Depending on who you ask, Ronda Rousey is either the best or the worst thing to happen to women's MMA in years. The fact that she's happening at all might be a sign that things are about to change for female fighters. Whether the change is for better or worse all depends on how you look at it.
"I can't stand Ronda," said Strikeforce women's 135-pound champ Miesha Tate, who faces Rousey on Saturday night's Showtime fight card.
Even soft-spoken former champ Sarah Kaufman described the Olympic medalist turned MMA contender as "loud and crass," calling it "pretty ridiculous" for Rousey to be given a title shot after just four professional fights and less than a full round of combined cage time.
Granted, both women have reasons for disliking Rousey -- Tate because she's slated to fight her in Columbus, Ohio, after an acrimonious pre-fight build up, and Kaufman because Rousey took the title fight that she hoped would be hers. But they aren't the only female fighters to bristle at Rousey's quick rise to prominence in a division that's been a long, hard slog for many of the women who built it.
For years MMA's women have labored in mostly small shows for even smaller paychecks, and only now, after the UFC's parent company purchased the biggest organization to showcase their fights, are they starting to feel the full weight of the Zuffa marketing machine behind them. That the biggest such push comes only after Rousey has leveraged her looks and her mouth into a spot on the main stage has many of her colleagues in a fury, according to Tate.
"I think that's why a lot of us have a problem with Ronda," she told SI.com this week. "I just don't think she sees the big picture. If she did, I don't believe she'd feel OK about how she's talked her way into a title fight. If you've been following women's MMA or you are a woman in MMA, you know why we're upset. We've been putting in the work for so long and had our noses to the grindstone trying to be accepted and get to this point. We took it from the very bottom all the way to the top, and then Ronda comes in at the last minute and pulls the carpet out from under Sarah Kaufman's feet. It's just very unjust, and she feels OK with it because, in my opinion, Ronda's a very selfish person. She's more concerned with what's good for Ronda than what's good for women's MMA."
Perhaps the weirdest part about that last little dig is that Rousey might not disagree with it. As she admitted on a recent media call, she sought out the spotlight in interviews and photo shoots precisely because she didn't want to wait around and slowly work her way up like so many of her predecessors. To get the fight with Tate, she said, she was "pretty much overtly rude," and she doesn't particularly care if her peers like her methodology or not.
"This day a year ago I was working three jobs and struggling to train and do all this stuff, and I just wanted to be done with all of that," Rousey said. "I just wanted to be able to support myself through fighting and I wanted to do it as quickly as possible. I didn't want to sit around and do that for a few more years and slowly work my way up while telling everybody 'please' and 'thank you' and bowing my head. I knew that I could win the title the day that I started, and the quicker I could get it the better. If giving a couple more entertaining interviews than some of the girls helps me out, then I'm going to do that."
The fact that there's even an argument here tells us something about the differences between men's and women's MMA. For male fighters, it's a given that they're all looking out exclusively for themselves. So much so that there's no point in criticizing one another for it.
But women's MMA has always had a different tone. There are far fewer of them, for one thing, giving their division more of a communal feel. For another, they've never gotten anywhere near the respect or the money that their male counterparts have. In the struggle for a place at the table, they've always had a more cooperative attitude about pummeling one another for a living.
"Even though we're fighting each other, we have to work together to promote each other, help each other, and work off other in order for women's MMA to be successful," Tate said. "Ronda's not about it. She's just about Ronda, Ronda, Ronda."
For Kaufman, who already owns one win over the champ and felt sure she had earned another crack at the belt, getting passed over for Rousey was an insult that took some time to get over.
"It's frustrating, because you put your time in, you put your work in, you think you represent yourself well, and then you get stepped on," she said. "I'm not a huge talker. I'm not going to make outrageous comments about other fighters. I really try to stay true to myself."
But Rousey didn't sell this fight on trash talk alone, and she also didn't do it alone. Her looks undoubtedly played a part, as did Tate's, and the Showtime promos featuring both in evening gowns and sports bras didn't shy away from the oldest marketing tool in the book.
According to Kaufman, who will be the first to admit that she's not at home in a pair of high heels, that approach "sets us back a little bit." According to Tate, it's just something you have to do to get the attention of the mostly male fan base.
"I would like to see women's MMA based on the talent of the athlete, first and foremost," she said. "But I know the reality of it is that most women's sports don't get the same recognition that the men do. For us to even have this opportunity, headlining over men, you have to be thankful for what you have."
With this weekend's Tate-Rousey fight, what women's MMA has is a chance to perform on the biggest stage it's had since the Gina Carano-"Cyborg" Santos bout in August 2009. But then, the story of that fight is a reminder that one big night doesn't make a division. Carano lost that bout, then fled MMA for the movies, and two women haven't occupied the main event of a major fight card since. Not until now, anyway.
But even if the Tate-Rousey fight draws millions of eager viewers, and even if the two deliver an unforgettable bout, what then? What happens when the winner moves on to face a new opponent -- most likely the winner of Saturday's fight between Kaufman and Alexis Davis on the undercard -- and the sex appeal and smack talk both fade away? What happens if the fans who show up to see two pretty girls settle a score aren't interested in seeing anything else? What happens if it comes down to a choice between working together for scraps, or tearing one another down in search of the occasional elusive payday?
These are answers that women's MMA doesn't have yet, maybe because it's only recently starting asking itself the questions. Female fighters have struggled for so long just to get noticed. Now they might have to start thinking about means and ends, and about the price of achieving main event status in a sport that has long seen them as undercard material.