The Giant Falls Again

Undefeated. Invincible. Unstoppable. The best. The greatest. All applied to Ronda Rousey short hours ago, and thus her fall to unheralded Holly Holm is easily the biggest upset of the year in combat sports.

Rousey had ended all of her recent, high-profile matches in record time, only one lasting past the opening minute. She had been extended beyond the first round on a single occasion, back in 2013, when she stopped Miesha Tate in round three. Every fight since had been total domination; her last four victories put together add up to less than two minutes of action.

Rousey on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Rousey on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

And as a result, Ronda Rousey was not just a dominant UFC champion, but a global celebrity. She made Maxim‘s Hot 100; her face was on TV and countless magazine covers; she was the first female athlete to guest host ESPN’s SportsCenter; she co-starred in big-budget movies like The Expendables 3 and Furious 7.

Ronda Rousey was one of the biggest stars in all of professional sports. Weighing in at a mere 134 pounds, the so-called “Baddest Woman on the Planet” was nonetheless the giant of the UFC, arguably its biggest draw, and probably the most famous female athlete in the world. And as they say, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Leading up to last night’s fight, the only question was how long it would last. Pundits willing to bet on Holm surviving the first round were extremely hard to find; those giving her a serious chance of winning were virtually non-existent. But once the action started it was clear the challenger was not the least bit intimidated by Rousey’s bigger-than-life reputation as she fought a disciplined fight for which Rousey had little answer. Her bloodying Rousey’s face and winning the opening round was the first shock. Then came the thunderclap in round two as a perfectly timed kick to the head rendered Rousey momentarily unconscious.

Holm nails Rousey with a hard left hand.
Holm nails Rousey with a hard left hand.

Few things in sports are more exciting than a violent knockout and when you combine that with a shocking upset, you have something people will be talking about and reliving for many days to come. Boxing fans understand this better than anyone. The upset is at the core of what boxing is, what it means, what it offers. “Upsets make the sport,” goes the old saying. And the statement speaks to an undeniable truth about one-on-one combat.

Results like last night’s remind us of the simple fact that when a match begins, all the publicity, promotion, predictions and whatever the combatants have achieved in the past, all of this is set aside. At the moment the fight starts, it’s a struggle between individuals and everything outside that squared circle or octagon is irrelevant. Last night it didn’t matter how many magazine covers Ronda Rousey had been on or how many Hollywood movies were planning to cast her. Her opponent may have been relatively unknown, but Holly Holm had the right game plan and the will to see it through.

The knockout kick.
The knockout blow.

No doubt many are comparing Rousey vs Holm to when Mike Tyson journeyed to Japan to defend his heavyweight championship against James “Buster” Douglas in 1990. Like Rousey, Tyson was both a seemingly invincible champion and a superstar; Douglas was a little-known journeyman and a 42-to-1 underdog. And when the one-sided battle was stopped in round ten with Tyson teetering on his feet, his mouthpiece hanging from his lips like a half-eaten pastry, millions could barely believe what they had just witnessed.

But Tyson vs Douglas is far from the only great upset which informed fight fans can cite when reflecting on last night’s shocker. In fact, Ronda Rousey reminds this writer less of Tyson and more of George Foreman. Like Rousey, the early 70’s version of Big George had demolished one adversary after another with frightening ease and appeared unstoppable. Before his title match with Muhammad Ali in 1974, he had knocked out eight straight opponents in either the first or second round. Few gave Ali a serious chance of surviving much longer, let alone winning. But in the end, skill, experience and tenacity put an end to Foreman’s image as an invincible destroyer.

Tyson-Douglas 1
Tyson falls to Douglas.

Or how about when a young Joe Louis ran into Max Schmeling and was dominated and stopped by the supposedly washed up former champion? Or when James J. Braddock, a certified has-been as far as the sportswriters were concerned, gave Max Baer a boxing lesson? Or when Frankie Randall shocked Julio Cesar Chavez? Or when Bernard Hopkins stopped Felix Trinidad? Or when Gene Tunney schooled Jack Dempsey?

In every case, the public and the pundits vastly underestimated the abilities of a skilled and experienced fighter, while overestimating the seemingly indomitable force of nature, the destroyer who all viewed as unconquerable.

Underdog Max Schmeling exults as Joe Louis is counted out.

And in every case, the public was not just shocked, but also thrilled and excited. Because, let’s admit it, when the giant falls to the little guy who refuses to be intimidated, it puts a smile on our face. It reassures us and makes our own struggles and battles easier to confront. Long odds can be overcome. Experts can be wrong. The impossible dream may still be possible. And this gives us hope.

Hardcore Ronda Rousey fans are feeling down today, but no one need feel too sorry for her. After all, she was out to do the same to Holm. And her time at the top has made her famous and put copious amounts of cash in her bank account.

But more to the point, no one, no matter how impressive they may appear, is truly invincible or unstoppable. When a fighter assumes the stature of a young Mike Tyson, or Joe Louis, or Ronda Rousey, they are a giant ready to fall. And few things in combat sports are more exciting than when they are made to topple.      — Robert Portis



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