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This isn’t usually what I do, because at first glance, I’m writing a news story here, at least based on the headline. But that’s not exactly accurate. We don’t know with certainty on December 20, 2017 that UFC and MMA superstar Ronda Rousey is going to debut next month, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, we “know” it’s going to happen.
On January 28, 2018, WWE’s second (or third) biggest event of the year takes place as the Royal Rumble emanates from Philadelphia. The show features the 30 man Rumble Match, the biggest trademarked bout of each calendar year. The winner gets a Championship match at WrestleMania in New Orleans on April 8. But, this year, the card will boast TWO Rumble matches, which isn’t much of a surprise in the wake of five new women called up from WWE’s NXT brand, plus the arrival of Asuka to the main roster.
The worst kept non-secret of the winter is that Rousey has been in Florida training at WWE’s Performance Center, which I toured and wrote about three years ago. A longtime pro wrestling fan, it was a natural fit, and dating back to WrestleMania 31 in 2014, the McMahon family has coveted her. Actually, they’ve wanted her for far longer than that. She worked a small, well-executed segment on that show in Santa Clara, California with The Rock and Stephanie McMahon, leaping over the railing from her very handy front row seat to get involved.
The “Four Horsewomen” of NXT, namely Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Bayley, have all been called up to the main roster, with three achieving success and the fourth, Bayley, being a victim of horrendous booking the likes of which we haven’t seen in WWE in quite some time. Rousey is part of the original “Four Horsewomen,” the name given to Ronda and three close friends, Marina Shafir, Jessamyn Duke, and Shayna Baszler.
“The Queen of Spades,” Baszler is about to debut on regular NXT television, as her mystery vignettes have already begun airing, and though she’s still somewhat raw, she showed several flashes during the Mae Young Classic, this fall’s inaugural women’s tournament, which aired exclusively on the WWE Network. Here’s a still from the vignette that aired on NXT television last week.
In late September (to the viewing public), Rousey’s Horsewomen responded to a confrontation with the WWE’s version that took place during the tournament. Charlotte, Becky, and Bayley appeared to mock the fighters across the way during the July tapings, which would air in the fall. Following the angle, Rousey, Duke, and Shafir shot an interview segment talking of their excitement and pride in Baszler’s future, and the WWE women arrived to make things awkward. Long ballyhooed, it was obvious WWE was set to pull the trigger on SOMETHING involving these ladies, but in the end, this is about Ronda Rousey.
On Monday night’s RAW broadcast, Stephanie McMahon made the “monumental” announcement of the first ever Women’s Royal Rumble match, which would be an over-the-top rope battle royal with the winner receiving the same reward as the men’s victor, a World Championship match at the biggest event of the year. The timing is right for this, as WWE has tried to assert its progressive nature utilizing a “Women’s Revolution” tag line.
I would balk at the company’s belief in its new generation of women, at least respective to an alteration in paradigm. Within the last three months, WWE has built a feud around one woman being “old” and another being young and attractive. The old maid? 38-year old Mickie James, who in addition to being drop dead gorgeous, also happens to be two years younger than AJ Styles and John Cena (40), the same age as Samoa Joe (38), one year older than Randy Orton and Shinsuke Nakamura (37), and just two years older than Finn Balor (36).
Not surprisingly, WWE has never done an old man story line with any of those competitors, sans Cena, but even that has been included in his “part timer” status.
Past the rudimentary and seemingly backward angles, WWE has also proven to be inept at booking more than one women’s angle per show with any semblance of meat. It’s still a market the promotion doesn’t fully understand, even if outwardly the company embraces the level of talent it has today, which, especially in comparison to its past, is substantial. Don’t get me wrong, they’re doing better, but there’s a long way to go before they should be taking any victory laps. At least the “Divas” name is gone and the much maligned “butterfly” title belt is gone, in favor of something respectable that looks similar to the men’s title.
Asuka, the former Kana during her extensive and impressive Japanese career, is a game changer to hardcore pro wrestling fans, because she’s the first woman WWE has had this century with the “dominance” factor. For her entire NXT run, she was undefeated. Once she became NXT Women’s Champion, she of course never relinquished it, only handing it off due to injury before the call up to the RAW brand. She has a Bill Goldberg feel to her, if not Brock Lesnar, as no one has ever toppled her in a WWE branded ring. She’s a much better actual pro wrestler than both of those gentlemen, although Lesnar’s spectacle is one of a kind and Goldberg’s 2016-2017 run was enormously successful and wildly fun to watch.
However, Asuka is not a “star” in the way WWE craves respective to mainstream media attention. Enter Ronda Rousey, a no-doubt sports superstar and celebrity, whose UFC career came to a close when her attention was diverted to Hollywood and once women caught up to her in the Octagon. She destroyed opponents and built up a reputation for being unbeatable, but Holly Holm’s annihilation of her was the beginning of the end. Rousey told Ellen DeGeneres months later that she was despondent and was even nearly suicidal in the wake of that loss, because, though she didn’t say this, she bought into her own hype.
WWE, athletic and entertaining, provides for Ronda what she most desires now, and it’s external of her affinity for sports entertainment and pro wrestling. What she gets alongside a lucrative, favorable contract from Vince McMahon is the possibility of a protected persona. Rousey can come in, leave Vince and Stephanie in particular googly-eyed over her name recognition alone, and be the new Brock Lesnar. She might even be presented as more unstoppable than Lesnar, who is slated to lose to Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 34, barring a change in direction. Considering how much Vince adores Reigns, a shift seems unlikely.
For the first Women’s Royal Rumble to matter outside of pro wrestling circles, there’s no more logical conclusion than for Ronda Rousey not just to compete in it, but to win it. Folks, there is NO doubt in my mind that’s what’s going to happen. I’m not Nostradamus. This is common sense. It’s not even arguable. The only question will be whether WWE announces she’s in the match ahead of time or if she arrives as a surprise on the night of the show. The latter may be more likely, because the “shock” (not a shock) will put WWE all over ESPN, not to mention Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, and possibly even the network morning shows on Monday, January 29.
Nothing interests WWE more than this kind of non-wrestling attention. That Monday night, once Rousey has debuted and won the Rumble, we will see a plethora of national and online headlines placed together in a video overlay as the announce team talks of how the promotion took over all of social and mainstream media after Ronda’s win. Then, WWE easily pivots to the new narrative of Ronda Rousey competing for the WWE Women’s Championship at WrestleMania, which it would push as the biggest thing anyone has ever seen. This is pro wrestling. It’s smart.
The larger question is whether Rousey will be any good at this. We haven’t seen her. We have no idea, and there’s also the curiosity as to how pro wrestlers who haven’t worked with anything like her will react with her in the ring. Chemistry can be everything. Lesnar was a pure athlete who trained and worked for years to prepare for his original WWE run in 2002, competing in untelevised dark matches and working in developmental territories to hone his craft. When he arrived, he was still relatively limited in terms of what he did well. It didn’t matter, because he was physically imposing, had a natural sense of danger to his presence, and was quickly placed with Paul Heyman, known to be one of the great talkers of the past 35 years in the industry.
Rousey can talk, as she’s done numerous interviews through her fighting career, is usually confident and provocative, and she has a similar imposing disposition, though she’s not so massive that it will look the way Brock often does against his victims. She’s training now, she wants to do this, and she needs something to reignite her career and make her happy. But, there will be pushback from hardcore fans that will not care for a part-timer walking in and crushing the day-to-day women that have made this business their life for years. If she’s put with Asuka, that reaction will be far worse, because should Asuka lose to her, it will be viewed by some as a waste. That defeat should go to someone whose future is in WWE, not someone that may or may not be “stopping through” for a while before going deeper into movies.
Right now, we don’t know exactly what Ronda Rousey will do, but I would place money in Las Vegas TODAY that she won’t just be in the Women’s Royal Rumble, she’ll win it, she’ll open RAW the following night in the very same building, and WWE will advertise her as one of the three biggest stars at WrestleMania 34, if not THE biggest. She will bring a new level of interest to women’s competition, which is a good thing, because the current roster of ladies boasts some supremely talented performers that could thrive under the extra spotlight.
Rousey will be good for business, even though some now see her entire UFC career as a farce. It’s an irrelevant argument, as she was at worst arguably the second biggest draw Dana White ever had, with only Conor McGregor above her. You could campaign for others, but from a box office standpoint, the sheer numbers she turned in for fights against women no one either knew or cared about was very Mike Tysonish. The length of those farces was as well. She was a megastar of the highest order. Now she’s set to explode into a business with predetermined outcomes and another nice payday for a limited schedule.
Pretty nice fallback gig, huh? Plus, she won’t get legitimately punched and kicked in the head. And, even if she does, she can still win. She couldn’t take a punch in the Octagon. Here, she may never be booked as anything but a conqueror. It worked for Lesnar. WWE is betting it can work for Rousey, who is a much bigger star mainstream than Brock ever was.
Add to that the possibility of Vince McMahon announcing the XFL, at least by one report, on January 25, and WWE would maximize the massive, important Royal Rumble weekend with two pieces of news that would blow completely past its usual business. Expect Ronda and bet on it. I hope Rousey is great, because it would be such a good thing for the women, as long as they aren’t all lambs to the slaughter to build someone whose long-term future would appear to be in action films, not in the squared circle.
I’m @JMartOutkick. Follow me on the tweets or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.