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Comment: Ronda Rousey's defeat to Amanda Nunes is a cautionary tale for UFC fighters

The Guardian logo The Guardian 3/01/2017 Josh Gross

Ronda Rousey’s head was snapped back enough times in the opening moments of her return to the UFC for the crowd to see what was coming. Defeat and despair, yes. Victory and redemption, no.

“I knew if I had a chance in the beginning of the fight, if she gives me the opportunity, that I would finish her there,” said Amanda Nunes, who battered Rousey on Friday at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas to retain the UFC bantamweight title for the first time.

Forty-eight seconds after the opening bell, Rousey’s night and perhaps her career had been ended by 27 strikes that contorted the former champion’s face in awful ways. This was the worst case scenario for Rousey, whose record now stands at 12-2. An all hands on deck moment met with a meek response, the kind of performance that we don’t see from great competitors.

Many of the 18,533 spectators at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, a record attendance for an MMA event in Nevada, went wild when Rousey stepped on to the floor wearing her familiar glare. Fighting is a gritty, emotional exercise in which statistics often mean nothing. But prior to Friday’s bout, one foreboding figure loomed for the challenger.

Nunes, a boxer/puncher with a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, had averaged as many strikes per round as any fighter scheduled to compete at UFC 207, while Rousey, the deposed queen of MMA, had been hit the most. Bad numbers for anyone, let alone a fighter making her first appearance in the Octagon since Holly Holm crushed her with strikes 13 months ago. The disparity couldn’t be ignored, and one of the major questions surrounding Rousey in the lead-up to her return centered on whether or not she could handle being punched again.

She could not.

Ronda Rousey reacts to her loss to Amanda Nunes. © Brandon Magnus/Getty Images Ronda Rousey reacts to her loss to Amanda Nunes.

For months there was speculation that she had been significantly altered by the loss to Holm. The joy of producing dominant fast victories was gone, replaced by the harsh reality that comes with experiencing what it’s like to lose by having a shin slammed into your neck. So Rousey did the only thing she could to deal with what happened. She tried to disappear, a tactic that included sequestering herself from fans and media during fight week.

Rousey’s bubble did not serve her well in the end, Nunes said. By skipping the normal traditions of fight week, Rousey created tension and sparked questions where there weren’t any. She may have sought to alleviate stress by avoiding it, but that rarely works particularly when pressure is on the verge of being turned up. And that was exactly what Nunes had in mind as she unloaded heavy punches in Rousey’s direction from the start of the fight.

It seemed only Rousey’s controversial and maligned trainer Edmond Tarverdyan remained entranced with the idea that his fighter had the chops to draw out Nunes. From his corner, Tarverdyan shouted in increasingly shrill tones as each punch connected. Just as he had when Rousey went down to Holm in Australia, Tarverdyan raved like a madman who could not comprehend what he was seeing.

“I knew she’s going to strike with me because her boxing coach told her she has good striking,” Nunes said. “She thinks she’s a boxer. He put this in her head and made the girl believe that. She had a great judo and she could go more forward in this division, but he put some crazy thing about his boxing [in her head] and her career went down.”

After referee Herb Dean rescued Rousey from further punishment, Nunes walked over to an inconsolable Tarverdyan and put a finger to her mouth: “Shush”. Then Nunes went to Rousey and offered a hug. The story will be focused on Rousey for a while, but Nunes hopes the world accepts that it’s time to move on and that some attention is shifted her direction. Rousey, she said, is done. If true that makes Rousey the second female MMA pioneer Nunes will have retired in 2016. Miesha Tate called it quits when Nunes hammered her in July to capture the belt at UFC 200.

“Now the division is getting interesting,” Nunes said. “New everything. Now people aren’t only going to talk about Ronda Rousey or Miesha. There’s a lot of talent in this division. People will see this and make up their mind. This is MMA. You have to keep moving forward.”

The UFC president, Dana White, later said that Rousey was in better spirits than she had been after the Holm defeat. But he is not sure if the former champ would fight again. “I don’t know. Ronda obviously needs to go home and take some time,” he told ESPN. “She’s very rich. She doesn’t need to fight anymore. She’s super competitive. Maybe she wants to, I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.”

Rousey showed that in the UFC there is no height from which a star can’t fall. No limb he or she can’t hit on the way down. And no thud they won’t feel. Her stardom reached well beyond the cage, but no amount of fame could save her from a second consecutive drubbing in the Octagon. Rousey’s dominance then difficulty should serve as a cautionary tale to fighters everywhere.

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