Kyte on UFC: Tate-Zingano critically important

Miesha Tate and Cat Zingano will meet Saturday to decide who will challenge Ronda Rousey next.

Selling Ronda Rousey’s UFC debut was the easy part. Convincing fight fans to get invested in more than just the women’s bantamweight champion is going to be the hard part, and that endeavor begins in earnest on Saturday when Miesha Tate and Cat Zingano square off in Las Vegas.

There is a lot at stake in the second female fight in UFC history, both for the participants and the company.

The fighters are vying for a place opposite Rousey on Season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter, and eventually a showdown with the female face of the UFC franchise.

It will be the first co-ed season of the long-running reality TV competition, with 135-pound fighters from both genders taking part in the show. That twist — and the presence of Rousey — will automatically draw audiences to their televisions once the show airs later this year, giving the winner of this weekend’s contest an instant and impactful bump in recognition.

But there is much more on the line this weekend than a coaching position on The Ultimate Fighter and a future title shot.

This weekend’s contest is the first opportunity the UFC has to show that the women’s bantamweight division is much more than Ronda Rousey and a collection of warm bodies for her to armbar in the future. As much as the champion is always going to be a draw, and her magnetism is strong enough to carry the next season of The Ultimate Fighter solo, it’s imperative that Tate vs. Zingano turns out to be an entertaining and competitive battle or else promoting the women’s division is going to be an even more daunting task going forward.

Let’s just be frank about things: the lighter weight classes have a hard time capturing and sustaining the attention of many fight fans, so it’s highly unlikely that the women’s 135-pound weight class is going to get massive amounts of support right out of the gate.

Like I said off the top, selling Rousey’s fight with Liz Carmouche was relatively easy; the champion is a bona fide superstar and the kind of charismatic personality that media outlets flock to in droves. UFC 157 was an historic event, and big-time firsts always garner strong attention.

I mean, Herschel Walker’s Strikeforce debut was featured on ESPN, and earned “mainstream media” attention. His second fight, not so much.

While Rousey’s fights will always generate interest and considerable coverage, that will wane if the queue of opponents lined up to challenge for her title aren’t viewed as credible opponents, and that is why this weekend’s contest is so important, especially considering that Tate has already fallen to the women’s bantamweight champion in the past.

Personally, I think this weekend’s fight is going to open some eyes and get more people interested in the UFC’s newest division, and there is evidence to support my gut feeling.

Zingano is unbeaten in seven professional bouts, and has earned a finish in all but one of those contests. She wrestled in high school and had aspirations of qualifying for the 2004 Olympics, but came up short. The 30-year-old “Alpha” is a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but isn’t afraid to throw hands either.

Tate is the second-most famous female fighter on the UFC roster, and perhaps the second-best in the division as well. The former Strikeforce champion is coming off a win over Julie Kedzie in a Fight of the Year-worthy contest last August, and only Rousey has been able to get the best of her over the course of her last eight appearances.

They should combine to deliver an action-packed contest on Saturday night, one that hits all the high notes fight fans expect from main card contests in the UFC these days. If they don’t, however, and this bout falls flat, pushing the women’s bantamweight division as a whole — and not just as Rousey and Co. — is going to become even more difficult.

There is a certain level of expectation attached to “No. 1 contender fights” in the UFC, and if this fight fails to hit those marks, selling any fight that doesn’t involve Rousey becomes that much harder.

If Tate and Zingano are supposed to be the next best options in the women’s 135-pound ranks and they get overshadowed by a number of male pairings that don’t carry title ramifications on Saturday night, how do you convince the portion of the audience that is already hesitant to embrace the women’s division that they should invest themselves in the other female fights that are already scheduled for later this year?

Saturday’s contest is akin to the second single from a new band that enjoyed tremendous success with their debut offering. The first track got everyone interested, generated a great deal of buzz, and had plenty of people eagerly anticipating their next offering.

How that song hits with fans is the difference between Chumbawamba and extended periods of quality sales and overall support. (By the way, despite repeatedly proclaiming otherwise, Chumbawamba never did get up again. Ever.)

Rousey’s debut was an unequivocal smash — the UFC equivalent to “Tubthumping” to continue the analogy — but as big as it was, her performance and star power alone isn’t going to be enough to prompt fans to put their full support behind the women’s bantamweight division.

Tate and Zingano have the potential to show fans that there is more than just one fighter worth watching in the female 135-pound ranks, but there is no room for missteps and mulligans.

The UFC needs others to step up and establish themselves as compelling fighters to watch and follow outside of their being tethered to Rousey.

If this weekend’s female competitors can deliver a quality sophomore effort for the UFC’s newest division, it will make establishing the weight class easier going forward. If they can’t, things could get interesting as spring turns into summer.

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