Within that context, the UFC and Fox didn’t simply rescue, but in fact spiced up The Ultimate Fighter on Tuesday. Season 18 of the show, which will air beginning Sept. 4 on the new Fox Sports 1 cable channel, was to feature women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey coaching against unbeaten Cat Zingano. The first female coaches in the show’s history would be working with teams composed, for the first time, of both men and women. It’s groundbreaking in a multitude of ways.
Add to that some new made-for-TV drama. Zingano injured her right knee two weeks ago and had to drop out of the show, according to the UFC, which kept that information a secret until taping began on Tuesday. So when Rousey showed up in the promotion’s Las Vegas gym and the cameras rolled, she came face to face with her bitter nemesis, former Strikeforce champion Miesha Tate. Surprise, surprise.
“For those of you who don’t know, Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate don’t like each other at all,” UFC president Dana White said in a Fox video. “They have been battling, verbally and physically, for years. Now they are going to be living together here for six weeks.”
And afterward, they will fight — which is where this gets sticky if you care at all about the worthiness of title bouts.
When Rousey puts her belt on the line against Tate sometime in the fall, she will be the fourth UFC champion this year to defend against an opponent coming off a loss. Tate, who had her Strikeforce title dislodged and her elbow dislocated by a Rousey armbar when they first met last year, was on the verge of earning a rematch after winning the first two rounds of a No. 1 challenger showdown with Zingano in April. But “Alpha Cat” turned the tide in Round 3, blasting Tate with knees to the face until the fight was stopped with just over two minutes remaining. Apparently the TKO loss was good enough to earn Miesha another shot at Ronda.
Something has shifted in UFC matchmaking. José Aldo defended his featherweight championship in February against a man coming off two straight losses. Sure, Frankie Edgar is a former lightweight champ whose two prior defeats came in close title fights at that higher weight. But still. What about Georges St-Pierre, who put his welterweight strap on the line in March against Nick Diaz, who was coming off a loss and a year-long drug suspension? Just last month, Jon Jones defended the light heavyweight title against Chael Sonnen, who was coming off a knockout defeat and had not fought at 205 pounds in seven years. What a tangled web the UFC has weaved.
Now, it’s not like this hadn’t ever happened before 2013. But generally — though not always — it’s either been a championship fight loser being granted a rematch or someone getting an unforeseen shot at a title because of a champion’s retirement, failed drug test or some other extenuating circumstance.
One might view Rousey vs. Tate II as the product of extenuating circumstances. Losing a coach two weeks before your high-profile reality show begins taping calls for desperate measures. And what were the UFC’s options? Sarah Kaufman is ranked higher than Tate, and is also an ex-Strikeforce champ, but she lasted less than a minute against Ronda last August. There’s also Liz Carmouche, who was scheduled to fight Miesha in July … and who did better than either Tate or Kaufman against Rousey, nearly submitting the champ early before succumbing to — what else? — an armbar in the final seconds of the first round. But that February bout, the first women’s fight in UFC history, was the most recent on the resumes of both Ronda and Liz. “Girl-Rilla” needs to wait a while for another title try.
An intriguing possibility for Rousey would have been fellow Olympian — and fellow groundbreaker — Sara McMann. Whereas Ronda became the first American woman to earn an Olympic medal in judo when she took bronze in Beijing in 2008, McMann became the first female American silver medalist in wrestling four years later in Athens. But while both also share a 7-0 record, Sara has been building her MMA career more steadily than the meteoric champ has. McMann dominated Sheila Gaff in her UFC debut last month, and the promotion apparently believes she needs more seasoning before it can serve up an Olympian vs. Olympian clash.
In the end, the UFC has eschewed new blood for bad blood.
Rousey is all for it — after getting over her initial shock. Yahoo! Sports’s Kevin Iole, who was at the UFC gym, wrote that Ronda “was clearly stunned” when she spotted Tate, and stormed out in search of White. When she emerged back under the bright lights, Rousey was in full TV publicist mode. “This is what we really wanted all along,” she told Iole. “Everyone said an Ultimate Fighter between me and Miesha would be the best. We have a personal history with each other, and this is a personal show. For some reason, me and Miesha are intertwined in fate like Ali and Frazier or something like that.”
— Jeff Wagenheim