Was Ronda Rousey’s Loss a Disaster For UFC?

November 16, 2015, 11:03 PM UTC
Photograph by Josh Hedges — Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

As you might have heard, UFC fighter Ronda Rousey is no longer undefeated.

The mixed martial arts fighter, famous for taking down her opponents in a matter of seconds, usually by brutal “arm bar” submission, at last met an opponent that could match her in the ring. At UFC 193 on Saturday night, Holly Holm, a former boxing champion who moved to mixed martial arts in 2011, forced Rousey to take more punches than she’s used to, bloodying her with hit after hit until she brought the champion down with a kick to the head in the second round.

Whether delighted or disappointed, most fans were shocked. Rousey was a 12-1 favorite in Vegas before the fight. This year she had rocketed to stardom not only as a female athlete, but outside the ring as well, appearing in a trio of blockbuster movies and on a slew of magazine covers.

Now that she’s lost, will interest in Rousey go away? And more importantly for the growing sport in which she competes, was this a disaster for the UFC?

Almost certainly not. But those are two distinct questions.

Rousey’s stardom

For Rousey personally, the loss is certainly embarrassing, especially after she posted a message to Holm on Instagram the day before the fight: “You’re getting your ass kicked tomorrow, and I’m really going to enjoy the beating I give you.” After the fight, Rousey was brought to the hospital (standard protocol after a kick to the head), and UFC president Dana White said the fighter was “devastated” and “depressed.” But on Monday, Rousey posted a note to Instagram: “I’m going to take a little bit of time, but I’ll be back.”

The New Yorker wrote today that the loss “dimmed the sport’s biggest star.” Some people on Twitter suggested the day after the fight that the obsession with Rousey will now end. Glenn Stout, who edits the annual Best American Sportswriting collection, suggested that losing puts a finish to the hype, while presidential hopeful Donald Trump celebrated the loss and insulted Rousey, who has endorsed Democrat Bernie Sanders.

Whether the interest in Rousey will now vanish depends on how much of the hype around her depended on being undefeated. Judging by her many extracurricular activities outside of UFC, her record was arguably never the most notable thing about her. Rousey made Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list this year, not because she was undefeated but because she has turned herself into one of America’s most marketable female athletes, inspired female athletes, and advocated against body-shaming.

There is even a way in which losing might prove to have helped Rousey’s popularity, if not her wallet. “The loss makes her less of a Superwoman, but decidedly more human,” says Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing analyst with Baker Street Advertising. “And perhaps even more interesting as a marketable personality. There will be heightened attention surrounding her as we watch how she responds to this defeat. Will it make her more humble and less arrogant? More focused on winning than on the trappings of her celebrity?”

Popularity of UFC

The flurry of attention around Rousey has meant more attention for the UFC. The league is owned by Nevada-based sports promoter Zuffa and has been around since 1993. But it didn’t quite take off until the past decade, and entered the public consciousness in the past year thanks to Rousey and a handful of other big names like Jon “Bones” Jones and Conor McGregor.

The eight UFC pay-per-view events between January and July of this year got 65% more average buys than the same period in 2014, the blog MMA Fighting reports.

Does that rising interest now go away? In the short-term run, no: the expectation of a big rematch has already heated up. Pundits appear to be forgetting something about Holm: she, too, was undefeated. She had a 9-0 record going in to her fight with Rousey (though many of her victories weren’t nearly the landslides most of Rousey’s had been) and is now 10-0, while Rousey is 12-1. Dorfman bets that Rousey’s loss, “gives the UFC more competitive juice” and that a rematch “will send ratings skyrocketing, and smart marketers will no doubt get in on the action.” Dana White already alluded to it in the post-fight presser, saying that a rematch “makes a lot of sense.”

What doesn’t make sense is the idea that Rousey having the blemish of a loss means the end to UFC’s wild ride. Fans have flocked to the sport and are unlikely to leave now.

In a recent interview with Fortune, boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya name-dropped Rousey and said that the rise of UFC has been a positive for boxing as well. He believes one doesn’t cannibalize the other, but rather creates a rising tide for both. De La Hoya, whose Golden Boy Promotions bought an ownership stake in boxing magazine The Ring in 2007, had a hand in putting Rousey on the cover earlier this year. He has hopes Rousey might eventually try boxing.

Perhaps he should be equally excited about Holly Holm.

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