Here’s something weird about fandom. Being a fan can keep you from seeing what’s really going on with the thing you’re a fan of. When something hits big in mainstream culture, the fans are the last people to find out.
Case in point: I love professional wrestling. Sometimes I’ll think that something in wrestling is the talk of the town — CM Punk got fired from WWE! They’re even talking about it on the Daily Show! — but my coworkers have no idea what I’m talking about. Hulk Hogan goes on some dumb reality show, on the other hand, and everyone posts it on my Facebook.
I’m saying this partly by way of apology — this post deals with mixed martial arts, a sport that I know almost nothing about. And I have no doubt that I’m wrong about more things here than I’m right about. And yet, my lack of familiarity with the sport helps me understand what’s really going on in it. Because what’s really going on in it is just one thing: Ronda Rousey.
WWF for Fake
Everyone knows that wrestling is fake. The thing that a lot of people don’t know is how real wrestling is. Most of the moves actually make contact, and actually hurt. Wrestlers get injured all the time, and sometimes those injuries put them out of the business for months or even permanently. Even the championship belts are real: the champions actually take them home with them, which has led to some embarrassing moments for World Wrestling Entertainment.
In a lot of ways, UFC — WWE’s biggest competitor at the moment, and the one that it’s only recently begun to acknowledge the existence of — is only slightly less fake than wrestling. Yes, the ending of a UFC match isn’t scripted, but what matches you see at the high-profile UFC pay-per-views isn’t the result of a rigid tournament or an objective ranking system. It’s more-or-less one man’s decision.
If there’s a very good criterion that separates sports entertainment — the clumsy term that WWE adopted when it started admitting that the matches were rigged and hasn’t stopped using since — from sports, it’s not whether the ending is predetermined. It’s whether matchups are chosen for their entertainment value. By that measure, UFC is totally sports entertainment.
What happens in a Ronda Rousey fight
If you’ve never seen one before, here’s what usually happens in a Ronda Rousey fight. The woman that Rousey is fighting tries exactly one move. Rousey counters with her signature move, an armbar. Her opponent struggles for a few seconds and taps out.
That’s it. And being a pro wrestling fan, I was confused when I realized that that’s it. But it’s also immensely entertaining. It’s like someone reverse-engineered the human mind and figured out what everyone wants to be watching all of the time.
In February, UFC hit a cool landmark: for the first time ever, a women’s match was the main event. You know, the one they have last, name the show after, and put on all the posters. It was also about a year overdue. I’m not saying that out of some misguided chivalry; I’m saying what’s obvious to everyone besides the most hardcore UFC fan: Rousey is the only thing going on in UFC.
A quick detour: WWE sucks at women
There’s been a bunch of talk lately about female wrestlers — or as WWE condescendingly brands them, “Divas.”
A few years ago, WWE started promoting its training center as its own wrestling organization, sort of a minor league affiliate to WWE, under the name WWE NXT. And in a lot of ways, NXT has blown up. When an NXT wrestler debuts on Monday Night Raw, he already has a big fan base.
The primary creative force behind NXT is Vince McMahon’s son-in-law and heir apparent Triple H. On message boards, “I can’t wait until Vince retires” is a common refrain during discussions about NXT. It’s like Converse: the alternative brand that’s so cool you can almost forget that it’s owned by the same people.
And one of the big ways that NXT distinguishes itself is the women’s matches. In WWE, women’s matches usually go five minutes or less. At a recent NXT special event, the women’s match was the third longest match of the night, and one of the most talked-about. And the talent has noticed: even the Bella Twins — the wrestler cum models who, for many, embody everything that’s wrong with WWE’s women’s division — openly express jealousy of NXT’s treatment of women.
WWE has a pretty awful track record with women. In the 90s, they were eye candy and hardly wrestled at all. Today, women are back in the ring, but WWE still sells them as TV-PG sex symbols. Every once in awhile, supposed leaks will show up on wrestling message boards, memos where Vince McMahon told some female wrestler or other that she needed to “soften up” her performance. Rumors are rumors, but you don’t need any inside information to see that someone is holding female wrestlers back.
In the weeks before this year’s WrestleMania, the hashtag #GiveDivasaChance started trending on Twitter during episodes of Monday Night Raw. WWE did what it does so well: it made fans’ criticism part of the story. “Give Divas a chance” has now become a refrain on WWE programming, and yet, somehow it seems that WWE missed the point.
Or we did.
What happens when you watch a Ronda Rousey fight
I was at a bar that showed UFC 184, the show headlined by Rousey and Cat Zingano. I went with a few friends who knew much more about MMA than I, and I spent the night asking stupid questions.
Although we’d all paid ten dollars for the privilege of sitting there, no one in the bar seemed too interested in what was happening on TV. And then, like magic, something happened just before the main event. The bar transformed from a standard Saturday night crowd to standing room only. I stepped outside just a few minutes before the main event, and there was still a line down the block. Everyone was there to see one fight, and everyone knew that that fight was just going to last a few seconds.
That’s when it occurred to me: the problem with #GiveDivasaChance is that it’s way too easy to move the goalpost. Female wrestlers don’t need a chance. If wrestling wants to seriously compete with MMA, female wrestlers need to be the whole damn show.
And I realized something else too. If women’s wrestling is supposed to be “sexy” — and that’s a big “if,” one I have pretty serious reservations about — then the guy in charge is showing his age. Total Divas isn’t sexy; Ronda Rousey breaking some hapless soul’s arm is sexy.
Before he was fired, CM Punk wanted to appear at ringside for a friend’s MMA match. According to Punk, Vince McMahon was horrified at one of his family-friendly stars appearing at such a violent event. McMahon even said, incredulously, “Did you know that they’re going to have women fight in the Octagon soon?”
That’s why the WWE women’s division sucks.
Good heat and bad heat
Based on my anecdotal evidence, here’s something else that no one understands who’s an MMA fan but everyone understands who isn’t: Rousey is the bad guy.
You’ve heard of faces and heels. It’s not quite like it was in the 80s — with the face (that’s the good guy) telling kids to say their prayers and take their vitamins, and the heel wiping his nose with an American flag — but it’s not that different either. Every professional wrestling match is David vs. Goliath. Which one is Rousey?
Good heat is “I can’t wait to see this guy get beat up.” Bad heat is, “I can’t wait to stop seeing this guy on TV.” And Rousey exudes good heat.
She talks smack about her opponents. She does an obnoxious dance when she wins. She and her crew wear matching Beats headphones to the ring. If you pitched this stuff to Vince McMahon, he’d say, “That’s a little on-the-nose, don’t you think?”
Which is not to say that she’s not likable. She is. But that line around the block wasn’t asking itself if she’d continue her undefeated streak for another day. It was asking itself if tonight would be the night she’d fall. And every time she wins, the line will get longer. That’s how it works.
Writing real life
During WWE broadcasts, the commentators can all hear Vince McMahon’s voice in their headphones. I don’t know if it’s Dana White or some surrogate talking to the UFC commentators, but there was a single narrative the night of Rousey vs. Zingano: Rousey has already beaten all of the women in her weight class. Who’s left?
It’s all intentional. UFC is telling us a story about an undefeatable woman. Some people think that this story will end with Rousey fighting a man; some think it will end with her fighting Fallon Fox.
Fox is a transgender MMA fighter. Over the past several months, she’s been asking for a fight with Rousey, and Rousey has responded with the most over-the-top heel rhetoric this side of Nikolai Volkoff. Rousey accuses Fox of having an “unfair advantage,” a textbook example of something a good guy never says, even if it’s true (not that it is true here). Heels appeal to your sense of fairness to avoid getting beat up. Faces appeal to your sense of fairness to avoid having to beat someone up.
Do I think that Rousey is playing a part? Yes and no. Dana White and co. are learning how to write real life. They’re learning when to hand someone a microphone. They’re learning how to use people like real-life heel Joe Rogan to get the perfect soundbite out of one of their athletes. They’re learning the tricks of professional wrestling.
As for Rousey, yes, I think she might have some problematic attitudes about the transgender community, and either hasn’t quite figured out how to tactfully navigate those attitudes in public, or — the more likely option — she’s riding this wave because she knows where the story ends. It ends with her conciliatory hug after defeating Fox. That is, it ends with Rousey turning face.
Ever since Rousey’s unannounced appearance at WrestleMania 31 (WWE’s wannabe Superbowl), there’s been a lot of buzz that she’ll wrestle a match at 32, or even at one of the smaller events this year. Rousey’s interest is a massive gift to the women’s division, one that could be invested in so many lucrative ways.
But it won’t be. The word on the street is that she’ll face Vince McMahon’s daughter (and Triple H’s wife), non-wrestler Stephanie McMahon, in a match that will do less than nothing for women’s wrestling in WWE.
Sure, the match will be a fun spectacle, and then it will be mostly forgotten — when two people who don’t wrestle wrestle each other, it’s kind of a dead end. And in a weird way, the match’s fruitlessness might be the point. In Vince McMahon’s world, women don’t fight. Or at least they don’t fight like Rousey does.
There was a time when it seemed that MMA was becoming a training ground for professional wrestling, with WWE picking up several fighters after they’d run their course in UFC. Today, it’s fair to say that scale has shifted. When Rousey shows up at Mania, it’s because of what she can do for WWE, not the other way around. And as long as the WWE women’s championship belt looks like a butterfly, I don’t see that changing.