In the Clinch: The UFC's Girl Problem

Ronda Rousey is often accused of being bad for women's MMA, but the UFC carries most of the blame for the division's slow start.

In fact you’ll be hard pressed to find an article on the UFC women’s division that doesn’t express some frustration with the way fighters have been utilized.

Case in point, our own preview of this past weekend’s fight between Sara McMann and the previously undefeated Lauren Murphy:

“McMann, an Olympic silver medalist, lasted all of a minute and change against Rousey, but may be among the best in the division when the champ isn’t around. PPV sales, at this point, seem to be driven by the novelty of Rousey dispatching new opponent after new opponent, so McMann will need a convincing victory to get going in the right direction.

Obviously, it’s in the UFC’s best interest for Murphy to come out on top and remain undefeated, as an unknown unbeaten is about the only convincing competition for Rousey left, and even that angle is getting old.”

As it turns out, McMann scored a split-decision victory that appeared more decisive than the judges let on.

For Lauren Murphy, her first career loss may be less of a setback than you might think; it tested her against tough competition — arguably the second-best fighter in the division — and prevents her from being thrown up against Rousey far too early in his UFC career. It’s a pitfall McMann herself fell into, and its one that does little to serve the brand of the division, which has looked more like a Ronda Rousey armbar clinic than a field of skilled opponents.

For some reason, pro wrestling often makes for an excellent analog for MMA, at least in terms of testing out theories of fighter narratives. What we have right now with Ronda Rousey is your typical dominant champion who bowls over competition left and right, and has seemingly no one left to beat on the main roster.

What the UFC has made a habit of is bringing in undefeated (or close to it) fighters, giving them a warm-up bout, and — if successful — sending them up against Rousey.

When a similar scenario happens in WWE (think Brock Lesnar early in his career… or later in the UFC, for that matter), there are basically three outcomes with regards to the challenger:

1) The Challenger wins,

2) The Challenger puts up a strong fight, shows they belong in the same ring, become a proven commodity on the roster,

3) The Challenger loses decidedly, everyone questions whether they were a legitimate contender to begin with, they head to the back of the line.

In pro wrestling, you almost never see number 3, because it doesn’t benefit anyone. The Champion doesn’t look stronger for being an unknown, undefeated or no, and the Challenger, however much potential they had, isn’t likely to excite fans as much should they earn a rematch. Do this in quick enough succession and your whole roster looks depleted.

I draw this parallel because, like it or not, most individual sports to one degree or another are dependent on narrative to draw in all but the hardcore fanbase. In golf, you used to tune in to see Tiger Woods dominate and chase history, now you tune in to watch him attempt a triumphant comeback, or burnout altogether, depending on your tastes.

Obviously, minus being able to pick opponents, the UFC can do little to control the narrative of their product. Fireworks like those between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier only happen every so often, which makes match-making a key aspect of crafting an engaging narrative for the fans to follow.

And the narrative the UFC has created — completely unfair to a talented field of competitors — is that of the dominant champ in an ever-thinner pool of possible opponents, which may have been the way to launch a division (read: sell PPVs), but it’s not the way to grow and sustain one.

What's troublesome is that the UFC didn't have this problem with the flyweight division. It's telling that the UFC's first and only flyweight champ, Demetrious "Might Mouse" Johnson, is only now receiving his first headlining bout on a UFC PPV card (he has previously headlined a slew of "On Fox" events), while Rousey debuted in the UFC headlining a PPV. While the attention was ultimately good for women's MMA, at this point, with most women's bouts not featuring Rousey happening early on cards, the way the UFC has presented their women's division is as a novelty, whether they meant to or not. And novelties, to the detriment of both the fighters and the fans, by their very definition don't last.

There are a lot of fans upset that the UFC is rumored to be pursuing either Gina Carano or “Cyborg” Santos for an upcoming PPV headliner against Rousey. It does seem to slight the aforementioned competitive field — Cat Zingano has yet to get her crack at the gold, McMann is still an Olympian, and Miesha Tate gave Rousey all she could handle at UFC 168. And while Zingano undoubtedly deserves the next shot at Rousey, one could make the argument these headlining fights with established-if-dated opponents gives the rest of the division a chance to acclimate themselves to the UFC and develop at a more comfortable pace.

But while we wait on one of those big-name signings to take place, kudos to McMann for stating for the record that she feels she needs one more solid victory before being tossed back into the title fray.

“I do play fair, and maybe it’s to my detriment, but I wouldn’t mind having another fight before I go on to fight Rousey — especially after the things that I saw [in the first fight] that I really would like to work on,” McMann said after her victory on Saturday.

Elsewhere, the UFC have already lined up their next undefeated fighter to step into the Octagon after Brazilian prospect Larissa Pacheco agreed to step in for an injured Valerie Letourneau on the upcoming September 13 Fight Night card.

Pacheco is a fierce competitor with possibly the best submission game to debut in the division in quite some time. She’s finished six of her ten fights by way of tapout, utilizing five different holds along the way. If she’s allowed to develop, to get used to fighting a tougher brand of competition on a much bigger state than she’s used to, Pacheco can be a contender to the title, one that wouldn’t fear having to end up in Rousey’s guard and defend an armbar.

In other words, she could be the future of a division, if the UFC can figure out how to allow that division to flourish.

Photo: Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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