Sara McMann will fight for the bantamweight title on Saturday night and no one cares. Hundreds of thousands will give in to programmed existential urges and pay $60 to watch the fight, but McMann is not tricking anyone into thinking Verizon will be chill about that disconnect notice. UFC president Dana White said it when he unveiled the first UFC women's division and, as is holy UFC custom, nothing has changed -- this is the Ronda Rousey Show. As for her contemporaries, they are best thought of as audience members waiting to be called to the cage by a shrieking carnival barker. This would be familiar if it weren't unprecedented.
Mike Tyson sowing the end times on a fallow heavyweight field is the ready comparison. No one much cared who he was deadlighting because the deadlighting itself was the show. Rousey's appeal is the same -- she mangles anonymous arms without remorse and then snatches the mic to let you know she'll mangle your arm too. You believe her.
Rousey's last fight, a December 2013 rematch with Miesha Tate, was notable mostly for it being the first time anyone made it past the first round against her. The fight ended like their first, with Tate desperately, gamely defending against yet another armbar and Rousey not caring, at all. Having preserved her perfect record -- eight wins, eight armbars -- Rousey walked away when Tate extended a hand. The gesture was meaningless given Tate's history of not keeping Rousey's name out of her mouth, but Rousey's response was a molotov cocktail fired crotch-high at the size anxiety-ridden dolts accustomed to safe harbor at MMA shows. They booed, because of course they did.
The abrasive, thrilling coldness projected by Rousey paradoxically plays off the useless stereotypes of both women and fighters. The two are incompatible in terms of how our society views them -- women, a certain breed of idiot will tell you, are not fighters -- yet there is Rousey captivating a mostly male audience with aesthetically incomparable feats of athletic sadism, sans any performative modesty. Her refusal to salve the insecurities born of this is what drives the core UFC fanbase mad; and keeps them coming back for more.
She's not the first woman in combat sports to hold this appeal, but none have ever managed her mainstream crossover. She's a revolutionary individual, but there likely won't be any revolution behind her. Like Gina Carano -- the first women's MMA fighter to hit the mainstream vein -- Rousey, 27, is being courted by a Hollywood suddenly eager for conventionally attractive female action stars. If even a sliver of her appeal translates on-screen, her upcoming roles in The Expendables 3 and Fast & Furious 7 will be the prologue to an ending no MMA fan wants.
The UFC simply does not and will not pay the money it takes to keep a transcendent athlete from saying no to major studio paychecks. MMA is a business that, like professional wrestling, thrives on keeping wages low and unions out of the question. While predicting Rousey's screen presence is pointless, it is worth remembering that Carano's routinely awkward personality hasn't kept her from landing significant roles.
The Ronda Rousey Show will go on, but the UFC may not be a part of it. No small loss for the UFC, but a far greater one for the still nascent sport of women's MMA. This does not need to be the case.
Again, all anyone knows about Saturday's fight is that Rousey is fighting … someone. The … someone is McMann, an Olympic wrestling silver medalist and one of the very few in Rousey's league as a pure athlete. The rest of the story cuts deeper and then twists. McMann's brother was savagely murdered at the age of 21. She lost her fiance in a car accident the same year she won her Olympic silver medal. It's the sort of heart-wrenching, cursed success story that feature writers salivate over. It's absurd that Sara McMann is being sold as just a someone, but that's who she will be for however long the Ronda Rousey Show goes on.
Rousey came into the UFC a ready-made star thanks to the legwork put in previously by Showtime and Strikeforce -- it's why the Ronda Rousey Show is a viable short-term strategy. However, while feeding her what the viewing public registers as glorified live bodies may keep the show going, that same viewing public is short on reasons to care once Rousey's gone. This failure of vision is entirely on the UFC, it is on them to sell their product after all. Rousey's UFC career thus far is just another testament to the UFC only knowing how to sell a product that sells itself.
Still, Rousey is fighting on Saturday and she's fighting a fellow Olympian who's now the sport's best prospect, just like Rousey was three years ago. The obvious call is that McMann's being sacrificed early in her development because the UFC can't be bothered to groom a compelling challenger, but sport as the theater of the unexpected remains its best hook. Either way, Ronda Rousey doing Ronda Rousey things is something no one wants to miss -- especially not when we may not get many more chances to see it.