By Annie Ross
Ronda Rousey is fighting tonight for much more than redemption and pride when she takes on Amanda Nunes in UFC 207 in Las Vegas.
UFC was sold for $4.2 billion to entertainment group WME-IMG over the summer, so the pride of the company is also on the line!
Rousey’s skills and personality made her one of the most recognizable faces in sports before her looks (temporarily) and unbeaten record (permanently) were damaged by a November 2015 knockout by Holly Holm.
A victory over Nunes, the Brazilian who defeated Holm’ conqueror Miesha Tateto to claim the title in July, would mean UFC could bank on a couple more lucrative pay-per-view blockbusters to swell the coffers in 2017.
“I don’t care about anything except winning this fight,” Rousey said, in a fleeting appearance in a UFC promo video. “I am not spending energy on anything else.”
A defeat, and things get considerably trickier for UFC president Dana White, who counts Rousey as a close friend and makes little attempt to disguise the fact that he wants her to do well.
The growing popularity of the UFC has allowed the likes of Rousey and McGregor to grow into household superstars, enjoying a level of fame few could have predicted for any combat sports exponent back in the early days of the company, when White and his entrepreneur friends the Fertitta brothers battled to gain mainstream acceptance.
However, while the sport has a large and passionate following, the mega events that have the chance to surge well past a million pay-per-views require a celebrity element to them.
McGregor brings it. Rousey does too, as long as she gets back to winning ways and then carries on fighting.
White himself admitted that though he could envision a busy slate of title defenses for the former Olympic judo bronze medalist if she defeats Nunes, he has little idea what would happen if she lost. It would leave a giant gap, especially with significant uncertainty over what happens next with McGregor – the Irishman flirting with boxing, offering conflicting messages on how long his girlfriend’s pregnancy will keep him out of action and becoming increasingly tough to deal with.
The UFC is already forced to toe a problematic line between appeasing the growing ranks of combatants that form the bulk of the roster and granting special concessions to the elite group with the ability to generate serious fame and fortune.
That number will have shrunk considerably if Rousey loses, mainly due to doping indiscretions. Jon Jones is arguably the best pound for pound in the sport, except he’s serving a one-year ban for a doping violation. Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino might be the most dangerous female fighter on the planet and a bout between her and Rousey would do huge numbers, except Justino also fell foul of the testers last week and faces an unclear future. The UFC’s attempts to bring in crossover appeal at UFC 200 backfired, when former heavyweight champ and current WWE wrestler Brock Lesnar failed a drug test after his victory over Mark Hunt.
The organization does possess an incredible roster of talented athletes. Dominick Cruz and Cody Garbrandt are outstanding performers who will compete for the men’s bantamweight title on Friday, and Demetrious Johnson and the brilliant wrestler Daniel Cormier are also near the top of the pound-for-pound list. Yet none of those especially move the needle outside of the MMA world.
Hopes were high that youngsters Sage Northcutt and Paige Van Zant, a duo with model looks to match their fighting skills, could emerge strongly, but they were both defeated before Christmas and sent tumbling down the pecking order.
White did not become a multi-millionaire without learning to roll with the punches, but his life will get far easier in the short term if Rousey is able to see off the threat of Nunes and reclaim the belt.
Rousey was clearly troubled by the loss to Holm and even admitted on television she had contemplated suicide. She is hungry for the belt back, and frankly seems not at ease, perhaps needing a comeback victory to get her mind straight again.
She needs redemptive solace but perhaps the UFC needs her, and needs her winning, even more.