Three Big Shows Close 2016
Three key shows from two promotions highlight the final week of 2016 in mixed martial arts. The big event is December 30 – a rare Friday pay-per-view for the UFC – featuring Ronda Rousey’s return following a 13 month absence. That show is sandwiched between two shows from Japan’s Rizin, which celebrates its one year anniversary with a December 29 event before the traditional New Year’s Eve show two days later.
Although at one time it appeared that Rousey’s first fight back following her November 2015 loss to Holly Holm would be one of the biggest events in UFC history, circumstances have changed. For starters, the opponent, bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, doesn’t have anything close to the name value or history with Rousey that the two previous champions, Holly Holm and Miesha Tate did. Then there is running on Friday night rather than UFC’s typical Saturday pay-per-view slot. The last time they made that switch to avoid running on New Year’s Eve, it took a chunk out of sales for a Brock Lesnar vs. Alistair Overeem fight. The final key factor is the agreement Rousey reached with UFC to do almost no media – evidently including the pre-fight open workout and press conference. Going back to her UFC debut (and really even before that), Rousey attracted as much media coverage as any major star in the sport’s history, and by last year, she received media attention at a far higher level than anything ever seen in this sport. Fewer media distractions are probably a good thing for Rousey when it comes to in-cage performance, but it won’t help pay-per-view sales. The show should end up as the fifth-biggest UFC event of the year, behind the trio of Conor McGregor fights and UFC 200 – all million-plus sellers on pay-per-view.
But the show is much more important than one pay-per-view number. From the moment she started making waves in Strikeforce, there was a feeling that Rousey’s time in the sport was limited, and by her own admission, her last fight isn’t far off from now. Friday’s match with Amanda Nunes is a critical moment in Rousey’s career going forward and for her legacy. If Rousey loses, it’s not unreasonable to think it will be her last fight.
With another loss, she would be viewed as a fighter that achieved athletic excellence and dominance in the nascent years of a division, but pushed the sport forward to a point at which she couldn’t keep up. When she lost, she shut everything down and wallowed in seclusion. Then she came back from her self-imposed exile the same only in name, no longer the force she’d been before.
However, if she wins it will change the way she is viewed today and will come to be viewed in retrospect. She lost, as everyone does in this sport, and shut everything down to refocus herself. Then she returned, reclaiming her championship and the top spot in the division.
A win for Rousey is a win for the UFC. Between Conor McGregor’s potential 10 month vacation, Jon Jones’ suspension, and the inability to pull Brock Lesnar out of their back pocket until at least July, the UFC may not hit 400,000 pay-per-view buys in 2017 until July at the earliest. If Rousey wins Friday and remains active, she could change that and carry the promotion in the first half of the year.
Nunes vs. Rousey is the only women’s match on Friday’s UFC card, but it’s hardly the only important women’s fight this week. Across the Pacific, Rizin, the latest attempt to recapture the magic of Pride in Japan, has scheduled five women’s bouts across its two shows. Had it not been for the success of Rousey in the UFC and Gina Carano in Strikeforce and EliteXC before her that probably wouldn’t be the case.
Rizin has a nearly six hour block on December 31 on the Fuji Network ending 15 minutes before midnight, during which they’ll show that night’s show on a slight tape delay and likely some portions/highlights from the December 29 show. Both shows will be streamed live to the rest of the world on eversport.tv. The promotion is looking to top last year’s 7.3 rating on New Year’s Eve for a show that featured the rematch between Bob Sapp and Akebono, Baruto Kaito vs. Peter Aerts, and Fedor Emelianenko, along with building future stars Kron Gracie, Erson Yamamoto, Gabi Garcia, and Rena Kubota. For a promotion that needs major television money to be a major player, ratings are king.
This year, the results of the December 29 show will have a big impact on the success of the December 31 card. The main attraction for December 29 is the second round of an open weight tournament, with quarterfinal matchups of Mirko Cro Cop vs. Mo Lawal (the show’s main event), Baruto Kaito vs. Tsuyoshi Kosaka, Amir Aliakbari vs. Heath Herring, and Valentin Moldavsky vs. Szymon Bajor. The winners will go on to compete in the final two rounds on the December 31 show. Cro Cop and Baruto are key ratings movers, and if both win, they would be matched in the semi-finals. Baruto, taking on a 46-year-old man that emerged from a nine year retirement last year, should advance to Saturday. Cro Cop has the size edge over Lawal, who won Rizin’s heavyweight tournament last year and is a late replacement for Wanderlei Silva, but he’s 42-years-old and been on the downside of his career for the past nine years.
The other match on the December 29 card that should get airtime on Fuji is wrestling star Kanako Murata against UFC and Pancrase veteran Rin Nakai.
Key fights on December 31 include Gabi Garcia vs. Yumoji Hotta, the worst kind of freak show fight that will pit the 245-pound jiu jitsu champion against a 49-year-old pro wrestler at a nearly 100 pound weight disadvantage. Then there is Kizaemon Saiga, whose wife is a famous singer in Japan, against Dillin West. Miyuu Yamamoto, the sister of Kid Yamamoto, mother of Erson Yamamoto, and member of the famous Yamamoto wrestling family, fights Andy Nguyen on the show. Later on the show, her son Erson will face Hideo Tokoro. Former shootboxing star Rena is also on the show fighting Hanna Gujwan. Finally, there is Tatsuya Kawajiri against Kron Gracie in the co-main event slot (the tournament finals will be the main event).
As is tradition, this year’s New Year’s Eve show is a mix of established stars (although in this case all are past their peak), gimmicks, and young talent that the promotion is position as major stars.