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Ronda Rousey returns but it’s no easy task to recapture bantamweight belt

UFC Women's Bantamweight Champion Amanda Nunes faces off

UFC Women's Bantamweight Champion Amanda Nunes faces off with Ronda Rousey after UFC 205 Weigh-ins in preparation for their UFC 207 fight that will take place on December 30, 2016 at Madison Square Garden on November 11, 2016 in New York City. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Michael Reaves

When that first guitar riff from Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” envelops the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas for UFC 207, a comeback 412 days in the making will be official as Ronda Rousey makes her walk to the octagon.

Rousey, the former women’s bantamweight champion was last seen sitting on the floor of the octagon in Australia at UFC 193 with her face swollen and bloodied from the fists and feet of Holly Holm. Holm went home with the title that night as Rousey sat in a hospital contemplating, for a brief moment, ending her life. Her title was gone, her aura of invincibility shattered, her world crumbled in less than six minutes.

When Rousey fights against reigning champion Amanda Nunes, will her return, the one social media hashtags indicate we should “fear,” be made complete by Rousey again having that championship belt strapped around her waist? This suspense, of course, is what sells tickets and pay-per-views.

“All the greats throughout history, they’ve all lost,” UFC president Dana White said at a UFC 207 media scrum on Wednesday.

Ali lost, Tyson lost. You go through the list of all the greatest fighters that have ever lived, everybody has a loss. It’s always interesting and exciting to see if they can overcome and come back from a devastating loss like hers was.”

What Rousey, an Olympic bronze medalist in judo, is attempting at UFC 207 is no easy task, regardless of who she is and who she is fighting. In the 23-year history of the UFC, excluding interim titles, only six fighters won back their title in the same weight class they lost it.

  • Randy Couture first won the UFC heavyweight title in 1997, then left the UFC the next month and was stripped of his title. He won it back in 2000, lost it in his next fight, then reclaimed the belt in 2007. Couture also won the UFC light heavyweight title in 2003, lost it to Vitor Belfort four months later, then won it back from him in August 2004.
  • Tim Sylvia first won the heavyweight title in 2003, was stripped of it after testing positive for steroids, then won the title for a second time in 2006.
  • Matt Hughes lost his welterweight title to BJ Penn at UFC 46 in 2004, then became champion again after beating Georges St-Pierre 10 months later.
  • Georges St-Pierre lost his welterweight title to Long Island’s Matt Serra in April 2007, won an interim title against Hughes eight months later, then won the real title back from Serra in April 2008.
  • Cain Velasquez was knocked out by Junior Dos Santos on national television Nov. 11, 2012, then returned 13 months later to beat Dos Santos by unanimous decision to reclaim his heavyweight title.
  • Dominick Cruz was stripped of his bantamweight title in January 2014 after being out more than two years with various injuries. On Jan. 17, 2016, after another 16 months sidelined by injury, Cruz won a split decision over T.J. Dillashaw to be re-crowned champion.
  • A seventh fighter, Jose Aldo, lost his featherweight title to Conor McGregor in December 2015, won the interim title in July 2016, then was promoted to undisputed champion after McGregor was stripped of his featherweight title in November 2016.

So why is it such a difficult task for fighters to re-climb the championship mountain?

“I don’t know,” said Frankie Edgar, who defended his lightweight crown three times before losing the title and then the rematch to Benson Henderson. “It’s hard to get it in the first place.”

Many factors go into matchmaking for title fights. Marketability has become more important in recent years. Can the UFC promote the fighters in a title fight well enough to draw fans into spending their money on tickets and pay-per-view buys? Some title contenders earn their shot based on what they’ve done in the cage, while others can dictate things more so based on how their work in the cage translates financially.

For example, McGregor is an immensely talented fighter. He won the featherweight title in December 2015 then fought three times since — none of which were at featherweight. Those four fights are among the seven largest gates in UFC history. He was allowed to challenge Rafael Dos Anjos last March for his lightweight title, which was scrapped when Dos Anjos was injured in training. In November, McGregor challenged Eddie Alvarez for his lightweight belt and won to become the UFC’s first two-weight champion. (He later was stripped of the featherweight title.)

“I couldn’t even write it up or imagine it because I just don’t really know what’s on going on,” said Edgar, a top featherweight title contender, last month during UFC 205 week in Manhattan. “There’s really no rhyme or reason to who gets title shots lately. I just need to keep winning fights to put myself in the discussion and see what happens, really.”

Fighter health and timing are critical, as well. Just ask Chris Weidman, the former middleweight champion who was forced to pull out of a June 2016 rematch with then champion Luke Rockhold because of a neck injury.

“It was a rematch for the belt,” Weidman said at the time. “I don’t know when I’m going to get that opportunity again. Nothing’s guaranteed.”

Michael Bisping replaced Weidman, knocked out Rockhold, then defended his title against No. 14 ranked Dan Henderson. Weidman lost to Yoel Romero at UFC 205 in Manhattan last month in what was presumed to be a fight to determine the next title shot.

Beyond the physical and financial, there is the mental aspect. MMA is an individual sport. No matter how many instructors they train with, how many sparring partners they work with, all fighters understand the reality when the cage door closes. It’s one person against the other. One person will succeed. One person will fail.

“The internal dialogue can be really quite negative, quite nasty,” said Kristen Dieffenbach, an executive board member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.

Rousey said on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show last February that she had suicidal thoughts the night she lost to Holm.

“You don’t get to that level of athletics without a very high level of drive and some very high self-expectations,” Dieffenbach said. “You want to achieve, you’re driven to achieve. Even if it’s not the medals that you’re after. There has to be an intrinsic motivation that’s performance pride. When you’re in that immediate moment and post-moment of competition when you didn’t achieve, it’s very hard to separate that intrinsic ‘proud of my performance’ from the sting of losing very publicly.”

Rousey’s loss came in front of the largest crowd ever for a UFC event — 56,214 fans at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia.

Rousey has waged a UFC-sanctioned blackout of MMA media since her return was announced. She has appeared on Conan O’Brien’s and Ellen DeGeneres’ talk shows, was the subject of a featured article in ESPN The Magazine and cut various UFC promos. But there was no conference call with Rousey or Nunes, and Rousey was not at any media opportunities this week in Las Vegas.

“Some see going after a second title as a huge challenge, bring it on, can’t wait to prove I can do it twice,” said Dieffenbach, who has never met or worked with Rousey. “For other athletes, it becomes very intimidating, what if I can’t do it again. The anxiety about ‘What if I can’t?’ can become pretty overwhelming. The fact that she’s coming back speaks potentially to some pretty great resiliency as an athlete.”

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