Ronda Rousey fights Sara McMann in Las Vegas tonight. The combatants seek to settle the question of who is the best Olympian on the UFC’s female roster, silver-medal winning wrestler McMann or bronze-medal winning judoka Rousey. They fight for claims on the sport’s marquee women’s championship, the UFC’s bantamweight belt. But they really go toe-to-toe to discover if women can carry a mixed-martial-arts card.
When Rousey fought Miesha Tate on the Chris Weidman-Anderson Silva megafight card in December, they stole the show. Rousey’s artistic judo and Tate’s no-quit attitude forced the MMA world to take notice. The biggest cheers of the night were not when Travis Browne put Josh Barnett to sleep or when Weidman retained his title, but for the jaw-dropping, back-and-forth action between Rousey and Tate. More beautiful than brutal, the fight that the UFC forced fans waiting for Silva-Weidman II to watch converted a captive audience of doubters into true believers in women’s MMA.
Capitalizing on that excitement, Dana White quickly decided to place two women at the top of a card in the male-dominated sport. Rousey proved that women can fight in her last scrap. Can she prove that women can get men to pay to see women to fight in her fight tonight? Women’s faces are for kissing not kicking, many of the sport’s male fans instinctively believe. So, mixed-martial arts, whose brutality excludes a large segment of the population from watching even when two men punch, choke, and otherwise beat up one another, would seem to exclude a portion of their natural fan base, too, in pitting two women against one another in the Octagon.
UFC 170’s undercard isn’t doing the ladies any favors in demonstrating that if a guy can do it a girl can do it. Daniel Cormier makes his light-heavyweight debut against last-minute replacement and UFC newcomer Patrick Cummins and Rory MacDonald takes on Demian Maia in scraps leading up to the main event. Holding another pay-per-view event just three weeks ago–and a borefest featuring more decisions than any card in UFC history at that–doesn’t help much, either.
When asked when fans would get to see women in the UFC, company president Dana White answered “never” in 2011. Just three years later, the ladies headline a UFC event. The gate and the home buys will determine if UFC 170 starts a trend or marks a novelty.