If there’s one truism that can be applied to professional sports (and, in fact, explains the existence of professional sports in the first place), it’s that conflict attracts a crowd. The desire to compete—whether through actual, physical contests or simply by supporting one group over another—is hard-coded into our DNA, so it’s little wonder that the most adversarial athletic relationships can often result in the most outside attention.

This is precisely the reason that fan interest in MMA fights that carry with them a certain level of personal animosity is often greater, if only slightly, than ones between two professional athletes just trying to do their job. The proof? Since 2012, the three most widely viewed UFC pay-per-view events were headlined by fights between Georges St-Pierre and Nick Diaz (950,000 buys, according to the MMAPayout Blue Book), Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen (925,000 buys), and Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans (700,000 buys). Sure, all three of these contests were title bouts featuring three of the best fighters of all time, but the outside-the-cage activities between each fight’s participants certainly played a role.

While St-Pierre has been the model of professionalism throughout his career, showing his opponents a high level of respect in the weeks and months before he fights them, Diaz has put on no such airs, regularly talking trash both inside the cage and out. Diaz’s open hostility toward St-Pierre, and St-Pierre’s eventual reciprocation, helped UFC 158 get nearly a million pay-per-view buys. Silva had not been given much of a challenge in the UFC before Sonnen came around, nor had he been subject to the sort of repeated pre-fight ridicule from a challenger. Sonnen backed up his mouth at UFC 117 when he nearly stole the belt from Silva after four-plus rounds of domination. Silva ended up catching one of the most famous submissions of the last decade, but that didn’t stop Sonnen from continuing his verbal onslaught in the months that followed. Their rematch at UFC 148 was not nearly as competitive as their first fight, but it did attract more than 30 percent more pay-per-view buys. Although Jones and Evans were not the most bitter of rivals, their very public pre-fight backstory as teammates-turned-opponents helped propel UFC 145 to one of the highest buy-rates of 2012.

This doesn’t even take into consideration the highly marketable rivalries of years past. Brock Lesnar lost his UFC debut to Frank Mir, and the two had no shortage of sound bite-worthy things to say about each other in the aftermath. Their rematch headlined UFC 100, which saw 1.6 million pay-per-view buys, a UFC record that still stands. Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz trash-talked their way to three highly rated fights and a coaching stint on the third season of The Ultimate Fighter. Rashad Evans and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson spent the entire 10th season of TUF in each other’s faces talking about the terrible things they were going to do to each other. They fought in the main event of an otherwise pretty weak UFC 114 card, a contest that managed to draw a cool million pay-per-view purchases.

The financial success brought on by fights between legitimate rivals has even caused the UFC and/or its fighters to more or less manufacture hostilities in the interest of boosting revenues. How many times have we heard fighters talk all manner of trash about their opponents before their bouts only to insist to Joe Rogan during the post-fight interview that it was done to “sell” the fight? Here’s the point: There’s a clear incentive for the UFC in highlighting the personal conflict, real or otherwise, that exists between its competing fighters, because people want to see which will prevail. (In that way, it’s not unlike professional wrestling, where every interpersonal conflict is solved in the squared circle.)

I’m confused, then, because while the sports-watching public has demonstrated a consistent appetite for personal conflict between competing professional athletes, Ronda Rousey’s negative words and actions toward once and future title challenger Miesha Tate has elicited a different kind of response. Throughout the 18th season of The Ultimate Fighter, Rousey made no secret of her disdain for Tate, taking many opportunities to make her feelings known. Tate certainly got her rhetorical jabs in as well, but at the end of the season, it was Rousey who was more widely criticized. Rousey’s standoffish behavior during shared camera time with Tate certainly did nothing to quiet those critics.

If conflict between fighters has been proven to sell fights effectively, and fighters who have a tendency to stir up that sort of conflict (your Sonnens and Diazes of the sport) develop cults of personality the likes of which most professional athletes could only dream, why would Rousey’s identical behavior generate a mainly negative reaction?

Rousey has been a revolutionary presence in MMA. She is the first American fighter to truly dominate the women’s MMA scene and transformed UFC President Dana White from “never going to have female fighters” to highlighting Rousey as one of the promotion’s main stars and most public personae. She lived up to her reputation in February when she submitted Liz Carmouche to cement her place atop women’s MMA, and as one of the first two women to headline a UFC pay-per-view event, has helped make women’s MMA one of the most popular women’s sports in the world.

Aside from all of Rousey’s positive contributions to MMA in general, she demonstrated her positive side in dealing with the participants on TUF 18. She’s unquestionably up there with Tito Ortiz (season three) as one of the most caring coaches in the show’s history, and she even went out of her way multiple times to treat members of Team Tate with the same levels of respect she did her own squad. (Her Father’s Day gifts to all of the male fighters spring to mind immediately.) What’s more, Rousey’s negativity has largely been limited to her interaction with Tate. It’s not like Rousey is out breaking laws or dragging the UFC’s name through the mud. She’s saying some mean things to a woman who is going to try to punch her in the face and take her belt in a few weeks.

I don’t see the big deal.

Perhaps the MMA intelligentsia can handle trash talk from male fighters, but have a more antiquated stance when it comes to how female competitors should behave, though others have already raised that possibility. Another likely reason is that Rousey, as the woman who helped integrate women into the UFC and one of the most celebrated MMA fighters, personifies the next step in the evolution of the sport from an event once banned from pay-per-view to an accepted part of American athletic culture.

Here’s the problem: Just like the NFL will never be able to overcome the violence inherent to its sport (and the consequences that come with it), MMA will always be fighting. Perhaps more than any other sport, conflict is inherent in MMA since, once again, the people who participate are actually fighting each other. No matter how much the UFC’s fighters respect both their arts and their opponents, there absolutely has to be a certain level of negativity that goes into preparing to knee another person in the liver, even if it’s largely confined to a fighter’s training period and quickly evaporates after the final bell. Some fighters contain and control those inner flames, while others can’t help but spit fire at those who will soon stand opposite them in the cage. Rousey is obviously one of the latter sort, and that’s a big part of her appeal, no matter what some might think of it.

The other significant element to Rousey’s popularity is her success in the cage. As a former Olympic medalist and, more importantly, undefeated bantamweight champion with seven first-round submission victories, Rousey has been unstoppable on the mat. None of her opponents has so much as given her a moderate challenge, and as another truism of professional sports tells us, winning solves everything. If Rousey was talking all kinds of trash to her opponents and then getting smashed during their fights, that would be one thing, but Rousey has backed up her words every single time. Rest assured many of the people who have poo-pooed her behavior on TUF will be cheering loudly when she defeats Tate for the second time at UFC 168. That’s the other thing about sports: As long as you win, you can pretty much do whatever you want.

Rousey will likely not be changing her ways anytime soon. While the sort of conflict she’s capable of generating certainly helps sell fights, that is not the reason she acts like she does toward her opponents; rather, it’s just how she and many other professional athletes are wired. The fact that such wiring seems to be met with consternation when demonstrated by a female athlete (particularly one of Rousey’s stature in her sport) is a bit disappointing, but as long as she keeps winning, her critics will once again fade into the background. UFC 168 is already likely going to generate pretty significant pay-per-view numbers due to the Chris Weidman-Anderson Silva rematch serving as the headliner, but Rousey’s trash talk, regardless of what people think, is certainly not going to lessen interest in her co-main event contest to close out the year.

Photo: Ronda Rousey (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

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.