“I'm an Olympic caliber athlete and she's a high school wrestler." - Ronda Rousey
Honestly, what can be said about Ronda Rousey that hasn’t already been said by her in any one of the million articles written about presumably the new face of women’s MMA in the past two months? For good or for bad, everyone wants a piece of her and she is ready to boldly answer every call, question, doubt or potential Strikeforce title fight that is offered. As each day draws closer to this near mythical showdown with current champion Miesha “Takedown” Tate on Saturday, regardless of all of Rousey’s talk, people are still as befuddled as ever about why she’s so brash, where she came from, when did judo become this devastating, and how is it even possible for someone who has spent less than two minutes inside a Strikeforce cage to win one of their most coveted belts?
Although, “Rowdy” has been shouting this from the rooftops since Day One, it has not sunk in yet: Rousey is an Olympic athlete. Twice! At 17 years old, she was the youngest judo player at the 2004 Games in Athens, and four years later represented the USA again in Beijing, China. If that wasn’t enough, Rousey actually won a bronze at the 2008 Games, making her the first American to ever medal in women’s judo. Before all of that, she had been wreaking havoc at top international judo competitions dating as far back as 2001. For Rousey, it is crystal clear tgat being an elite level judoka for the past decade has prepared her more than enough to tangle with the 12-2 bantamweight champ Tate.
“I'm an Olympic caliber athlete and she's a high school wrestler,” states Rousey. “To assume that that cancels each other out, it's wrong. To say she has a few more years experience of fighting MMA and has fought 10 more girls during that period of time, meanwhile I was fighting hundreds and hundreds of matches against Olympic caliber opponents. The girls I was competing with, it was their full-time job to train every single day, and their government was putting money into flying them around the world for training camps at the best facilities possible and to have the best coaching possible. It was professional. For her to beat a couple girls who train at a gym on the weekends and decided to pick up MMA and then having these long drawn out fights with them, she's had a hard time with them. It's not like she's dominating them. For her to think that experience is equal is ignorant.”
The 25-year old, alliteratively named, Californian with Venezuelan roots, movie star looks, athletic genetics, and a penchant for breaking people’s arms sounds as much like a Stan Lee comic book heroine as the number one contender for the women’s 135 pound division’s belt. To say Rousey is an alluring character is as much an understatement as saying her rise to prominence in MMA last year was meteoric. In her first and only four professional fights, Rousey has debuted in a sport new to her, took it by storm, has gained wild popularity, and is actually the betting odds’ favorite to defeat the champion, Tate, who will be defending her title for the first time since winning the belt last July from Marloes Coenen via arm-triangle choke. Galvanizing this much widespread support in such a short time is almost unheard of.
“It is surprising,” admits Rousey. “Most people don't realize in my judo career, I was an American fighting internationally and you don't realize how unpopular you are until you start traveling the world. I got booed and was cheered against in almost every single major tournament in my life. Even when I was in the US, I wasn't getting cheered on that much. I kind of always thought that I was going to be labeled as the ‘bad guy’, but to have so many people in my corner supporting me is really encouraging and I feel more motivated than ever. All throughout judo, I felt like I had a chip on my shoulder and I had all these people to prove wrong. I still have people to prove wrong, but it is really encouraging to have people who believe in me as well.”
From the very beginning, Rousey and her myriad of highly regarded coaches believed she was capable of such dominance in women’s MMA, but there was someone very special she had to convince first: her mother. “When I first decided to commit myself 100% to MMA, I was talking to my manager, my conditioning coach, and my wrestling coach, and I told them we have to sit down with my mom because she really doesn't like me doing this and we need to get her on board and have her support and that was before my first pro fight,” tells Rousey of her 1984 World Judo Championship winning mom, Dr. Ann Maria Rousey DeMars, who wouldn’t send her daughter to judo tournaments unless she thought she was prepared to win them. “I remember my coach telling my mom, ‘this girl is something different, she is something special, and we think a year after she turns pro she is going to win the world championship title.’ They believed that in me since the very beginning and I believed that in me since the very beginning and I needed to believe that.”
With everyone on board, the S.S. Rousey set sail into the dangerous waters of women’s mixed martial arts in search of more athletic glory, but, most of all, a financially viable career. In plainer terms, “Rowdy” needed money and fast. After years of competing against the best in the world in front of thousands of riotous fans from Brazil to France, Rousey’s bank account was next to nothing and she was in desperate need for an immediate future where she could showcase her abilities with tangible rewards at the end of it.
“At the time, I was working three jobs: graveyard shift at 24 hour fitness, physical therapy on dogs, teaching judo,” remembers Rousey. “I was trying to train full-time, the air-conditioning was broken in my car and only one window worked, I was living in a one bedroom apartment I was sharing with a friend of mine, I had a huge dog, everything was broken all the time, we had no water pressure, we were living off pretty much bomb shelter food, we had to use coins to pay rent, and I could barely feed my dog. People are like ‘why is she pushing for all this so hard?’ I had to push to get all of this as soon as possible! Do you think I wanted to waste my time waiting another two and a half years winning some fights so that everyone will think that I'm 'worthy of my talents'? I am worthy of my talents! I need to win and I need to do this quick because I'm tired of living with the cockroaches and eating frozen vegetables!”
This is when the 4th dan black belt in judo’s story becomes even more ridiculous, as she beat a war path to Tate’s Strikeforce title. In her first pro bout last March, “Rowdy” won by armbar in 25 seconds. In her second scrap three months later, “Rowdy” won by armbar, again, in 49 seconds, which is, currently, Rousey’s longest professional fight. On August 12th, Rousey made her Strikeforce debut with, shockingly enough, an armbar submission at 25 seconds into the opening round against Sarah D’Alelio. A minor controversy stemming from the win over D’Alelio was that she claimed her shout of pain was not a verbal tap. That left an indelible impression on Rousey entering her fourth fight in November, which was unfortunate for Julia Budd (who had her arm broken in 39 seconds) and any of Rousey’s future opponents.
“I felt like I really had to validate myself because with Sarah D'Alelio I thought I had done the coolest flying armbar that everyone had ever seen in women's MMA and she really stained that for me,” says Rousey. “I tried to save that poor girl's arm from snapping to pieces and she said she didn't tap. I felt so angry that that fight got cheapened that I really had to prove a point and validate myself with Julia Budd and I did exactly that. I went in there with the idea that I had to dominate and make it as one-sided as possible. I literally wasn't going to stop cranking on her arm for anything. If anything, I'm even more motivated for this fight. A lot of people are saying, ‘don't you think you've talked yourself into a corner and are under a lot of pressure from everything you said?’ I want to feel like I'm put into a corner, I want to feel like there is no other option, and I don't want to have an exit strategy if I lose. I don't want to entertain the possibility that I could lose. I’m motivated and I'm very positive it is going to be one of the best performances of my career.”
In the hotly anticipated main event this Saturday, Rousey will challenge Tate, and while much of the focus of this tussle is on the newcomer Rousey, Tate has earned her place at the top of the mountain, riding a four fight win streak inside of the Strikeforce cage. Tate’s most inspiring victory was her last, with a fourth round arm-triangle choke over vaunted submission artist Coenen. In her own right, Tate is an accomplished amateur wrestler and submission grappler, but Rousey is unilaterally unimpressed with the champion’s physical abilities.
“I think her advantages are she doesn't get frustrated when she gets hit and she has good conditioning,” discloses Rousey. “Even when she is behind she keeps a cool head. You can tell she has experience in that she doesn't panic. Her disadvantages are that she's extremely slow, she's not very explosive with any of her takedowns, her striking has a lot to be desired, and her submission game isn't exciting either. I don't think she has any real finishing power that I have to worry about. The main theme of this fight is about positioning on the ground and making sure I don't get stuck in side-control or the mount and making it look like she's controlling the action. I don't have to worry about any submissions or knockouts or TKOs from her; I have to worry about her trying to eek out a decision victory.”
To prepare for the throwdown with “Takedown”, Rousey has decided to continue to work with the same disturbingly decorated cast of coaches that helped her get thus far. For her standup, Rousey trains at the Glendale Fighting Club with fellow pro fighters like UFC vet Manny Gamburyan. For her ground game, Rousey has Rickson Gracie BJJ black belt Henry Akins at Dynamix MMA, judo icon Gene LeBell, and multiple international wrestling champion Leo Frincu, who also doubles as Rousey’s strength and conditioning coach. With this type of quality coaching, plus Rousey’s storied athletic history, it’s mystifying that there are plenty of critics, including Tate, that question what the challenger will do if the fight goes 60 seconds.
“I think that's a huge advantage actually,” explains Rousey. “They have no video of me and if I'm completely dominating everyone within a minute I think the only way they can convince themselves that they have a chance is that outside of the minute I'm useless. It's kind of funny to me that they think after a minute I'm going to spontaneously combust. Them thinking that after a minute I'm useless is just a horrible strategy for them. I am an Olympic athlete. Before I did judo I was a swimmer and conditioning was always my biggest asset in judo. I'm happy for people to doubt me because that's what helps create debate about this fight. It makes people want to see each one of my fights to see what happens after a minute. I'm not mad people are doubting me, but they'll be surprised.”
As mentioned time and time again, Rousey is entering the Strikeforce cage to win 10 pounds of gold, but, whether she accomplishes that or not, what she has done already is a valuable lesson. “If you put in the time and the energy, and believe in yourself, then you are capable of everything and I want to be able to inspire people with that,” reveals Rousey, who talked and fought her way to a title shot with less than a year’s worth of professional experience and, clearly, has a promising career ahead of her. “I want people to see that you should set high goals for yourself even if it is scary, and it is scary to put yourself on the line. I've been talking a whole lot about it, I'm putting my pride on the line, I'm putting my safety on the line, but what I want people to learn is that being courageous pays off some times.”
On March 3rd at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, all eyes will be fixed on the clash for the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight championship between Tate and Rousey. “This girl, Miesha, is going to trip out when she sees me at weigh-ins,” adds Rousey, who has been training for this fight just as hard as she has been selling it from the very beginning. “I have no injuries, we've been training perfectly, my body is just completely transformed, and I feel lighter, quicker, and more agile. And I'm just cut up! Oh my God, she's going to be scared when she sees me.”
Finally, if all the hype, the title, and the trash talk haven’t gotten fight fans excited enough for this matchup then “Rowdy” has one more thing to add about herself and Tate: “These girls are gorgeous and then they're going to get into unarmed combat - for real.”