Why Rousey is No. 8 in my MMA rankings: a culture clash examined
This month's mixed martial arts fighter rankings were posted at SI.com for around three seconds when the first e-mail arrived. Or was it a tweet? No, no, neither. The first wave in a churning flood of feedback was a comment attached to the bottom of my list-accompanying story, in which every month I write a series of short blurbs explaining/justifying the pecking order in each weight class and disavowing any ill-advised placements made the previous month. (In a week, for instance, you might mistake me for a Pro Bowl quarterback dropping back into the pocket when you see how furiously yet gracefully I backpedal away from King Mo.)
Anyway, this speed-reader apparently had taken note of and become fixated on the eighth name on our pound-for-pound list: Ronda Rousey.
"Listing Rousey in the P4P ranking suggests that you think she is better than ALL of the 135-pound men except Dominick Cruz, whom you listed higher," the reader began. His tone -- and I'm assuming this correspondent was a male, fair or unfair -- suggested that if this comment had been inscribed by hand, it would have been written in blood or venom, especially when he went on to inform me that I clearly must believe Ronda could "beat all of the 125-pounders, too, including the champ."
I dutifully typed out a reply, which took minimal time and effort because I just copied my response to one of the many previous reader requests for me to explain myself. This matter comes up a lot. I suppose it's because the methodology I use in pound-for-pound rankings is differently from how many other folks approach them. While I acknowledge that fantasizing a world in which 240-pound Cain Velasquez could compete on a level playing field with 125-pound Demetrious Johnson is an amusing exercise, I prefer to stack up fighters by actual size. That is, I rank them based on how each performs against the others in his or her weight division. And using that yardstick, I simply couldn't ignore Rousey. (Yes, I realize that both she and Cruz compete at 135 pounds, but c'mon. They're champions in two separate divisions and can fairly be weighed against only those they might actually fight.)
I do understand that I'm in the minority here. This is the first month of expanded SI.com rankings, and Rousey never came into play when our pound-for-pound list was just a Top 3. But I've been submitting 10 names to the Yahoo! Sports media poll for a long time, and ever since it was deemed acceptable to rank Ronda -- after some serious deliberation over there, I'm told -- I have included her every month. Judging by her tally, though, it appears that only one other voter among the 20-something media members polled has done so. And when the first UFC media rankings were unveiled a couple of weeks ago, Rousey appeared on my ballot and only one other among the 28 cast. This week's UFC rankings grew to 50 media ballots, three of which included Ronda.
I've not asked other keyboard warriors to justify their exclusion of Rousey, but I can envision several possible explanations. Maybe some of their rankings exist in a fantasy world in which lightweights can beat heavyweights but a woman beating a man is too mind-blowing to imagine. For others, Ronda might be thought undeserving because she's yet to be seriously tested by anyone in a women's division that's widely perceived to be not much of a challenge. Who knows?
All I can do tell you is why Ronda Rousey is in the SI.com pound-for-pound Top 10: She's the most dominant fighter we've ever seen in MMA. Anderson Silva has reeled off 17 straight victories, and Jon Jones has smashed ex-champions in his last five fights. In the old days, skinny Royce Gracie was the embodiment of "the bigger they are, the harder they fall." But none of them has done what Rousey has: six finishes in six professional fights, five in the first minute. It's gotten to the point where Liz Carmouche, her opponent in Saturday night's historic UFC 157 main event, will be considered a success if she can take the bout to a second round. That's dominance.
Why is Ronda down at No. 8, then? Well, that's a reflection of the level of her competition. If the UFC ever books a Rousey vs. Cris Santos fight, and Ronda does to mighty "Cyborg" what she's done to everyone else, watch out above, gentlemen.
I get the feeling that some folks reject this line of thinking simply because Rousey is a woman. You see, whenever I've been questioned on my pound-for-pound rankings in the past -- man vs. man questions, such as when someone wanted to know why I had Jones on top of Silva, as I did for several months -- and I've explained where I was coming from, I'd get back an "Oh, now I see what you were thinking" response. That hasn't happened in the wake of the Rousey ranking. It's as though standing Ronda alongside the toughest men on the planet is inconceivable.
There's an edgy energy behind this opposition to Rousey, as it relates to both her inclusion in the Top 10 rankings and her top billing on a UFC card. I've received several complaints about another piece I wrote this week, "A Viewers' Guide to UFC 157," with every offended reader telling me I'd devoted too much space to the main event. OK, it's reasonable to be bothered by seeing a co-main event between former UFC champion Lyoto Machida and Dan Henderson, a multi-division champ in the Strikeforce and Pride promotions, reduced to a single paragraph. But guess what: Every viewers' guide we publish at SI.com is structured the same way, top-heavy with the main event, even though nearly every UFC card inevitably has at least one other fight that cries out for attention. And yet I was never called on this undercard dismissal until I dared to let the spotlight linger on a women's main event.
A cultural clash is taking place. The UFC is riding this Rousey story hard, as well it should from a business standpoint. And we in the media are seizing upon the moment in history and squeezing every drop of juice out of it... and then squeezing some more, to the point where some fans' interest -- no, tolerance -- is drying up. Buttons are being pushed.
Now, it's not necessarily a sexist act to turn away from the Rousey story. Sure, there are Neanderthals out there who'll loudly proclaim that the only role for a woman in the octagon is in carrying a placard with the next round's number on it. But you can be fully supportive of a woman's opportunity to seek out any chosen career, including fighting, while at the same time finding it difficult or distasteful to watch two women punch each other. Or you can be fine with women fighting but simply not enjoy the aesthetics of it, much as some basketball fans go for the Cirque du NBA high-wire act that is the men's game as opposed to the John Wooden fundamentals clinic of the women's. And then there are those whose "enough is enough" attitude has nothing to do with gender: They're simply reacting to our 24/7 social media culture's overkill whenever we latch onto A Story That Must Be Told. There are a lot of paths one can take in distancing oneself from Saturday night's fight.
Understand that if you do choose to not watch, however, you are missing out on an encounter with greatness. If Liz Carmouche can stand up to that greatness and chop it down to size, she will have authored one of the most exhilarating stories in MMA. But if Ronda Rousey does what she's done before, and done again and again with unthinkable dominance, she will take another step toward reaching the highest of highs we've seen in all of sports.