In 2011, website TMZ quoted Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White as saying that the burgeoning mixed martial arts outfit would never allow women fighters to fight in its famed octagon.
Fast forward to today, and arguably the organization’s most popular and well-known fighter is Ronda Rousey, a 28-yearold woman who has taken the UFC and sports media by storm since she burst on the scene in 2012. She has changed the face of MMA while helping the company pin down impressive performances both inside the octagon and within the overall media arena.
“Ronda Rousey is the most popular athlete UFC has ever had — her popularity both inside and outside of the octagon has increased UFC’s appeal exponentially,” UFC chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta told Multichannel News.
A HIT EVEN AT 1:30 A.M.
One only has to look at last month’s UFC 193 pay-per-view event to see the broad appeal of Rousey. While she lost her Nov. 14 UFC women’s bantamweight title fight to Holly Holm in a huge upset, the buildup and anticipation of that event rivaled any in the 14 years of the Zuffa LLC-owned UFC era and helped the show deliver a reported more than 1 million PPV buys.
Even in defeat, Rousey is a ratings winner. FS1’s Nov. 15 UFC 193 post-fight show drew nearly 500,000 viewers for a 1:30 a.m. ET telecast — a network record for a UFC after-event show and more than the 330,000 viewers FS1 averaged on a total-day basis in October.
Industry observers said much of UFC’s current PPV and TV momentum can be attributed to Rousey, who has become as well-known outside the UFC through her numerous TV and movie appearances as she is inside the octagon for her winning prowess and devastating armbar submission hold.
“There are certain people who just have it,” Glenn Jacobs, senior coordinating producer for ESPN’s SportsCenter, said. “She appeals to a number of people on a number of different fan bases on several levels. She’s tremendously compelling, whether she’s in the ring fighting or appearing at a public event.”
Her knockout loss to Holm notwithstanding, Rousey — the recipient of Multichannel News’s female Athlete of the Year Award — has become arguably the most well-known woman athlete today. Over the last 12 months Rousey has become a media darling, appearing in everything from video games (UFC 2) to TV (WWE’s WrestleMania 31) to movies (Furious 7 and Entourage). She is set to star in MGM’s reboot of the 1989 movie drama Road House in the lead role made famous by the late Patrick Swayze.
“She has the skills, she has the looks and she has a way of presenting herself in front of a camera,” Bas Rutten, co-host of AXS TV’s weekly mixed-martial-arts news show Inside MMA, said. “Combine that with the skill to destroy opponents in the cage and you have a complete package.”
Her broad appeal is not lost on UFC. The organization featured Rousey fights as the main event in three of its 11 pay-per-view cards this year. Only UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier appeared in as many main events.
“Not only has she influenced fight fans, women and young girls around the world, she also transcends mainstream pop culture and brings in a new demographic of fans to watch our events and engage with our brand,” UFC’s Fertitta said.
ESPN on Oct. 7 had Rousey host its 6 p.m. SportsCenter show — the first female athlete ever to do so. Jacobs said that Rousey’s SportsCenter appearance attracted an extremely high level of buzz across social-media platforms.
“Ronda is one of those people who rates — we’re not just asking anyone to come in and host SportsCenter,” ESPN’s Jacobs said. “We found Ronda Rousey content works across all of our platforms — on TV, on digital, and on social media — because she is so compelling and appeals to so many people.”
Indeed, on social media Rousey has punched up more than 2 million Twitter followers and more than 9.7 million likes on Facebook, more than popular current male UFC champions Cormier and Conor McGregor.
But it’s in the octagon where Rousey’s rise to stardom began. Rousey — who turned pro in 2011 after becoming the first U.S. woman to earn an Olympic medal in judo at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing — became a fighting sensation known for taking out her opponents in short order. She initially appeared as UFC’s first female fighter in 2013 and quickly won her initial bouts — five within the first round and two within 20 seconds — before her loss to Holm.
“Don’t all athletes who break into great celebrity start with winning?” Fox Sports president and chief operating officer Eric Shanks said. “It’s pretty undeniable that Ronda walked all over anyone that was in the weight class until her last fight. The incredible run that she had is the foundation for the celebrity that she is.”
ESPN’s Jacobs added that Rousey doesn’t get enough credit for her determination in breaking into what once was a male-dominated mixed martial arts sport.
“Ronda is the reason why there are women fighters in the UFC,” he said. “She’s essentially built women’s MMA in the UFC and I think she deserves a lot of credit for that.”
Even Holm gave Rousey props for propelling mixed martial arts and women’s fighting to unprecedented heights in an interview with TMZ Sports two days after her knockout win over the former champion.
“Ronda has been a very dominant champ and has taken the sport to new levels,” she told TMZ. “This fight wouldn’t have happened if she didn’t accomplish what she accomplished.”
Her domination in the octagon turned into ratings gold for the UFC and Fox Sports in 2015. Two of FS1’s four most watched UFC PPV preliminary telecasts of all time were for 2015 events in which Rousey was the PPV headliner, each averaging more than 1.3 million viewers, according to Fox.
Online, Rousey accounted for 12.5 million page views on FoxSports.com over the last four months. In addition, Rousey drove 59% of the site’s 21.4 million page views for UFC editorial in the six months leading up to the Nov. 14 Rousey-Holm fight.
“It’s even more impressive when you consider it was Dana who said women would never fight in the UFC,” Shanks said. “Now, their biggest star is a woman in a year that has been arguably been one of the greatest in women’s sports.”
Rousey’s tough background — she has been very open about being raised by a single mother after her father committed suicide — has helped make her popular among non-MMA fans, he added.
“When athletes do that it makes them more human because everyone has their struggles, and Ronda has the platform speak up about it and probably help a lot of other young women and girls through it,” Shanks said.
HOPING FOR A SEQUEL
Rousey would continue to rate with fans despite her recent loss, Shanks said. While it’s unclear if and when Rousey will return to the octagon, he said that sports fans love comeback stories and Rousey’s will be a compelling one that should ultimately win her more fans.
“It’s hard to wear the crown of invincibility … there were a lot of people who fell off the Ronda bandwagon after the loss,” Shanks said. “Unlike a lot of movies, sequels in MMA and combat sports usually outdraw the first edition, so this sequel undoubtedly will be bigger than the first. I think that will be a driving force with Ronda to get ready to become champion again.”
Added ESPN’s Jacobs: “People love a redemption story. Her story has changed: she used to be on a ‘she’s so dominant and can’t be touched’ track. Now she has the chance to be on the ‘coming back and facing adversity’ track — I still think that is a compelling track to be on.”