By Loretta Hunt
March 02, 2012

Judging from the way Ronda Rousey was raised, you'd almost think that her mother knew Ronda would grow up to become a cagefighter.

But in 1996, Ann Maria hadn't even heard of the Ultimate Fighting Championship or mixed martial arts when she nudged her 9-year-old daughter onto the mat a year after her husband's suicide.

Sixteen years later, and with only four professional fights in 11 months, 2008 Olympic bronze judo medalist Rousey will challenge Miesha Tate (12-2) for Strikeforce's 135-pound women's championship title this Saturday in Columbus, Ohio. It will be the second women's bout to make headlining status for a major U.S. promotion since Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos' battered budding movie siren Gina Carano into a first-round stoppage in August 2009 on Showtime.

FOWLKES: Champion Tate "can't stand Ronda"

That it's taken more than two years for a women's bout to repeat this distinction speaks to the fragility of women's MMA in the current market. Strikeforce remains the premier organization for female fighters, but was purchased last year by UFC owners Zuffa LLC, who've voiced their disinterest in promoting women's fights in the past.

The charismatic Carano, who single-handedly garnered mainstream attention for women's MMA while an active fighter from 2006 to '09, won't return to the sport anytime soon. To her credit, the 25-year-old Rousey, who possesses all the charm and talent that Carano did in an edgier package, has filled that void in only a few months.

The only thing that fans might have relished more than Rousey's aggressive style -- she's submitted every opponent by armbar in a total 138 seconds -- is her ability to barker herself into the title-fight spotlight.

There were other deserved candidates for Tate with double-digit records, but Rousey spoke the loudest and the most passionately. She felt the future of women's MMA depended on it.

"When I looked at the state of women's MMA, what I saw was that it was missing rivalries or anything theatrical about it," said Rousey. "Everybody was trying to be Miss America, unwilling to go under any kind of criticism, and taking the safe answers. I thought I needed to do whatever I could to get attention."

During her fight campaign, the headline-grabbing Rousey went after Tate and her boyfriend, also a professional fighter, claiming she could beat either of them up. In January, after 145-pound champion Santos tested positive for steroids and lashed out at Rousey and another female fighter, Rousey accused her of having male genitalia.

Was that too much? Rousey and her mother (the first American to win a judo world championship), don't think so. A Rousey woman always fights for what she believes in.

It's obvious Rousey was taught to refrain from placing limitations on herself; life gave her all she could handle when she was born with the umbilical cord wound tightly around her neck. Blue and not breathing, Rousey was revived in the operating room, but was later diagnosed with brain damage that hindered her ability to speak coherently until age six.

At 8, Rousey's father took his own life after he'd been paralyzed in a sledding accident and then contracted a rare disease that made recovery impossible.

Ann Maria, who'd taken up judo when her own mother pushed her out the car door at the local YMCA and told her to go join something, made it a requirement that all her four daughters at least try the sport that had empowered her. It resonated the most with the ultra-competitive Ronda, who'd gotten into two fights during her first week of public school and was never challenged again.

"I thought judo would be good for them because they'd learn not to afraid," said Ann Maria, a Ph.D. who runs a computer statistics firm out of Los Angeles. "Very often, people are held back in life because they're afraid."

Ann Maria didn't just watch Ronda from the sidelines; she trained alongside her, imparting valuable lessons that she'd learned through trial and error during her own career. At 13, Ronda began drilling armbars with her mother to the point where she could do them in her sleep.

"I figured that nobody would expect this scrawny little kid to come out and start armbarring people," Ann Maria said. "She was barely in ninth grade."

By 15, Ronda earned a spot on her first Olympic team and began competing in hundreds of matches on the elite world circuit. Ann Maria didn't travel with Ronda, though, wanting her daughter to find the confidence, independence and toughness she thought vital for success at the top level.

Jet lag, illness, injuries, bad weight cuts and hostile crowds in foreign countries were viewed as obstacles to overcome and nothing more.

"My first injury ever was a broken toe and my mother made me run laps around the mat for the rest of the night," said Rousey. "She said she wanted me to know that even if I was hurt, I was still fine."

Rousey applied that mentality at the 2007 Pan Am Championships, when the meniscus in her knee tore, locking her joint in place. It wasn't her best performance, but Ronda had always been taught to find the win, no matter the circumstances.

"I was always pushed to do that much more, and in the long-run that made me more of an MMA fighter," Rousey said. "My mom always told me that if I let it go to the judges, I'd lost. There was no way I was going to win a decision, so I had to find ways to finish the fight fast."

After her second Olympics -- she'd qualified but didn't place at the 2004 Athens Games -- a 21-year-old Rousey took one year to see what life felt like without judo in it. She got her own apartment and a bartending job. She began to wear makeup.

"After a year of that, I said, 'OK, this is cool, but I'm really not meant to be normal," said Rousey. "I was raised with the idea that I was going to be extraordinary in whatever it was I chose to do."

Rousey found the Glendale Fighting Club through her mother's judo connections in Los Angeles. She made her MMA debut in August 2010 and won all three of her amateur fights via armbar before turning pro only seven months later.

Though not a common occurrence, there have been other judokas to cross over into MMA with varying success. In women's MMA, smaller in numbers and opportunities than the men, only one other Olympic medalist, a wrestler, preceded Rousey.

There is a great advantage to having such a strong base in one technique out of the gate. Rousey's whirlwind win streak is reminiscent of Royce Gracie's domination in the earliest days of the UFC, when no opponent had the knowledge to defend his family's style of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Like Gracie, once Rousey has a hold of her opponent, she doesn't let go until she's finished the job.

Whether Rousey can do this before Tate can expose the weaker parts of her skill set -- presumably her striking -- will be determined on Saturday.

On one front, Rousey has already emerged the winner. Her sometimes-brash personality and even bolder fighting has helped fans fall in love with women's MMA again. And if Rousey has her way, which she usually does, that love affair will continue until women's MMA finally finds its foothold in the sport for good.

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