This story appears in the May 18, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The first rule of celebrity is that you don't talk about celebrity. Don't mention its existence and, for the love of Yahweh, don't complain. Ronda Jean Rousey knows this. And she knows that it's especially so when the status change is sudden. You're a few years removed from living in the rented room you found on Craigslist? Stopping for a few selfies when you walk your dog, Mochi, around Venice Beach doesn't feel like such an imposition. It seems like yesterday that you feasted on 99-cent cans of corn drowning in sauce you may or may not have lifted from Chipotle? You're fine smiling at appearances until your jaw aches or signing autographs until your carpals require icing.
Rousey neither wants nor asks for your sympathy. But she does lodge one slight gripe. Her fame is such that she can't go on Tinder. She tried an alter ego—Brynn Campbell—but that didn't work. Her friends, male and female, have only to download the dating app, swipe a few times and ... action, or at least the potential for it. Rousey, 28, is left on the sideline, at home with Mochi. "S---," she says, "the only person I'm making out with is my dog."
Which goes to show, there are drawbacks to being the world's most dominant athlete in your sport. Otherwise, these are flush times for Rousey LLC. The UFC's women's bantamweight champion is cleaning out her division Tyson-style, her fights less competitions than exercises in performance art. Her last venture into the Octagon lasted all of 14 seconds, far less time than it takes to play her entrance song, Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation." Rousey felt a new sensation that night, something resembling guilt, as she considered her previously undefeated opponent, Cat Zingano, who had trained so hard only to be humiliated with such brevity. Then she watched a replay. "I'm dropping all modesty here," says Rousey. "That's the most brilliant f------ ninja shit I ever saw. Every single millisecond of that fight was something that has never been done before in MMA."
When you've won your last three fights in a total of 96 seconds, free time is abundant. And Rousey makes the most of it. She takes a deep breath before ticking off her schedule over the past few weeks. She was in Brazil promoting her next UFC fight. Back in L.A., she promoted Furious 7—she had a scene-stealing role—and dealt with endorsements ranging from Metro PCS to Reebok. She was in New York, lobbying the state legislature in Albany to end its holdout as the lone state not to sanction mixed martial arts. She went to South by Southwest in Austin and then to the Bay Area for a cameo at Wrestlemania 31. Oh, and there was the jaunt that Rousey—whose trainer, Edmond Tarverdyan, is of Armenian descent—made to Armenia to mark the 100-year anniversary of the genocide.
In fact, forget for a moment about the mix of power, speed, technique and poise Rousey brings to bear when she competes. Her real gift might be managing her time and, in turn, her fame. The tattoo on the inside of her right foot reads EVERY SECOND, and she applies it to more than her fighting. Celebrity is like alcohol: Some handle it better than others, and Rousey's tolerance is heroic. She avails herself of the trappings of fame—the financial fruits and, also, what she calls "just the cool s---"—without it exacting a price in her day job as an athlete. She is everywhere; but she is also present and punctual, engaged in the moment. She has mastered that balance between being a superwoman and an everywoman, a champion but also a champion of the people.
Granted, he's not a man given to understatement, but UFC president Dana White proclaims, "She's the greatest athlete I've ever worked with. By far. Her personal life and professional life are as put together as anyone's. She'll do the work of 20 male fighters. She'll bury anyone. When guys turn stuff down, she's like, 'You p------, give it to me.' When you talk about a franchise player—anything we need, she's there for us." According to commission records, Rousey earned $130,000 for her last fight, a bargain for the UFC considering that she has become one of their top pay-per-view draws. Even allowing for the cars she's received as gifts from White, her UFC contract is dwarfed by her income outside the Octagon.
Gather round, and Rousey will share her secret. "What I realized is once you become socially unhealthy, it's impossible to stay psychologically healthy," she says. "[Celebrities] get surrounded by people that benefit off of them in some way. Every single person that they see in the day either gains financial stability, status, something from that person. And so the people around you reflect reality back to you.... I'm very lucky in that I'm surrounded by plenty of people that will not hesitate for one second to tell me to go f--- myself if I said something stupid. Or if I have an idea that's nuts, they'll tell me, 'That's a crazy idea,' and I'll have to have a debate with them and be able to justify myself."
Then she gestures around the Glendale Fighting Club, her voice thickening with emotion. "The gym calls me on my bull----. There's no acting here. There's no celebrity here. There's no show here. There's no image here. That's why fighting is the one thing that really centers me. I think one of the most pure things in the world is that there's no yes man that can yes your way into a win or yes your way out of getting your ass kicked. And it's so real that you can't forget reality in that setting."
On the day she explains this, Jon Jones—the only other UFC fighter who comes close to rivaling Rousey's star wattage—turned himself in to Albuquerque police for his alleged role in a hit-and-run accident, three months after failing a drug test for cocaine.