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Regardless of one's feelings about her, Ronda Rousey was singlehandedly responsible for getting women into the Ultimate Fighting Championship. In 2011, UFC President Dana White claimed with a laugh and a smile that women would never compete in the organization. Less than two years later, not only were women fighting in the UFC, but Rousey was headlining a pay-per-view in her very first appearance, facing Liz Carmouche at UFC 157.
The reason for that backtracking is clear. Rousey had massive star potential that was plainly obvious in her time in Strikeforce. White couldn't pass up the opportunity and decided to go back on his word. Rousey, for her part, rewarded the confidence. While she never attained the levels of Conor McGregor or Brock Lesnar, she was easily one of the ten biggest draws in company history, in the very next tier of stars with legendary names like Georges St. Pierre, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Anderson Silva. Her debut against Carmouche did a solid 450,000 buys and her fame only grew from there. By the time of her bout against Bethe Correia at UFC 190, she was doing an outstanding 900,000 buys. Ironically, it was in her last two fights, against Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes—both losses—that she hit seven figures, with each doing 1.1 million buys. Rousey was a tremendous financial success.
After Rousey retired, the thought was that new female fighters would step up to take her mantle, but in the almost four years since her last fight, that hasn't happened. In fact, no female fighter has come even remotely close to being a major draw. How could that be?
Amanda Nunes is frequently hyped as the greatest female fighter of all time, and while there are problems with calling her that, I'm a big fan of the Brazilian champion myself. She is incredibly skilled, delivers beautiful, vicious finishes and has consistently fought and defeated the best fighters in the world for a long time, with the second Valentina Shevchenko fight being the only victory that wasn't dominant.
Yet Nunes has utterly failed as a star. Recall that people lamented Demetrious Johnson's inability to draw a pay-per-view audience, with his headliners getting anywhere from 115,000 to 205,000 buys. That was the reason White was willing to trade “Mighty Mouse,” one of the greatest mixed martial artists ever, to roll the dice on Ben Askren, who may or may not have panned out as a top fighter for the UFC, never mind a pay-per-view draw.
Well, Nunes' headlining rematch against Shevchenko at UFC 215 notched just 100,000 buys. Her title defense at UFC 224 against Raquel Pennington did 85,000 buys, not only the lowest number of the post-“The Ultimate Fighter” era by far, but lower than either of Affliction’s two pay-per-view events managed back in the day.
But surely, things have changed, haven't they? Since the Pennington fight, Nunes scored an all-time classic knockout of legendary champion Cristiane Justino in under a minute, recorded a beautiful head kick finish of another former champion in Holm—also in the first stanza—and dominated a third former champion in Germaine de Randamie for five rounds, all while being heavily promoted by the UFC.
So what were the pay-per-view numbers for UFC 250, when she defended against Felicia Spencer? According to one source, the event sold fewer than 90,000 buys, making it the lowest-selling pay-per-view of 2020. And for those who blame it on the pandemic, UFC 249 reportedly did 700,000 buys while UFC 251 sold 1.3 million.
What do we make of this? For one, it's important to note that Rousey was a nearly perfect storm of qualities in a fighter. She had an intimidating mystique, being an Olympic medalist in judo who was undefeated in mixed martial arts. Beyond that, her fights were both entertaining and awe-inspiring, obliterating opponents in the first round, often inside of a minute. And lastly, she was widely considered physically attractive and broke into the entertainment mainstream, appearing in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and numerous Hollywood television shows and movies.
Nunes, by comparison, delivers performances that are every bit as good, possibly better, but she lacks that mystique, having lost decisively early in her career multiple times and more recently winning a split decision against Valentina Shevchenko that many people, myself included, thought should have gone the other way. She isn’t considered conventionally attractive and has not lured the eye of Hollywood. Thus, despite being a phenomenal champion, she isn't a draw.
To be fair, most champions in the UFC, male or female, aren't pay-per-view draws either. I also believe a small part of the blame has to go to the organization itself. The incessant praise of Nunes as the “the undisputed greatest female fighter ever” is counterproductive. Contrary to what the UFC believes, its fans aren't all gullible goldfish who resemble Guy Pearce's character in “Memento.” For one, considering that Shevchenko arguably beat Nunes despite being smaller and is similarly dominant against other opponents, how is she considered unworthy to be part of this discussion? How can one possibly say that Nunes is head and shoulders above her, to the point where one can't even question it?
Secondly, the title of “greatest ever” is a dangerous moniker to give to any currently active athlete in any sport, and it has blown up in the UFC's face multiple times already. In 2015, Rousey was by far the greatest female fighter ever. Once she lost, that title was handed to Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Not long after being promoted as such, the Polish champion was brutally, shockingly knocked out in the first round by Rose Namajunas, so she was out. Then, the title passed to “Cyborg,” who held onto it for about a year before Nunes needed just 51 seconds to take it from her.
People remember, and when they hear about Nunes, the fourth “greatest female fighter ever” in as many years, their eyes glaze over. It didn't help that this bit of marketing was used heavily right before Nunes' rematch against de Randamie, as well as the assurance that she would deliver yet another scintillating finish. While Nunes showed the heart, intelligence, and will of a champion in that encounter, she tired badly at the end of Round 2 before embarking on a safe, risk-free strategy of repeatedly taking down de Randamie and doing minimal work from the top. It wasn't the type of status-affirming performance one would hope for.
Ironically, I think Nunes would be at least slightly more popular if the UFC tamped down the mythical titles and superlatives. Unlike some, I don't think that female fighters necessarily need to be considered beautiful to be successful as draws, although it certainly helps! Despite losing to Nunes, “Cyborg” was and likely still is far more popular. Justino’s headliner against Yana Kunitskaya, a largely unknown fighter, did a respectable 260,000 buys at UFC 222, numbers that Nunes would kill for. While it was buoyed up by the presence of Khabib Nurmagomedov, even if he wasn’t yet the star he is now, facing Edson Barboza in the co-main event, Holm vs. “Cyborg” at UFC 219 sold a very decent 380,000 pay-per-views. The difference likely lies in “Cyborg” having had a mystique—which Nunes lacks—due to the long undefeated streak she built after losing her professional debut.
I don't have all the answers, but I do think a new money-making female star will rise in MMA eventually. However, it may take a while, and the level of stardom might be more on par with that of a “Cyborg” rather than a Rousey. For now, the search continues.