The best athletes graft, strive and hone their skills in order to reach the top of their sport.
Ronda Rousey has had to do all this – and generate and grow a sport around herself at the same time. Five years ago, she was a judo athlete who had won World Championship silver and Olympic bronze medals (remarkable success for a US judoka) embarking on a career in mixed martial arts. Nobody knew who she was. Nobody gave a shit about her sport.
Want proof? Dana White, president of by far the biggest organisation in MMA – the Ultimate Fighting Championship – looked down a TV camera in 2011, after being asked when we would see women fight in the UFC, and replied: “Never.” Today, Rousey is easily the most famous crossover star the UFC has, its most dominant champion and – by most recent estimates – its biggest current pay-per-view draw. Some turnaround.
So, was creating a niche for herself in the sporting world actually a tougher challenge for the 28-year-old Rousey than any fight she has gone through in the octagon?
“Not the toughest, but it required the most creativity,” she says in a warm southern California drawl. “I really had to look at: what is the difference between men’s and women’s MMA? Because there were great women’s MMA fighters, but no one cared about their fights. Then I started paying attention to the fact that the guys’ fights have storylines. They had protagonists and antagonists, power battles and arguments. That would sell the fight.
“I figured out that I have to somehow make a fight between me and someone become personal to people sitting on the couch. It’s not about making everybody like you. It’s not about being Miss America. Everybody was trying to be Batman [the hero], but there were no Jokers. And The Joker is the most interesting character in the story! If you think about it: the protagonist does nothing until the antagonist shows up and forces there to be a story. But everybody was so scared of criticism that no one wanted to assume that role. And, after being booed in about 30 countries [as part of the US judo team], it was not too hard to take on that role. I didn’t really care.
“The way that I associated success was: if I walk into a fight to booing, then I walk out and everyone is smiling, I did a good job. Or, if I walk in and they’re booing and I walk out and they’re booing even louder, I did a fantastic job.
“Then I was thinking that there’s advantages to being a woman, because there are even more things that you can do to get attention. Everyone is always like: ‘Are things so bad that you have to play up the looks side of things in order to get more attention for your sport?’ I’m like: ‘No – I just think it’s awesome that I even have the option to play up the looks side, so I can get more attention for my sport.’ A lot of the dudes don’t even have that option!
“Now I’m at the point where I don’t have to, which is cool. But, y’know, I really feel like I’ve found my nitch [sic] and I like it.”
Let’s rewind. Before she learned how to sell a fight, Rousey had to learn how to fight. Or at least, how to hit. “Learning striking,” she says when asked about the biggest challenge she faced when going from judo to MMA.
“A lot of people would look at my training and say: ‘Oh, you’re gonna forget your judo – all you do is strike, all the time.’ I’m like: ‘Forget my judo?! That’d be like forgetting how to walk because I’ve been sitting in bed for a week.’ A mistake a lot of people in MMA make when they come from another sport is they really specialise. I wanted to throw myself entirely into everything that made me uncomfortable. I wanted to fall in love with everything that I was bad at, until I was the best at it.”
Rousey wasn’t the complete package back in 2012 – but an opportunity came along in March of that year that propelled her career upwards. She was fighting for MMA organisation Strikeforce when a bout was arranged between her and the company’s highest-profile female fighter, 135lb champion Miesha Tate.
Social media spats, heated radio interviews and fiery head-to-head meetings stoked their feud. Their headline fight was a major success: both commercially and, for Rousey, professionally. She won via her now trademark armbar submission four minutes and 27 seconds into the first round (pictured below).
“She’s a rock star, man,” assessed Dana White, presumably struggling to talk through mouthfuls of humble pie. After just one further Strikeforce fight, Rousey became the first female fighter signed to the UFC in November 2012. The company created a woman’s bantamweight division and world title, purely so that Rousey could come and defend it against the world’s best. To give White his due, he has no qualms now in openly accepting that he was wrong about women in the UFC.
But for Rousey, as an up-and-coming fighter in 2011, was it not disheartening to hear MMA’s most powerful mover and shaker say that female fighters would never appear in his company?
“I felt like he was entitled to think that, because he didn’t have the information in front of him to make an accurate assessment,” she says. “He saw one women’s MMA fight years ago; it was a really lopsided mismatch and it really soured his view of it. I always thought that he’s a very smart, rational businessman – and he only thinks that women’s MMA isn’t viable because he hasn’t met me yet. And, lo and behold, when I was able to meet him, his mind started to change.”
Rousey and White have forged a close working dynamic – although neither could have foreseen how rapidly her unbeaten run in the octagon has seen her cross over into the mainstream fame. She’s modelled; hit Hollywood, with acting roles in Expendables 3, Entourage and the seventh film of the Fast & Furious series; and built up millions of followers on Twitter and Instagram. She’s also had an autobiography (My Fight, Your Fight) published, which charts her life story.
Whether it’s her childhood undergoing speech therapy, the loss of her father at the age of eight, her bulimia while struggling to make weight in her early judo days, or her let’s say ‘colourful’ dating history, it’s an engagingly candid read. But then, Rousey isn’t shy about opening up.
Rousey vs Hogan
“Yep, that’s right. I slept with Hulk Hogan.” An image to conjure with, but Rousey is referring to the Hulk Hogan Wrestling Buddy: a two-foot pillow version of the Hulkster from which a three-year-old Ronda was inseparable. She appeared at WrestleMania 31 in March 2015, an event that also featured Hogan. So, having slept with him, did she finally get to talk to him?
“I still haven’t met him!” she says, sounding exasperated. “I saw him walk out at WrestleMania – and I flipped out! I lost my mind. I knew that I was about to be a part of the show later, but nobody else knew [Rousey made a ‘surprise’ entrance from the crowd]. So I didn’t get to meet him.”
Rousey’s brief team-up with The Rock produced a huge pop from the 70,000+ audience. “I enjoyed it way too much to never go back – I just don’t know how soon that is.” she says of her future WWE plans. “Scheduling is the number one challenge in my life.
“Also, it’s funny. Everyone thinks of Dana as this big hard-ass, but he treats me like I’m a porcelain doll. He’s so worried about everything I do all the time. I sent him a video of me by an explosion in Expendables 3 and he’s like: ‘Oh my God! Why did you do that?’ Relax – it’s fake! He just worries that I’ll get hurt or injured, whereas I’m crazy enough where I’m like: I wanna skydive, I wanna bungee- jump, I wanna wrestle...”
There is, however, a more serious health threat that Rousey is continually vocal about: the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs.
“I’ve fought plenty of people who were doping – if you think every single Olympic athlete is clean, you’re crazy,” she says. “And I was just taught that: you need to be able to be so good, that you can beat anyone despite the advantages they have that they haven’t earned. But that being said, I still think taking steroids in a combat sport is criminal.
“Because in boxing, six people die a year, I think, on average – and in MMA we haven’t had it happen yet. But if people will keep taking steroids, the danger gets higher and higher. And one day, if anybody ever dies in that cage, it could be because the other person was taking steroids. That’s brutal. You could almost call it negligent homicide, because someone took a weapon into that cage and they have hurt you with something that legally they weren’t supposed to. I just really hope that never happens. It would be so bad for sport – and I really believe that everyone who competes with honour will suffer for it.”
She might be happy to play the pre-fight antagonist, but Rousey lists only two occasions when an MMA bout has become truly personal to her:
“The second time around with Miesha [their 2013 rematch] became like that – and this time with Bethe Correia [above] is definitely like that.”
You might assume that Rousey is simply promoting her next fight against the undefeated Brazilian. But Correia’s pre-fight trash talk, alluding to driving Rousey to the point of suicide, has struck a nerve. Rousey’s father, who she recalls in her book with great affection, suffered a horrific back injury when she was young. After years of living with chronic pain, knowing the condition was gradually killing him, he took his own life.
How does Rousey respond to comments like the ones from Correia? “I use them as motivation,” she replies. “I made my statement: I sent it out on Twitter so that no one would have to ask me about it – and the way I respond to it is I beat the shit out of her on August 1st. In front of my family. Who will think it’s hilarious.”
Rousey’s bold pre-fight statements are designed, in part, to heap expectation upon her own shoulders. “I need that pressure,” she says. “A lot of people speak in a way that they are giving themselves a way out, so they have something to fall back on. They say: ‘I’m just gonna try my best,’ so if they lose they just say: ‘Oh well, I tried my best.’ I don’t want that. I wanna paint myself into a corner. I want the only option to be that I win.”
Slice of reality
Rousey shrugs off suggestions that her outside-of-the-octagon activities are a distraction to that goal: “I was working up to three jobs – bartending and more, while training full time for first my year in MMA. It’s not that I have more work now; I just have different, more glamorous work.”
She also claims that her career and profile taking off outside of sport has intensified her focus on MMA.
“Because it’s the most real thing in my life,” she explains. “I mean, you can fight somebody in a movie or [get] a picture of yourself looking pretty – but nothing is ever going to be as real and as present as ultimate fighting to me. Even doing crazy stunts or really high-level wrestling – they’re awesome, but nothing is as real as a fight. And I think that’s what helps me to retain my sanity, despite all of the chaos going on around me.”
Rousey describes the feeling of winning as euphoric. “Every title fight, right afterwards, I feel like I just fell in love with everybody in the room. Even if they’re booing me! You feel like you just fell head over heels for 18,000 people all at once. That buzz doesn’t last forever, but that one little moment, it defines me. I walk on sunshine for, like, a week afterwards. I float. And I don’t know how I’ll be able to accept it when it gets to the point where I have to get on with my life and not be chasing that high.”
It’s a pertinent point. Rousey is at her athletic peak at age 28, but prize fighters in particular often struggle to adapt to life when their bodies are no longer capable of doing the thing that’s defined them for so long. Is the fact that Rousey can go on chasing that buzz only for so long something she tries not to dwell on?
“I actually think about that so much,” she says. “That’s why I do all the acting and the stuff outside MMA – so that I have some other quest to go on afterwards. I don’t think anything will ever beat fighting, but I won’t be back bartending again.”
It seems unlikely. But, even if she did, that’s probably not a bar you’d want to start any trouble in.
My Fight, Your Fight (Official UK Edition) by Ronda Rousey, published by Century, £14.99