For a time, we assumed Gina Carano would be the fighter to lead women’s MMA into its own. Then, for an even shorter while, we thought it might be Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos.
These days we know better.
With all the benefits of hindsight, it’s clear that both Carano and Santos were always too limited to truly be the transformative figures the sport needed them to be. Now, their failures -- if you want to call them that -- have given way to a new torchbearer, one that so far seems better equipped to wear the crown than either of her predecessors.
Women's MMA's new "it" fighter, of course, is Ronda Rousey. She seized that mantel with her 135-pound title win over Miesha Tate on Saturday, giving fans plenty of reasons to hope that female fighting is finally about to find its stride.
Carano may have had good looks and skills enough to advance to a 7-0 record in Stikeforce and EliteXC, but for her, there was always something missing. Looking back, her moniker as “the face of women’s MMA” maybe should have been instructive that her heart wasn't really in it. Carano appealed to the sport’s male-dominated fanbase, but she repeatedly had trouble making weight, fought only sparingly between 2007-09 and by the time Hollywood came calling with movie offers she already had one foot out the door after her August 2009 loss to "Cyborg."
In nearly every way, Santos seemed like the anti-Carano. For her, heart and motivation were never at issue and her three-year run through the sport’s upper echelon can most accurately be described as a reign of terror. “Cyborg’s” sheer ferocity -- which frankly may never be equaled -- made her a marketable star, but it wasn't as if the audience (either male or female) could ever relate to her. She was dominant almost to a fault and for the most part, people tuned in to her fights just to see what hapless challenger would be fed to her next.
When Santos proved unworthy by testing positive for steroids in the wake of her 16 second brutalization of Hiroko Yamanaka in December, well, let’s just say nobody was shocked.
Now comes Rousey, who arrived seemingly out of nowhere during the last year to become women's MMA’s newest top gun. With the sport still mired in a critical point in its development, her task will be similar to the one previously entrusted to Carano and Santos: Prove that female fighters deserves to share the stage on equal footing with their male counterparts.
So far, it's been an uphill battle. Zuffa bigwigs are holding fast to claims that there isn't enough talent in the women's ranks to include them in the UFC proper, though company president Dana White appeared to be warming ever so slowly to the idea when he admitted he too was pretty excited to see the Tate-Rousey fight.
Indeed, if the task at hand is still to bring women’s MMA into favor with mainstream fight fans, you couldn’t ask for a much better emissary than Rousey.
She combines the innate marketability possessed by Carano with the in-ring tenacity displayed by “Cyborg.” In fact, she goes one better than those two ever could, tying it all together with her amateur background as an Olympic medalist in Judo.
Perhaps most importantly, Rousey seems to understand the concept of selling a fight better than any female fighter before her. She essentially talked her way into her title match with Tate, using a torrent of trash talk the likes of which we've never seen in women's MMA to leapfrog former champion Sarah Kaufman on the contender list. Once there, she showed she was indeed ready, catching Tate in a grisly arm bar during the final minute of the first round.
It's highly possible that when we look back, we'll remember Rousey's championship victory as the moment female MMA really turned a corner, finally found the proper star that could push it to new heights. Either that, or we'll learn Rousey is flawed in some way and, like Carano and Santos before her, she'll prove incapable of carrying the weight of an entire division. So far though, she seems up to the challenge.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the new 135-pound champion and women's MMA's previous stars is this: In retrospect, both Carano and Santos feel like attractions. Rousey feels like a fighter.
Somehow, that's seems like an important distinction.