Ronda Rousey: Face of women’s MMA

Ronda Rousey’s list of accomplishments includes an Olympic bronze medal, the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight belt and, maybe just as noteworthy, changing one man’s opinion when it comes to female competitors mixed martial arts.

At least, in one narrow sense.

“If there is one girl who could be in the UFC over the next 10 years, I’d have to say Ronda,” UFC president Dana White said after UFC 150 last week in Denver. “She’s pretty popular. People like her and people are just getting to know her. She’s gotten onto (talk) shows that guys can’t get on.”

White, who has long been wary of a female division in MMA, still doesn’t think we’ll see a female division in UFC anytime soon. Rather, he’ll let Strikeforce — an MMA promotion UFC’s parent company, Zuffa, purchased last year — handle Rousey’s bouts, at least for the near future.

“You know what? I’m actually impressed a lot with Dana White in general,” Rousey said in a conference call with reporters last week. “You know, it wasn’t too long ago that he was telling TMZ women would never be in the UFC and he was very much against it. And to see that he’s such a wise businessman that he did see potential in the women and is totally warming up to it.”

Warming up, maybe, but White hasn’t completely thawed.

“It is what it is and it’s what I always said,” White explained. “The division isn’t deep enough to have an entire division, but you could have some interesting one-offs.”

Rousey, 25, mixes a strong fighting resume — which includes being the first female American judo competitor to medal via a bronze at the 2008 Summer Games — with sex appeal. She’s graced the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue and went on TBS’ Conan to promote it earlier this month.

Rousey (5-0) is on the verge of establishing female MMA as more than just a niche, something the sport appeared primed for in recent years with the likes of Gina Carano (who made the Body Issue herself years earlier) and Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos leading the charge.

“On my end, it doesn’t really add any pressure to me at all or change the fight at all,” Rousey said about her bout with Sarah Kaufman. “I was always raised not to win matches, but to beat my opponents. When I was doing judo I was an American fighter in a sport that wasn’t really big in America. So if I didn’t finish a fight, I was never going to win.”

Kaufman says it’s depth, not one fight or fighter, which will spell success.

“I definitely feel since my first fight with Strikeforce, that women in the sport are always trying to ensure kind of that placement and kind of that spot and thrive for legitimacy," said Kaufman (15-2). "And over time, we’ve definitely proven that the fights are exciting, they’re technical, there’s submissions, there’s knockouts. There’s so much that can happen in fights and fans want to see those fights and fans have been vocal about that."

“You don’t want anyone to be able to turn around and say, ‘See this is why. This is why women shouldn’t have spotlights.’ So there definitely is that pressure and incentive to have an exciting fight.”

No matter what happens, Strikeforce president Scott Coker told that his league will continue to push the female fighters.

“The female division is here to stay,” Coker said. “We have put on female fights — back then it was kickboxing — on ESPN in the 1990s. One of our first Stirkeforce events featured female fighters, Carano vs. (Elaina) Maxwell in 2006. These women deserve to be in the cage.”

Rousey’s victory could certainly lead to the most intriguing matchup since Carano vs. Santos three years ago. The problem is that Santos, who has been chirping at Rousey on Twitter and elsewhere, is suspended through December after she tested positive for the steroid stanozolol.

Rousey also fights in a lower weight division (bantamweight) than Santos (featherweight), although Rousey fought at 145 pounds previously.

“I think fight fans realize that these are real fighters,” Coker said. “They enjoy watching certain fighters and Ronda is certainly one of those rare fighters that comes along. She’s amazing.”

Rousey is certainly remarkable enough to change one important man’s thinking: Dana White.