Not so long ago, the UFC’s women’s bantamweight division was structured like a religion — there was the almighty Ronda Rousey, and all of Her creations. When she fought Liz Carmouche at UFC 157 in what was her debut and first title defense, Carmouche was in the unenviable position of trying to wreak havoc on creation itself. If she beat Rousey, the reason there was women’s MMA in the UFC, she would in effect deliver a blow to the rest of her kind. Poor Liz Carmouche was being reduced to base form of nihilism.

Things aren’t quite that drastic three years later. Now that Rousey has disappeared to other forms of entertainment (and apparently an introspective deep dive), it’s become a bit of a free-for-all. Holly Holm, who beat Rousey at UFC 193, has already coughed up the title to Rousey’s nemesis Miesha Tate. And as of UFC 200, Tate had her nose bashed in by Amanda Nunes, who now — just nine months after Rousey ruled — finds herself as the queenpin of the division. Should the UFC book Juliana Pena against Nunes next, maybe the belt changes hands yet again. Or if Valentina Shevchenko can get by Holm later this month, same thing.

All that turnover at the top speaks to the parity of the division, or at least it should. Yet it’s a long way from that first thing everyone was convinced of, which was that it was Rousey and everyone else. And it’s a title that loses some of its purple aura each time it changes hands. When Rousey had it, it was Good Morning America and magazine covers and Beyoncé. When Holm had it it was Good Morning America and movie scripts and the Albuquerque Journal. When Tate had the belt it was Good Morning America and magazine covers and morning radio. Don’t expect Nunes to get the call from Saturday Night Live, or even GMA. Not after that belt has become polygamous.

The truth is, the women’s bantamweight belt still has Rousey’s fingerprints all over it, and that remains part of the bigger allure. It may not be the case for diehards who saw Holm dismantle her body and soul out in Melbourne, but for the great slumbering public mind, Rousey is still the identity of the division. It remains, in a roundabout way, Rousey’s world. She’s the original star, and the gravity behind the station. If (and when) she comes back, Rousey won’t have to wait in line, nor play by ordinary rules. She will be ushered straight to the front for a title shot. Should she win the belt from any of the rotating cast of new titleholders, it will feel as though she had merely leased out that belt to keep the division’s britches up while she played in Hollywood.

It won’t be until Rousey loses again that the division moves on with any kind of definition. Rousey lost to Holm in a devastating way, but she did something that every fighter after her so far hasn’t — she defended that title. Not once, but six times. She’s the order of a division gone wild. She looms over every title fight, even as she’s a million spiritual miles away. When Holm defended against Tate, it was a risk to Holm because she lost the rematch. When Tate defended against Nunes, it was a risk to Tate because she lost the rematch with Holm, who parlays back to Rousey. Nunes has no tie to Rousey. We’ve finally gotten three steps removed.

Yet even still, the thought of how Pena or Shevchenko might pair up with Nunes doesn’t contain even an ounce of magic. Should Holm beat Shevchenko in Chicago, Holm versus Nunes might. Why? Because Holm is where Rousey’s heart is. Holm is the route back to Rousey. Even Cris “Cyborg” Justino’s name has gotten a little listless in Rousey’s absence. People like to talk about how “Cyborg” would smash Rousey, which is really just another way of saying Rousey might be temporarily gone from the sport, but she’s nowhere near gone from the conversation.

In fact, she still dominates it. And everything that’s been going on since she left is nothing but a crumb trail back to that conversation.

 
 
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