She’s back…and 48 seconds later, she’s gone

The result of Ronda Rousey’s long-awaited return to the UFC octagon was swift and brutal. After being undefeated as the women’s bantamweight champion for almost three years and against six challengers, ‘Rowdy’ Ronda Rousey’s fall from MMA grace was swift. In large part, Rousey created the climate that allowed this negativity. Rousey’s reaction to defeat alienated MMA fans and caused opinion to turn against her. If she had managed her image a little differently, she could have mitigated the fallout.

Mixed martial arts is a sport that craves heroes as big and boisterous as the WWE, but offers none of the scripted protection that keeps those stars on top. Rousey exemplified this superstardom. She was seemingly undefeatable and seemingly unenhanced by steroids — her success the result of hard work and dedication.

Then Rousey lost to Holly Holm.

With only two fights in the UFC, social media users laughed off Holm and asked when Rousey would get a ‘real’ fight. And then 59 seconds into the second round, Holm hit Rousey with a devastating head kick that left the champion bloodied and unconscious.

As colour commentator Joe Rogan often warned about other fight predictions, MMA math never works out. There’s too much unpredictability in the sport to simply tally up wins and losses of any one fighter, and too many differences between matches for them to forecast the results for future fights.

Thirteen months later, when Rousey made her return against newly-crowned champ, Amanda Nunes, this fact was made all too clear. Thirty-eight seconds into the first round of the Nunes-Rousey fight, referee Herb ‘Green’ Dean called a stop to the contest, halted Nunes’s flurry of strikes, consoled a barely conscious Rousey, and awarded Nunes the victory.

Thousands of tweets mocking Rousey’s loss poured in from around the world. Anonymous trolls, current and former fighters, even Justin Bieber mocked her — the Biebs turned heads by declaring to Rousey ‘You just got knocked the f*** out.’

Rousey was the first women’s champion in the UFC and the women’s division owes its very existence to the crowds Rousey was able to draw — most of its contenders were brought in initially as opponents for Rousey. Most observers — most of her fans — forget this. Rousey so transcended the world of MMA fandom that a huge chunk of her fanbase had never followed professional fighting before, and many of them didn’t watch fight cards that didn’t include Rousey. For them, Rousey wasn’t just a champion she was the champion. And that rubbed hardcore MMA fans the wrong way. The diehards were the happiest to see Rousey fall, just as they had been to see the fast-talking Irishman Conor McGregor choked out by the frequently-incoherent pothead Nate Diaz.

This desire to see a champion fall comes from the very heart of the UFC. The organization was founded as a way to discover what fighting styles worked. It smashed everything up together, from kung fu to boxing to Russian combat sambo, to see what comes out on top. It’s meant to be a constantly evolving field of diverse martial artists who combine new and unused styles with ancient, time-tested techniques. Opponents are meant to be beaten, but the game is not meant to be won. In her prime, Ronda Rousey was so dominant that she seemed awfully close to winning the game. Fans love seeing someone act like a superhero, but what they love more is a human bringing that hero back down to earth. The game demands the defeat of its greatest fighters, otherwise it doesn’t improve.

When 24-year-old Cody Garbrandt danced (literally danced) his way around Dominick Cruz and propelled himself from the number 8-ranked bantamweight spot to world champ, fans were ecstatic. But none mocked Cruz in the way they had Rousey. In part, that’s because Cruz was humbled by defeat — he admitted that his opponent bested him but vowed that he would be back.

Rousey, on the other hand, went quiet after defeat. Rousey refused interviews and disappeared off social media. The fans that so often turned to Rousey for inspiration were left searching for their hero, who was nowhere to be found.

Rousey’s first public appearance was months after the loss on Ellen. Ellen Degeneres is not known as an expert on mixed martial arts and didn’t pepper Rousey with the difficult questions she would have faced when interacting with the MMA press. This move alienated MMA fans who saw it as self-serving. Rousey, it seemed, had chosen the life of a movie star over rededicating herself to her craft. Fans took this as disrespect for the industry — and themselves as supporters — that had gotten her so far.

During subsequent interviews, Rousey never stated publicly that Holm bested her and has yet to acknowledge that Nunes defeated her. She seems to treat defeat as though it were divorced from her opponent. Rousey never acknowledged her own role in defeat. She portrayed defeat as something that merely happened to her. But people want human heroes, and by not acknowledging her own shortcomings, Rousey gave off the impression that she had learned nothing from her losses. Fans loved the no-nonsense, take-charge attitude of Rousey, but when she seemingly abandoned it in the face of adversity, her fans felt they had been duped by someone who talked one way and acted another. Stars get big when fans build a connection with them and that connection requires authenticity at some level, but Rousey was slowly abandoning her authenticity each time she retreated into isolation after a loss.

If Rousey had come out after defeat humbled and admitted that she had been bested twice by superior strikers, MMA fans would have rallied behind her as they had countless other fighters. Rousey could then go quietly back to camp and work on her striking. Instead, her complete silence came across as entitlement — the belief that she deserved to be champ regardless of how well she performed.

The UFC, recently acquired by the entertainment agency William Morris Endeavor, faces a similar predicament, a classic growing-pains problem for any individual, organization or company with a niche focus looking to expand. The UFC wants to increase its viewership but cannot do so while alienating long-time MMA fans. The UFC needs to find a way to create megastars that continue to embody the spirit of mixed martial arts. There is a major drive in UFC to get its champions on talk shows, in commercials, and as stars in film. But each of these outlets will be seen by fans as a distraction from the hard work of fighting. By trying to go too mainstream, the UFC — like Rousey — risks frustrating fans who tune in not to see scripted action heroes, but skilled fighters who could win or lose from one well-placed fist.

So how do you keep your fan base? Rousey’s life as an MMA star is not over. She has only been out of the game for thirteen months, most of which were spent training. Amanda Nunes is not unbeatable, and Rousey still has caches of goodwill throughout the UFC. But Rousey needs to show fans what they want to see. Rousey can’t show mainstream fans an unstoppable superhero — and it’s impossible to try — but she can show MMA fans a focused, rededicated warrior working her way back to the top. If MMA fans see this, see that Rousey is taking her work and her fans seriously, Rousey could become the fan’s champion again long before she wins back the belt.