Nunes, Rousey, and the UFC’s New Normal

Fightland Blog

By Nick Pachelli

Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC

“She’s Back.”

The promotion for UFC 207 splashed this phrase across every piece of promotional material, supplemented by “Fear the Return,” and laid it over headshots of the two athletes that suffer from a heavy-handed edit.

The seminal image was followed by a promo video that reads more like the trailer for a Hollywood action thriller than a sporting event.

Halfway through the clip, a prophetic-sounding voice (Dana White) speaks down to the UFC dominion announcing the return of the organization’s centerpiece, at least for the women’s side, Ronda Rousey. Meanwhile, Rousey looks down over the Los Angeles landscape in contemplative seclusion, plotting her return.

Safe to assume an outsider watching the clip wouldn’t grasp that Amanda Nunes is the current champion. That merits repeating: Amanda Nunes is the “Bantamweight Champion of the World!” Bruce Buffer screamed it out after Nunes pummeled Miesha Tate at UFC 200 back in July. More recently, even the UFC’s indispensable analyst Joe Rogan called out the thorough absence of Nunes from the marketing push.

A Nunes-focused promotion video did finally emerge last week, but it’s just a highlight reel from her fight against Tate. The video’s tagline reads, “On the Brink with Amanda Nunes,” as if rising to the top slot of a sport isn’t past the tipping point of competitive success.

Last week, I asked Amanda Nunes over the phone about all the promotion. She told me, “Honestly, I knew it was gonna be like that. I know the UFC likes Ronda Rousey, and I can’t change it. The only thing that I really love is that I have the belt … Ronda Rousey can be famous and the UFC can do her promotion, I don’t care.”

Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC

Going into the December 30th fight in Vegas, “Fear the promotion!” might be a more accurate tagline, because the UFC is staging what could very well be a tremorous era full of identity crisis for the company and its audience.

From a branding and optics perspective, Ronda Rousey is still the champion. She’s Dana White’s champion—see the clip of White trying to wrangle Rousey’s arm to keep her on the stage at UFC 205 in Madison Square Gardens. And for most that follow the UFC, Amanda Nunes won’t be seen as the true women’s bantamweight champion until she beats the woman who is the most dominant mixed martial artist of all time.

Listening to Nunes, you sense that she knows this is true. In the UFC 207 extended preview, when Nunes finally makes a speaking appearance (following Rousey), she says, “I come to be the best in the world, and after December I can say I’m the best in the world when I beat Ronda Rousey.”

If Nunes does indeed win, which I think she will, the UFC women’s side will have an undisputed, and perfectly normal, champion. The champion will be someone who doesn’t have any inclination for Hollywood and virtually no tendency for showmanship. Heck, currently this champion doesn’t even have a website.

“Of course the media, all those things, is apart of the UFC. But I’m OK to be more quiet, I’m OK to not be the, be a face the UFC wants,” Nunes told me.

This is a problem for White and company because a quiet champion, compounded with Rousey eyeing the door, is not a highly sellable anchor for the brand they’ve developed. And if you’re not convinced, consider this. Amanda Nunes has an abysmal social following: roughly 143k in total, which is 1.2% of Rousey’s base (12.2 mil. across Twitter and Instagram). This isn’t surprising seeing as Rousey is the face of the sport. But Nunes is also leagues behind Holly Holm and Miesha Tate for social reach—Nunes has 8.4% and 6.2% of their reach respectively.

Why didn’t the belt give Nunes the bump it gave Holm and Tate? Most ostensibly, Nunes’ differs from the three previous champions in nationality, femininity, and sexual orientation. While I’d like to think these factors wouldn’t impact her public appeal, they merit considering as the UFC remains loyal to its largely white, paternalistic male base. It might also be due to the fact that she doesn’t give oxygen to any Twitter taunts or jabs. And it’s not like she’s not active, she has arguably the most entertaining social activity of the crop. She’s vulnerable; followers get easy access to squabbles between Nunes and her girlfriend, UFC strawweight fighter Nina Ansaroff.

Social media aside, its Nunes’ live character that might pose the biggest threat to the UFC and its rambunctious following having a fiery, sharp-tongued, camera-friendly female champion. Come fight time, Nunes speaks in more tactical terms than the trash talk viewers are used to from the likes of Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Conor McGregor. “I don’t want to be a part of that,” said Nunes. “I’m really professional, I respect my work. And I really talk about myself, about what I can do to get the win, what mistakes my opponent has, things like that… I don’t need to trash talk to be the champion.”

Further evidence: look back to the extended preview or her comments to the press after the UFC 207 faceoff. She said, for what must be the twentieth time, “I don’t come to this sport to be famous. I come to be the best in the world.... I want to be the best and be normal.”

There it was again: normal. You can hear UFC marketing strategists grumbling. She expanded on her objective outside the octagon during our call: “Whatever the UFC wants to do, they can do, I don’t care. I want to be happy. I want to be a champion for as long as I can and enjoy my life. I don’t want to travel so much; I hate airplanes, hate travel. I really like to be at my house, enjoying my life with my girlfriend, and that’s it. I don’t really like to be this person like Ronda Rousey is right now. I don’t think she’s that happy, you know?”

Now, even if Rousey does reclaim the belt, she too has hinted at turning down the volume on the circus of fight promotion. In a highly personal feature in ESPN the Magazine’s holiday issue, Ramona Shelburne laid out how Rousey is done saying yes to everything—”Because damn, she really spent way too much energy trying to put on a show last time.” It seems Rousey is coming back to mixed martial arts for the sport and giving the finger to the spectacle. She wants to regain a semblance of normalcy now that she’s completed her task of building the women’s division.

With a more normal Rousey, and while still betting on an “And Still…” Nunes, what sort of future can viewers expect with an undisputed Nunes and retirement-ready Rousey? For the first time, the UFC women’s side will inhabit a place where its true leader wants to talk about the nuances of Brazilian jiu jitsu instead of the fakeness of their opponent. And while the raucous theatre of the fights will live on, the electric strobe lights might dim as the champion seeks to supplant spectacle with sport. And the UFC just might become a more respected feat of athleticism because of it.

Oh, and Nunes will probably get a website. But I kind of hope she doesn’t.


Check out these related stories:

Rousey versus Nunes: A Strange Kind of Mirror

The Tactical Guide to TJ Dillashaw versus John Lineker