LOS ANGELES — Of all the things women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey has accomplished during her short time in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, tonight’s event might represent her most implausible achievement.
The Olympic judo bronze medalist has advanced the women’s division to the point that not only is the megastar headlining a pay-per-view event with a title defense against Cat Zingano, but a women’s bout also will fill the co-headlining spot on the card.
Rousey was single-handedly responsible for the addition of female fighters to the UFC, something UFC president Dana White once famously said would never happen.
Her immense skill, combined with Hollywood good looks and a gift of gab that made her enormously marketable, forced White’s hand.
But Rousey’s surging popularity, along with an injury that wiped out the original main event for UFC 184 at Staples Center, has enabled the women’s bantamweight division to reach a level in which it is essentially on its own in carrying a pay-per-view card.
“I think it really means the women are a force to be reckoned with in this sport and they don’t need anybody’s help to sell. They sell themselves,” Rousey said. “I really think this card is going to do extremely well because women don’t just bring a lot of fans, they bring a lot of new fans. A lot of people that aren’t MMA diehards that have been around the sport forever. There’s so many people that buy PPV’s for women’s fights and come to women’s fights and it’s their first time doing so.
“We’ve expanded the fan base as a whole, and I think it’s great for the entire sport.”
Rousey called Zingano her toughest opponent to date, but she might find a future challenge in the other featured female fight on the card.
Former boxing champion Holly Holm makes her UFC debut against Raquel Pennington. Holm is undefeated in MMA, with only one of her seven fights going the distance.
She said she’s excited that her first fight in the organization will take place on a card she called “historic.”
“I’m very blessed to be a part of this event. It’s huge,” Holm said. “Even in big boxing shows when the women’s division was at its high you wouldn’t have a main and a co-main with female fights. This is history. I think that’s why it’s so interesting for people and why there’s a lot of buzz about it.
“I really appreciate the groundwork (Rousey has) laid, and I think anybody in this sport should recognize and appreciate that.”
Rousey will have an eye on that fight as she prepares to close the show against Zingano. She has said the division needs to be more than just her, and the emergence of worthy challengers can only strengthen it.
“All the attention brought to them helps me, and all the attention brought to me helps them,” said Rousey, who has done her part to build up her competitors. “The women being the co-main on this card is so people get to know these girls. Hopefully one of those girls puts on an amazing performance, and then when they fight for the title later, they’ll have more attention.
“I try to speak as highly as possible about all of them. Yeah, there’s some girls I don’t like. But who do I ever not talk about how great they are as athletes? I always try to promote that these are amazing athletes that work very hard and extremely skilled.
“Yeah, I’m the best of all of them. But they deserve respect, too.”
The undefeated Zingano is next up in trying to earn Rousey’s respect in the cage. It marks just the third time in UFC history in which two undefeated fighters will meet for a belt.
While Zingano thinks she will be the one to finally defeat Rousey, she was quick to point out her appreciation for all she has done for women in the sport.
“I’m proud of her, and I’m proud to be a part of this,” Zingano said. “I think she’s great, she’s talented, and she’s paved the way for us to get here. I’m not looking to make friends with her right now, but I have to say I’m proud of all she’s done for us.”
Now, Zingano is ready to star in the show.
“Women’s MMA has come a really long way,” she said. “People look forward to us fighting, and they get excited. You can have a fight card full of male fights, but yet when that women’s fight comes on, that’s what people watch. They’re super excited by it. I think that UFC was smart with the choice that they’re making, and all of us girls are going to go out there and do what we do and prove why we’re out there. It’ll be exciting.”
Whether she can beat Rousey is a different proposition. Rousey, as usual, is a huge favorite.
Zingano insists she will be the one to throw a wrench in the division, but Rousey has a way to thwart even the best-laid plans.
“There’s no right answer against me. There isn’t,” Rousey said. “Even if you do the right thing, I’ll find a way to make it wrong. I can’t really explain it because I don’t plan things ahead. I improvise as I go, and I solve from one second to another.”
While Rousey acknowledges pride in how far she has helped the women’s division grow, she won’t call it a peak.
“No,” she said. “We still have nowhere to go but up.”
The female fights headline a pay-per-view broadcast set to air live at 7 p.m. The four-fight preliminary card will air live on Fox Sports 1 (Cable 329) at 5. The first two bouts on the card will stream live on the UFC’s online platform, Fight Pass, at 4.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at email@example.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.