Iain Hepburn | February 21, 2013
When Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche meet in Anaheim on Saturday night, it will mark a little bit of history. The first women’s fight ever to take place under the UFC name won’t be buried away on the undercard, or there for purposes of exploitation and titillation.
Rousey versus Carmouche is the selling point for the show. The main event, a championship bout, and perhaps one of the most anticipated fights of recent months.
The build-up to the match, which will mark the first defense for Rousey of the UFC women’s bantamweight title she was awarded after transferring to the fight league following the absorption of rival group Strikeforce, has focused on the human tales at the heart of the fight. The incredible life stories of both Rousey and Carmouche have given the fight a sense of drama missing from many of UFC’s recent main events.
The glamourous champion and the impoverished underdog. An Olympic champion versus a US Marine. If this was Hollywood, you couldn’t write a script that good.
But what’s been refreshing, for fight fans at least, is how little the build-up has touched on the idea of women fighting in the cage at all. The oft-repeated ‘human cockfighting’ criticisms of mixed martial arts from the likes of former US presidential candidate John McCain have largely, even among sports media, given way to the acknowledgment of the talent and skill from both fighters.
Rousey’s rise to the top has been quick and dramatic. In her six fights, and less than two years in mixed martial arts, she’s risen from the undercard on the independent King of the Cage shows in California to headlining this weekend’s UFC 157 pay per view event.
A judo standout who followed in the footsteps of her mother, she only took up the martial art properly after the death of her father. Originally she was focusing on swimming, with her dad taking her to training, until during a sledging trip he crashed into a log which left him unable to recover from the back injuries he sustained.
Facing paralysis and death within a couple of years, Rousey took his own life in 1995 rather than put his family through the pain of watching his condition deteriorate slowly. After that, Rousey stayed away from the swimming pool.
“He still is a motivation to me because he always thought I was going to do something big, that I’d do something extraordinary,” she told USA Today recently. “He made me think, ‘Of course the world is going to be my oyster. I’m going to be fabulous.’”
Instead, she followed her mother into judo. Ann Maria Burn became the first American to win at the World Judo championships, claiming gold in the 1984 event in Vienna, and Ronda showed the same aptitude for the martial art, becoming the youngest judoka in Olympic history when she qualified for the 2004 Games in Athens.
After winning prone in Beijing, she was expected to continue to London last year where she had been tipped to win gold for the USA. Instead, she switched to mixed martial arts, where the armbar taught to her by her mother growing up proved her most formidable weapon – with all six of her professional victories, including her title-winning victory in a career-making fight against Miesha Tate last March, coming via armbar.
The success she had in Strikeforce, supplanting Gina Carano as the most high profile female MMA fighter, has seen her profile – and celebrity status – elevated dramatically over the last year.
Her older, more experienced opponent, however, is no less an interesting character. Carmouche spent five years in the Marines, including three tours of duty in Iraq, after enlisting in 2004. An aviation electrician, who was raised in Japan where her father was stationed by the Air Force.
Since leaving the services, she’s opened up about her personal life – which has come under the spotlight cast on the bout after – but remains a far lower profile than her opponent, upon whose shoulders much of the success of the UFC’s new women’s division will rest. Much of the build-up has focused on her supposed poverty – claiming she could not even afford a TV to watch the hype shows to her own fight – something she herself has been quick to laugh off.
“I didn’t realize I was that poor,” she joked in a recent interview. “Sometimes you have to see how other people view you to get a perspective on things.”
Rousey, who takes her ‘rowdy’ nickname from the legendary former pro wrester Roddy Piper, has become well known – if not notorious – for building up her fights with trash talk and abusive comments about her opponent. Ahead of her UFC debut, however, she’s been a far quieter person. Perhaps it’s because of her elevated profile, or perhaps because of the higher stakes the UFC affords. Or perhaps because of the respect she’s been shown by her opponent.
“To be honest,” Rousey says, “I actually try to talk to her as little as possible because the more I talk to her, the more I like her.”
Carmouche goes into the bout as an underdog, but one with far more important experience inside the cage than her higher profile opponent. With an 8-2 record, the fighter – of Lebanese descent – has not only more fights under her belt, but longer fights too. While Rousey’s skills may well be more rounded and impressive, she’s yet to go beyond the first round – indeed, her total fight time across her career is just over seven minutes in six fights. With Rousey’s media demands and the spotlight shining on her, perhaps Carmouche’s best chance of success is to drag the fight out beyond the first five minutes and see how the champion copes.
Whatever happens on Saturday night, however, there’s much more at stake than just the main event of the show, and the women’s bantamweight title. UFC is already chock full of fighters – another 16 were cut in a staff cull today – and the six women added to the roster to form the core of the new division will be competing for attention and space on the fight cards.
Dana White, the UFC president, had been a vocal opponent of women in the fight league until the emergence of Rousey in the last year or so.
“There’s a certain type of person and fighter that make people come and watch, and she’s got it,” White has said of the champion.
“First, she’s got to be able to kick some ass. With Ronda, she can do that and she is also beautiful and she speaks well. She’s a home run, man.”
She’s also the flagbearer for the entire division, and Saturday’s fight will go a long way to deciding just how much the UFC, and fight fants, get behind the new division going forward. It’s said you get one chance to make a good impression, and Saturday’s bout in Anaheim will be that chance.