One of the first things you learn as an MMA fan is that no one is invincible. Fedor Emelianenko, Chuck Liddell, Lyoto Machida, BJ Penn (as a lightweight, anyway), Matt Hughes, and many more were talked about with great excitement at one point or another in their careers as everyone wondered aloud how in the world someone would beat them.
None of them stood above their competition as much as Ronda Rousey.
I don’t mean to say that Rousey is a better technical fighter than someone like Machida, or that she has the power of someone like Liddell, nor the hard-to-define combination of heart, will, and skill that made Fedor so great for so long. While Rousey is quite a physical specimen and a legitimate world-class athlete, this is more about her competition than about her.
Rousey is an Olympic-caliber athlete fighting against high school wrestlers, grapplers of slightly above average athleticism who discovered a love for jiu-jitsu and ran with it, and just plain tough women who have honed some striking skills through effort in the gym.
She manhandles women her size while also being faster and more skilled on the mat with them. Her biggest weakness, her striking, is also an area that most women at 135 pounds are not going to be able to exploit. As we’ve already seen, even when someone has better technical striking than Rousey, they cannot keep her away for long enough to capitalize. Rousey is so athletic and so adept at taking foes down that all she has to do is get her hands on an opponent and it’s as good as over.
Perhaps someone that is a really high level grappler could test her? Well, that seems unlikely given the fact that no one with that kind of jiu-jitsu pedigree is likely to be able to match her physically. It’s hard to work your own offense when someone is physically dominating you, effortlessly moving to dominant positions and basically crumpling you into a little ball. Look at the ease with which Rousey brought Kaufman to the mat and mounted her last night. Ridiculous.
The most popular theory is that the right woman to test Rousey will be someone with one-punch knockout power. The whole “puncher’s chance” thing, right? To that, I defiantly say, “And who, pray tell, is this 135 pound woman with concussive punching power?” Because I have not seen her and am not familiar with her.
The only fight for Rousey that is compelling for reasons other than wondering if she can continue to armbar every opponent she faces would be one against “Cyborg” Santos. That fight is interesting because Cyborg has also (ahem) manhandled her foes, but a closer look reveals that any comparison between the two is of the “apples and oranges” variety.
While Rousey has been dominating women her size (and with very little background in the sport aside from her judo roots), Cyborg famously has fought against women who normally fight at 10 pounds or more under the 145 pound weight that she struggles to cut down to every fight. Cyborg may fight at a heavier weight class, but she has literally never fought someone as strong as Rousey, and has not been as impressive in the way that she’s dispatched foes as Rousey has. Cyborg often overwhelms opponents and causes them to wilt under the pressure, while Rousey beats them both physically and technically.
Female MMA fighters get just as much respect from me as the men in terms of not only the entertainment value of their bouts, but their skills and the heart that they display in their fights.
However, we often forget that on the men’s side of the sport, only in the last several years have we seen an influx of fighters with the type of athleticism you often seen in mainstream sports that pay much more. I think one of the reasons why wrestlers dominated the sport in the 90′s and early 2000′s is that wrestlers were the only world-class athletes in the sport. Now, you have guys like Georges St. Pierre, Jon Jones, and more recently, Daniel Cormier, who not only have the athleticism, but the specific tools needed to succeed in areas outside of their specific bases of expertise that are now required to become a success in the sport.
The women’s side of things has yet to see this evolution. Rousey is essentially enjoying an advantage that you might have seen if you had sent a top five fighter from today back to 2000 and had him compete. While I don’t doubt the technical skills of the women we see in MMA today, when they face someone with the sheer athleticism of Rousey, they are unable to cope.
Being able to do what you want, as fast as you want to against another professional athlete who is respected as one of the best in the world even when she knows exactly what you’re going to do is a pretty special achievement. Ronda Rousey continues to put on unbelievable performances because she is more of a glimpse of the future of women’s MMA than an example of its present. She’s ahead of her time, and her competition has a lot of growing up to do before anyone is going to challenge her.