Mailbag: Why Ronda Rousey-Cris Justino fight makes sense for UFC

Tuesday February 25th, 2014

Has the undefeated Ronda Rousey already run out of viable opponents in the UFC?
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

"If Ronda Rousey successfully defends against Sara McMann and Cat Zingano, she might be good for one more fight in 2014. It almost assuredly won't be against Cris 'Cyborg' Justino."

That was some blustery know-it-all pontificating recently on the possibility that this year might produce the biggest fight in the history of women's mixed martial arts. OK, yeah, the windbag was yours truly, answering a question in the last MMA mailbag. That was a little over a month ago, and many e-mails, tweets, birthday cards and ransom notes have come this way since then. But before we get to any of those, allow me to revisit, rethink, and revise.

Over the past two weeks, some new developments in the Rowdy Ronda vs. Cyborg saga have conspired to turn me into a flip-flopper on the magnitude of [fill in the name of your least-favorite politician]. First, Dana White whipping boy Tito Ortiz stepped aside as Justino's manager, eliminating one of the UFC president's excuses for not wanting to get in the "Cyborg" business. Then, last Friday night -- 24 hours before Rousey was to step into the octagon to face McMann -- Justino appeared on the AXS TV show Inside MMA and removed some more obstacles. No longer would she insist on a catchweight meeting, a middle ground between her 145-pound fighting weight and Rousey's 135. Now the Brazilian was willing to cut down to 135 pounds, she told the UFC champ, in order "to retire you like I did Gina Carano."

Justino covered a lot of bases in her brassy statement, even acknowledging her own anabolic steroid-tainted resume by saying she'd agree to be tested every week in the leadup to the fight. She also addressed the much-mocked Ortiz claim that Justino would die if she had to cut to 135, saying that it actually was her doctor's recommendation that she not spend the rest of her career at that weight. "I will still listen to my doctor's advice," she said, "and fight no more than three times at 135: First to win the Invicta belt, the second time to kick your ass, and the third time to kick your ass again so that the world can see it wasn't luck."

Now that's an in-your-face call-out that even "Rowdy" Ronda would be proud of.

And it's one that the UFC must take seriously. Rousey has yet to face a severe test and is running out of options. Nine fights, nine victories, all finishes, eight of them in the first round. McMann, who like Rousey has Olympic medalist credibility, was supposed to be the toughest challenge yet, and in a way she was, using her wrestling acumen to keep the fight standing and out of armbar range. But she sure was within range of Rousey's left knee, which crumbled McMann with a liver shot barely a minute in. Next?

WAGENHEIM: Rousey shows range in win at UFC 170

The UFC has the drive and creativity to pump air into even the saggiest fight -- hell, just last weekend the promotion made a guy from Starbucks sound like a star -- but it's becoming increasingly difficult to make a credible case for anyone it sticks in the cage with Rousey. Zingano has earned a title shot, and if she's recovered from her knee injury in time, she should get it this summer. What do you expect to happen in that fight? Yeah, me, too.

We do not, however, know what would happen in a Rousey vs. Cyborg bout. Actually, some think they do, but interestingly the "she'll murder her" opining comes from supporters on both sides. Looking at the fight from a dispassionate perspective, it's possible to envision either woman's winning scenario. How do we reconcile that? There's only one way.

Why is the UFC so hesitant to put on a fight for the ages? Well, the promotion has it made with Rousey being the face of women's MMA. And I do mean face. As supremely gifted as she is as an athlete, an undeniable element of Ronda's star power -- certainly a part that the UFC overtly sells -- is her physical appearance. Magazine photo shoots. Movie roles. Appearances on late-night TV. These things elevate not just Rousey's profile, but also the UFC's as well.

Justino has neither the fashion-model looks nor effervescent personality to be a transcendent star. She's just a fighter, and a tainted one at that, having popped positive for stanozolol a little over two years ago. That makes her a harder sell. But the UFC sells us Vitor Belfort, who tested for elevated testosterone in 2006 and now uses testosterone replacement therapy, which is basically a commission-sanctioned PED. Josh Barnett. Alistair Overeem. Chris Leben ... the list goes on of fighters who've failed drug tests, served their suspensions, then fought in the UFC.

So there's no excuse for passing up Rousey vs. Justino. Sure, make "Cyborg" first prove she can make the 135-pound limit in an Invicta fight. But if that happens and the UFC still turns away from this challenge, it might as well take the brass from the women's bantamweight championship belt and melt it down into belly-button piercings.

OK, on to some more recent correspondence, starting with an e-mail that takes another angle on The Rowdy One ...

Ronda Rousey is an elite athlete who has sacrificed a lot to get where she is. She has singlehandedly raised the profile of women's MMA tenfold (and this comes from someone who does watch Invicta). I do get (though I don't agree with) why she was booed after the Miesha Tate fight. But at the UFC 170 weigh-ins, she initiated the handshake with Sara McMann, and she did touch gloves before the fight. She even withdrew her 53-baby offer, since Fedor is married.

And yet after beating McMann, she gets booed. Then conducts an interview where Arianny Celeste (an octagon girl!) says Rousey isn't enough of a role model. She's not Miss Congeniality, but if my daughters were looking for a role model, they could do a lot worse than a hard-working, independent, empowered woman. So what is everyone's problem with her?

-- Ro'ee, Israel

Well said, Ro'ee, well said. I'm going to set aside the discussion of whether a world champion athlete is a better or worse role model for girls than, say, a woman whose job is to walk around in a bikini, cardboard number held overhead, blowing kisses to catcalling cretins at cageside. Actually, that dynamic is part of the issue. Rousey is more than a pretty face, and more than an elite athlete as well. She's a complicated human, not easily packaged into a neat little box with a bow on top.

Ronda created some of the acrimony with her pouting and antisocial behavior during the buildup to the second Tate fight, particularly during their coaching stint on The Ultimate Fighter. But the UFC and Fox manipulated her on-edge emotions, caricaturizing her into some sort of monster. The fans seem to have bought in ... which is another way of saying the bad-girl image sells. Especially if you walk out, frowning, to Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation."

As for the aftermath of Saturday's fight, I suspect that a lot of the boos were not for Rousey but for referee Herb Dean, who jumped in quickly -- in my opinion, a bit too quickly -- after McMann was floored by the liver shot. With that, fans had just seen a main event and co-main last 1:06 and 1:19, a pretty anticlimactic end to the evening if you dropped a couple hundred bucks for tickets. I imagine a lot of folks watching at home on the $55 pay-per-view did a little venting as well.

The five-minute infomercial touting the greatness of Daniel Cormier vs. Pat Cummins was weird because it was on the PPV right before their co-main event. Why sell me on something I've already bought? It actually made me angry, because I had to watch all these lies, which took longer than the fight.

I thought Cummins was this up-and-comer, but I was confused, because Cormier is old. So how could these two be on the same wrestling mat in 2004? Come fight night, I learn that Cummins is 33. He's no up-and-comer. Without TRT, he's almost over the hill.

Do you think the con job the UFC tried to pull over their fans is going to hurt going forward?

-- @davelebold

In a word: No. Cormier vs. Cummins was no less ridiculous a matchup in concept than it turned out to be in reality. But a few factors will save the UFC from too much criticism.

First off, Dave, UFC 170 had a pretty good undercard, especially the rousing Rory MacDonald vs. Demian Maia bout that immediately preceded the co-main. And then, right after Cormier's win, we saw another quick finish, one with a controversial stoppage. That kind of ending tends to draw away the attention.

Those still annoyed at having to watch a top contender vs. a barista can ask themselves this: What was the alternative? The UFC originally canceled the co-main event when Rashad Evans pulled out with an injury. So it was either this fight or no fight. Good for Cormier that he got his payday and got to show he can cut to 205 pounds. As long as the UFC doesn't try to sell us on this fight elevating Cormier's standing at light heavyweight even in the least, I'm not going to complain.

The UFC has an opinionated but forgiving fanbase. Did you notice how quickly the grumbling over Saturday's main event and co-main came to a halt when news broke late Sunday night that the behemoth promotion had matched second-fiddle Bellator's offer to Gilbert Melendez and would be giving the popular lightweight a shot at Anthony Pettis? Sure, some will continue to bellyache, but you can't please everyone.

The UFC is facing an epidemic: Boring fights. With all the decisions over the last couple of months, maybe the promotion needs to incentivize finishing fights a little more. Many fighters seem to be playing it safe, and it's hard to blame them: One win or loss can have a huge impact on their career.

My suggestion would be to revamp the pay structure. Instead of "show" and "win" money, add a "finish" bonus into each fight. For example, instead of $16,000 to show and $16,000 to win, for a $32,000 total, give the fighter $16,000 to show plus either $10,000 to win by decision ($26,000 total) or $20,000 to win by finish ($36,000 total). This means a $10,000 difference between playing it safe and going for the finish. The UFC would end up paying out a little more when the fighters finish, but I don't think the company would mind, since it makes the product more exciting.

-- Jimbo, Rochester, N.Y.

Interesting concept, Jimbo, and I wouldn't be surprised if the UFC goes in that direction someday. Two straight events with 10 fights going to decision probably has kept a conference room at Zuffa headquarters busy with brainstorming sessions.

I, for one, am not troubled by decisions. In a way, I see their preponderance as a sign of the times -- that is, a sign of the promotion's high-level competitive balance. Earlier this month, I sat at cageside in Newark and watched three straight fights in which guys making their UFC debuts suffered their first career losses. My takeaway wasn't that these young fighters were not ready for prime time, but rather that they were. Each of them was put in trouble fairly early in his fight, and I was surprised to see each of them survive to the final horn.

Of course, I heard plenty of boos from the crowd that night, so my appreciation for back-and-forth tussles isn't necessary a popular view. But I think it's important to know what we're asking for. Is it really important to see knockouts and submissions, or are we OK with watching two fighters simply engage to their fullest, in whatever form that takes?

Is Gilbert Melendez already the fighter of the year for his play between Bellator and the UFC?

-- @christopher_kit

I get where you're going with that, Chris. Even though Melendez has ended up right back where he started, he might have blazed a path for other top-level fighters.

When news came that Gil had signed an offer to join Bellator, it looked like Bjorn Rebney's company might have landed a big one. Melendez is among the best lightweights in the world, and the Viacom promotion already has two other 155-pound beasts, Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler. For the first time, Bellator was on the verge of being able to stake a claim of supremacy -- or something close to it -- in a weight class. Yes, the UFC still would own seven of the 10 spots in most everyone's lightweight Top 10, but Melendez, Alvarez and Chandler all are at the uppermost level of the game.

It didn't turn out so well for Bellator, as the UFC exercised its option to match the terms of the Melendez deal. But that bodes well for other fighters, who can use Bellator offers to leverage better contracts from the UFC, and even for Bellator, which likely will land a top guy or two eventually if it keeps making offers.

This is a double-edged sword, of course. It's most comforting for the fans when all the athletes are under one promotional umbrella so the best can be matched against the best. If a bunch of significant names trickle over to Bellator, fans will lose out on some essential matchups. But here's what counterbalances that: Fighters are going to be paid more. Having both the UFC and Bellator bidding for a fighter's services changes the dynamic. (So would a fighters' union, but one step at a time.) If fans must occasionally miss out on seeing a must-see fight, so be it. It's worth the small sacrifice if you care about the lives of the men and women who step into a cage and get beat up for your entertainment.

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the next MMA mailbag, click on the e-mail link at the top of the page.

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