Conventional wisdom says we won’t see Ronda Rousey for a while.
Even before Saturday’s second-round knockout loss to Holly Holm at UFC 193, Rousey was making noise about needing a break. The former women’s bantamweight champion fought five times during the last 20 months and was one of the primary drivers behind the fight company’s resurgent 2015.
Now she’s gone.
Softening the blow a bit is the fact the UFC probably didn’t expect to have Rousey around during the early part of next year. Still, it certainly didn’t think she would go out quite like this. How she’ll return and how much of her drawing power she’ll retain in the wake of such an ugly defeat remains a mystery.
Back in August, I wrote about how important Rousey and interim featherweight champion Conor McGregor have been to the UFC’s recent success. Now that Holm has knocked Rousey off her pedestal, I can’t help but wonder if UFC brass are eyeing McGregor’s December 12 showdown against Jose Aldo with a bit more trepidation.
The organization’s bottom line and mainstream profile could temporarily take a hit while Rousey retools and rebuilds. If the UFC’s other golden goose suffers a potentially aura-shattering loss at almost the same time?
Yeah, that would probably not be good.
By the time McGregor meets up with Aldo next month, he’ll have matched Rousey as one of the UFC’s most dependable workers and biggest draws. UFC 194 marks his fifth bout inside the Octagon during the last 16 months.
Together, they are responsible for some of the biggest selling UFC pay-per-view events this year, according to estimates from Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer (h/t MMA Payout). They include Rousey’s victories over Cat Zingano at UFC 184 (600,000 PPV buys) and Bethe Correia at UFC 190 (900,000), as well as McGregor’s TKO over Chad Mendes at UFC 189 (825,000).
It’s too early to know exactly how well Rousey’s loss to Holm performed at the box office, but it’s thought to be in the running for one of the biggest ever.
McGregor’s once-postponed fight against Aldo is also expected to do land-office business.
According to Odds Shark, the Irish Phenom is going off as a slight favorite, but the truth is this fight represents far and away the biggest test of McGregor’s short career on the big stage.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s imagine he falters in three weeks, and the fight ends with his limp body crashing to the mat the same way Rousey’s did last Saturday.
Does that equal a debilitating power outage for the UFC?
Maybe, maybe not.
Rousey and McGregor are certainly its two most profitable champions at the moment. There would probably be no way to cast back-to-back losses by them as a positive plot twist. Considering how they’ve been promoted, it’s at least reasonable to wonder if it might severely undermine their marketability moving forward.
In the days following her loss to Holm, there has already been significant backlash against Rousey. Chalk that up to her own overexposure and the swaggering, bad-girl persona she worked so hard to cultivate these past few years.
McGregor rode to stardom on a similar strategy. He’s fumed and blustered and paraded his own wealth in front of a largely working-class fanbase. He’s been larger than life—and if it suddenly turns out he’s not everything he claims to be, it’s tough to imagine critics going much easier on him.
Losses by both would be a bitter pill to swallow for the UFC, which has spent considerable time and money establishing Rousey and McGregor as crossover stars. For years, the company chose to promote its own brand over the personalities of specific fighters, but it seemed to make a sudden exception for these two.
Critics have accused the fledgling women’s bantamweight division as being nothing more than a showcase for Rousey’s celebrity. Now that she’s no longer the figurehead there, the future of the division seems murky. Holm will be a great champion, but she won’t be anything close to the media darling that Rousey was.
Likewise, once the UFC realized what it had in McGregor, it served him a short string of handpicked opponents who played directly to his flashy striking style. When Aldo pulled out of their first scheduled meeting with a rib injury, the UFC didn’t have to put an interim belt on McGregor for beating Mendes, but it did anyway.
The tactic worked to an almost shocking degree—both Rousey and McGregor were accepted by a largely fawning mainstream media. As a result, they sold big numbers on PPV.
But then Rousey got kicked in the face by Holm and now finds herself on somewhat uncomfortable hiatus. If McGregor suffers the same fate, it could put the immediate future on uncertain footing.
Yet all would not be lost.
The UFC still has a big-money bout between returning former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and current champ Daniel Cormier scheduled for the spring. It still has a halfway-interesting bantamweight title fight between TJ Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz on tap for January. It still has a heavyweight championship rematch between Cain Velasquez and Fabricio Werdum on deck.
And its two biggest tickets would be down but not out.
McGregor would certainly still have options. He has long discussed a move to lightweight, where a bevy of high-profile opponents would await him. There’s also word that the UFC might be eyeing a stadium show in Ireland during 2016, where McGregor would be sure to headline—either in a rematch with Aldo or against some other big-money foe.
Likewise, interest will be high in Rousey’s comeback, if and when she decides to make one. An eventual rematch with Holm will be an enormous spectacle, though one Rousey needs to win if she wants to avoid going the way of other early UFC champions such as Rich Franklin and Matt Hughes.
Both were dominant in the formative days of their divisions but eventually fell by the wayside as the sport passed them by. Franklin was eclipsed by Anderson Silva, Hughes by Georges St-Pierre.
Neither Rousey nor McGregor wants to suffer that fate.
Fans would no doubt miss them after they were gone. But perhaps not nearly as much as the UFC’s accountants.