By Steve Borchardt
It starts with a faint murmur. A handful of journalists and obsessive fans take note as a prospect begins to emerge on the outer fringes of some field of sport or entertainment. Echoes of these initial reports reverberate outward like a ripple in a lake caused by a fisherman casting his lure and before long they reach the ears of the general public. Suddenly more and more people take note of what appears to be a talent destined for greatness. Then, almost imperceptibly, the voices aggregate into a discernible buzz reminiscent of a swarm of bees flying about their hive. Finally a climactic turning point arrives and the buzz gives way to a thunderous roar, as a rapt crowd erupts in an almost Dionysian display of unrestrained adulation.
And that's how a superstar is born.
So it was with Ronda Rousey this past Saturday night. Although she had yet to earn a six figure payday, Rousey walked into the Honda Center already a legitimate star. She had proven herself a television draw when, after just two appearances on the national stage, she drew Strikeforce's best television rating of 2012 against opponent Sarah Kaufman. A masterful last minute promotional push by the UFC and a whirlwind media tour made her into a name who could put the proverbial butts in seats; quite a few of them in fact, as her inaugural UFC women's bantamweight title defense against Liz Carmouche drew the second largest amount of tickets sold after the opening week in company history (the standing record was set when Randy Couture came out of retirement to face Tim Sylvia for the heavyweight title after tickets for UFC 68 had already gone on sale). All told, Rousey and Carmouche drew an audience of 15,525 to the Honda Center for a gate of $1.4 million. This is more than the heavyweight title match between Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez did in the same building with weeks of constant advertising on FOX to hype up the fight. Any way you look at it, Ronda Rousey was a big deal when she woke up on Saturday morning.
She went to bed that night one of the biggest attractions in the UFC.
From the moment Rousey's music hit the atmosphere in the Honda Center appeared to change. While I wasn't there in attendance, judging from the television broadcast - on which a vast expanse of simultaneously flashing cell phone cameras created dazzling constellations of light as far as the eye could see - it appeared there was an almost palpable charge in the air when Rousey emerged from backstage; as if an electric current of excitement surged through the assembled spectators while they focused their attention on the woman making her historic walk to the cage.
But was that it? Was it merely the historical significance of the first ever women's fight in the UFC that had the crowd so amped? Partially, but that doesn't explain all of the excitement surrounding this fight. If two women with bland personalities had been the first female mixed martial artists to compete in the UFC it still would have still been regarded as noteworthy by the MMA media and some hardcore fans. However, it hardly would have approached the transcendent emotion Rousey and Carmouche evoked.
Was it the excellent promotion on the UFC's part that did such an effective job getting across both fighters' personalities and stories to the public? That was obviously a large part of it as the late rush on tickets attests to, but again, if a different pair of female fighters had been given the exact same full court media press and been the subject of three well-produced UFC: Primetime specials, they wouldn't have gone on to sell over 8,000 tickets after a lackluster opening week like these two did.
Maybe it was a mix of Rousey's win streak, her good looks, the Olympic bronze medal she won in judo, and her at once charming and brash interviews that captured the public's imagination? Obviously all of this played a huge role in building her fanbase, but taken alone none of those individual factors would have garnered the level of attention Rousey received in the lead up to this fight.
What was it then? It was a perfect storm of the above combined with the rarest of all commodities: an innate personal magnetism. Whether we call it "star power" or "the it factor," what we're really talking about is the innate ability certain charismatic individuals have to connect with and provoke emotion from a large number of people. It's something that can't be practiced or taught; you either have it or you don't. Once Rousey stepped into the cage on Saturday, any doubts that may have been lingering over her were erased: Ronda Rousey most definitely has "it."
When Carmouche got Rousey's back early in the fight and applied a neck crank after attempting a standing rear naked choke, the crowd reacted with the type of acute nervous tension that attends only the most significant fights. You know, the ones involving legitimate superstars fighting for big stakes. After Rousey got on top of Carmouche and began working for her signature armbar late in the first round, all 15,000 plus fans in attendance seemingly lost their shit in anticipation of seeing their elected hero emerge victorious.
They weren't let down. Rousey's first round armbar victory coming on the heels of early adversity was an absolutely perfect story that could not have been scripted any better. She lived up to all of the hype swirling about her in the buildup to the fight and in the process proved herself to be someone fans could feel secure about emotionally investing in.
While some may say the first women's fight in the UFC was a one time novelty that will henceforth be met with diminishing returns, the fact is Saturday night wasn't just about women fighting in the UFC for the first time. It was also about the coronation of Ronda Rousey as one of the UFC's top superstars. As long as she keeps winning, Rousey's star will only get bigger from here.
Critics who decry the focus on Rousey at the expense of other women in the division are merely betraying the fact they don't understand the first thing about promoting. Superstars like Rousey are the engines who drive major business, not the rank and file fighters up and down the card. What's good for Ronda Rousey is good for WMMA as a whole because her starpower shines a far brighter light on females in mixed martial arts than they would otherwise garner.
To assert otherwise is to live in a fantasy world where fight promotions make decisions based on sociological doctrines like feminism rather than being motivated by what will make them the most money. Sure it would be noble of the UFC to provide female fighters a platform for altruistic reasons, but even if Dana White had decided to institute the women's division out of the goodness of his heart rather than the dollar signs he saw in Rousey, this by no means would have guaranteed women would become a major part of the UFC. Without a legitimate superstar to draw fan interest, women in the UFC would likely be just like the flyweights: a division full of interchangeable fighters that can't draw on their own. However, in the aftermath of Rousey's ascension to superstardom, WMMA suddenly become a far bigger concern overnight. To complain about the UFC's promotional efforts focusing mainly on Rousey is to miss the very obvious fact that if it wasn't for her, WMMA wouldn't have received 1/10th of the attention it has over the past few weeks.
Sure, it's always possible Rousey could lose her next fight in devastating fashion and thus diminish some of her mystique. I wouldn't bet on it though. So far she's done nothing but handily dispose of every opponent she's faced, and - baring a career altering injury or a freak illness like the one that affected Brock Lesnar - will likely remain enthroned atop her division well into 2014 and beyond.
If you're a Rousey detractor, it would probably be a good idea to start coming to terms with the fact she's going to be a major part of the UFC for a long time to come. Superstars have a way of being hard to ignore, especially when they shine as brightly as Ronda Rousey does.