Ronda Rousey vs Gina Carano: Between Sport and Spectacle
For those who don’t follow the sport, but are somehow reading this website, Gina Carano and the UFC have been in off-and-on negotiations for months now. At this point, Gina’s return after five years away from the sport, and the ensuing immediate title fight with Ronda Rousey, both seem almost certain.
The first truly huge female star in the sport facing the current dominant female Bantamweight Champion. Unequivocally, this would be tremendous spectacle, akin to some of the biggest matches ever made in boxing.
Unfortunately, this is not Muhammed Ali, returning from a three year hiatus for conscientiously objecting to the Vietnam War and working his way back to a title shot and reclaimed glory. This is Joe Louis in 1951, a decade removed from his peak, coming back from retirement because he needed the money and taking on Rocky Marciano in a glorified snuff match.
In fact, this may actually be worse than that. The UFC, for all their general discipline in maintaining 500+ fighters across 10 different divisions, has held its fair share of questionable title matches over the years. Demetrious Johnson vs. Chris Cariaso is certainly a bit of a head-scratcher. Few thought Nick Diaz legitimately deserved his shot at Georges St. Pierre last year, coming directly off a loss to Carlos Condit. Of course, to be fair, no one expected Randy Couture to have a chance in hell against Tim Sylvia, and people were downright disdainful of Matt Serra’s chances when he earned a title shot by winning The Ultimate Fighter 4, and both of them ended up shocking the entire sport.
But none of those matches were even close to the mismatch that is Gina Carano vs. Ronda Rousey. Gina Carano left the MMA world in 2009, getting bludgeoned by Cris Cyborg late in the first round of the inaugural Strikeforce Featherweight Title match. One can hardly blame her for going to Hollywood when the chance to do so came, but the fact is she is now five years removed from active competition. In the meantime, Women’s Bantamweight has become the dominant heavier division in Women’s MMA, with five times the depth Women’s Featherweight ever did, and Ronda Rousey has come to dominate her opponents like no athlete the sport has ever seen in the current boom era. As much as Randy Couture was considered an outrageous choice to face Tim Sylvia in 2006, Sylvia was hardly the dominant force in his division that Rousey is, and Couture had barely been gone a year.
Right now, it’s hard to say which is scarier: the Ronda Rousey who was beating top competitors with an armbar that everyone knew was coming, and usually in less than 60 seconds, or the more recent and versatile version who caved in Sara McMann’s liver with a knee and then beat Alexis Davis in a 16-second beatdown that more closely resembled a hate crime than a fight. Either way, only two opponents have managed to give her anything resembling difficulty, and prior to UFC 175, one columnist described her as “shit-your-pants scary.”
The fact remains though, that she’s actually not out of challengers, not by a long shot. The winner of Cat Zingano vs. Amanda Nunes at UFC 178 would make a perfectly plausible challenger, and both of them at least have a shot. Nunes with her crazy athleticism and one-punch knockout power, and Zingano with her all-around grappling and clinch striking. Waiting in the wings are people like Holly Holm, Bethe Correia, Julianna Pena, Lauren Murphy (if she can get by McMann), and above them all is the leviathan Cris Cyborg, if she can squeeze her body down to 135. And the fact is, Gina Carano probably loses to most or all of the entire top ten right now in Women’s Bantamweight.
I should probably be clear that I would love to see Gina Carano come back to the sport. I was a huge fan back in the day. But in 2014, from a sporting perspective, Gina Carano has no business being in the same cage as Ronda Rousey. Nunes or Zingano would both be lopsided underdogs but both have plausible paths to victory. Carano, for all her Muay Thai acumen, does not have a reasonable chance. Anything could happen, and I fully expect that Ronda, out of pure respect for her idol, may hold back a bit and not initiate the sort of blitzkrieg massacre she used on Alexis Davis and so many others before her, but I don’t see that making much difference.
Unfortunately, as things are, there’s no guarantee that Carano—or more accurately her representatives—would be down for a warm-up fight. I’m not convinced Dana White would be either. And even if they all were, there’s no guarantee Carano would win such a thing, which might be a problem for the UFC.
If the UFC wants to capitalize on the pro-wrestling-esque spectacle, Carano vs. Rousey may be now or never.
So, I have to propose a compromise: please don’t put the goddamn title on the line. It doesn’t matter how much Carano did for the sport in the past, it makes a mockery of what the sport is today, and has tried to be for well over a decade: a sport. Mismatches can occur, freakshow fights can occur, but when the freakshow fight is for the title when there are better options available, it’s not a sport, it’s pro-wrestling without a fixed outcome.
I strongly urge the UFC to follow the Matt Hughes/Royce Gracie blueprint instead and make it a catchweight, at 140 preferably. It’s not even about the fact that Carano was never a Bantamweight in her career. In fact, supposedly she’s never even had a traditional full training camp before, not for her MMA fights anyway, and may very well be able to make 135 with the help of someone like Mike Dolce. Carano could certainly make 140 more easily, but that’s a minor point.
The fact is, this is a freakshow fight. Ultimately there’s nothing wrong with freakshow fights in MMA in general. There were plenty of them in Pride. Cartoonish spectacle and predictable one-sided affairs can be entertaining in their own right, if used sparingly. James Toney vs. Randy Couture was such a fight, and the exact thing you’d expect to happen happened, and a former world champion boxer with a few months MMA experience got easily pinned down and tapped out by a legend while getting in zero offence. And the crowd loved it. It wasn’t bloodsport either (it was a low single-leg takedown and a quick arm-triangle), just a fun diversion.
The problem is that even after all this time, the UFC is still striving for full mainstream acceptance, and for that it needs to be first and foremost, a sport. When you have a freakshow mismatch that’s supposed to simultaneously be for a UFC World Championship, the trophy that represents the pinnacle of each weight class, it undermines MMA as a sport. Some could say that every Rousey fight has been a massive mismatch, but in each case Zuffa made an effort to give her a plausibly competitive opponent. The second Miesha Tate fight was a bit questionable with the challenger coming off a loss, and obviously the grudge match aspect was a major factor, but she was still a former world champion and an injury replacement for the woman she’d lost to in a title eliminator. Furthermore, Miesha was still one of two women who had ever given Ronda trouble, as she had taken back control in the first match. It was a compromise, but Miesha’s chances were far from implausible and she was officially a top five contender.
Gina Carano will be coming in after five years on the shelf, coming off a not-very-close loss, and leapfrog a much deeper division than the one that she left behind. Along with Ronda Rousey herself, ten of the fifteen ranked contenders in the UFC Women’s Bantamweight division had not even started their professional careers the last time Gina won a match. If by some not-so-minor miracle Carano pulls off the upset, the UFC can still have an immediate rematch, which is clearly what the plan would be anyway.
Either way, the spectacle can still be there. Just don’t try to pretend this is a legitimately competitive sporting contest, and not an exhibition. The title wasn’t necessary for Royce Gracie vs. Matt Hughes at UFC 160, when Royce was the old legend taking on the indomitable Welterweight Champion. That show drew a then-staggering 620,000 PPV buys, by far the most Matt Hughes had done as a headliner at the time, and second only to his rematch with the UFC’s all-time number one draw Georges St. Pierre at UFC 79. Ronda, who, along with Jon Jones, is one of the UFC’s top two active draws, does not need a title to make this fight any more special.
However, the UFC does need an even vaguely competitive challenger to make a title fight credible, so let’s leave the title out of it and showcase Rousey versus Carano as what it is. It’s not a competitive fight. It’s not sport. It’s not a compromise between sport and spectacle. It’s a predictable exhibition that is happening despite the availability of much more credible challengers. Anything could happen; Gina could shock the world, but that in itself is not reason enough to hand out title shots.
In a sport, on some level or another, the chance to compete for a world championship is something earned, and not handed out because of accomplishments from six years ago.
You can follow Dan Frederick on Twitter @DCDry