The unbreakable Ronda Rousey is the world's most dominant athlete
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.
To spend a day with Rousey is to hear about underendowed ex-boyfriends and the myth of the brontosaurus—"They mixed up the brachiosaurus and stegosaurus skeletal remains"—and the pros and cons of various depilatory methods. Go to an L.A. dive bar with Rousey, and soon she's behind the bar, preparing her special drink, a concoction of raspberry vodka, lemon vodka, simple syrup and Chambord.
She is no holds barred. Which mirrors her sport. Oh, there are rules in mixed martial arts, but not many, and most relate to gouging eyes or attempting soccer-style kicks to the head of a downed opponent. On a typical card fighters win by all manner of punches, kicks, knees, neck cranks and chokes in varieties that include rear-naked, north-south, triangle and guillotine. (Heads are not actually severed from torsos, but not for lack of trying.)
Yet in this vast universe of violent possibility, Rousey's fights, almost inevitably, end the same way. She'll take an opponent to the ground and apply an armbar, a relic from her days as a judo star. It is her go-to move—Duncan off the glass, Rivera's cutter—that entails using leverage to isolate an opponent's arm and then essentially manipulating the elbow. When an opponent/victim defiantly refuses to "tap" (i.e., surrender), ligaments will begin popping like guitar strings. Rousey has her own imagery: "It's like pulling a drumstick off a Thanksgiving turkey."
It sounds excruciating. It is excruciating. But it's a hell of a rejoinder to any wrongheaded idea that women's MMA is akin to foxy boxing or roller derby or something you'd see under the YouTube search term "catfight." The armbar is all subtlety and strategy and technique, every bit as much "art" as "martial."
And, in deploying the armbar to such devastating effect, Rousey has transformed a sport. As recently as 2012, when she resembled an alterna-band, getting buzz by fighting for minor promotions at minor venues, White was asked repeatedly whether he could envision women in his organization. His face contorted as he shook his head. Women would enter the Octagon only when prancing in heels and micro-bikinis between rounds. "Ah, women are pretty" is how he once put it to me. "Who wants to see them getting all bloody?" To his credit, White eventually reversed his stance, unable to dismiss Rousey's skills and popularity. It's no exaggeration to say that it might be the savviest business decision he ever made. Like a fighter sucking wind after an explosive first round, the UFC has plateaued in recent years.
Rousey, who made her UFC debut in 2013, has given life to a sport in need of reinvigoration. White readily admits that there is no more valuable fighter in the organization. Maybe the best part: the novelty of a fighting female was short-lived. It may have been jarring at first, watching Rousey beat the holy bejesus out of someone. But the conversation soon veered to whom she might fight next and how, in theory, she could be beaten. We got the predictable and primitive yeah-but-how-would-she-fare-against-a-dude? speculation that plods along (brontosaurus style!) when women do well in sports. But in this case, even that was a triumph in its way. In the testosterone-drenched world of cagefighting, whoever thought that the sport's alpha male wouldn't be male at all?
Thanks to Rousey, the diversification of the sport's workforce was afoot. There are now two women's weight classes. One of the most exciting young fighters, Paige VanZant, is, richly, a former ring card girl. And MMA tribalists don't much care. It's about breaking resolve (and bones), not barriers. It's about exposing glass chins, not glass ceilings. "She's the reason [women] are in the UFC," says Julie Kedzie, a former fighter. "But if we're being honest, she's elevated the whole sport."
If the UFC needed Rousey, the reverse is true too. Forget what the written record (or Wikipedia) says. Technically Rousey's first professional fights came when she was 14. She would head to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, find adults who looked desperate and challenge them to fight her for $5. They would go to a nearby park, make sure no cops were around, and Rousey would administer an armbar or a choke. Then she would spend her winnings at Starbucks. "Will fight for Frappuccinos," she says. She tells the story gleefully, but it speaks to a need to compete, to match will and skill in combat.
At 21, she won a bronze medal in judo at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. She came home and quickly realized how little currency that held. "I'd be like, 'I have an Olympic bronze medal,'" she recalls. "The other person would be like, 'Uh, cool. I collect stamps.'" She fell into a mental abyss that could be called Post-Olympic Depression. She recognized it immediately. (The Austrian judoka, Claudia Heill, who had beaten Rousey at the 2004 Games, would kill herself in 2011 by jumping off a building.) Rousey tried to self-medicate by drinking and smoking, "basically tearing down the body I had built up all those years."
She worked a series of low-wage jobs, from handling the graveyard shift at a 24 Hour Fitness to bartending at The Redwood, a pirate-themed tavern in downtown L.A.. (She was known for enlivening slow nights by flipping coworkers over the bar.) "I was so tired," she remembers. "I would go in the bathroom and sit on top of the toilet, set the alarm on my phone to sleep for five minutes." Still, she barely had money to fill up her gas tank.
Anticipating that her daughter's personal fog would lift and Rousey would pursue her love of science—"Go get a Ph.D. in zoology or something"—Rousey's mom, AnnMaria Rousey De Mars, took a job at USC, which included a family tuition discount. De Mars was something other than thrilled when her daughter explained that she'd started working out with a group of Armenian fighters at a gym in Glendale. Structure and muscles were returning in equal measure. She had become seduced by mixed martial arts. "You want to punch people in the face?" Mom said, dumbfounded. "Let the dumb people do that!"
Rousey, though, persisted, manipulating her schedule to make it all work. She had the judo background and then nourished herself on the other disciplines. "There's nothing she doesn't pick up," says Tarverdyan. Beyond the technical skills, Rousey has an ideal mentality for fighting. White recalls walking into Rousey's dressing room shortly before her UFC debut and catching her during her prefight ritual. Which is to say, napping. "One of the reasons why I talk so confidently before every fight isn't out of a lack of humility," she says, "it's out of a need to make it so there's no other way but to prove myself right. 'Dojo fighters' do amazing sparring in the gym, but you put them under pressure and they fold. I'm one of those people where I do well in the gym. But you put me under pressure and I unfold."
This animated self-belief comes with a side order: a paralyzing fear of defeat. "I like snakes and bugs and heights," she says. "But fear of failure? Losing literally feels like dying to me." What if she had won gold, not bronze, at the Olympics? "I would have either been content and moved on with my life and never fought again, or I would have tried to go back to win another gold medal. I never would have gone to MMA. Because I never won that Olympic gold, I have that feeling of always being unsatiated."
Rousey’s forthcoming book is—as you might have guessed—the open variety. She wrote My Fight/Your Fight with her sister, journalist Maria Burns Ortiz, and it's hard to imagine what was deemed too personal to include. She talks about the cheating ex-boyfriend who seduced her when she was a teenager, conferring on him the pseudonym Dick IttyBitty. Another boyfriend struggled with heroin addiction and once stole her car. A more recent love interest—this one gets the nickname Snappers McCreepy—secretly took naked photos of her.
It lays bare a central contradiction to Rousey. She is hardly the kind of woman who needs to be reminded to lean in. She's assertive and smart and discerning. Then it all goes to hell when a guy comes along.
"It's the worst, right?"
How do you explain that, she's asked.
She pauses, sighs and collects herself. "Well, I know I'm a big pushover emotionally. I think that's one of the reasons why I was always so obsessed with being so physically strong. I think it was to try and compensate for me feeling really emotionally weak. I let people treat me badly. I've let people disrespect me. I wouldn't let anyone ever disrespect me in any other area. And I don't know why when matters of the heart are involved, I suddenly value myself less. I'm trying to fix that."
For now, companionship comes from other sources. Rousey's three sisters live nearby. So does Mom. They are reliable fonts of both wisdom and reality checks. Burns Ortiz, 32, is the chief marketing officer of a video game company. Jennifer, 29, is a middle school history teacher. Julia, 17, is a high school student in L.A. "Let's just say Ronda doesn't get a lot of sympathy," says AnnMaria. "Yes, she's running at a fast pace. But there are a lot of people who work really, really hard."
When not in the comfort of the Glendale Fighting Club—"my living room," she calls it—Rousey also hangs out with her Ron-tourage (her pun), a quartet of fighters who call themselves the Four Horsewomen. Rousey, Marina Shafir, Jessamyn Duke and Shayna Baszler travel (and Instagram) in a pack. Duke and Baszler live nearby. Shafir lives with Rousey in her newly purchased house a few blocks from the beach.
Rousey's next fight is on Aug. 1 in Rio. Her opponent is an undefeated Brazilian, Bethe Correia. While Rousey seldom wants for motivation, it's easy to come by this time. Correia has beaten both Duke and Baszler. When Rousey says, "It's gotten personal," it's more than the usual prefight promotion. Unfortunately for Correia her first name is pronounced Betchey, which sounds an awful lot like bitch to American ears. That's not something Rousey can ignore. One crack among many: "I got 99 problems, but Bethe ain't one."
Rousey intends to make it another gloriously fast fight, in part to sustain her mystique, but also for practical reasons. "The shorter my fights are, the longer I can fight." she says. "And if I keep coming out unscathed, I feel like I can fight forever. It's like you're a rock that got thrown into a river. You'll be able to enjoy that nice clean, cool, amazing water for a long time, but after a while it's going to start to erode away all your edges. I want to stop before it really erodes me."
August, though, is a long way off. Before then the quintessential contemporary athlete will continue to embrace all that comes with quintessence. She won't just drink from the chalice of celebrity; she'll lick the bottom. There's the book to promote. The premiere of the Entourage movie, and the filming of another—Mile 22. More products to endorse; more events to attend; more causes for the champion to champion. She'll do it all, continuing to hyperextend time as if it were the elbow of another pitiable opponent.
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