Let the great experiment begin!

The words are as applicable to this weekend’s UFC 157 card as they were when uttered by Dr. Tobias Fünke on an episode of Arrested Development oh so many years ago, as Saturday will mark the first time the UFC will feature a female fight. The inaugural UFC women’s bantamweight championship will be on the line when Ronda Rousey takes on Liz Carmouche in Saturday’s main event, and many people are curious whether the fight will mark another significant moment in MMA—the night when female fighters emerged from the shadows of their male counterparts and showed the world they, too, can put on entertaining battles in the cage.

For years, UFC officials maintained their stance that female fighters could not draw enough viewers to the promotion’s product to justify including them on its roster. Gina Carano, the first female fighter to gain national attention, put together four wins under the EliteXC banner and became one of the short-lived promotion’s centerpieces. For a brief time, it was thought that Carano could be the athlete to open the UFC’s doors to women, given her popularity both inside the cage and out, but after a devastating loss to Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, Carano’s perceived ability to attract fans was damaged irreparably. In fact, Carano hasn’t been seen in a cage since that loss to Cyborg in August 2009, and after Cyborg’s own career was stalled due to a failed drug test in December of 2011, many thought it would be a long time before the gender barrier was broken in MMA’s top promotion.

Enter Ronda Rousey.

A decorated martial artist who in 2008 became the first American woman to earn an Olympic medal in judo, Rousey made her professional MMA debut in 2011 and before long found herself on the Strikeforce roster. In 2012, Rousey won the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight championship from Miesha Tate and defended it against Sarah Kaufman. In her six pro fights, all victories, Rousey has never been out of the first round and has finished all of her opponents with armbars. If her athletic resume wasn’t enough to convince the UFC brass to bring Rousey to the UFC, her natural ability to promote fights and, let’s be honest, television-friendly looks sealed the deal.

The question that remains for Rousey, other than the one concerning how she’ll fare on Saturday against Carmouche, is whether she can be a pay-per-view draw, or if the UFC is putting too much of its promotional weight behind a fighter who ultimately won’t do a lot to help the business or the sport. The MMA Corner’s Assistant Editor Rob Tatum and writer Eric Reinert debate the issue in the latest edition of Opposing Forces.

Rousey Will Draw – Eric Reinert

Ever since the UFC merged with the WEC and incorporated the latter’s 145- and 135-pound divisions, many have wondered where the UFC would look next to expand its roster. There seemed to be two legitimate options for the promotion: create a 125-pound men’s weight class and start including female fighters. The UFC accomplished the first of those two choices in 2012, incorporating a flyweight division that has quickly become one of the sport’s most exciting, so there seemed to be just one other direction to look. Finally, the UFC will introduce a women’s bantamweight division on Saturday and with it open the doors to so many talented fighters who until now were shut out of the promotion because of a chromosomal difference.

Although the UFC might have been able to bring female fighters into the Octagon sooner than this weekend, it has done the right thing in waiting for a talent like Rousey to bring the proper amount of mainstream attention to the promotion’s inaugural women’s bantamweight title bout. The 26-year-old undefeated Olympic medalist appeared on the front page of USA Today’s sports section, an honor bestowed upon precious few of the UFC’s fighters before their matches, and has quickly become one of MMA’s most recognizable faces.

Success on Saturday would only mean additional accolades for the emerging MMA superstar, and if she generates enough interest (read: pay-per-view buys) among fans, she could become a Brock Lesnar-like figure who is seen as one of the sport’s leading personalities despite her relative inexperience. She’d almost certainly headline the next big UFC show (either a Fox broadcast or perhaps the promotion’s traditional Fourth of July weekend show, which is shaping up to be UFC 161 or UFC 162) and the hype train behind her would keep rolling.

In other words, just like any other athlete in any other sport, as long as Rousey is successful, people will still want to pay to watch her compete. Even if she should lose, either on Saturday to Liz Carmouche or in a future headlining fight, Rousey’s accrued star power would still be enough to sustain her as a draw for at least one or two more fights, and then only if she continued to lose would she drop out of the spotlight. The point is, a single loss won’t necessarily derail Rousey’s fame. Some might point to Carano’s loss to Cyborg as the thing that ended her time as the queen of MMA, but it’s more the fact that Carano’s interests drifted from the cage to the silver screen that made room for Rousey’s ascent. Carano could have continued to compete in Strikeforce and likely kept her star alive. After all, she did win seven pro MMA fights, so she had the skills to maintain a career. Instead, though, Carano has understandably chosen a route that still pays well, but does not require her to be repeatedly kicked in the head. As long as Rousey keeps fighting with even moderate success, the UFC’s use for her will not soon disappear.

But try this on for size: It doesn’t matter if Rousey remains a draw, because she represents the dawning of a new era in the UFC. As one of the promotion’s first two female fighters, Rousey is as much a symbol as she is an athlete. Before Rousey, and Cyborg and Carano before her, women’s MMA was seen by many even inside the sport’s tightly knit community as a sideshow spectacle at best. Those three fighters, along with the dozens of other outstanding female athletes that have made themselves known in the sport, have helped legitimize women’s MMA to the point where its participants are now gracing the front pages of some of the most widely read publications in the world. Rousey vs. Carmouche will be the first of many terrific women’s fights in the UFC (the promotion has already scheduled a bout between Miesha Tate and Cat Zingano in April) and Rousey’s ability to remain a draw will soon be seen as a moot point.

Ticking Time Bomb? – Rob Tatum

UFC 157 is a historic event in the evolution of both mixed martial arts and women’s sports. Not only is the UFC finally hosting women inside the famed Octagon, but Rousey and Carmouche will headline a pay-per-view event. That’s a huge, much-needed step for the promotion and sport.

Yet, no matter how much the event and fighters are praised, the questions of why and how have to be raised. After all, just two years ago, UFC President Dana White was vehemently against the idea of women competing in the Octagon.

All signs point to Rousey as the sole reason for the newly created women’s 135-pound division. Certainly Rousey is the most dominant female fighter in the sport at the moment, but should the promotion be expecting her to sell pay-per-views and headline events when there are still a ton of questions about her as a fighter?

Never mind her tremendous judo skills, she has only spent a grand total of nine minutes and 23 seconds inside the cage in her six professional and three amateur bouts. Only Miesha Tate has made it past a minute with the former Olympian, but what happens when a fighter escapes her go-to move, the armbar? What happens if a fight goes past the opening round?

Don’t get me wrong, Rousey is a ridiculous athlete with a ton of talent. She’s overwhelmed every opponent put in front of her thus far, but based on the limited sample size, she shouldn’t be anointed the female Anderson Silva or Fedor Emelianenko just yet.

While gender should have no bearing on opinion of fighters—fighting skill is fighting skill—Rousey’s ascension to the pinnacle has come so quickly, that the UFC is taking a risk by putting its promotional machine behind her. And the biggest concern isn’t even Rousey’s skill set; it’s what would happen to the entire division if she did lose.

Although the signings of  Tate, Zingano, Alexis Davis and Sara McMann indicate that the promotion is planning for more than just the Rousey show, what is the likelihood that the promotion would allow any of them to headline an event without “Rowdy” as their opponent?

If the UFC is wrong, and Carmouche scores a major upset at UFC 157, what will it mean for the women of the Octagon? Will all of the promotional push for Rousey be for naught? Will the UFC be able to sell another female fight as a headliner?

The answer is unclear. But to say that the promotion is putting all of its eggs in one basket might be an understatement. With Rousey gracing the cover of ESPN: The Magazine, appearing on Conan and Jim Rome, it’s clear that the promotion believes she has the capability to carry the load and be its next superstar.

For the sake of the women’s side of the sport, let’s hope they’re right.

Photo: Ronda Rousey (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.