Where Does Ronda Rousey Fit In New Women’s Bantamweight Division?

Although the UFC’s attempt to surpass even the most ridiculous expectations with the biggest event in its history fell flat at last weekend’s UFC 200, the effects of Amanda Nunes’ title-winning performance against Miesha Tate in Saturday’s main event will be felt long after fight fans have forgotten about the promotion’s high-priced disappointment.

After all, for the third time since last November, the women’s bantamweight belt has a new owner who took her crack at the crown as an underdog. But despite the division’s sudden turn toward upsets and intrigue in the absence of Ronda Rousey, the former women’s bantamweight queen will undoubtedly play a central role in its future.

If there’s anything that this weight class has taught us since Rousey lost her belt to Holly Holm last November, it’s that individual matchups really do matter more than anything else in the UFC. How else can we explain why Tate had previously lost twice to Rousey before defeating Holm — the only woman to have ever beaten Rowdy Ronda? Or, how Cat Zingano owns consecutive knockout victories over Nunes and Tate, yet lost to fourth-ranked Juliana Pena at UFC 200?

But just when it looked like the women’s bantamweight division was destined to remain a top-heavy weight class with only two real threats to the reigning queen’s throne, Holm’s destruction of Rousey gave the group new life. And instead of the decline in popularity that some were predicting in the months that followed Rousey’s loss, the women’s 135-pound division is currently better than ever.

As far as the majority of Octagon junkies are concerned, Rousey has been treating her MMA career as though it was an unattractive ex-boyfriend for the last eight months. Lately, the former bantamweight queen seems to spend her time between quietly undocumented workout sessions and a once-promising acting career that’s led to little more than some small roles, a few paydays, and proof that Rousey can’t act.

Considering Rousey’s endlessly competitive nature, her return to the UFC has never been in question. It’s all a matter of when that return will happen. And with the women’s bantamweight belt being passed around like a hookah at a hipster house party, timing that return to coincide with a favorable opponent will matter as much as anything else.

Luckily for Rousey, during an April appearance on ESPN‘s Beadle And Shelbourne Show, UFC President Dana White guaranteed that she’ll be given an immediate title shot against whoever owns the belt when she returns to the Octagon.

”[Rousey] is definitely part of the discussion [to fight at UFC 205 in New York in November], and she will fight whoever has that belt when she comes back,” said White.

Coming from the same guy who has spent the last few weeks denying the sale of the now-sold UFC, some might think that White’s words are worthless. But thanks to inside knowledge gained during their lucrative long-term business relationship, White knows that Rousey’s return has the potential to set records — especially if it takes place in a title fight.

After walking away from last weekend’s win without a scratch, Nunes could attempt her first title defense relatively soon. However, if White and the UFC are planning for Rousey to headline the promotion’s first appearance in the Empire State at UFC 205 in November, and that fight is guaranteed to be for the title, Nunes may have to wait until then to put her belt on the line.

If Nunes doesn’t wait for Rousey’s return, it will be almost impossible for the UFC to promise the former champ an immediate title shot because it’s very unlikely that the Brazilian brawler will be able to fight once before the Big Apple and still be ready for Rousey on November 12. Plus, with the way things have been going for owners of this particular UFC crown, there’s absolutely no guarantee that Nunes would even survive her first title defense against another contender.

While attending the historic signing of the bill that legalized professional MMA in New York this past April, Rousey sounded as though she’d already decided where she wants her first fight back to take place.

”I would love to have the opportunity to fight here [in New York] because this is another time I feel like I earned the right to fight here because I fought for it,” said Rousey via the UFC.com ”It wasn’t just something that fell on my plate—I was part of the process and I think that’s what a lot of the New York fighters will be feeling when they finally get to fight in their hometown.”

Due to the fact that Rousey has already beaten Tate twice and ”Cupcake” no longer owns the belt, there’s no reason for the UFC to schedule a trilogy bout between the rivals. And unfortunately, if White is going to give Rousey an immediate title shot when she’s expected to return in the fall, it’s unlikely that the UFC will award Holm with a well-deserved title shot if she’s victorious against Valentina Schevchenko on July 23.

After sharing so many successful endeavors, it’s clear that White feels some level of loyalty to Rousey. Otherwise, there’s no way that White would promise her an immediate, and apparently open-ended, title shot that’s likely to at least temporarily affect the careers of top-caliber talent whenever it finally happens. Like it or not, Rousey has earned that fight.

At the same time, Rousey’s loss to Holm was the best thing that could’ve happened to the division. Heading into that loss, she was a champion who was running seriously low on legitimate challengers. But the division she’s returning to looks nothing like it did during her reign, and for the first time in her career, Rousey won’t be alone at the top.

[Photo By Harry How/Getty Images]