It’s not really even an insult to call Ronda Rousey one-dimensional anymore.
Like any self-respecting fighter, she would likely bristle at that notion, but the truth is, she’s easy to figure out. There’s nothing wrong with being one-dimensional as long as that single dimension is so terrifyingly good that the rest of her division can’t decide if they hate or fear her.
Spoiler alert: She’s going to take you down and try to break your arm.
So far, it's been a recipe for unmatched success in the UFC women's bantamweight division. But let’s also be realistic here: Rousey is not as unbeatable as some pundits would have us believe. All it's going to take for her to get a true test is someone who can stay away from her Olympic-level judo game long enough to do damage on the feet.
And yeah, when we say “All it’s going to take,” we know that sounds like the most impossible mission in the world.
In any case, we'd like to see a few female MMA fighters try. Here (in no particular order) are our picks for the top five threats to Rousey’s ongoing tenure as UFC champion.
Sara McMann gets the honor of leading off our list by virtue of having next dibs on Her Rowdiness.
The fact that Dana White came to the UFC 168 post-fight press conference with the poster for Rousey vs. McMann already printed speaks both to the champion's work ethic and the company’s faith in her.
It’s also a sign that the UFC understands how important she is to its bottom line. With Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre out, 2014 arguably shapes up as a bleak year at the pay-per-view box office. Putting Rousey back in the cage just eight weeks after the blow-off of her feud with Miesha Tate sends a strong message about what she means to the brand.
Predictably, McMann will be cast as little more than another signpost on Rousey’s ongoing march into history, but the truth is, she has the skills to be more of a roadblock.
She trumps Rousey’s Olympic bronze medal in judo with a silver medal in women’s wrestling and is just one step behind the champion’s unblemished 8-0 MMA record with a 7-0 mark of her own.
It doesn’t take MMA’s answer to Gus Malzahn to know the key to beating Rousey will be to somehow stay out of her judo game. McMann could be better equipped to do that—either through defensive wrestling or takedowns of her own—than anybody currently on the UFC’s roster of 135-pound women.
Tate’s most recent performance proved that Rousey’s stand-up game is still a work in progress. If McMann can keep things on the feet, she has the power to cause problems.
If McMann chooses to take Rousey down and try to handle her from the top, then obviously her submission defense would become paramount. Even Tate, though, was able to force scrambles and get Rousey out of position, at least for a while. It's possible McMann could improve on that blueprint.
Does this fight end with a Rousey armbar and another opponent shuffling away with her head down and one appendage crooked awkwardly against her chest? Yeah, probably. But McMann has a shot, a good shot—and in a fight involving Rousey, that’s something.
Some of the luster has come off Cris “Cyborg” Justino in the wake of her 2011 positive steroid test and then the indefensible decision to take on Tito Ortiz as her manager. Owing primarily to the latter (and her own anxieties about cutting to 135 pounds), some people think we’ll never get to see the only bona fide superfight in women's MMA.
I’m not one of those people.
As long as Rousey gets past McMann in February and Justino successfully defends her Invicta FC featherweight crown sometime during the same fiscal quarter, I’ll retain fairly high hopes.
Why? Because of the money, and the desire of everyone involved to go on making as much of it as they possibly can.
Cyborg vs. Rousey will be the biggest women’s MMA fight that the UFC can make in 2014—a year when we’ve already established more than one of its best draws will be out of action. By the summer, the company will feel like it needs to do something a bit drastic.
In other words, everybody will return to the negotiating table with, shall we say, renewed vigor. The UFC will do what it does best: It will make the big fight.
Aside from being Rousey’s most lucrative opponent, Cyborg also amounts to her most dangerous one. Getting the two of them in the cage together is the only way to answer the question of whether Justino’s ferocious strikes and sheer physicality can undo Rousey’s preternatural grappling game.
My guess? Yeah, they do, and Cyborg takes this by TKO.
Now we just need a half-dozen more dominoes to fall the correct way so we can get down to the business of finding out if I’m right.
Like Cyborg, Holly Holm is not yet even in the UFC. She, however, faces far fewer obstacles between her and a flight from Albuquerque to Vegas so she can sign on the dotted line at Zuffa headquarters.
Right now the only hurdle left may be Juliana Werner, the flyweight fighter with a 7-3 record (and without her own Wikipedia page) whom Holm will fight for the inaugural Legacy FC bantamweight championship on April 5. If Holm wins—which is likely—she’ll no doubt smile for the cameras in her new Legacy FC belt before she walks backstage and immediately vacates it so she can sign with the UFC.
That’s because one of the most surprising things about Holm is that she’s not already fighting in the Octagon.
The multi-time women’s world boxing champ has been tearing up the independent circuit during her 6-0 professional career (she’s 33-2-3 in punching-only fights). Anybody who has taken the time to find and view one of Holm’s fights online or on AXS TV can see she possesses the athleticism and skills that will make her an instant contender when she lands in the UFC.
Once she makes it, she’ll likely need one Octagon win before she grabs the No. 1 spot, so perhaps the main impediment to Rousey vs. Holm will be the champion’s 2014 schedule. If Rousey is able to wrench herself free of the UFC and spend the better part of the year making movies, Holm could be in for a bit of a wait.
On the other hand, if and when she does end up fighting Rousey, there will be but one pertinent question: Can Holm keep it on the feet?
If she can—kind of a big if—she would win easily.
Poor, long-suffering Cat Zingano. Hopefully she gets the chance she deserves to fight Rousey this year.
It was Zingano, remember, who defeated Miesha Tate in April 2013 to secure No. 1 contender status and the right to coach opposite the champ on Season 19 of The Ultimate Fighter. Unfortunately, a serious knee injury put Zingano on the sideline, where she’s had to watch Tate light up the screen on TUF and then participate in the co-main event of the biggest UFC show of the year.
Kind of a rough way for your "big break" to go down.
We’re told Zingano is still not ready to return to action, and so Sara McMann gets the nod to take on Rousey in February. It’s starting to feel like Zingano will fall victim to that most insidious outcome of UFC delays—accepting another fight while she waits.
If Rousey does take more time off in 2014, or if the UFC tries to set her up with a summertime superfight against Cyborg, look for Zingano to take on another top contender instead—maybe the winner of Alexis Davis vs. Jessica Eye at UFC 170.
If she wins that, perhaps she'll finally get the opportunity to put her undefeated streak and well-rounded skills up against Rousey's. Does she have what it takes to beat the champion?
Sadly, only more time will tell.
Yeah, look, we know you expected to see Jessica Eye or Alexis Davis here, but the fact may be that Rousey’s 135-pound UFC title reign will end by her own hand.
She only fought twice during 2013 because she was out appearing in The Expendables and The Fast and the Furious franchises. Since she has been back, she’s been as dominant as ever in the cage, but the things she’s said haven’t reassured us that she’s sticking around the fight game for the long term.
If 2014 marks her last year in the UFC—at least for a while—well, we can’t say we’d be overly surprised. Perhaps more than any other entrant on this list, the most plausible end to her run with the title may include her defeating McMann and somebody like Zingano/Eye/Davis and then calling it quits.
Those Hollywood lights are just too bright, and those jobs where you can get paid good money to only pretend like people are punching you in the face are just too seductive.
If Rousey walks away, it’ll be a sad day for everyone (especially the UFC's accountants), but perhaps we could take solace in the idea of watching McMann, Holm, Tate and Zingano battle it out to see who would be the new champ. Small victories, right?