November 09, 2012

[Editor's note: After this column was posted Friday, Rousey's manager disputed the report that Rousey had already joined the UFC.]

Not that anyone is surprised.

That's one of the first things you might say if you were telling someone about the two news items that dramatically altered the mixed martial arts landscape Thursday night. But beyond their shared inevitability, Strikeforce shutting down and the fight promotion's biggest star, Ronda Rousey, moving to the UFC -- as first reported by and confirmed by numerous media outlets -- are as different in scope and significance as revelations get.

One is a last gasp. The other, an historic first.

Let's get Strikeforce out of the way first. After all, that's something that Zuffa, the UFC's parent company, has been working on since buying the promotion in March 2011. Dana White and Co. tried to convince us otherwise, but the signs were everywhere.

No sooner had word got out that the sport's biggest promotion was in control of its primary (though feeble) competitor -- an organization that White had been fond of referring to as "Strikefarce" -- when we began being fed a Dana mantra that Strikeforce's operation remained "business as usual." This was purported to be a reassurance, but we should have recognized it as ominous.

I mean, when Zuffa had bought other UFC competitors -- the World Extreme Cagefighting in 2006, the Pride Fighting Championships in 2007, the International Fight League in 2008 -- what happened? They all disappeared. So this pending dissolution of Strikeforce, reportedly to go down following a just-announced event on Showtime Jan. 12, is indeed business as usual.

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Let's not be cavalier and ignore the real-life impact of the Strikeforce shutdown -- jobs will be lost, both inside and outside the cage -- but in terms of the fight game, this is not a passing that will be forlornly mourned. The organization has long been on its deathbed, even when its fight cards were actually taking place as scheduled. The last two have been canceled, however, and as the lights continued to dim, it became reasonable to surmise that we'd never hear from Strikeforce again.

Earlier this week, however, the promotion announced that Jan. 12 card featuring title defenses by all three off its remaining champions -- lightweight Gilbert Melendez, welterweight Nate Marquardt and middleweight Luke Rockhold -- plus its final Daniel Cormier fight before the two-time Olympic wrestler makes his announced move to the UFC. But even that big splash felt a little like one of those blowout pool parties college-age kids watching the house for Mom and Dad might plan for the weekend before the parents arrive home. Grab a drink, everyone, and let's dive in before the party's over!

Then again, maybe the celebration analogy should be reserved for the other bit of news: the UFC becoming a co-ed pool party. That the behemoth fight organization would bring on Rousey and presumably other women -- she has to fight someone -- is a stunning turnaround for a company whose mouthpiece had said as recently as last year that women would never fight in the UFC.

Actually, this news is stunning only if you haven't been paying attention lately. As Rousey emerged on the scene and proceeded to rip the arms off every woman she met, Dana White began to take notice. His tune changed, which was a curious reaction considering that the UFC president's dismissal of the women's game centered not on a distaste for women's fighting, he repeatedly said, but simply his belief that there were not enough high-level fighters to fill a women's division. Ronda's rowdiness wasn't really altering the overall landscape one bit. But Dana couldn't help but recognize a star in the making.

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Soon we saw Rousey cageside at UFC events. We saw her posing for pictures with White. We heard Dana speak glowingly of her, dropping hints that she might one day be octagon bound. And then, two weeks ago, he came right out and said it, telling's Melissa Segura that a UFC women's division is "absolutely going to happen." White didn't reveal a timetable -- it "could happen tomorrow, it could happen a year from now" -- but added, "The point is, I'm committed to this."

So Rousey is in, and apparently she has company. Former Strikeforce champion Miesha Tate, the only of Ronda's six professional opponents to last more than a minute before being armbarred, took to Twitter on Thursday night and wrote: "So stoked to be fighting for the @UFC. It's been a dream of mine for a long time! So happy it's finally come true."

That's actually the closest thing we have to an on-the-record confirmation. Rousey has said nothing publicly. Dana White, ever the tease, sent out this terse but telling -- or at least suggestive -- tweet at around 10 p.m. ET on Thursday: ":)"

White should be smiling. Thanks to the UFC, women are taking a huge step forward. This is not merely about MMA. It even supersedes sports altogether. This is going to alter perceptions of and core beliefs about the gender.

It's one thing for the Diana Taurasis and Abby Wambachs of the world to find fame and fortune on the basketball court and soccer field. Combat sport is different. It's forever been a testosterone-driven domain where the women's role was to carry around ring cards. Boxing has included women for many years, true, but even when the daughter of The Greatest was one of the leading lights, the women's fight game never really took center stage. It's going to be different in the UFC.

Ronda Rousey -- dominant champion, Olympic medalist, cover model for the ESPN the Magazine "Body Issue" -- will command the spotlight. And if the UFC can put her in the cage with someone who can test her -- hello, Cris "Cyborg" -- it'll be as big an event as anything the fight promotion can serve up, short of one of the men's superfights being bandied about.

It's hard to imagine that fight not happening, especially considering all the money Dana White is going to be willing to throw at Rousey and Cyborg to make the women's division premiere a Big Event. But even if we have to wait a while for that megaclash -- Cyborg is serving a suspension after testing positive for an anabolic steroid -- the presence of Rousey alone will illuminate the profile of women's fighting in the UFC.

Does it even matter whether White still perceives a lack of depth in women's MMA? Having Ronda around falls right in line with UFC matchmaking's recent turn toward style over substance. After all, Dana has a nice, deep men's light heavyweight division at his disposal, and he's not even tapping it for the next title fight, opting instead to put his money where Chael Sonnen's mouth is. So why not bring on the women, even if the show taking stage at this point is just Ronda and a background chorus? That'll sell.

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