UFC Women’s Bantamweight champion “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey is undefeated in the Octagon. Now the former Olympic judo bronze medalist is tackling a new challenge: serving as a role model for strong women whose muscular bodies don’t fit the stereotypes of female beauty. With her powerful physique, Rousey will never be mistaken for an X-ray thin fashion model. But her world-class fighting skills, California blonde good looks and Bad Girl persona have made her a superstar and one of the hot crossover female athletes of the moment in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue.
The first female fighter signed by the all-male UFC wants to be seen as both a sex symbol—and as the baddest women on the planet. She’s redefining what Yahoo! Beauty calls “the new body ideal.”
“I’m comfortable with my sexuality. I needed good sexual role models when I was a teenager—that I felt I didn’t really have,” said Rousey. “I was given a really unhealthy and unrealistic expectation of what I, as a woman, should look like. I want to be healthy example of what could be desirable.”
It’s working. Yahoo!’s Bobbi Brown, founder of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics and a New York Times best-selling author, described Rousey as “the new face of beauty” earlier this month.
Still, the 5-7, 135-pound champ of today looks noticeably leaner than the 154-pound Rousey who whose bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games was the first Olympic medal ever in judo for a U.S. woman. Or the 145-pound Rousey who first entered MMA.
How did Rousey (who lives with three female fighter roommates and her dog, Mochi, in Venice Beach, Calif.) pull it off?
The Queen of Combat Sports trains at least twice day with her team at Glendale Fighting Club, says her nutrition coach, Mike Dolce.
She’s working to improve her striking, particularly her left hook and overhand right. She also swims, runs hills/stairs and surfs.
But the biggest change has been in her diet. When Rousey first hired Dolce in November 2013, she was limiting herself to a single 800-calorie meal (eaten at night) to try to lose weight.
The rest of the day she subsisted on black coffee, water and blueberries. The result? Rousey had low energy. Cuts and bruises took too long to heal. She was constantly in a foul mood.
Dolce said: “She was undernourished. She wasn’t eating nearly enough food—or getting the proper nutrition. So her body was actually breaking down her muscle tissue.”
The author of The Dolce Diet flipped Rousey’s plan. Now, she eats six to eight small meals a day, consuming about 3,200 calories. She’s leaner, lighter and stronger in the gym.
“We’ve been able to add lean muscle mass—while dropping her overall body weight in the process. You can see by the photos.”
Rousey has earned her “Mean Girl” rep, curtly dismissing rival Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos as a “cheater” due to Santos' earlier suspension for steroid use. (Santos maintains she is clean.) Yet Rousey herself has privately struggled with eating disorders and self-confidence issues.
It’s no exaggeration to say she was born fighting. At birth, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, cutting off oxygen to her brain. She didn’t speak in sentences until age six.
Growing up in North Dakota, she was a competitive swimmer. But her life changed forever when her father Ron Rousey broke his back in a sledding accident. Faced with life in a wheelchair, he committed suicide. Ronda was eight years old.
A few years later, the young Rousey dropped swimming and began studying judo under her mother AnnMaria De Mars, a world-class judoka who won gold at the 1984 world championships. (Mom taught her the devastating arm bar she uses to submit most opponents.)
A teenage Olympian, Rousey eventually rose all the way to the medal stand in Beijing. But behind the scenes, she fought bulimia as she struggled to make weight. With little money, she drifted from town to town. Finally, she retired from judo and joined the MMA circuit in 2010.
Fast-forward four years. Rousey’s now a triple threat in sports, entertainment and advertising.
After knocking out Alex Davis in just 16 seconds at UFC 175, she ran her record to a perfect 10-0-0. UFC president Dana White (who once vowed never to promote female fighters) raves about her as “the biggest star we’ve ever had.”
The UFC’s launch of a women's division is one of Rousey’s proudest accomplishments: “Before I started women’s MMA, I was broke and working three jobs. I worked every single angle that I possibly could to get more attention to women’s fights. Now it’s gotten to a point where people love the fights.”
In Hollywood, the budding action star just co-starred in The Expendables 3 with Sylvester Stallone. She has supporting roles in two new flicks next year: Fast & Furious 7 and Entourage.
Move over Milla Jovovich. Rousey’s agent Brad Slater of William Morris Endeavor helped transform WWE wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson into action movie star. The duo think she can be a female “Rock.”
They’re developing a film with Warner Bros. called The Athena Project, in which Rousey would lead a team of female counter-terrorism agents, according to The Wall Street Journal.
But forget about any more reality TV. Rousey’s still ticked at how she was portrayed as the villain on The Ultimate Fighter 17. The UFC thought it would be good for her career. Instead, it captured Rousey at her trash-talking worst as she feuded with Miesha Tate and her coaches.
When Rousey submitted Tate for the second time at UFC 168 (she dislocated Tate’s elbow in their first match when the ex-Strikeforce champ wouldn’t tap out) she refused to shake Tate’s hand. The Las Vegas crowd booed her.
The big worry for the UFC? Whether their new superstar will follow her idol and fellow women’s MMA pioneer Gina Carano into acting/modeling and give up fighting. No wonder White recently rewarded Rousey with what she calls her “dream car": a BMW X6 in an M sports package.
With her beauty and brawn, Rousey’s drawing interest on Madison Avenue, where endorsements typically flow to elegant tennis players such as Maria Sharapova. (Seven of the Top 10 highest-paid female athletes for 2014 are tennis stars, according to Forbes.)
After signing endorsement deals with XYIENCE and MetroPCS, Rousey is poised to be the face of the UFC’s first official outfitting deal, says Mike Mossholder, senior vice president of global marketing partnerships at the UFC.
Mossholder won’t comment on possible contenders, such as Nike or Under Armour. But whatever company pays to put its logo on the UFC’s 300-plus fighters will want Rousey for its ad campaign, he says.
The veteran sports marketer compares her to another game-changer who shook up a male sport: NASCAR driver Danica Patrick.
“What Danica was when she came on board, Ronda could be that—times two,” Mossholder says.
Can Rousey be the next great female athletic endorser?
“She already is,” says XYIENCE president John Lennon, who saw a 12% sales increase after he put her image on cans. “She has a real star quality.”
Rousey is cautious about endorsements because she wants to be committed to her partners. The one sponsor she wants? Try Ray-Ban sunglasses. Why? Because she loses them all the time and they’re “expensive.”
“That’s pretty much the only sponsorship I think I would freak out over,” she says.
In the meantime, some more immediate news has Rousey fired up: Carano may come out of retirement to challenge the champ in a big-money fight. Bring her on, says Rousey: “It would be a real honor to fight her.”
Carano left a huge void when she left for Hollywood. When Rousey attends a card 20 years from now, she hopes women fighters will still be in the Octagon.
“I want women’s MMA to be able to survive me. I don’t want to worry about leaving a vacuum when I’m gone.”