One of the great risks in Mixed Martial Arts fighting is that fact that because there are so many disciplines, even the best of fighters can get caught against a specialist and lose in surprising seconds. Often times with the loss comes a huge amount of human capital that has been built into the building of a champion. The UFC and other promotions have seen it happen over the years with the losses of elite athletes like Andre Arlovski, Chuck Lidell, Anderson Silva and on and on. Get a great boxer or an elite Jiu Jitsu artist or a world class wrestler against even the most advanced and skilled fighter and sometimes strange things happen, more so than in any other fight sport where it is similar skill against similar skill. That is the beauty of MMA, as well as the risk. It is, as Hall of Famer Pat Miletich likes to call it, “Chess With Blood.”
The building of that marketing equity has caused great angst for brands in the past. One of the most notable issues was Arlovski’s surprise loss and the immediate loss of marketing credibility despite all the dollars that had been invested in him less than eight years ago. One loss, suddenly no longer a champion, and the sport moved on. If you are a brand you certainly run a risk, especially if the large amount of bankable dollars is going towards fight-related promotions and brand exposure. It is also partly the reason why the continuous face of the UFC, even with the sale to WME/IMG, is not a fighter; it is UFC President Dana White. Athletes absorb injury, loss, and sometimes a lack of consistent presence in the Octagon following
Then there is Ronda Rousey.
An Olympian, world champion, role model for thousands of young women, her brand value went far beyond the Octagon and her record. She was the highest paid female athlete on the planet in 2016, and has become a regular face in commercials while working with companies like Bud Light, Metro PCS and Buffalo Jeans. She transcended the sport well beyond even the biggest of MMA names prior, and carefully built a brand that could not be matched by any other UFC name outside of the sport, including for right now, Conor McGregor. Sports fans, MMA fans, sure there is great recognition for both and probably for a handful of other names. But for casual fans, ones that may have never seen a fight, Rousey had huge brand value.
The former champion was no match for Amanda Nunes on Friday night before a sold out crowd and a massive pay per view audience in Las Vegas, blown out in 48 seconds by the women’s bantamweight champion in the main event of UFC 207. Her reputation as always accessible also took a hit, as she imposed a pre-fight media blackout and then stiffed the media with no availability afterwards.
Does this mean it is all over? For any other UFC star maybe, but for Rousey her marketing game should continue on, whether she fights again or not. Unlike so many others before her, her success has become less and less dictated by fighting and more by storytelling. She has a strong and clear message that resonated well beyond the Octagon, and little, if any, of her endorsements and her recognition are now tied to performance. She has been accessible and responsive to brands, built a massive social following and a crossover audience which lifted the tide of the UFC, MMA, and women’s sports well beyond what was anticipated when she first crossed into the sport, and it is a legacy and a value which certainly won’t go away overnight.
Would a comeback win have helped the sport and given rise to more dollars down the line? For sure. Is there some form of makeup with the media that could or even should happen? Maybe. Can Rousey just disappear from the limelight totally? Sure, that would be her call. Are there other issues about that have not come to light? Those, if they exist, could damage her brand, but there is little to show or even suspect at this point. Does she have to fight again? That too is her call, but a third loss, especially with all that she has built, might do more harm than good, and will probably force her to detract from all that she is doing outside the sport.
For sure we all love a comeback, and sport fans hate seeing a star not go out on his/her terms. It is never pretty and it is often disappointing. However for Ronda Rousey as a brand ambassador and spokesperson, her days certainly aren’t over, they are just adapting. And frankly that is what the best MMA athletes do. They adapt to the opponent, accept the challenges and move on. Even without another fight, we wouldn’t count Ronda out. She is a different type of crossover champion, and one that is still great for the UFC.