(This story first ran at USAToday.com)
The last time Ronda Rousey stepped into the octagon the UFC’s bantamweight division was still a one-woman show, now it is the organization’s most cursed – and most compelling – title.
“Ronda wants the belt back,” UFC President Dana White said in the build-up to her Dec. 30 main event showdown with current champion Amanda Nunes at UFC 207. “She feels like it’s hers.”
However, in the 13 months since the brutal end of Rousey’s unbeaten record and aura of invincibility, the landscape at the top end of women’s mixed martial arts has shifted considerably.
Rousey was the first and only women’s bantamweight champ in UFC history when she faced off against Holly Holm at the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, last November and was on a dominant streak of overpowering victories that made her a household name and a modern pop culture icon.
The only criticism that could be leveled at her then was that she made the division too predictable. Since she was knocked cold by a savage Holm kick to the side of her face in the second round, things have been anything but expected.
First, Holm was unable to capitalize upon her newfound celebrity. With Rousey’s health and future then uncertain, the former world boxing champion opted to defend her crown against Miesha Tate instead of waiting around for a highly-lucrative rematch.
In March, Tate survived Holm’s punches before successfully executing a fifth-round choke submission to win the belt. Tate and Rousey had history, but Rousey was still not ready to return, so Tate instead put the title on offer against Nunes, in what became the main event of UFC 200 after Jon Jones was ruled out following a doping issue.
Nunes handed down a forceful beating before winning by first-round submission, to become another fresh titleholder, despite having been on the outer reaches of the division a year earlier.
Meanwhile, Holm lost again, to Valentina Shevchenko, and will now move up to the newly-created featherweight division at 145 pounds, while Tate was defeated by Raquel Pennington and then retired from the octagon. Cris Cyborg also entered the UFC and repeatedly called out Rousey, a matchup that has the potential to be the most lucrative women’s bout in history.
Which brings us back to Rousey, who gets the opportunity to get the belt back in her return fight, which was White’s plan all along.
“Unbelievable,” he said, in reference to the division. “You have a dominant champion and then suddenly the belt is passed around three times in three fights. You never know what to expect next.”
White said from the time Rousey lost that she would get a shot at the title in her first fight back, a reward for the way she put women’s MMA on the map since entering the sport in 2011 after a judo career that saw her win an Olympic bronze medal in 2008.
She is the strong favorite and victory would mean a fourth consecutive title fight where the belt has been slipped around a different waist. Nunes, though, should not be discounted.
“Women’s MMA is so strong now and there is a lot of depth,” Tate said. “It might be a while before you see someone go on a long streak of title defenses again.”
A Rousey victory would set up a number of intriguing options, including a potential move up to featherweight for a rematch with Holm or a showdown with Cyborg. Yet as the last 13 months have shown, it is wise to expect the unexpected in MMA’s most tumultuous division.