When Ronda Rousey lost at UFC 193 in November, it felt like a defining moment. The biggest star in the sport went supernova, sending shockwaves into the MMA universe that have just begun to register.
Before her fateful collision with Holly Holm’s shin, Rousey put women’s MMA on the map. She quickly rose to become the first legitimate female draw in MMA and then transcended that label to become one of the biggest draws in combat sports period. However, what we are now coming to understand is that Rousey did not only bring women’s MMA to the forefront of public consciousness -- she single-handedly held it there. The proof lies in the declining fan interest around Invicta Fighting Championships featherweight titleholder Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino.
Invicta 15 went down on Saturday with little fanfare or recognition. “Cyborg” demolished another opponent in the main event, to the surprise of no one. In doing so, she defended her Invicta belt for the third time and extended her unbeaten streak to 16 fights, dating back to her pro debut and only loss in May 2005. That’s nearly 11 years of utter and complete dominance. For reference, George St. Pierre’s best run was a six-year, 12-fight winning spree that closed out his career.
I know there’s a big difference between GSP’s opponents and Justino’s. In terms of parity and level of competition, men’s MMA in general has had a much bigger head start -- not to mention the facts that female fighters still face a much harsher social stigma and there are simply more 170-pound men in the general population than there are 145-pound women. No one is arguing that. The point is that instead of being celebrated as a tremendous talent and trailblazer, “Cyborg” elicits little more than a shoulder shrug among most fans. It appears the attention Rousey brought to women’s MMA did not trickle down or spread beyond her own popularity.
Think of it like this: The verbal game of chicken between Rousey and “Cyborg” has been one of the more intriguing headlines for the past several years. After every one of their fights, fans and media alike called for the fight to get booked. When it was announced that Miesha Tate would get the next opportunity to fight Rousey, people groaned because it wasn’t “Cyborg.” When Tate was swapped for Holly Holm, it was never better than the second-best offering for the then-undefeated champion. Rousey-“Cyborg” was the fight to make in women’s MMA, and it would have likely been one of the biggest blockbuster fights in the sport’s history. It seemed their careers were on an eventual collision course, as they cleared out the 135- and 145-pound divisions with unprecedented ease.
In their exchange of words, however, Rousey struck a chord with fans that pierced Justino’s reputation, as she repeatedly brought up the Brazilian’s failed drug test. It was fair game, no doubt, since Justino did in fact test positive for PEDs in her final Strikeforce title defense against Hiroko Yamanaka in 2011. However, the issue served mostly as a means to further justify a support for Rousey that already existed; the fans who were behind Rousey were going to be there, regardless of any past PED grievances from Justino. For whatever reason, people are more forgiving of some PED users than others. The Justinos and Sean Sherks of the world never get to live down their mistakes, while fan adoration abounds for fighters like Royce Gracie and Anderson Silva, in spite of their failed tests. Let’s not even broach the likelihood that plenty of other fighters are almost certainly using PEDs -- or have been -- and not getting caught.
That’s why Justino’s career also took a hit when Rousey got Holm’d. Rousey was the only reason “Cyborg” was on anyone’s radar, the only reason she was relevant on an MMA stage that surpassed the “women’s” qualifier. Before, she was The One who could compete with Rousey and maybe even beat her. Now, in the minds of many, she is nothing more than a steroid user and tomato can squasher.
Don’t get it twisted, there is still ample reason to be bullish on the future of women’s MMA. Joanna Jedrzejczyk is a breakout fighter that is still on her way up; the Holm-Tate fight at UFC 197 could christen a new star; and there’s still that Rousey character floating around. As women’s MMA continues to emerge from its infancy, more fighters and higher-quality fighters will only improve the level of competition overall.
As for “Cyborg,” her time in the sun may be over. Greatness requires a foil. Jon Jones has Daniel Cormier; Silva had Chael Sonnen; and St. Pierre had B.J. Penn and Nick Diaz. A nemesis revitalizes careers and fan fervor. “Cyborg” had the opportunity to cement her stature through her beef with Rousey, but that possibility seems to have become a specter of unfulfilled potential.
Justino’s in-cage interview after knocking Daria Ibragimova senseless was as subdued and uninteresting as it has been in years. She didn’t call out anyone or take any cheap shots at her former foe. Instead, she threw out the same meaningless responses we expect from post-fight interviews: She’s willing to take any big fight, no matter who it’s against. Yawn.
“Cyborg” may be the best female fighter in the world right now, and she may have been so all along. However, it appears that without the pull of Rousey, she will continue to build one of the best careers in the sport that no one will care to remember.