Women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey battles No. 1 contender Cat Zingano at UFC 184 on Saturday, February 28th, live from the STAPLES Center in Los Angeles. Check out the full fight card and the rest of the details here!
Ronda Rousey came home from the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games the proud bearer of a bronze medal in judo and, at age 21, no freaking idea what the hell she was going to do with the rest of her life.
She spent months flailing around aimlessly, working odd jobs like tending bar, resisting her mother’s pleas to
give college a chance. Maybe, she finally thought, becoming a Coast Guard rescue swimmer wouldn’t be a bad career.
But Rousey, a young woman with a wide rebellious streak, wanted to try something unconventional first -- become a
mixed martial artist. Never mind that idea of female fighters still was a novel idea not entirely embraced by the MMA community, and that no woman was getting rich inside the cage. Still, she was determined. Just give me one year, Rousey said to her mother.
> Read: Cat Zingano, A Fighter in Every Since, Embracing Every Moment
“I told her that going into MMA was the stupidest idea that she ever had come up with, and that was really saying something because she already had plenty of dumb ideas in her life,” recalled her mother, AnnMaria De Mars. “I just couldn’t see a future in it.”
Rousey created one.
Now, at age 28, it’s no exaggeration to say that Rousey has done more than anyone to transform how mainstream
society views women and combat sports. As the brash, ever-defiant bantamweight champion prepares to headline UFC 184, Rousey (10-0) unquestionably has the most celebrity wattage in MMA today.
Not merely content with proving that women do in fact belong in the Octagon, Rousey has punched and armbarred her way into pop culture consciousness. She made her big screen debut in “The Expendables 3” last year and is following up with a one-two combination in the coming weeks with roles in “Furious 7” and “Entourage.” This month she appeared in the iconic Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue -- purposely posing at her natural weight of 150 pounds to show women that beauty doesn’t have to come in unhealthy, rail-thin packages.
Rousey, who never is at a loss for words, even has a memoir coming out in the spring.
She successfully has blended her sweet, girl-next-door looks with the hardshell veneer of a very mean girl with a chip on her shoulder. The result is a powerhouse brand where even people who don’t follow MMA still know all about that badass chick with the nickname Rowdy.
“Actually, Ronda always has been a sweetheart,” said her coach, Edmond Tarverdyan. He has lowered his voice, almost conspiratorially, as if it is a secret that he doesn’t want to spread too far. “None of what’s been happening has changed her one bit because she’s got such a good heart,” he added.
And in a quiet moment, Rousey will admit that she never saw any of this crazy fame stuff coming. It all just sort of happened.
“I imagined something, but not like this,” said Rousey, sitting on the edge of the boxing ring at her home gym, the Glendale Fighting Club. “But I had the attitude that even if there wasn’t something there, you could still find a way to build it and then achieve it. People like to call me arrogant or cocky or say that I think too much of myself. But I’ve worked so hard to reach this point. And I think it’s audacious for anyone to believe that I should think less of myself.”
Oh, and just in case you were wondering if she has been spending too much time on the red carpet and not enough in the gym, here’s the short answer: No.
Edmond Tarverdyan, her coach, said this has been Rousey’s most grueling training camp yet as she prepares for undefeated No. 1 contender Cat Zingano. After fighting her first four UFC bouts “pretty much with one leg,” Rousey professes herself as completely healthy after minor knee surgery. And she is laser-focused on Zingano, whom Rousey genuine respects and calls the biggest challenge she has faced in MMA.
“The only reason Hollywood is even interested in me is because of fighting,” Rousey said. “I have to protect that. I know how people are going to remember me -- and that’s as a fighter.”
You might think that she was born as this supremely confident woman who is unafraid to speak her mind, whether it’s about the need to crack down on performance-enhancing drug users or the importance of projecting good body-image messages to young girls.
You also would be wrong. Nothing has ever come easy for Rousey.
In fact, doctors told her parents that she was born with mild brain damage -- the result of being deprived of oxygen when the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck at birth. That was merely the first of many challenges that Rousey would, well, fight though.
“Self-esteem comes from having achieved a difficult path,” said De Mars, who was the first American to ever win a judo world championship and now runs an educational game company. “Ronda has had to get past difficult tasks in life. She’s done it over and over and over again.”
At age 3, Rousey still couldn’t speak coherently. The family relocated from Southern California to North Dakota after De Mars completed her doctorate degree in educational psychology so Rousey could receive specialized speech therapy at Minot State University.
“We just never knew if she would ever be able to speak normally,” De Mars said. “It wasn’t until kindergarten that her speech was even close to average. We were just ecstatic the first time she was able to perform a line in a school play.”
While Rousey would eventually become her mother’s daughter -- sharing a love of judo and telling it like it is -- she originally was a daddy’s little girl. Her father, Ron, would take her to swim lessons, telling her that she would be an Olympic champion someday.
But he wouldn’t get to actually see her reach the Games. After suffering a severe back injury after a freak sledding accident, he suffered from worsening health complications. He didn’t want his family to watch his slow decline and, when Rousey was just 8, he took his own life.
Three years later, back in California, Rousey took up mom’s sport -- and was a natural. At age 17, she was the youngest judo competitor at the 2004 Olympics. The dark side of that meteoric rise was the beginning of a battle with the eating disorder bulimia, which was a product of the self-conscious teenager constantly having to cut weight. At the next Olympics, competing at a higher weight class, she became the first American woman to ever medal in the sport.
When she returned home, though, Rousey discovered that having “Olympic Judo Medalist” on your resume didn’t open doors.
“There’s no job placement for Olympic athletes,” Rousey said. “There’s just a handshake and then you’re told, ‘Good luck.’ So I was just bartending and trying to convince myself to be happy with that. I tried to drink enough to convince myself that would be true. But about a year passed and I wasn’t happy with where I was in life. I wanted to do more.”
“The only reason Hollywood is even interested in me is because of fighting. I have to protect that. I know how people are going to remember me -- and that’s as a fighter.”
--Rousey, on the lure of Hollywood
For the record, Tarverdyan initially agreed with Rousey’s mother about the lunacy of a woman fighting in MMA. When she began showing up at the Glendale gym, he had zero interest in training her despite Rousey’s Olympic pedigree.
He became just another in a long line of people for the determined Rousey to prove wrong.
“I couldn’t understand why she wanted to do MMA,” Tarverdyan said. “I didn’t think she was being very intelligent. I
didn’t even know her last name. She was trying to get my attention to work with her, but I was busy with my fighters. I didn’t even want to go to her first amateur fight. They called me literally that day and said, ‘Please, come support her. She really wants to work with you.’ But after that first fight, I changed my thoughts.”
Tarverdyan got an early glimpse into what everyone else now knows about Rousey. She is a rare combination of sheer athleticism and drive. She quickly mastered the striking skills that set up her trademark armbars where she forces opponents to yield by bending their elbows in anatomically incorrect positions. (Rousey has won eight of her 10 fights by such torturous submissions.)
Simply put, Rousey made MMA fans pay attention to her. She earned a Strikeforce title. Then she became, in 2012, the first woman to sign with UFC. Through it all, she has been utterly dominant. Only once has she been stretched beyond the first round. Her most recent fight, at UFC 175 last July against Alexis Davis, lasted just 16 seconds.
And it probably was inevitable that Hollywood also would notice her telegenic looks and charismatic personality.
“Star power can come in many different forms,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for Rentrak, which closely follows box office numbers. “Athletes already have a brand that they can parlay into a movie persona. Look at what The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) did from pro wrestling. Or go back even farther to Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
Ah-nold, of course, was one of the many legendary action stars that Rousey got to watch closely on the set for “The Expendables 3.” But perhaps a better comparison is Gina Carano, the trailblazing MMA fighter who is carving out a growing acting niche. Carano’s career appears ready to break out as she was just cast in a Marvel movie.
It’s not hard to envision Rousey traveling a similar path.
“Maybe they’re not in roles that are going to make them Oscar-nominated actors, but they both certainly bring a lot to the table in action films,” Dergarabedian added. “Ronda and Gina both are beautiful, so there’s a sexiness quotient. They not only look the part of movie star, but they also kick ass when necessary. It’s compelling. It’s authentic. And they bring an audience with them. Ronda has a built-in fan base because she’s a known personality. She brings a buzz with her to the big screen.”
“I know that I’m making his job difficult for (Dana White). But I’m just doing my job, which is to just knock people out as efficiently and quickly as possible.
--Rousey, on dominating her competition
For now, Rousey can’t even tell you the release date for her two upcoming movies.
She’s only thinking about Zingano.
“When she’s in training camp, we’re very strict about the other things in her life,” Tarverdyan said. “We don’t talk about movies in here. I trust her, but I don’t trust other influences trying to pull her mind away from the task at hand. So we keep the directors, actors, producers out of the gym. This is real here. And here is where we work.”
UFC President Dana White created a mild stir this month when he quipped that Rousey is “gonna have to start fighting men if she walks through Cat Zingano.”
During a recent, day-long series of interviews, Rousey fielded question after question about the comment.
“Obviously Dana was joking,” she said. “You never want to see a man hit a woman on television. I know that I’m making his job difficult for him. But I’m just doing my job, which is to just knock people out as efficiently and quickly as possible. I’m more interested in making my mom happy than making Dana’s job easy.”
But if this long-awaited showdown with Zingano turns out to be no different than all of her other fights, it is fair to wonder if Rousey will be on the verge of cleaning out all of her competition.
Rousey won’t allow those kinds of thoughts into her head. Instead, she gushes about Zingano’s complete MMA arsenal, her physical toughness and her absolute unwillingness to accept losing. Zingano, she added, can’t be intimidated. That’s why she hasn’t even tried.
Make no mistake, Rousey has no doubts that she will win. But it’s clear that she is thirsting to be pushed to the limit.
“I need competition like Cat,” Rousey said. “I can’t do this by myself. I need a partner to dance with.”
So, yes, Rousey has learned from her post-Olympic experience -- always have a plan. That’s why she’s hoping the acting thing really takes off. After all, MMA fighters have a short shelf-life. When she does leave the Octagon, she intends to do it on her own terms, and undefeated.
In the meantime, she’s got a championship belt to defend.
“If you had asked me a few years ago what I’d be doing, I wouldn’t have had a clue, Rousey said. “I still don’t know what the future holds. But I do know that whenever I set out to do things that people say are impossible, first they ask me why I do it. Then after I accomplish it, they ask me how I did it.”
Late last year, De Mars confessed something to her headstrong daughter.
“I told her, ‘Ronda, I was wrong about MMA,’” De Mars said.
Even mom had to admit that it’s a mistake to doubt Ronda Rousey.