Floyd Mayweather Jr. has been the best boxer on the planet for so long you could forgive him if he thought accolades like the ESPY award for "Best Fighter" were simply his due. He's taken home ESPN's top prize for combat sports six times since the award debuted in 2007, once even being honored in absentia while he sat in a Las Vegas jail cell.
This year, everything changed. Mayweather, who steps into the ring for what he says will be the final time Saturday against Andre Berto, gave way to the next big thing in combat sports—rising UFC star Ronda Rousey. By the end of the night, Rousey's jab at Mayweather's past problems with domestic violence had gone viral, leading many to wonder whether a war of words might eventually be settled in the ring.
It started innocently enough, with Rousey accepting the award on the red carpet in what appeared to be your standard, forgettable interview.
"I try to be the best at what I do," Rousey said. "And that's the real substance that keeps people coming. It's not all the outside things like what you're wearing today or what magazines you've been in or what movies you're doing. It's really about the fights themselves."
And then, after saying all of the right things, there was the shot heard around the world. Rousey, a two-time Olympian and a judo prodigy, wasn't willing to allow Mayweather a gracious exit stage left.
"I wonder how Floyd feels being beat by a woman for once? I'd like to see you pretend not to know who I am now."
In some ways, the shot the Washington Post called a "sick burn" was nothing new. MMA fighters have been calling Mayweather out for years, debating who could beat him the quickest. Featherweight Conor McGregor gives Floyd 30 seconds before he makes the boxing champ call it quits. Flyweight Demetrious Johnson jokingly upped the ante to 15 seconds should he get Mayweather in the cage.
It's a pugnacious spillover from the days everyone associated with cage fighting was forced to battle for its very existence, a way to establish that this was much more than a legalized street fight. MMA was like boxing's little brother, desperate for the mainstream credibility the sweet science had earned over a century as a global sport. And, for the most part, Mayweather was content to ignore the chatter, comfortable in rarefied air as the industry's highest-paid athlete.
But Rousey's attack was different. Instead of being carried exclusively on niche blogs for hardcore fans, it hit the mainstream. For the first time, an MMA fighter had taken a shot at Mayweather—and landed clean.
"I'm in a position where I can say something. If I feel like somebody insults me, I don't have to sit there and bow my head and be a good little girl and just take it," Rousey told NPR's Audie Cornish. "I can say something back. And it's actually encouraging that he's in the kind of situation where he feels like he has to respond to me."
Ronda Rousey Takes Women's MMA to New Heights
Rousey's iconic status is the product of the right athlete coming along at just the right time. While women took their first tentative steps into the cage almost as soon as the UFC was introduced in 1993, it took more than a decade for the idea of female fights to really catch on.
"Fifteen or 20 years ago she would have been treated as a freak show or a carnival act because she'd be achieving unprecedented success, but in a sport that was clearly seen as not acceptable for women," Dr. Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, told Bleacher Report. "In fact, she had to fight really hard just to get into the UFC."
It seemed, for a time, like women's MMA might never reach escape velocity, destined to be a sideshow on smaller cards and nothing more. While a 2009 fight between Gina Carano and Cris "Cyborg" Santos main evented a nationally televised bout on Showtime and drew nearly 14,000 fans, Carano immediately departed the sport for good, and Cyborg failed a steroid screening while trying to help a shattered division rebuild.
What might have been a tipping point looked suddenly like it had been an apex. Women's MMA wasn't buoyed by Carano and Cyborg, despite their individual success. They were the wrong women to evangelize a sport that had so many cultural hurdles to overcome.
But Rousey, who combined Carano's movie-star looks with Cyborg's unyielding desire to dominate, was born for the job. Her mother, Dr. AnnMaria De Mars, was the 1984 world judo champion, America's first to conquer the globe. De Mars, who had gained so much from competition, demanded all of her four children at least give judo a try. For Ronda, it stuck.
"I think a big part of her success is that she was born and bred to be a competitor," UFC fighter Lauren Murphy said. "She was raised from a young age to compete in athletics at a very high level. And we're not talking about golf or something. I'm talking about judo, a violent, physical sport.
"She had a natural affinity for it and on top of that she had a mom who's a world champion. Ronda has been fighting her whole life. Let's not beat around the bush. She's been competing in combat sports her whole life and nobody else has. It's hard to catch up to a lifetime of competition, and it's serving her well."
Before she could sell the world on women's MMA, however, Rousey first had to sell UFC president Dana White, who had famously declared women would never step into the Octagon on his watch.
"I was always asked about Dana saying women would never be in the UFC," Rousey told Bleacher Report. "And I just said 'Look, he has no choice about it. I'm going to make him love me. There's nothing he can do.'
"I was going to be so good and capture so much attention it's going to be impossible for him to ignore me. It was something that had to be done if I wanted to have any future in this."
In time, White saw what everyone who watches Rousey sees—a ferocious athlete with fire in her eyes and the mean streak it takes to impose her will on everyone she comes in contact with.
"I've been in the fight business since I was 19 years old," White told Bleacher Report. "And I know real fighters when I see them. She's a real fighter. She looked right through me with these eyes, like we'd never f---ing met and she didn't give a f--k if we'd ever meet. I loved it. Loved it."
In 12 professional fights, Rousey has been pushed beyond the first round just once. Nine of her fights, including four of her last five, have lasted less than a minute. The fifth went all of 1:06. It's an unprecedented string of success that has led some to call her the most dominant athlete in all of sports.
It's also a track record that has led many to wonder whether any woman can possibly compete with her. From there, it's a short tumble down a slippery slope to the inevitable question—if women can't hold their own against Rousey, should she try her luck with a man?
"I don't understand why women's sports can't be appreciated in their own rights," Dr. Cheryl Cooky, an associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Purdue University told Bleacher Report. "I think Ronda Rousey has done a great job in trailblazing and opening up the sport of MMA to women. That in itself should be celebrated and embraced.
"The idea that in order to prove your worth as a female athlete you have to prove your competence against male athletes is diminishing. It only perpetuates the idea that women's sports are less than and women athletes are second-class citizens."
The issue, Cooky said, is bigger than just Rousey. Anytime a woman attempts to secure her place at the table, the backlash begins. Before Rousey, powerful athletes like Michelle Wie, Serena Williams and Brittney Griner faced similar pushback.
"The question always becomes 'would they be able to handle it in the NBA?' or 'would they be able to handle it in the PGA?'" Cooky said. "All that does is reinforce the idea that men's sports are still the standard to which women are compared."
Kane, while acknowledging that some proposing the idea may be attempting to belittle Rousey by comparing her to male fighters, believes questions about mixed-gender bouts are asked mostly in good faith.
"She has earned an enormous amount of respect for how good she is and how tough she is and for how disciplined she is. For some people it's a well-intentioned and legitimate question to ask," Kane said. "It's the logical extension of everything she's proved already.
"We're in America, which loves its spectacle on a grand stage. Imagine the marketing potential. Imagine the television audience. So some of it may be very self-interested discussion driven by people who stand to make a good deal of money and exposure."
As a storyline, Cooky said, it's compelling. Mayweather, the face of misogyny and violence against women in the world of athletics, taking on the strongest woman in combat sports history stirs both emotions and the imagination.
"The hero and villain narrative is one we see a lot within the world of sports, where morality plays are common," she said. "They compete in the arena, or on the field and it makes for a compelling story for journalists. It's doing a service for both boxing and mixed martial arts by creating exposure and interest where that interest doesn't always exist. There's a reason this rivalry has emerged and been sustained in a variety of ways."
Man Versus Woman
The idea of Rousey facing a man in the cage is an echo of the most famous intergender battle of all time—a 1973 tennis match between women's champion Billie Jean King and chauvinist provocateur Bobby Riggs. The "Battle of the Sexes" set a tennis record that still stands, drawing more than 30,000 fans to the Houston Astrodome and another 50 million on television to see the 29-year-old King, near the top of her game, beat the 55-year-old Riggs in straight sets.
"That match became symbolic for the broader societal struggle for women's inequality," Cooky said. "Billie Jean King's win over Bobby Riggs was more than a victory for women's athletics. It became a symbol for equality and the idea that men and women were equal.
"Sport is one of the last institutions in our society that is segregated by gender in a way that's both culturally accepted and legally enforced. It creates the space for these kinds of conversations about what gender equality might mean in a contemporary moment."
In this moment, the conversation has been driven by the UFC and its fighters, desperate not only to get one up on boxing but to also put its new female sensation in a context that a mostly male audience can understand and relate to.
"This is a chick that could leave this building, walk down the Las Vegas Strip and wreck every guy on the Las Vegas Strip. There’s never been a woman in the history of the world that could do that," White told the assembled media after Rousey's destruction of poor Alexis Davis at UFC 175. "...Once she grabs onto you, I don’t care how big you are, how strong you are—she’s going to drop you on your head."
UFC color commentator Joe Rogan took it one step further. While White elevated Rousey above the man on the street, and rightfully so, Rogan expanded her theoretical triumphs over her male peers.
"There's a lot of guys her size she could beat," he told ESPN's Dan Le Batard (h/t Stitcher.com). "I mean, a lot. If you took the roster of the UFC's bantamweights, 135 pounds, and you paired them up against Ronda Rousey, she might be able to beat 50 percent of them. That's not a joke."
David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, is a self-proclaimed Rousey fan. But, as an expert in gender differences in athletics, he can't quite agree with Rogan's infectious enthusiasm for the top woman in the sport.
"We divide men and women because the performance differences are so great we wouldn't have enough participation from women if we didn't do that," he told Bleacher Report. "There are some sports where the best women could compete with some men. But for the most part they couldn't. ... If you look at someone like Ronda Rousey, she is matched up with a male in the same weight class, her weight is going to be composed more of fat and less of muscle than his. Even if they are both as lean as they can possibly be. That's not any fault of hers."
Longtime fans of combat sports have seen the battle of the sexes play out beyond message boards and Twitter. In 1994, Lucia Rijker, arguably the greatest female kickboxer of all time, was brutally knocked cold by Somchai Jaidee, a male fighter who made no impact on the sport before or after the mixed-gender bout.
While a sample size of one is hardly compelling scientifically, regulators believe there are good reasons to avoid mixed-gender bouts.
"It has nothing to do with the fact that there are many women fighters who could probably beat male fighters, but fairness in boxing and MMA is based on creating a level playing field," VADA president and former ringside physician Dr. Margaret Goodman told Bleacher Report. "Mixed-gender fights would automatically create at least the illusion of, if not an actual, unlevel playing field. In sports where the bottom line is to inflict damage to your opponent, the potential implications and repercussions of a dangerous result are too great."
Top female MMA fighters confirm these differences exist outside the world of think pieces and scientific journals—they have a very real impact in the gym as well. While top professional women hold their own and more against the average guy in training, against the world's best men they run into hurdles they just can't leap.
"When you're talking about top-level athletes there's just no comparison. When I trained with (perennial 135-pound UFC contender) Urijah Faber he just snatched me up. He's just so freaking strong and fast and he hits so hard," Invicta FC bantamweight champion Tonya Evinger told Bleacher Report. "There's nothing to compare to a dude hitting you full force. Or a dude with some skills using his strength. When you get to a high level like that, there's no way I can compete with him. It's just not even realistic."
Murphy, who, like Evinger, trains regularly with men, has similar problems in mixed-gender competition, even the friendly variety, at the MMA Lab in Arizona.
"They are a lot bigger than me, but they're not only stronger—they're also faster," Murphy said. "They're much more explosive. They hit harder, they kick harder. They're more aggressive. And I think I get tired faster than they do. In almost every aspect of the sport that counts, gender makes a difference."
These differences, Epstein said, have nothing to do with skill or hard work and everything to do with genetics. For centuries, men have evolved in a way that rewards many of the physical attributes that today make them great fighters in the cage.
"You see it starting with bone density, which determines how much muscle you can support. Men pack in more muscle fibers in a lot of areas of their bodies than women do," he said. "There's more muscle in the same space.
"And men can generate more muscle to fill their frames because they have more steroid hormones than women. They can respond to certain kinds of training better. They can recover quicker. They have more red blood cells, which means they have a higher oxygen-carrying capacity than women."
Despite the science, Rousey refuses to discount the possibility she could overcome the odds and beat any male fighter, not just in her weight class but on the planet. Even heavyweight great Cain Velasquez doesn't reside in a realm beyond the limits of her imagination.
While her confidence stirred up waves in MMA fandom, fellow fighters understood. Every great fighter maintains a balancing act with his or her self-worth, finding the perfect line between the kind of ego that hampers further development and the confidence needed to overcome fears and step into the cage for combat.
"Fighting is about cultivating an ingrained sense that you will beat whatever is in front of you, no matter who or what it is. I have no doubt Ronda believes she can beat a man," women's MMA pioneer and Invicta matchmaker Julie Kedzie told Bleacher Report.
"I have beaten many men in the gym, both grappling and kickboxing. And I have also lost to them. The biological difference is muscle density, so saying a woman should fight a man in MMA is a little like saying a 125-pounder should fight a 155-pounder. Generally, all things being equal, the big guy wins. That’s fighting."
"While headline-grabbing, this entire premise ultimately damages both of them," Kedzie continued. "But people are gossipy and stupid, so they won’t let this go. And she will continue to cash in on it, because she knows how to stir things up. It sucks, because she’s so amazing and could rule the world just by doing what she does best—fighting."
Mayweather Is Money
For all of the talk of a mixed-gender matchup, it's unlikely to ever happen. A 1999 mixed-gender boxing match in Seattle sparked outrage and moved some jurisdictions to outlaw fights between a man and a woman outright.
As for a bout with Mayweather specifically, you can forget about it. The boxer seems befuddled by the constant questions about Rousey, and the CEO of Mayweather Promotions Leonard Ellerbe confirmed he has no interest in any MMA fights, let alone a fight against a woman.
"They've done a very good job with trying to align her using Floyd's name," Ellerbe told Sports Illustrated. "It's just promotion from their part. But, Floyd has nothing bad to really say about her, because he doesn't really know her. He doesn't follow the UFC. They've been able to do an outstanding job with building their brand and we have been too. And the two have been able to coexist because they do what they do and we do."
That flat denial, of course, does little to quell debate on the topic.
"It's all crap. She's smaller than Floyd, and not to mention the fact of what a man can do to a woman anyway. I don't care how tough she is fighting girls. That ain't got nothing to do with fighting a man," Mayweather's uncle Jeff Mayweather told Fight Hype's Percy Crawford. "...He is too strong for her. Whatever she do, he would break the hold and beat her ass. It's that simple. And all he gotta do is hit her once and the fight would be over."
Dana White, as you might expect, disagrees.
"You take a street fight, Ronda wins that fight and hurts him badly," he told MMA Junkie. "You do an MMA fight, same result."
Evinger, too, sees the fantasy bout as an easy win for her fellow MMA bantamweight.
"I think she takes him down and beats him up or armbars him," she said. "Any MMA fighter should be able to beat a straight boxer unless he lands one lucky-ass hard punch ... You've just got more tools in your belt in an MMA fight. All she has to do is dodge one punch. That distance is closed and he's uncomfortable. He's on his back. And he doesn't know what to do."
Opinion doesn't, however, break down entirely by sport. Mayweather's rival Manny Pacquiao is Team Ronda, while MMA fighter Murphy, though torn, sees the gender chasm as too wide even for the great Rousey.
"I hate making this prediction because I want to believe Ronda could beat anybody. I really do," Murphy admits. "But I don't think so. I don't. Maybe if it got to the ground. But I think Floyd hits really hard and his footwork is probably the best in the world.
"How is she going to get her hands on him? Good luck clinching with him if he doesn't want to clinch. And if you do get him on the ground, that's a pretty strong, athletic man you've got there. I don't see it ending well for the female."
And then there's the question of whether the bout, even if it could be made, should happen at all in a civilized society struggling with domestic violence in athletics.
"Because of the ways violence against women is such a pervasive part of our culture and our society, a fight between a man and a woman would sit differently with audiences," Cooky said. "I wonder what it would mean on a cultural level. There's still a lot of myths around domestic violence. There's still a lot of myths around sexual violence. It doesn't sit well with me."
Even Rousey, for all of her talk, doesn't actually want to compete with men because of similar philosophical concerns.
"I don't think it's a great idea to have a man hitting a woman on television," she told the Daily Beast. "I'll never say that I'll lose, but you could have a girl getting totally beat up on TV by a guy—which is a bad image to put across [...] It's fun to theorize about and talk about, but it's something that's much better in theory than fact."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.