A valuable commodity in all sports, momentum is almost always fleeting. In women’s mixed martial arts, which is still diligently working to establish a secure foothold in the national conscience, it is especially crucial to strike while the iron is hot.
On Saturday, the Strikeforce female brand picked up where it left off in March, when the bantamweight championship clash between Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate generated the type of buzz not seen since Gina Carano’s heyday. Rousey was her usual dominant self at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego, submitting former 135-pound titleholder Sarah Kaufman in a mere 54 seconds. Better yet, she was not alone: Tate and Julie Kedzie put on a memorable show in another bantamweight bout that was inexplicably relegated to preliminary status on Showtime Extreme.
It seems like a solid formula to build upon. Book Rousey as a headliner, add at least one other compelling female fight and watch as growth and progression ensue. Five months ago, Kaufman and Alexis Davis did a solid job opening for Rousey’s Traveling Armbar Tour, setting the stage for Kaufman’s shot at the Olympic judoka in the process. Tate and Kedzie did the same on Saturday, and both women should continue to benefit from the added exposure that sharing a card with Rousey provides. Tate, one of the few women in MMA that UFC President Dana White can name off the top of his head -- according to his Twitter account, he is now aware of Kedzie, too -- is probably the second biggest draw among female competitors in the sport today. However, even Tate acknowledged she is not yet worthy of a return date with the champion.
In the long run, that is Strikeforce’s most pressing issue. Can it continue to book interesting opponents for Rousey? A rematch with Tate is not imperative at the moment. As tough as she is, Tate still lost to Rousey in the same manner that everyone else has; she just lasted a little longer. Considering their history, Rousey-Tate 2 is a bout Zuffa can stash in its back pocket for a rainy day.
In the meantime, only one matchup makes sense for the ESPN the Magazine cover girl, and she knows it. Like Rousey, Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos has run roughshod over the competition. Her vaunted knockout power instills fear in her opponents, and there is an overwhelming sense of inevitability each time she steps into the cage. Of course, a dark cloud of doubt was cast over her accomplishments after Santos failed a post-fight drug test in December. Her subsequent year-long suspension prompted White to basically dissolve the women’s 145-pound division.
Now, with Rousey ripping through opponents like a State Fair novelty act, anticipation for Santos’ return has heightened.
“People want to see you in the first fair fight of your life,” Rousey said in addressing Santos following her first title defense. “I’m the champ now. The champ doesn’t go to you. You come to the champ. Come down to 135 [pounds], and let’s settle this.”
It might be an unreasonable request. While Rousey made the move from 145 to 135 pounds without issue, Santos is big for a featherweight. Fighting at a 140-pound catchweight would be difficult enough; moving to bantamweight is downright impossible.
Santos conceded as much not long after Rousey called her out, tweeting that she will not fight for Strikeforce if the promotion does not have a 145-pound weight class. She went on to say that we are more likely to see her competing for Invicta Fighting Championships than battling Rousey on Showtime in the near future.
“Guys, I have not changed my weight. I started where I am,” Santos wrote.
Rousey has changed her weight. While it seems unfair to ask someone who has done so much in a male-dominated sport in so little time to make a compromise for an opponent coming off a suspension for alleged steroid use, it falls on “Rowdy” to do what it takes to make this fight happen.
When UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva scoffs at moving up to light heavyweight for a super fight with Jon Jones or flirts with the prospect of locking horns with welterweight king Georges St. Pierre, it is frustrating, but it does not threaten to stunt the growth of the UFC, men’s MMA or his legacy. Rousey, in the infancy of what appears to be a promising career, cannot afford to let this opportunity pass. Instead of taunting and baiting “Cyborg” to fight her at 135 pounds, Rousey could cement her status as a pioneer for women’s MMA by moving up to fight the Brazilian on her terms.
Given their testy relationship and propensity for violence in the cage, Rousey-Santos would undoubtedly be the biggest fight in the history of women’s MMA -- a fight worthy of placement on a UFC pay-per-view or Fox card if contractual stipulations allowed it.
“I don’t owe her anything, and she needs to fight me more than I need to fight her. There’s a line; they all want to beat me up now. So, really, she needs to come to me,” Rousey said.
It is unclear just who is going to emerge from the “they” at 135 pounds, at least until fellow Olympian Sara McMann further develops. Rousey might not want to admit it, but the biggest star in female MMA needs “Cyborg,” too. By consistently eviscerating the Brazilian in the media, Rousey has left herself no other options. The champion risks losing credibility by attempting to force “Cyborg” to a weight she knows is unreasonable. Again, this might seem unfair because Rousey herself has never failed a drug test, but a greater good is at stake here.
The future of women’s MMA has never been brighter than it is now, but there is still plenty of work to be done. Eventually, Rousey will have to drop her pride to help keep the momentum going.