A Ronda-Cris showdown would be a big-money fight, no question, but how do you capitalize on it in the long-term if you get the result you fear? At this point, trying to build the women's game on the brawny shoulders of Cris Santos would seem to be a walk down a dark alleyway. If down the road it becomes unavoidable for the paths of Rousey and Santos to meet, so be it. But the UFC isn't going to go there until it has no other options.
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