Who deserves to be the “face” of women’s mixed martial arts (WMMA)?  While there are plenty of amazing fighters to choose from, the functional avatar of any sports organization needs to possess characteristics above and beyond just being amazing at what they do.  A front person, man or woman, needs to be somebody who has true “WOW factor.”

Not all “wow factor” is good for the face of a sport, however.  Dennis Rodman and Metta World Peace, formerly Ron Artest, are both amazing athletes, but they would never be the face of the NBA.  Rodman’s costumes, crazy hairdos, and oddly publicized sex life are not exactly what a professional athletic organization needs as its image.  The same is true for Artest, as he has quite a record of antics, which includes punching fans.

Good “wow factor” comes in many forms, and the right person will usually have several characteristics that elevate his or her status above all others.  “Wow factor” can include attitude, visibility, presence, skill and some unique variable that transcends the sport itself.  However, these qualities need to be reasonably positive or it doesn’t quite work.

Michael Jordan was the face of the NBA for decades, and still is very much sewn into the fabric of the game for eternity.  Royce Gracie will forever be a face of MMA, even though the Greek sport of pankration traces back to at least 2000 B.C.

In women’s MMA, athletes like Miesha Tate, Sarah Kaufman, Marloes Coenen and Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos all come to mind when talking about pure performance and championships.  These ladies are the best of the best, but outside of “Cyborg’s” freakish level of performance, none of them really have the “wow factor” that transcends the sport.  None of these ladies have the equivalent appeal of Jon Jones that will get them the WMMA Nike deal.

If the conversation is about “The Face of WMMA,” the reference is to Gina Carano.  Carano is a high-level, 12-1-1 Muay Thai fighter, with an impessive 7-1 WMMA record.  Her name has been on some of the biggest cards in WMMA history.

Carano’s “wow factor” comes from a number of sources, but for starters, she does have the basics.  She has a great attitude, she’s highly visible in getting a lot of publicity with her seven-win run as a pro fighter, and she is physically attractive.  But then there’s the “wow.”

Carano had a pretty volcanic rise in the mid-to-late-2000’s.  She was transitioning from straight Muay Thai competition to MMA.  She was in movies, TV series, and documentaries.  She was ranked on hottest women lists and was a highly searched name on the internet.  Needless to say, Gina Carano is a celebrity.  Her most recent movie, Haywire, was released earlier this year on Jan. 20, and had some really big names in it, like Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor.  However, the movie was somewhat of a flop and received low ratings.

Since Haywire’s release, a lot of things have happened in WMMA, most of which did not include much of Carano’s presence at all.  The more time that went by since her loss to “Cyborg,” the less relevant she has become in WMMA. But this year has been the start of a big decline for Carano as the face of the sport.

Times are changing quickly, and in her MMA absence, a new star has arisen, one that could turn out to be a doozy.  Ronda Rousey is a name that was pretty big in some circles, but is becoming meteoric in a lot of circles.

Gina Carano (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

On Mar. 3, just as Carano’s Haywire was tanking in the theaters, Rousey got her first shot at number one in the Strikeforce bantamweight division.  There was a lot of hype and talk going into her title shot against champion Miesha Tate, and Rousey captured the title with an all-too-familiar first-round armbar submission.

The bantamweight champion suddenly experienced a similar explosive rise as Jon Jones experienced upon capturing the UFC light heavyweight championship just a year prior.  On April 28, Rousey made a guest appearance on The Ultimate Fighter Live, and her star power grew exponentially.  For part-time fans that don’t follow MMA outside of UFC, there was this sudden wonder of who this girl is.

Rousey is a 25-year-old fourth dan black belt in judo that has won a gold medal at the 2007 Pan American Games, a silver medal at the 2007 World Championships, and a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympic Games, along with a giant stack of gold, silver and bronze medals in prior championships, dating back to 2001.

Since August 2010, she is 3-0 as an amateur WMMA fighter, and 5-0 as a professional, with every one of her victories ending by first-round armbar.  Rousey’s fighting style is a vicious “take home an arm” style that has proven effective enough to win her a title belt from a highly-touted Tate.  She is set to defend that title against a very game Sarah Kaufman this Saturday, Aug. 18, at Strikeforce: Rousey vs. Kaufman in San Diego.

Other major factors have played into Rousey’s meteoric rise this year, making this nothing short of excellent timing.  First is the rise of the new all-pro, all-women MMA promotion, Invicta Fighting Championships.

The day after her appearance on TUF, Invicta FC held its first event, which turned out to be a huge hit for WMMA.  Then, just as the 2012 Summer Olympics were beginning, Invicta FC 2 was held, which created another huge buzz around WMMA.

Even though Rousey did not compete in the 2012 Olympics, former Olympians are always more relevant in Olympic years, especially with what’s going on in the social media world.

Carano is very much not an Olympian, and Rousey very much is.

In addition to her Olympic credentials, Rousey’s “wow factor” starts with strong base characteristics.  She’s got a carefree positive attitude, she has a ton of confidence, she’s very physically attractive, and she has great visibility with her recent television appearances.  There’s also the obvious fact that her skills are truly amazing.  However, her timing couldn’t have been better.

Carano is moving to the back burner, and Rousey is on another planet.  Rousey was recently on Conan and was spotlighted on Showtime, but Carano has been under the radar since the disappointing release of Haywire.  To her credit, Carano is working on things outside of WMMA, but that’s not helping her status as the face of the sport.

Rousey is the front runner for the future face of WMMA.  She is making appearances with A-list fighters all over the country, celebrities tweet about her, and Dana White loves what she’s all about. Rousey is young and has a lot of star-power mileage ahead of her.  Her meteoric rise mimics that of Jon Jones, who also happens to be 25 years old. So, maybe Rousey will be the one to get the WMMA Nike deal.

In the past, Zuffa has steered clear of adding women to the UFC fight cards, but in a recent interview, Dana White basically said that if any woman has what it takes to make the jump to UFC, it would be Rousey.

Imagine a UFC with Rousey and Jones as the faces of the sport.  You have two young, attractive, ridiculously talented athletes that exude confidence unmatched by any of their opponents.  This duo could be the future of MMA, really driving home the mainstream appeal of the sport.

As for WMMA, Ronda Rousey is clearly the future face of the sport.  She is lovable and refreshing, and loves to talk smack.  Not to mention, she can pretty much walk home with any arm she wants.

Top Photo: Ronda Rousey (Sherdog)

About The Author

Dan Kuhl
Interview Coordinator