Miesha Tate was smiling as the bell rang to begin the second round. Her face was already swelling and red, the blood that had dotted it carefully wiped away in her corner. None of that mattered. Tate couldn't help but celebrate a little bit.
And who could blame her?
Sure, Ronda Rousey had thoroughly dominated her in the opening stanza, bloodying her face and landing a staggering 63 of 78 strikes, according to Fight Metric. And yes, Rousey had tossed her several times like a sack of potatoes. But Tate had survived—and that was enough.
"You're doing great," cornerman and boyfriend Bryan Caraway said. "You got out of the first round."
A moral victory of sorts, sure, but one putting her in rarefied air. No one else had ever managed even that much. In her eighth professional fight, Rousey would go into the second round for the first time.
It's the little victories that can lead, inevitably, to larger ones. You can certainly see the story Tate and her corner were telling themselves, the picture they were painting in their active imaginations. That Rousey would falter, wither and break. That extended action would test her in ways she's never been tested before.
That didn't turn out to be the case.
Instead, the Ronda Rousey we saw in the second and then third rounds was much like the one we've gotten used to watching dominate the first. Judo continued to be the difference, first standing where she won every clinch exchange with ease and later on the ground, where she kept Tate scrambling with a succession of submission attempts that eventually culminated in a fight-finishing armbar.
"She's a great fighter," Rousey admitted after the bout at the post-fight press conference. "It was an amazing fight she put out. She has my respect entirely in that regard."
In the course of 10 minutes and 57 seconds, Rousey hit Tate 134 times to just 28 return blows. She took Tate down six times and attempted three submissions, all of which came close to finishing the bout. She was a human wrecking ball, an unstoppable force of nature and science.
And still, when the fight was finally over, pundits and Rousey did nothing but praise Tate for her showing. For her showing in a thrashing!
It's a testament to how dominant Rousey is, and has been in the past, that such a one-sided bout was considered a solid display of Tate's fighting prowess. Yes, she was destroyed in compelling fashion. But at least she made Rousey work for it.
There's never been a fighter quite like this in UFC history, perhaps save the great Anderson Silva, no other fighter from whom mind-numbing excellence is so routine that fans just kind of expect it. One whose dominance is so complete that even the slightest road block is praised as if we'd just witnessed the last stand at Thermopylae.
Rousey's victory was so predictable, in fact, that the UFC had already discussed her next fight with her before the Tate bout had even begun. UFC President Dana White had even gone so far as to print up a poster advertising her next title defense in just two short months. It would have been downright disrespectful to Tate if only it hadn't been so completely predictable.
Rousey will face off with fellow Olympian Sara McMann at UFC 170 on February 22, 2014. There's a built-in narrative to help push the bout, a peer for Rousey to play off. We'll pretend that McMann is Rousey's equal, try to convince ourselves that she has a chance to win. But Ronda Rousey has no peer in women's MMA.
Perhaps she never will.
There is Ronda, and then there is everyone else. Not only has her star ascended into the unknown, into the realm of legitimate mainstream celebrity, but she's dragging the entire sport with her.
At the post-fight press conference, a reporter from Home and Garden asked fighters about The Ultimate Fighter house's decor and their personal gyms. It was a far cry from the normal questions that focus on asking fighters what they were thinking at various points in their bouts and asking White about potential future matchups.
It's a brand-new world, and Rousey is leading the way.
Unfortunately, Rousey has no foil for her to pit herself and her other-worldly focus and energy against. She's a lonely warrior waiting for a worthy foe—only to be constantly disappointed when the opponents she's built in her mind turn out to be merely mortal.
Every truly great athlete needs a nemesis, someone who can push them until they are forced to dig deep, to visit places in the darkest reaches of their soul and fight their way back into the light. Someone to prove their greatness exists, not just in a vacuum, but even when things aren't going according to plan.
Rousey hasn't found another woman who can help her push boundaries, both her own limits and the limits we impose on female athletes in general. Rousey needs someone who can match her, someone to dance the most dangerous dance with, together twirling into fighting immortality.
Cyborg vs. Rousey: Who Wins?
Here's hoping that someone is Sara McMann. But I don't think that's likely. There is, however, another woman out there, another fighter who sends shivers down opponents' spines. A woman against whom mere survival is its own reward—a woman who is already calling Rousey out.
More than a woman—a machine.
There are some obstacles in the path of making this bout a reality. Cris "Cyborg" Justino fights at 145 pounds and Ronda at just 135. She fights for another promotion, Invicta FC, and not the UFC. And her positive test for the steroid stanozolol hangs over her every accomplishment like a shroud.
None of that makes her any less compelling an opponent. Ronda Rousey was born to fight Cris "Cyborg" Justino. And until she does, hers will be only a theoretical greatness.