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Rousey eyes Strikeforce titles as she tries to build on breakout year

Strikeforce women's contender Ronda Rousey became one of the breakout fighters of 2011 by speaking up, and she won't stop talking until she gets a title shot.

Rousey, a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in judo, took MMA by storm, winning four fights all in under a minute, some of them in brutal fashion. Her last fight, against Julia Budd ended in cringe-worthy fashion with her opponent's elbow dislocated.

But her fights, totaling only 138 seconds of professional cage time, are just one part of Rousey's campaign to elevate both herself and the women's divisions of the sport in 2012.

Following her win over Budd in November, the 24-year-old Rousey promptly announced her plans to drop down to the 135-pound division to challenge Strikeforce champion Miesha Tate, then made the media rounds to gain fan support for it. The concerted verbal legwork appears to have paid off.

"It looks pretty for sure that it's going to happen," said Rousey. "I can't say for sure when and where until I actually sign the contract, which we haven't yet."

Of any fighter, it's fitting that Rousey knows the value of making her voice be heard -- she couldn't put together coherent sentences until the age of six.

Rousey was born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck; her body was blue and she wasn't breathing. She was revived in the delivery room, but when her communicative skills quickly fell behind the norm, the doctors thought she'd suffered brain damage or that she might be deaf.

When she began to talk, Rousey's words were jumbled and she was sent to speech therapy classes. Frustration was a daily occurrence, as nobody could understand her.

Rousey's father saw the potential bubbling beneath his daughter's stifled communication, though. He often called Ronda a "sleeper," and told her that she'd show everybody someday. Rousey's speech gradually improved.

Rousey would lose her greatest supporter not long after she found her voice. She watched her father break his back after crashing into a snow-covered log at the bottom of a hill on a family sledding trip. He was later diagnosed with Bernard-Soulier syndrome, a rare blood disorder that made a full recovery from his back injuries impossible. When doctors told him he'd be paralyzed and would die within two years, Rousey's father committed suicide in 1995 rather than have his family watch him deteriorate. Rousey was only eight years old.

"He said he didn't want our last memories of him laying in a hospital bed with tubes coming out of him," said Rousey. "He was a proud man, a provider. He didn't want to drain the family anymore."

Rousey's mother, who had been the first American -- man or woman - to win a world championship in judo in 1984, became her pillar. Rousey's mother worked three jobs to support her three daughters and create a "family of empowered women," despite many doubters, said Rousey.

At age 11, the youngest Rousey daughter began practicing judo with Gokor Chivichyan, a world-recognized judo competitor and instructor who had been a teammate of Rousey's mother at the Tenri dojo in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Like her mother, Rousey was a natural.

In 2003, Rousey tore her ACL in training, but managed to come back the next year, climbing from unranked status to No. 1 seed in her division in only three months. At age 17, Rousey became the youngest judo player at the 2004 Olympic Games. She returned to the 2008 Olympics and became the first American to medal in women's judo since its inception in 2002.

What followed was a period of uncertainty. Rousey supported herself with bartending while others encouraged her to continue training and competing in Japan. But Rousey wanted something more.

When it came time to choose between joining the U.S. Coast Guard (Rousey wanted to be a rescuer) or pursuing a mixed martial arts career, Rousey took the latter option. She began working with wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu coaches at the Glendale Fight Club in 2009 and walked into UFC heavyweight striker Antoni Hardonk's Dynamix MMA gym in November 2010. Hardonk offered her a job teaching judo and began to supplement the training Rousey received from her Glendale striking coach, Edmond Taverdyan. Rousey made her pro debut in March 2011.

Rousey's entry into women's MMA comes at an uncertain time for the female divisions of the sport. After UFC parent company Zuffa purchased Strikeforce last March, it was unclear what would happen to the rival promotion, which had distinguished itself as the highest platform for female MMA fighters, with bouts aired on Showtime. (The UFC won't promote women's fights.) In December, Zuffa and Showtime jointly announced six to eight events in 2012, which averages out to 24 to 32 fights airing live on the premium cable channel for the year. Rousey firmly believes that some of those slots should go to the women.

"I think every single [Strikeforce] event should have women's fights," said Rousey. "I don't see why there shouldn't be. If I hadn't seen girls fighting on TV, I wouldn't have known it was a possibility for me."

The visibility of the women fighters in 2012 will be key, said Rousey. If not for the launch of The Ultimate Fighter in 2005, there wouldn't be the droves of younger male athletes pursuing MMA today. And with the departure of the monstrously popular Gina Carano into acting and a shortage of compelling female fighters on the top rung, continued television exposure for the women could be a make-or-break situation.

With so much at stake, Rousey's 2011 campaign toward notoriety was far from arbitrary. Before joining the media dance, she deferred to her older sister, Maria Burns-Ortiz, who is the social media columnist for ESPN.com and a sports contributor for Fox News Latino.

"She told me to stop thanking God or anything you hear all the time," said Rousey. "She told me people don't want to hear that. They want to hear something new and interesting and something writable, not that you love your mom and Jesus."

Rousey has gone beyond interesting. She's called out both of Strikeforce's women's champions and has vowed to become the first female fighter to hold titles in two divisions.

She has an unwavering confidence that some find cocky. Others say she's inspiring. But no one has called her disingenuous. With a strong foundation as a world-class athlete, Rousey's a fierce competitor in the cage and is proving to be a fearless provocateur outside of it. While many female fighters are too concerned with being impolite or stepping out of line, fans are responding to Rousey's tougher exterior and her directness in going after what she wants.

"I have to make waves for women's MMA," she said. "If you don't make any waves, how is anyone else going to know you're in the water?"

When told she's been cited as a breakthrough fighter for 2011 and one to watch in 2012, she accepts that title just as she would a judo medal.

"I think that's entirely accurate because I went from working all these jobs and struggling to get by to sitting front row at the UFC and [UFC president] Dana White coming up to me and giving me a kiss and a hug," Rousey said. "If that doesn't constitute breaking through, I don't know what does."

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