Legacy is a strange beast.
When #RondaRousey sat down for an interview with Ellen DeGeneres ahead of her UFC 207 title bout against Amanda Nunes, many questions remained unanswered concerning her mental state, her desire to compete, and that most intangible of qualities, her legacy. As the interview concluded, few answers had presented themselves, but questions concerning her long-term greatness in the sport had reignited.
When Rousey announced that her upcoming fight with Nunes would be one of her final forays into MMA, it seemed inevitable to consider how she will be remembered when she does, eventually, retire. While much of this will rest on the results of her final bouts, Rousey’s expected and intended departure from the sport places her squarely beneath the scrutinizing gaze of revisionist historians and hyperbolic adulators alike. While her innovation in women’s mixed martial arts, and women’s sports in general, are well documented, it is her legacy as an in-cage combatant which will be questioned most thoroughly with time.
The UFC’s first and most dominant female champion, Rousey’s rise was meteoric. Undefeated, and all but unchallenged in twelve bouts heading into her most recent fight, a second round knockout loss against now-former champion #HollyHolm, Rousey not only paved the way for the women’s bantamweight division, but thoroughly dominated it in a fashion which made many believe that she had no legitimate challengers. As history unfolds, however, Rousey’s status as an innovator may contribute to her undoing as a woman whose desire is to be remembered as the greatest female competitor in the history of MMA.
To almost single-handedly create a division implies a previous state of formlessness; without the relative financial viability of UFC aspirations, the women’s bantamweight division was always destined to increase in talent and depth as a career in mixed martial arts became a more realistic goal for females. With fame, wealth and a platform of the UFC’s magnitude on which to compete, nothing but growth can be expected in the future of the previously-unheralded division.
As divisions grow in talent and athletic diversity, their previous rulers begin to garner less favor in discussions of all-time greats. Strategies and training methods continue to evolve even at the elite levels of men’s MMA, and some of the sport’s greatest fighters find themselves re-examined under a critical lens.
Fighters such as Anderson Silva and Fedor Emelianenko have, with varying degrees of fairness, been criticized for the perceived lack of depth within the divisions which they dominated for so long. As the ruler of a weight class which is oft-maligned, even now, Rousey’s resume is likely to undergo the same process of both intense scrutiny and rabid defense.
While in-cage accomplishment is perhaps the single biggest factor in how a fighter is remembered among the historians of a sport, perception of Ronda Rousey, human being, may also play a role.
Hiding her battered face from the cameras after her titanic upset loss to Holm, Rousey disappeared from the public almost entirely. Her mental state came into question, and a year-long layoff only served to bolster the idea of the former bantamweight champion as a fighter without the ability to overcome true adversity.
This perception has only grown with time. The idea that the #Olympic judoka was actively avoiding her most fearsome challenger, featherweight empress #CrisCyborg, had been a talking point amidst her title reign, but in a post-Holm world, this sentiment has been echoed by more and more voices, to the point where a career in which Rousey does not face Justino could find itself sporting a permanent black mark. Even now, fans, pundits and commentators have proposed that "Cyborg," not Rousey, may be the greatest female competitor in MMA history.
Rousey is an extremely credentialed fighter, still near-peerless among her contemporaries. However, should she wish to be remembered as a singular combatant, dispelling these views is crucial. The difference between Ronda Rousey as the greatest fighter of all time and Ronda Rousey as an in-cage bully, unable to overcome adversity and avoiding her biggest challenges, may prove to be a surprisingly thin margin.
Much can change in even two or three bouts, especially at the elite level, but short of regaining her title, conquering Holm in a rematch and finally emerging victorious in a showdown with “Cyborg”, Rousey cannot cement a legacy of singular in-cage greatness.
Though the history books are written by sycophants as much as cynics, her legacy is up in the air, and real doubts about her status as an all-time great are justifiable. While a public figure of Rousey's magnitude may be remembered with particular fondness, the willingness of fans and pundits to hold her on equal terms as both a trailblazer and an athlete is up in the air.
As defiant a person as she is, Ronda Rousey is assuredly not a fighter who wishes to leave her status in the cruel hands of history. To become a fighter who transcends an era, one must craft a career which rejects dismissal. On that front, Rousey approaches her inevitable swan song with much work left undone.