Ronda Rousey has looked all but unbeatable. | Photo: TJ De Santis/Sherdog.com
UFC 184 “Ladies Drink Free” -- For the first time in history, female bouts fill the main event and co-main event slots of an Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view. It is a testament to the rise of women’s mixed martial arts in the last half decade and also a glaring reminder that training camps are more damaging to UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman than any opponent he has ever faced.
HOW WE GOT HERE: Weidman was booked to face 2013 “Fighter of the Year” nominee Vitor Belfort in the original headliner before a rib injury took out the champion. This was the third time the pair was set to compete for the title at 185 pounds. At least for now, they are penciled in as the co-main event at UFC 187 in May -- the best fight card since UFC 100. The Smartest Guy at the Bar is prepared to sacrifice whatever is necessary to the MMA gods to keep that lineup intact. With the middleweights off the UFC 184 marquee on Saturday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Ronda Rousey-Cat Zingano women’s bantamweight title fight gets promoted to the main event.
They were booked to coach against each other on Season 18 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” until a knee injury rendered the challenger unable to compete. Upon recovering, the 32-year-old Zingano sealed her claim to a title shot with a come-from-behind victory over Amanda Nunes at UFC 178 ... In the co-feature, Raquel Pennington welcomes top female boxer Holly Holm to the UFC. This bout was originally booked for UFC 181 had to be postponed when Holm injured her neck.
RUNNING OUT OF BODIES: Let me preface this with the fact that Rousey-Zingano is a righteous, proper matchup between the champion and the clear number one contender. “Alpha” is 9-0 as a professional, with wins over Nunes and Miesha Tate, who is ranked third in Sherdog’s latest rankings, but oddsmakers give her little chance. Rousey is anywhere from a 9-to-1 to 12-to-1 favorite, which represents one of the largest spreads of her career. Post-Zingano, the cupboard looks pretty bare for the champion. If she defeats Zingano and does so handily, she will have finished the top six fighters in her division, leaving her with no intriguing matchups.
Who is left? The winner from the Holm-Pennington co-main event is promotionally poised to make her case just minutes before Rousey takes the stage. While Holm owns a superb boxing resume, she only has two MMA wins over fighters who currently have winning records. Pennington sits a 5-4. Also, Holm is 33 years old and was Ring magazine’s “Female Fighter of the Year” -- 10 years ago. Time is ticking. The UFC might rush Holm into a title fight for which she will likely not be prepared. Other contenders are making noise, including Bethe Correia, who knocked off Rousey’s “Four Horsewomen” stablemates Shayna Baszler and Jessamyn Duke. However, neither Baszler nor Duke is considered a top bantamweight. That leaves us with the Invicta Fighting Championships featherweight titleholder. Cristiane Justino will defend her belt the day before UFC 184 in Los Angeles, with Zuffa sharing some of the promotional responsibilities through UFC Fight Pass. Let us see if the UFC and “Cyborg” can roll up their sleeves and make the necessary concessions to get the 29-year-old into the Octagon. Does she drop to 135 pounds or does the UFC negotiate a catchweight? Can Justino -- who was flagged for an anabolic steroid in 2011 -- pass her drug tests? Boxing just put together the biggest commercial matchup in combat sports history, with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. Is it too hard to believe that UFC President Dana White and Co. can make the biggest female fight in MMA history?
USELESS FACT: Rousey has armbarred, ragdolled, kneed, slammed and punched her way through four straight finishes to start her run in the Octagon. According to FightMetric wonder kid Michael Carroll, if Zigano fails to see the final horn, Rousey will become the sixth modern-era (2000-present) fighter to start a UFC career with five or more finishes. She will join an eclectic group: Anderson Silva (eight), Rich Franklin (six), Junior dos Santos (five), Demian Maia (five) and Ricco Rodriguez (five). All are former champions or title challengers. Sportsbet.com lists Rousey as a -455 favorite to finish the challenger inside the distance.
JOB SECURITY: An intriguing lightweight clash between Gleison Tibau and Tony Ferguson opens up the pay-per-view. Either fighter potentially breaks into the top 10 conversation with a win, but that is not what provides the intrigue to their bout. Tibau currently has 16 UFC wins, tied for fourth on the all-time list with hall of famers Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. He trails only Georges St. Pierre (19), Matt Hughes (18) and Anderson Silva (17). That is not bad company to keep. While the Brazilian has never fought for the title, his staying power within the deepest division in the sport’s history is impressive, to say the least.
Sometimes, the best career route is not facing top-10 opposition every time out but fighting competent opposition for the better part of a decade.
SAY WHAT: The UFC did not create a women’s bantamweight division that Rousey happened to stumble upon and conquer. The organization needed a division for her to rule, providing contenders for her along the way. This is no the-chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Make no mistake: The spotlight is on Rousey, and her contenders share the stage. If Rousey were to surrender the title, I am not sure if the spotlight would remain with the belt or follow the one who drew its initial glare. Holm has not even heard Burt Watson yell her name yet, and she is already fielding questions about a possible title shot. She believes the division can grow and flourish without Rousey at the top.
“I think it would benefit greatly,” Holm said. “I think when you see one person do well or kind of bring down the number one, then everybody thinks, ‘Well, if she can do that, I can, too.’”
AWARDS WATCH: Heavyweight Derrick Lewis is a scary, brutal fighter. He has plenty of glaring technical holes in his game, but he has enough power to concuss a rhinoceros. Expect an explosive finish when he faces Ruan Potts, and expect him to be rewarded for said violence … Rousey has earned a post-fight performance bonus in three of her four UFC appearances. Her quick-strike attack and flare for the spectacular encapsulate why such bonuses were designed. Why would her streak stop now? … Pennington is tough and willing to slug it out. That should make for an exciting scrap with Holm, who is as credentialed a striker as there is in women’s MMA; she dismantles her opposition over several rounds, as opposed to quick knockouts. Throw in Pennington threatening with submissions here and there, and you have yourself a “Fight of the Night.”