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Fight Scribe Kevin Iole Discusses His Career, Ronda Rousey, and His All-Time Favorite Matches

kevin ioleLAS VEGAS, NV — Kevin Iole covers boxing and MMA for Yahoo. He’s been a professional sportswriter for over three decades, and was recently elected into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame (the induction ceremony is this coming August). We caught up with him before yesterday’s UFC 170 weigh-in, and discussed the origins of his writing career, his favorite fights, and Ronda Rousey’s insanely high marketability:

Congratulations on the Hall of Fame announcement! Can you walk us through how your journalism career landed on that trajectory?

I grew up in Pittsburgh. I worked at the Valley News Dispatch — a Gannett paper — in suburban Pittsburgh while I was in college. I actually did my first year of college at the University of Miami, but I transferred to Pittsburgh — I did a lot of partying in Florida.

So I transferred to Point Park, which had a really good journalism program. I got a job at the paper there, and it was a good job for me because I got to cover a lot of different things — the Penguins, Steelers, Pitt football, high school sports, and some Pirates games. I ended up catching on full-time there after I graduated, and then a year or two later I got a new job at a different Gannett paper in Vermont in about 1982. I was there until about 1990.

Then, I came out to here to work at the Las Vegas Review Journal until I landed at Yahoo in 2007.

Were there any notable boxing writers who were particularly instrumental in mentoring you in your career?

When I got out here, there were a couple of them. Ron Borges, who was at the Boston Globe at the time, was terrific. In my mind, he was the best boxing writer at the time. I got a chance to meet him and become friends with him, and he was really helpful. There was also Michael Katz from the New York Daily News, who went into the boxing Hall of Fame last year. He had great insight at how to look at a fight, how to put together a story, and also how to profile a fighter. Those two were most instrumental on a personal level.

Pat Putnam from Sports Illustrated was another. Pat and I became friends later in his life, and we talked quite a bit. He’s one of the greatest sportswriters who ever lived. Getting a chance to learn from him was incredible.

And, not that I knew him very well, but Jim Murray from the LA Times. I sat next to him at a couple of fights, and I remember the first time I met him. I literally could not talk. I grew up reading him because his column was syndicated all over the country. He was just unbelievable. He was a big influence in my deciding to write in the first place.

Switching gears, Ronda Rousey is about a 4:1 favorite tonight. What would Sara McMann need to do to have any reasonable shot at pulling off the upset?

I think she has to fight like herself, stay relaxed, and fight her normal fight. Wrestling is the best base for MMA. If you are a good wrestler, there’s a good chance that you will be at least a decent MMA fighter. Sara McMann has great wrestling skills. She’s going to be by far the strongest woman that Ronda Rousey has ever fought in MMA, and it’s not even close.

Normally wrestlers don’t worry too much about beating the clinch, but I think that that’s gonna be a danger point for Sara because Ronda’s so good at the clinch and coming out with that arm bar.

UFC 170 - Weigh-In

The other thing is striking. When you think about wrestler versus wrestler, it often becomes a striking match. I think to a certain point you can say Ronda’s throws and Sara’s takedowns are similar, and so as a result we may end up seeing a stand-up fight. From there, Sara hits hard. I don’t think Ronda hits nearly as hard, but her technique has actually really improved from a year ago. It’s one thing to look great sparring with pads, but is it going to be as good when the bell rings, and she has that wrestler in front of her?

If McMann can strike well, I think she could be in a good position.

You wrote a column covering this earlier this week — Ronda Rousey is really on the cusp of becoming a global celebrity. It’s not just the time that filming these movies takes away from training, but all of the byproducts of international fame. Over at Sports on Earth, Tomas Rios compared Rousey to Mike Tyson in the sense that fans watched his early fights to see him demolish an opponent, the identity of whom was almost irrelevant. Could you see a moment where this fame and adulation affects Rousey to the point where she gets tagged like Tyson did by Buster Douglas?

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The Buster Douglas fight wasn’t a random, one-punch occurrence. That was a comprehensive beating. It was a combination of Douglas being at his absolute best on that given night — he was a talented guy, who never really lived up to that — but that particular night he was at the top of his game. And then Tyson just wasn’t mentally there. He took it for granted, he had a lot of turmoil in his life, and didn’t really train and prepare hard enough. The combination of all that did him in.

When I look at Ronda Rousey, of course I think something like that could happen. That is something that you have to worry about. The money’s gonna be big. Dana White told me the other day that she has already made in her first two fights than Brock Lesnar made in his first two. That’s an extraordinary statement, and she might be able to crack the top ten this week in the highest UFC pay all-time, in just her third fight.

Then you add on these movies, which she’s starring in …

Yeah, I mean Fast and the Furious 6 grossed nearly 800 million dollars. And 2/3s of that was from overseas. She’s going to become recognizable literally across the world.

Yep. One of the reasons Floyd Mayweather became a huge star is that after he beat Oscar De La Hoya he did a really smart thing — he went on Dancing With the Stars to market himself to a different audience. Obviously, the boxing people knew him. He had been a great boxer for years. Outside of boxing, though, people didn’t know him. Then he went and did Wrestlemania — he touched different fan bases, and that’s what Ronda’s doing.

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Right now, one of the reasons Ronda’s so hot compared to other fighters — in addition to the fact that she’s so talented — she attracts women to buy her fights. The typical UFC buyer is a 18-34 male. They get together with their buddies — maybe they bring a girlfriend along, but the girlfriend’s typically not the one initiating and organizing watch parties. Now with Ronda, the girlfriend wants to see. There’s women buying the fight in huge numbers, and that makes a big difference.

When you look at her, though, is there the possibility that she could get distracted? I think the answer’s yes. Do I expect that? I don’t. I think she’s so singleminded and full-focused that she’ll be able to compartmentalize the fame, but you can’t discount the possibility that the contrary might happen.

You made a comparison to Floyd Mayweather. They’re both marketed almost as heels. A lot of people will tune into a Mayweather fight just on the hopes that someone, some time is gonna catch him. Do you think, though, that people boo Rousey as a respect for her overall persona, or out of genuine dislike? 

I actually think Ronda was perceived very well before The Ultimate Fighter. That changed things — the fans didn’t like the way she acted towards Miesha Tate. The UFC obviously doesn’t just make things up out of nowhere or anything, but the way they cut all the footage together made Ronda come across as the bad girl and as petulant and snooty.

A lot of people didn’t like her for that, and that manifested itself in the Miesha Tate fight, and they booed her — especially when she wouldn’t shake hands. That really turned her into the bad guy. It’s gonna be interesting to see if that sticks — I think it will to a certain degree, and there will be some people that don’t like her. But I also think that if she wins on Saturday night — even if she’s booed on the entrance — the place will go nuts. It will be deafening. She’s so good that you celebrate her greatness if she wins.

Dana White famously said that there would “never” be a women’s division, and reconsidered that pretty much entirely because of Rousey. What do you think happens if she wins this fight, but then abruptly retires from UFC to become a full-time movie star? What is the contingent scenario for the whole division if that were to happen?

It would be very scary. I think they need to develop the women’s division. Right now, it’s still in its infancy, so if Ronda were to fight tomorrow and then leave, it would be disastrous. There’s nobody else out there that you can put in the headline of a PPV and sell a lot of tickets.

I think you could put non-Rousey women’s matches in the undercard — Miesha Tate would be recognized, but I’m not sure too many of the rest of them would be. That’s going to be a problem. As time goes on, these are really good fighters who are competitive and put on good events, so people will get to know them. But it’s one of those things that Ronda is the vehicle through which they will get known. If she leaves tomorrow, it will relegate women to a niche portion and it’s just gonna be a certain segment of the hardcore fan base that will follow it.

What’s the greatest fight you’ve ever covered, both boxing and MMA?

For boxing, there’s no question about it: Diego Corrales versus Jose Luis Castillo. The fight happened in Mandalay Bay in 2005, and I’ll never forget it as long as I live. Incredible action, incredible drama, an amazing story.

MMA-wise, there’s been so many. I’m drawn to UFC 139 — Dan Henderson versus Shogun Rua. Henderson dominated the first round, and it looked like he was gonna push Shogun around. All of a sudden, Shogun’s coming back and the drama of this back-and-forth was extremely compelling.

There’s been so many more. The other one that I would mention is a long ago fight — UFC 52, Matt Hughes versus Frank Trigg. The reason I bring that one up is that there was such a rivalry between them. Hughes was this close to losing the championship. Trigg inadvertently hit him low, the referee didn’t see it, and so Hughes was hurt and tells Trigg to continue.

Trigg has Hughes just about down and out. Hughes, who was renowned for his superhuman strength, picks Trigg up, carries him across the ring, and executes a vicious slam. When Trigg’s back hit the mat at MGM Grand, you could not hear. The place just erupted.

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