mma

TUF Rousey-Tate: First impressions

This season of The Ultimate Fighter isn’t really about the coaches or the fighters. It’s about women’s MMA and the awkward collision of its past, present and future.

From its beginnings, MMA has always had awkward relations with its past. In Japan, promoters walked a fine line between fiction and reality. (“Hey, this is a real fight! Well, OK, that one wasn’t, but trust us — this one is!”) The first UFC events had to come up with something to explain why the guys in the cage were qualified to be there.

And even today, a lot of UFC fighters’ credentials are overstated. And a lot of the sport’s pioneers are discarded if they fall out of favor. (See Shamrock, Frank.)

Women’s MMA has an obscure history in the first place. Gina Carano got a couple of fights on prime time, sure. Others in the sport have been known only to the hard-core fans.

Enter Ronda Rousey.

The brash Olympic judo medalist has catapulted the sport into the limelight. She has more readily identifiable credentials than Carano — an Olympic medal speaks more loudly than a well-honed striking style. While Carano would smile and occasionally say the word “sex,” Rousey is willing to chat about anything from sex before fights to the tragic loss of her father when she was young. She is an athlete — and an exceptional one — who knows how to sell herself.

But it’s “herself.” Not so much the sport. Rousey isn’t Mia Hamm, smiling nervously amidst all the attention and deflecting the spotlight to those who came before her like Michelle Akers. Granted, MMA is an individual sport rather than a team sport. But Rousey seems to separate herself from her sport in ways that even the outlandishly self-promoting Muhammad Ali never did.

And that’s evident in The Ultimate Fighter. Rival coach Miesha Tate may have little chance of beating Rousey in their rematch at the end of this season, but she would certainly be a better fight commentator down the road. She knew the fighters, veterans and newcomers, and offered frank assessments of their strengths and weaknesses. Women’s MMA promotion Invicta FC would be wise to pick her up as the women’s MMA analogue of superb soccer commentator Kate Markgraf.

Rousey, on the other hand, had little to say. Maybe she was just busy taking notes, and perhaps she was in no mood to chat with Tate or Dana White, who had shocked her the preceding day by springing Tate into the gym in place of original coach Cat Zingano, who was injured.

Not that Rousey was departing from protocol. The Ultimate Fighter usually glosses over fighters’ pre-TUF careers. But in this case, that’s probably a mistake. Two of the sport’s biggest names, Tonya Evinger and Tara LaRosa, were beaten in their preliminary fights. That should be a bigger deal that it appeared on the show. They did at least play up Revelina Berto’s fighting family, which includes boxing star Andre Berto.

(By the way, men are also fighting this season. The preliminary fights were mostly terrible.)

Tate put things in perspective. She accurately predicted Evinger’s fade, questioning her heart and stamina. (She also made some allusion to girlfriend drama, and it’s fair to say Evinger and Tate have had a feud far beyond what we’ve seen in other women’s sports.) She paid tribute to Roxanne Modafferi as a pioneer of the sport who’s “tough as nails” despite looking and talking more like a librarian than a fighter.

It’ll be tough not to root for the veterans here. Modafferi, someone I once interviewed for a story about fighters’ day jobs (she was an English teacher in Japan), is thoughtful and funny, shouting a bunch of cliches after her win and then admitting with a laugh that what she had just said was rather lame.

Then there’s Shayna Baszler, who isn’t the least bit afraid to talk up her credentials. She says she has already beaten some fighters who are now in the UFC (true) and is higher ranked than many of them (also true — she’s only two places behind Tate). She’s carrying a big chip on her shoulder and yet is the overwhelming favorite, wisely chosen first by Rousey.

And she delivered the quote of the night to explain why the veterans may have more grit and determination than the younger crowd. “It’s easy to be hungry when the feast is at the table. I was hungry when all we were being fed were crumbs.”

The Rousey-Tate rivalry is, at its heart, all about the respect the brash newcomer should be paying to those who paved the way in this sport. Brock Lesnar stomped to the top of an undertalented heavyweight class and was still gracious to people like Randy Couture. We haven’t yet heard such things from Rousey, though perhaps she’ll get a chance when she’s in the odd situation of coaching someone like Baszler, who has a better-rounded skillset than the armbar-reliant Rousey.

Personally, I should be thrilled with Rousey’s success. I was touting her as an MMA prospect before she won an Olympic medal. I may have even mentioned to Dana White, who probably laughed about it at the time. (To be sure, he didn’t sign Rousey on my recommendation.) And there’s no question women’s MMA is in a better place now than it was before her emergence.

But Rousey, intentionally or not, gives the impression that she thinks herself bigger than the sport. She may say the occasional kind word about Liz Carmouche or Cat Zingano, but this whole MMA thing feels like a little dalliance for her, just a stepping stone between her careers in the Olympics and in Hollywood.

We can’t place all the blame on Rousey for dragging the Tate rivalry with into Dynasty territory. Tate went there, too. And Rousey is a bit like the Yankees, Manchester United or Duke basketball — her success breeds contempt. Rousey’s a tremendous athlete and a shrewd person who has probably outdrafted Tate, who opted for her young training partner over Baszler and may pay for that pick next week.

So Tate and her team may be the underdogs here. The Rockys to Rousey’s Clubber Lang. Should be fun to watch this play out.

And there’s a dude who looks like the biggest behavioral problem since Junie Browning. Plus the potential for couples to form if the fighters somehow forget the house has cameras everywhere. As soon as people figure out how to find Fox Sports 1 on their TVs (wow, people are clueless), this show might take off.

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