The last image of Ronda Rousey inside the Octagon is a hazy one. Stunned and confused after suffering her first loss – a knockout at the hands of Holly Holm at UFC 193 in November 2015 – Rousey lost her title and her unblemished record all with one big left kick.
It’s almost as if the MMA world has been in a malaise ever since.
“I got clipped in the first exchange and was knocked out on my feet,” Rousey told Ellen Degeneres in February. “I had no perception. I almost felt like I couldn’t see. I could see but I couldn’t tell how far my hand was from my face or how far she was from me. I was swinging blindly. I knew she was out there but I really don’t remember most of it.”
The UFC bantamweight division without Rousey seemed incomplete.
Now, all the pieces are back together following the announcement that Rousey is returning, hoping to regain her championship when she faces current title holder Amanda Nunes at UFC 207 in Las Vegas on Dec. 30.
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Looking back on Rousey’s reign -- a three-year domination and demolition of the women’s 135-pound division – her mark on the sport is even more impressive considering what’s taken place since her loss to Holm. There have been three champions in that span, and not one has been able to retain the strap even once.
Rousey defended six times before she lost her coveted gold belt. There’s no doubt – Rousey is the most dominant woman to ever step foot in the Octagon.
And she’s back.
Waiting for Rousey could be the toughest challenge she’s faced in the UFC. Nunes showcased her destructive striking when she annihilated Miesha Tate at UFC 200, finishing the woman who choked out Holm, who knocked out Rousey.
The big knock against Nunes has been her perceived inability to last later into fights. Against Cat Zingano in 2014, Nunes was close to a finish in the first round before Zingano was able to change the momentum of the fight and use her wrestling to eventually earn a TKO of her own in the third round.
Nunes’ ground game is elite level. She is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who trains at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida. She plies her train daily with the best in the world and, should Rousey choose to take this fight to the ground with arguably the best judo in the UFC today, she’ll have to deal with a force on the canvas.
"I've been training jiu-jitsu since I started. Jiu-jitsu and judo both together,” Nunes said at a July Q&A session. “I know how to block very well judo throws, I know how to use my hips very well. I know if Ronda Rousey is coming back, I'm going to keep the championship.”
Stopping judo throws is one thing. Stopping Rousey judo throws is a whole other matter.
Rousey’s stand-up was exposed against Holm – a former multiple-time professional boxing world champion. Since then, Rousey’s camp has admitted that she probably approached the fight in the wrong way. She was eager and tried to aggressively push forward toward Holm, a superb counter striker, with length and powerful leg kicks.
Against Nunes, she’ll face a fighter who should be the aggressor. The champion has big power and likes to stalk her opponents, bringing the power shots early and often. That could play right into Rousey’s hands.
But once the fight hits the mat, if it goes there, that is when the real chess match will begin.
This matchup brings intrigue and marks the return of one of the greatest UFC superstars in the history of the sport.
“Everyone has their moment of picking themselves off the floor. Maybe I just had to be that example of picking myself up off the floor for everyone. Maybe that’s what I’m meant for,” Rousey said. “I really do believe that I’m still undefeated because being defeated is a choice. Everybody has losses in their life but I always choose to be undefeated.”
Matt Parrino is a digital producer and writer for UFC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MattParrinoUFC