Women have been a part of the cage fighting movement for more than a decade, trading leather and hugs across the nation and the world. Seen as a novelty act, at best, and a titillating sideshow at worst, female fighters competed at armories and Indian reservations, never on-pay-per-view and never for the UFC.
That is a period now planted firmly in the past. A time in MMA history we might soon refer to as the PR Age. Pre Rousey.
In just two years Rousey has nearly single-handedly done what UFC president Dana White once said could never be accomplished. She has, through force of will, skill and a dazzling smile, brought women's MMA right smack dab in the middle of the hallowed UFC Octagon. Not as an opening act—as the main event.
Rousey continues her one-woman invasion of the American mainstream this week, bringing her now familiar tale of heartache and triumph to an audience a bit wider than the one she's courted for much of her nascent MMA career. Tonight HBO's Real Sports, the widely respected magazine show hosted by Bryant Gumbel, takes a crack at telling Ronda's story to the casual fans.
For the most part, they get it all right, focusing on all the right areas and telling Ronda's story in a way that does her proud. That may sound like faint praise, but it really isn't. Most features about MMA, even those by the prestige press like 60 Minutes or The New York Times invariably get something wrong.
Reporters who would own almost any other story don't come into MMA with a knowledge base, completely unfamiliar with the sport. That's a daunting task when dealing with the hucksters in the fight game. Performing, essentially, without a net, their lack of expertise hurts the storyteller's ability to sniff out when they're being sold a bill of goods.
Not so with HBO's Jon Frankel. He's clearly no MMA encyclopedia, but neither is he the squeamish sort looking down on the barbarians in the cage from his lofty perch among the media elite. Here's a typical exchange from the piece, filmed as the two watched Rousey's grisly armbar win over Miesha Tate:
Ronda Rousey: You could give up if you want.
HBO's Jon Frankel: You can tap out.
Ronda Rousey: You totally can, anytime.
Jon Frankel: But you'd be calling me a wuss.
Ronda Rousey: No, I'd be calling you smart. Because it's going down, regardless.
Jon Frankel: Do you like hurting the person?
Ronda Rousey: No, but it's a fight. We're not baking cakes for each other. You know, I didn't go in there to make a pie.
For hardcore fans, it's a special that doesn't break any new ground. You'll hear all about what are now familiar tropes to Rousey watchers. But HBO hits all the high points well, discussing her relationship with her father, her Mom's armbar sneak attacks and the incredible athleticism that has driven her to the top of the business.
Not everyone will walk away happy. They show Rousey's destruction of Tate's arm what feels like about 100 times in the special, perhaps misleading viewers into thinking it was typical of the hold rather than a brutal aberration. Liz Carmouche fans, too, won't be pleased. This isn't a special about women's MMA. This is Ronda's world. The rest of us are just taking up space.
Most disappointed of all will be people who wanted more of Rousey than we saw in ESPN: The Magazine, where she was photographed in the buff. Purveyors of the female form will be sad to learn Rousey has no plans to pose for Playboy:
Ronda Rousey: Well, if you want exposure, you have to expose yourself, to some extent.
Jon Frankel: To the extent of ESPN Body?
Ronda Rousey: Yeah, I felt like it was a good way to promote myself and Women's MMA. It wasn't like it was Playboy.
Jon Frankel: What if Playboy did call?
Ronda Rousey: Then I'd say, 'No.'
Jon Frankel: Really?
Ronda Rousey: Yeah, no one should be able to see my cash and prizes for $5, okay? I don't care how much money they gave me.
Real Sports is just the beginning of what should be an all out media blitz this week. Ronda Rousey will be everywhere, culminating with her UFC 157 fight against Carmouche on Saturday. It's the kind of mainstream roller coaster ride MMA fans haven't been on since Brock Lesnar was in his prime. Strap in. If everyone does as good a job as HBO did here, it's going to be a heck of a ride.
Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel debuts Tuesday, February 19 at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on HBO. Check out the NEW HBO Real Sports Facebook page here: www.facebook.com/realsports