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WWE's Ronda Rousey experiment continues to pay off

Commentary: Rousey didn't win a championship at Sunday's Money In The Bank pay-per-view, but she continues to win over WWE fans.


WWE is in a strange spot. For the first time, its biggest mainstream star is a woman.

Ronda Rousey is that woman. At Sunday night's Money In The Bank pay-per-view on the WWE Network, she wrestled Nia Jax for the Women's Championship in what was the most heavily promoted match on the show.

It didn't go on last, but it was in essence the main event. Only her second televised singles bout, the match was more important to WWE's long-term programming than anything else on the show.

Rousey needed to look and feel like a star, and the odds were against her. The storyline behind the match was lackluster, and there was concern the two inexperienced performers wouldn't work well together. Despite all this, Rousey blew away expectations. Again.


Pressure spot 

Rousey's match on Sunday really could have been a trainwreck.

First is the obvious performative perils. Rousey's first match, a mixed-tag bout at WrestleMania, was a huge success, but she had the luxury of being in the ring with Kurt Angle and Triple H. The two illustrious performers, with a combined 46 years of experience between them, could ensure the train was kept on rails.

Conversely, her match at Money In The Bank was a singles bout against Nia Jax. She had no tag-team partner to share the workload with, and Jax only has three years of experience. The worry was that the match would expose Rousey's own inexperience, which would greatly damage her aura and star power.

Here's the great triumph of the night: Their match was good. There were no obvious mistakes, and Rousey, who's much smaller than Jax, came across as a formidable, believable star wrestler. The match was good, but she was awesome.

Then there was the creative aspect. Typically in pro wrestling, the money is in the chase. The idea is to build up a babyface (protagonist) over the course of months, or even years, to the point where the fans are clamouring to see them clash against the biggest heel (antagonist) around. Usually, this happens at a marquee event, like WrestleMania or SummerSlam.

WWE put itself in a difficult position when they made this match. Announced seemingly out of nowhere and with no long-term storyline, it felt too early to put the title on Rousey. But at the same time, Rousey's appeal could be greatly damaged if she was to lose in only her second match. After all, you wouldn't have Avengers: Infinity War if Iron Man lost his second battle back in 2008.

WWE's solution wasn't ideal. Earlier in the night, Alexa Bliss won a Money In The Bank ladder match, giving her the privilege of a championship shot any time she wants. As Rousey was about to lock in in her famed armbar, out comes Bliss, who attacks Rousey from behind. That means Rousey wins by disqualification, but does not become champion. Then Bliss attacks Jax, cashes in and becomes champion.

Con: It's an out-there pro wrestling ending that was sure to not win the company any new fans -- at a time when a gaggle of prospective new fans were watching thanks to Rousey.

Pro: This begins Rousey's real chase for the title, with her playing the badass fighter and Bliss the opportunistic villain.


Women's evolution

Now that the table has been set for Bliss and Rousey, it's important that WWE build this match into something that feels like a big deal.

Rousey signed a multiyear contract back in January, a huge coup for the company. WWE was in the process of renegotiating its TV contracts, and Rousey, one of the biggest UFC stars ever, was a huge bargaining chip.

"The timing of her signing a multi-year deal at the same time [WWE] were negotiating a five-year deal couldn't have been better," the Wrestling Observer's Dave Meltzer said to CNET via email. "She gave the company sports credibility... her value was significant."   

She was a small-but-key part of WWE making two huge TV deals: The USA Network will pay $360 million a year for Raw, while Fox will pay $1.06 billion for SmackDown over five years, according to the Hollywood Reporter. That Fox spot was formerly reserved for the UFC, which now moves to ESPN.

Not only is Rousey bigger in pop culture than the rest of the roster, with the possible exception of John Cena, she's also a woman.

WWE prides itself on being forward-thinking and progressive when it comes to women in sports and entertainment, and in the last three years has made strides in presenting its female talent as athletes rather than eye candy, as they had been treated since the mid '90s.

It's no coincidence that WWE finally awoke to this progressivism in 2015, around the time Rousey was becoming one of the biggest names in sports.

Rousey's success, which continued with her star-building performance at Money In The Bank, is key to WWE's bottom dollar, but more importantly, to women's wrestling. It takes two to tango: The bigger star she becomes, the more pressure on WWE to make stars to wrestle against her.

A few more big showings, and suddenly women main eventing WrestleMania becomes a strong possibility. That would have been a pipe dream years ago, but Rousey, just like in UFC, looks on course to overachieve her way into history. 

Update, 4:56 p.m. PT: Adds comment from Dave Meltzer.

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