Ronda Rousey’s Great Fall
Never before has a two-fight stretch changed the perception of a fighter so drastically.
From August 2012 to November 2015, Rousey was considered as unbeatable as a fighter can get in her weight class. Prior to that period, she tore through her opponents in all eight of her amateur and professional fights, with only one of them lasting longer than a minute. Experts expected her to beat Sarah Kaufman in an August 2012 title defense, but when it came so easy and just like all the others – an armbar in 54 seconds – it opened eyes. Over her next seven fights, she went in as a 10-to-1 or larger favorite in five of them. Somehow, her fights were getting even shorter and more dominant. Three fights from July 2014 through August 2015 clocked in at 16 seconds, 14 seconds, and 34 seconds respectively. This was not a case of a fighter being protected – most of her opponents were considered the division’s elite – but rather a fighter so far above the competition that there was no reason to think her clinch-takedown-armbar strategy could be nullified.
And then it was nullified.
Experienced and light-footed Holly Holm circled away from most of Rousey’s mad dashes toward her, and defended brilliantly when Rousey was able to tie her up. With each attempt, Rousey ate punches for her trouble. The one time Rousey dragged the fight to the ground, she attacked an arm quickly and with a hint of either desperation or hubris. Holm popped out and got back to her feet just as quickly, and continued the assault as Rousey gamely charged her time and time again. By the second round, Rousey was a different fighter than we’d ever seen her. Now unquestionably desperate, tired, hurt, and so clearly outmatched on her feet, she fell to a head kick in the second round.
Holm exposed glaring holes on Rousey’s game, leading to criticism of Rousey’s training camp, led by coach Edmond Tarverdyan. Rousey is Tarverdyan’s only success story in MMA, and almost all of that success had come from a formula honed for years in judo, before Rousey ever walked in to Tarverdyan’s Glendale Fighting Club. While nobody expected Rousey to beat Holm on the feet, she showed only rudimentary skills there and a total inability to adapt when Plan A went awry.
Anticipation brewed for her return for more than a year, but there was no expectation that she’d return to her former dominance. Meanwhile, the competition improved markedly in her absence. Amanda Nunes brutalized Miesha Tate to take the bantamweight title in July. Valentina Shevchenko made her name by beating Holm and with a strong showing against Nunes. Julianna Pena trumped Cat Zingano. The waters that seemed calm when Rousey was in control of the division were now rough, with three different champions after Rousey and a destroyer now holding the belt.
There was always a chance that Amanda Nunes was going to run right through Ronda Rousey when they met at UFC 207, just as there was a chance that Rousey would get the fight to the floor and submit Nunes in short order. However, the events that unfolded in the 48-second main event were still surprising.
Rousey appeared in tremendous shape and clearly trained hard for the fight, but was completely unprepared to deal with Nunes on the feet. Nunes had the typically aggressive Rousey in retreat from the first exchange. There was no evidence of improvement in Rousey’s striking, which looked downright amateurish. Nunes hit her at will as Rousey desperately attempted to grab hold of her opponent without a hope of success. It got uncomfortable to watch quickly; it was the type of performance you inevitably see from once-great stars fighting into their 40s, but never get from a 29-year-old fighter that a year ago was so undeniably great.
The odds are that Friday night was Ronda Rousey’s last fight. There are opportunities for her outside of fighting, although some of them are likely to disappear after her last two performances, and she won’t be hurting for cash anytime soon. Not long ago, nobody would have predicted such an end for one of the most influential and important fighters in the history of the sport.
If she does return to the cage, whether out of sheer competitive drive or a desire to expand her pocket book, there will certainly be a place for her near the top of the division. Although Holm and Nunes exposed holes in her game, few in the division will have the ability to exploit them. However, to improve she’ll need a change of scenery. Based on her last two performances, Rousey was not equipped with the tools to adapt once her plan failed, and her striking has not improved. In order for her to excel at the highest level, a new coach and a new camp are necessary.
If her head is in the game, a Rousey return would be nice to see. The bantamweight division is significantly more interesting with her than without her.