In case you haven't heard, Ronda Rousey's first true UFC title defense has been turned upside down, with Cat Zingano (1-0 in the UFC) pulling out of the fight due to a knee injury. Since, she has been replaced by the champ's de facto arch-rival, Miesha Tate. Just like Anthony Pettis vs. Jose Aldo and Nick Diaz vs. Georges St-Pierre, the UFC is lining up fights that detract from the value of their belt.
Unlike those fights, however, the UFC ended up taking a page out of boxing's book. The world's largest mixed martial arts promotion is protecting one of their champions.
Miesha Tate is one of the three known commodities in women's MMA these days, both in terms of skill and drawing power. The other two, of course, being Ronda Rousey and Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos.
Who should Rousey fight next?
Skill-wise, Tate is no slouch but does not shine especially brightly in any area. With the current state of the UFC's women's division, that will make it difficult for her to remain an elite fighter.
As our own Jonathan Snowden once put it, women's MMA right now is like jumping back to the mid-1990s. Each fighter is a converted expert from another combat sport, but actual well-rounded mixed martial artists are hard to come by. That makes it very difficult for Tate, who possesses unremarkable striking and above-average (but simply above average) grappling.
Her record shows precisely this, with two of her losses coming at the hands (or feet) of two of the best female knockout artists in women's MMA in Sarah Kaufman and Kaitlin Young, while the other two coming from the 2008 Beijing bronze medalist in Judo, Ronda Rousey, and four-time All-American wrestler Cat Zingano.
Miesha Tate may or may not be better now than when she got her arm famously pretzeled by Rousey (she likely is, given her age and training with Team Alpha Male). However, it takes more than 18 months or so to become able to ply a wrestling-focused gameplan on somebody who has an Olympic medal for, essentially, takedown offense and defense.
That adds up to Tate vs. Rousey being one of the most lopsided stylistic matchups in the UFC's women's division, and that is the biggest reason they are setting up a Rousey vs. Tate 2.
Yes, yes. I know. Locking two of MMA's most bitter rivals in the same room for a couple months will make for an exciting season of The Ultimate Fighter at a critical juncture for Fox Sports 1. It will also probably provide a modest boost to Rousey's PPV numbers.
However, while Rousey's feud with Tate is memorable for those who witnessed it unfold...that isn't actually all that many people. Rousey, truly, found an overnight success so quick and clean that nothing and no one else ended up accompanying her en route to stardom. The sudden media attention that turned towards Rousey turned exclusively towards her, and not to her feud with Tate.
It is only a moderate percentage of genuinely hardcore MMA fans that saw the fight between Rousey and Tate. Because of that, it is hard to simply brush this off as the UFC's latest cash-grab. More than likely, this is an active effort to keep the champ away from the two big threats that are waiting just around the corner.
Who would those fighters be?
There have only been three women's fights in the UFC thus far. The only female with a win in the UFC outside Rousey and Zingano is Olympic wrestling silver medalist Sara McMann. McMann, on paper, is the most likely to dethrone Rousey, and could arguably be favored if the two fought today.
Wrestlers have historically had the edge against Judoka in MMA, and there are very few wrestlers on par with McMann. Rousey, just seven fights into her career at this point, is still a work in progress, and would likely find herself in the same awkward position that Judo converts like Rick Hawn and Karo Parisyan found when fighting guys like Jay Hieron and Diego Sanchez.
Outside McMann and Rousey, there is one more high-level grappler to discuss in accomplished Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blackbelt Alexis Davis. Davis is currently scheduled to face European striker Rosi Sexton at UFC 161, and is a big favorite going into the fight. Davis, like McMann, is a difficult matchup for Rousey, who would likely have great trouble securing one of her fabled armbars against a submission artist of her caliber.
While the numbers for UFC 157 are unconfirmed, projections peg the buyrate to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 500,000 buys or more. That instantly puts Rousey alongside Jon Jones and Anderson Silva among the UFC's top draws behind Georges St-Pierre.
That is a gravy train the UFC needs to keep chugging with hints of a possible GSP retirement. A Rousey loss would be incredibly inconvenient for the promotion at this point, and they clearly recognize this. Booking Rousey vs. Tate massages the odds of a lengthy championship reign for the UFC's leading lady, and they could very easily follow it up with another Rousey-friendly matchup once Zingano is back on her feet.
Does Rousey need to be protected? Maybe, but probably not.
Regardless, the UFC is tilting the women's division around to minimize potential pitfalls for Rousey.