Thursday, November 19, 2015

The End of an Era



This will be a bit of a departure from the usual topics here. I’m going to talk MMA.

As I started originally writing this on Sunday night for publication on Thursday, some of this may be ground that’s been gone over elsewhere in excruciating detail by the time this sees electronic print. Hopefully, with a little luck, there will still be interest enough that you’ll be curious to see my take on it regardless. So, without further ado, let’s talk that fight Saturday night and where some things go from here.



But first, for the benefit of those of you who have not been keeping up on the whole Ronda Rousey thing, our story so far.

Rousey began training in Judo at the age of 11. By 2004, still only 17 years old at the time, she had won a gold medal in the World Junior Judo Championships and become the youngest judoka to ever qualify for entry into the Olympic Games. In between 2004 and 2008, Rousey became the first American female judoka or even simply the first American  judoka to win medals or multiple medals at various events ranging from national tournaments to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
From 2010 to 2011 she fought in amateur MMA, earning herself a record of 3-0 with none of her fights lasting longer than a minute. She entered into professional mixed martial arts soon after that, building a 12-0 record over the next 4 years. In those 12 fights, only 1 went past the first round, and few broke the 60 second mark. Her shortest fight was 14 seconds against an opponent heavily favored to at least get the fight out of the first round.

She’s largely credited with being the only reason that there’s a women’s division in the UFC. While there would be women’s MMA without Rousey, the powers that be in the UFC, especially Dana White, were long adamant that women would never compete in the UFC. It was largely Rousey’s already growing star power (not to mention the dollar signs Dana White saw in her) that changed their tune. She took some criticism for being made the UFC Bantamweight Champion by literally being handed a belt without so much as one UFC fight behind her, but she silenced those criticisms in short order with the start of her “Arm Collection” string of wins.

Her success was built on a combination of factors. High on the list was her ability as a judoka. All three of her amateur fights and 9 of her 12 professional victories were won by taking her opponent down and securing an armbar from just about any angle or position available. Her background in Judo was world class, and it gave her a fighting pedigree that was head and shoulders above most of the other women in MMA. While many of Rousey’s opponents were skilled and had  longer MMA records than she had, it was often almost as unequal a match as pitting a high school wrestler against a kid in elementary school.

Rousey also had an advantage of being a fairly big bantamweight. She’s very thickly muscled and powerful, and she’s fighting in a division where she drops weight to make the 125-135 pound weight requirement after fighting at 145 to 150 pounds in the past. Her raw power had given her the ability to manhandle opponents even without the benefit of moves backed by her Judo skills.

By the middle of 2015 she was being hailed by those who were not too big into wildly dispensing the hyperbole as perhaps the best fighter in women’s MMA. Some were getting a little crazy by calling her the greatest pound for pound fighter in all of MMA and calling her a once ever (as opposed to once in a lifetime) fighter.

The hype surrounding her made her a media sensation and a pop culture star. In a way she became like Hulk Hogan, Mike Tyson, and Michael Jordan before her by transcending her sport. You didn’t have to follow her sport or be a fan of MMA to know who she was. There were people who couldn’t name a single other fighter in MMA, and more than a few who called the entire sport of MMA by the name of the company, UFC, that she worked for, who could still point out Ronda Rousey, tell you who she was and tell you with at least some level of detail what she did for a living. It opened doors for her in the worlds of acting, pro wrestling, being a major endorsement figure, and modeling.

As a world of options began to open for her, she began to talk about how her goal was to go a few more years in the sport before retiring the undefeated champion. There were a lot of people who put stock in her being able to do just that, expecting her to leave undefeated in the next few years before pursuing a fulltime career in Hollywood. Apparently, the only person who didn’t see this happening for Rousey was Holly Holm. Last Saturday night she showed the world that her opinion on that matter was the only opinion that counted by picking Rousey apart in the first round of their fight before knocking her out with a devastating head kick 59 seconds into the second round.

The only people more surprised by the outcome than Rousey’s camp were the various groups that took bets on the fight. They had Holm so far down as the underdog that some people who bet $100 on her as the winner walked away with close to $1,000.Her training camp even put their money where their faith was, and they ended up making a killing by betting on her for the win.

While it was hard to bet against Rousey, they maybe shouldn’t have been quite that crazy with the odds. Holly Holm wasn’t exactly a newbie to the fighting arts. Holm was a professional boxer with a 33-2-3 record and was 2-1 in kickboxing. She, like Rousey, started professionally as an MMA fighter in March of 2011, and she entered last Saturday’s fight with an MMA record of 9-0. While not being as dominant in her fight performances before Saturday as Rousey had been in hers, she was still not quite deserving of the official odds against her.

Now that everyone is up to speed, we can get to the fight and beyond.

Unless you were an absolutely diehard Rousey fan, the fight itself was a thing of beauty from the standpoint of watching as a fighter executed a perfect game plan flawlessly.  The first five minute round was a classroom put on by Holm in boxing technique, using strikes and kicks to maintain distance, takedown defense, and scramble technique. Holm stayed fast and fluid on her feet, used excellent head movement, and she maneuvered around the octagon in a way that prevented Rousey from trapping her. By the opening moments of round two it was almost an academic matter as Holm was dancing circles around Rousey, even under Rousey’s punches, and setting up jabs and strikes before rocking Rousey with a punch and finishing her with a kick.

Holly Holm and her camp deserve much credit. They were facing an opponent with a reputation of being unbeatable in her division, and a very much earned reputation at that, and worked a game plan that in the end made Rousey look like someone who didn’t deserve to be in the same division with Holm. They planned out everything right, and she did everything she needed to do with almost no flaws whatsoever.

Now comes the fun part. What did Rousey do wrong? Rousey has gotten knocked as a one dimensional fighter for a while now. It’s not a wholly deserved criticism, but it’s also not a criticism that’s totally without merit.

Interestingly, seeing as how Mike Tyson has been seen with Rousey in promotional materials for her fights, Rousey shares a lot in common with two well-known fighters. The first, a boxer, is the just mentioned Tyson. The other, a name she rarely gets compared to in the MMA media, would be pro wrestler and former UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar.

With Mike Tyson, there are easy to see comparisons. Go back and look at video of Tyson in his prime. Now look at Rousey in most of her UFC fights. You’ll see an immediate similarity in their fighting styles. Both Tyson and Rousey would bull rush their opponents as soon as the bell rang, immediately putting pressure on their opponents. It would almost instantly put most fighters out of their offensive game and into a (sometimes wild) defensive game trying to avoid Tyson’s power and Rousey’s ability to get a takedown and armbar as quickly as saying the words. Even though each of them did it over and over again, it was as if their opponents never figured out that they were going to rush them and put pressure on them before most fighters would have normally gotten two steps in.

The combination of the bull rush and the strength to control, even ragdoll, opponents could be demoralizing to not only opponents, but to potential opponents. It’s kind of hard to plan for a fight when the video of your opponent’s last three or four fights is 90 seconds in total.

Few fighters proved able to weather that storm. They crumbled, they become exhausted if they made it past three minutes, they may have even panicked in the moment, and they got caught.

Holm actually trained for that. She had training partners, even a few male ones if I understood the details right, copy that rush attack and copy that overwhelming pressure assault until she could function with it and get around it. Come fight time, Holm totally neutralized the effectiveness of it. Taking that out of the equation started taking Rousey out of her game, and, much as with Tyson when he lost the ability to swarm an opponent back in the day, she didn’t seem to have a viable backup plan to handle Holm stopping her from dictating the fight’s terms and pace.

This is one of the two places where the Brock Lesnar comparison comes in. Brock really was more of a one trick pony though. He was a powerful fighter with an amazing level of raw strength, and he had a solid amateur wrestling background. He didn’t have much else to speak of with regards to MMA though. He wasn’t a striker, he could barely use a kick, and his submission game was practically in its infancy compared to the fighters he was competing against. But, damn, if he didn’t go far fast in the limited heavyweight pool they had based on raw power and basic wrestling skills. Of course, once the division started acquiring depth again he had to face better MMA wrestlers and strikers who could neutralize his primary strengths. Once that happened, he simply got outclassed.

Rousey wasn’t quite that bad. She worked to improve her game and you could see the increases in her striking technique in some of her later fights. But let’s not kid ourselves, she was still primarily a judoka with an armbar, and that’s what and where the majority of her strengths were found. It’s what made her both dangerous and a UFC champion. She wasn’t absolutely one dimensional despite the claims of critics, but the truth is her other techniques were nowhere near as polished as her Judo, and the slowly developing women’s divisions in MMA were creating fighters who would be able to deal with her strengths.

A lot of hype was made about her improved striking, and credit where credit is due here. Rousey has noticeably improved her striking skills during her time in the UFC. The problem with that is most people seem to confuse striking skills with boxing skills. They’re not the same, and her boxing skills suck.

When she lost the ability to swarm and overwhelm Holm, it became largely a striking match. Holm was boxer and it showed. She moved her feet and her head constantly. She stayed fast on her feet while ducking, dodging, dancing, and circling out perfectly after easily moving in for a jab or a strike. She also used jabs and kicks to do both damage and make space to keep Rousey from closing distance easily and setting up the takedown and armbar. Rousey basically just charged forward with her feet flat, her head up, and showed little movement in either. No matter how good of a striker you are, you can’t use that approach against a skilled boxer or they will, as Holm did, pick you apart.

Losing the ability to rush and overwhelm Holm was bad enough, but once the realization seemed to set in with Rousey that she was not going to be able to control the fight in any way or defend from being picked apart, she started looking more and more lost. This was (being generous) about three minutes into the first round. Barring a miracle, it was pretty much a done deal at that point. It was like watching Cain Velasquez outclass Lesnar all over again; complete with pulping shots to the face and a champion going for an attack and sprawling wildly out of control as the challenger danced off to the side.

It came across as Rousey’s camp having had no plans whatsoever to deal with Holm’s abilities as a boxer or a kickboxer, or that Rousey had let ego and emotion get the better of her by attempting to beat Holm by fighting to Holm’s strengths (something she’s done with others before) and simply crumbled when Holm responded by upping her own game to an extreme degree. Additionally, Rousey’s corner was almost useless, yelling out worthless advice during the fight and telling her she was doing fine in between rounds before sending her out to defeat.

It was a fight where she should have made Holm chase her. It was a fight where she should have tried to make Holm get desperate and create an opening and not the other way round. It was a fight where she should have slapped her corner men upside the head for the dumb advice they kept yelling out.

But it’s also a fight that’s done. The only thing that matters now is where everything goes from here.

The question has been raised of whether Rousey will be back after such a loss. It’s her first loss, and a crushing one at that, in MMA on top of her talking about taking some time away after “winning” her fight against Holm. Some seem to think she won’t be back, that the loss will crush her ego, and that the relative ease and money of both Hollywood and the WWE will be a tempting excuse to use to not come back.

It’s possible, but I don’t quite go along with the idea. While this is her first MMA loss, it’s not her first competition loss. She knows what losing and rebuilding afterwards is like. While there are certainly signs that she was buying her own hype and letting it feed her ego enough to cloud her judgement, I doubt the crush of her ego is enough to crush her drive. She hasn’t gotten where she is today, in MMA and everywhere else, by being someone with the mindset of crumbling when things get tough.

I believe the odds of her returning after the loss are about the same as returning after her sabbatical had she won. If nothing else, she might even end up feeling the need to try and avenge her only loss in MMA.

If she comes back though, she’s going to have a tough road with regards to the fans. She has loyal, hardcore fans. She also had a lot of bandwagon fans. Well, the bandwagon fans all disappeared the second Holm’s shin connected with Rousey’s jaw. That leaves the diehards and the haters, and, not entirely undeservedly, she has a lot more haters than diehard fans.

Rousey played the heel, whether all an act or a large part of her true attitude, very well in MMA. It didn’t always go over well, and it was sometimes payed at the wrong time. She could come off as hypocritical, attacking a female fighter or the ring girls for “degrading” themselves by appearing in magazines nude or nearly nude even if discreetly covered and then jumping at the chance to do the same when it was offered to her. Her comments could often come across as belittling the abilities and achievements of any women in MMA not named Rousey.

Worst of all to a lot of hardcore MMA fans, she spit in the face of sportsmanship more than once. While some people can and will forgive not touching gloves at the start of a fight, attributing it to fighter intensity in the moment, Rousey had a habit of refusing to shake hands after a fight and then later calling the other fighters “fake” for offering their hands or making other sportsman-like gestures after the fight.
It was another similarity to Lesnar when he was on top of MMA, and it was a trait that contributed to an entire audience cheering when he stood in the Octagon and said he was done after the Overeem fight. The more success she had, the more her ego was fed, the worse she got with some of that. At this point there are MMA fans and MMA media who are gleeful over her defeat, seeing it as a deserved humbling, and almost not wanting her to return.

But I think she should return.

If this fight taught her anything, it should have taught her to either change camps for a while or get her camp to change its training a bit. Personally, I'd go with changing camps as soon as possible. She now knows exactly how lacking her skills are in a number of areas and how badly she needs to address those weaknesses. As badly as she got beaten in this fight, she got beaten for not fighting smart while fighting someone who was fighting smarter than hell.Get a camp that will train smart. It should, again, also have taught her to tone the ego and attitude down a bit as well.

She has other reasons to come back as well. A money fight rematch with Holm could certainly be made, but, despite the common wisdom, I don’t think her loss kills the oft sought after money fight with Cyborg. There’s still enough bad blood there to sell a fight to the moon, and I don’t agree with the chatter that Holm beating Rousey means that Cyborg beats Rousey. MMA math is a joke for a reason, and it’s just as big of a joke here as it ever was.

Holm was a decorated boxer. She understands the art of boxing. She knows how to do all the finer points of that discipline and has mastered them quite well. She understands creating distance, closing distance, and using both to her advantage as well as the fine art of movement. She also showed that she could scramble on the ground quite effectively.

Cyborg is a striker. She rushes her opponents and starts wildly swinging and going for the power shots. She tries to overwhelm them, and she attempts to get in close to deliver her best shots. The styles are completely different. Holm, by creating distance, neutralizes Rousey’s greatest strengths. Cyborg, by rushing in and closing distance, by getting right on top of her opponents, almost plays to Rousey’s strengths perfectly. It’s by no means a predetermined outcome for either fighter, and the money is still there for the taking.

Rousey also has the ability to learn from all of her mistakes and play the comeback card. Ronda Rousey uses the nickname of “Rowdy” as a part of her public persona. When her friends originally tagged her with that name she was hesitant to use it. The reason for that was it specifically referenced someone else. That would be professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. She grew up a Piper fan, and she didn’t use the nickname until after meeting him and getting his permission to do so. She even dedicated her UFC 190 win to Piper, who died the day before the fight.

Well, if she really is hyping the bad girl act in order to sell fights to those that want to see the heel get her comeuppance more than actually being the egotistical bad girl, a claim she’s made from time to time, then she can learn from Piper. As good of a heel as Piper was, he also knew how to play the comeback of the humbled heel becoming a face. As much as most Americans love to tear someone down once they’re on top, they love the comeback story almost as much if not more.

The best part of the Rowdy Piper model is you have to change very little, you just aim the cocky in a different direction. She could easily build her popularity up bigger than before; she just has to play it smarter and less egotistical. You can be cocky, brash, and rowdy while still building your opponents up as a threat. She can learn from that. Whether she will or not is anyone’s guess, but she can learn from that example, and, win the title back before heading off into the sunset or not, she could easily make herself a bigger star before retiring and going after Hollywood full force.

Rowdy Piper was so big he didn’t need his profession’s belt to be at the top. He was bigger than a belt. Rowdy Ronda is close to that position even now. If she reworks her game, reworks her persona, and legitimately pulls back on the bad attitude and ego a bit, learns from this fall she’s taking now, she could not only come back huge, but she could ultimately leave the sport bigger than she would have been with a win last Saturday night.

Or not.

She was talking about taking time away no matter what. Maybe Hollywood works out well for her now that she has no reason to return every so often for a title defense. Maybe rumors and speculation come to pass and Marvel comes calling with a big hero or villain role after all. Maybe WWE becomes a nice, part-time fit with a Lesnar type of deal and appearances spaced out around film roles.

Who really knows but Rousey, and I doubt even she knows right now. But, say whatever you will about her, in the end you can’t take away from everything she’s done. She practically put women’s MMA on the map like no one else in women’s MMA could right now. Even with its growth, growth in part because of Rousey, there’s still no one else like her in women’s MMA with the right combination of personality, charisma, ability, and marketability to have stepped up to take her place had she not been here. She’s become such a star in the sport that everyone at least looked over at women’s MMA and recognized it and her even if they didn’t all tune in and stay as fans. She has inspired a lot of girls to believe that they could grow up and be something a lot different than what they’re usually told they can be. She even inspired geeks to do everything from fantasy cast her as Marvel heroes and villains to actually working out and learning some MMA themselves.

Say anything you want about her now, and a lot of people are, but there’s one fact, one truth, that cannot be taken away from her. She’s left a legacy that’s written large across her sport and beyond it, and that’s not something that everyone can say. She’s left a mark that’s huge, and the reality is that she might not even be quite done building that legacy just yet. 

Jerry Chandler is a serious horror geek with a lifelong love of trying to find books and movies that can scare the spit out of him. When not watching and reading horror, he can sometimes be found helping to make horror with his filmmaking family in NC, Adrenalin Productions. He loves Halloween slightly more than Christmas, and almost as much as Dragon Con. When not writing here, he can be found at his other homes on the web by looking at his own blog, his Twitter, and his Facebook.   

2 comments:

  1. very well written and expressed. I also believe she should not quit, but regroup and work on what did not work for her this match. it may be her ego is more hurt, but she is young, and you need to learn your lessons..

    ReplyDelete