March 04, 2012

It took her long enough.

Ronda Rousey worked nearly twice as long Saturday night as she had in all of her previous mixed martial arts fights combined, but in the end she did the job the way she always does, locking Miesha Tate in a gruesome armbar to induce a submission 4 minutes, 27 seconds into the first round of a Strikeforce main event Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio.

With her fifth career victory -- all by armbar, and with no previous fight lasting more than 49 seconds -- the unbeaten 25-year-old claimed the fight promotion's 135-pound women's championship less than a year after turning pro.

It might seem an improbable feat for a fighter with so few bouts on the résumé to be a world champ. But while Rousey is an MMA neophyte, she's a lifelong juduoka. And not just any practitioner of judo, either: Rousey was a silver medalist in the 2007 world championships and won bronze at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. You might say she has combat sports in her bloodline, as her mother, Ann Maria Rousey DeMars, was the first American to win a judo world championship.

Family ties aside, Rousey has a little Tyson in her, too. The woman known as "Rowdy Ronda" is an intimidator, her belligerent intensity putting opponents on the defensive even before stepping into the cage. And once the chain-link door is locked shut, Rousey moves forward with the unwavering goal of bullying her opponent to the mat and grabbing a hold of an arm. Just as "Iron Mike" was never about jabbing and dancing, Rousey wastes no time, either, before going for the destruction.

The buildup to this bout, in particular, was a symphony of animosity -- with Tate opining that Rousey had talked her way into a title fight she wasn't yet ready for, and with Rousey countering that she could beat up both Tate and her boyfriend, MMA fighter Bryan Caraway. The discord boiled over at Friday's weigh-in. As they were squaring off for the cameras, Tate pushed her forehead into Rousey's, and the headstrong challenger pushed right back. They had to be separated.

Tate (12-3) had good reason to not allow herself to be intimidated. She had a big edge in MMA experience. And she's a world-class grappler, too, having won a silver medal at the 2008 FILA world championships. She has five submissions among her dozen career victories, including an arm triangle chokeout of Dutch sub specialist Marloes Coenen that won her the Strikeforce bantamweight belt last July. Tate also had three career knockouts -- and was looking for No. 4 when Saturday night's bout began.

Two seconds in, the champ connected with Rousey's chin on a left hook. Then, with the challenger moving backward, she landed another left, then a right. But when Tate got too close, Rousey grabbed a hold of her and took her to the mat. They'd been fighting for eight seconds, and Tate was on her back, "Rowdy Ronda" on top of her.

When Rousey swiftly and efficiently transitioned from half-guard to side control, you had to wonder if this was going to be another quick and easy one. That seemed especially likely when, with the fight 48 seconds old, Rousey grabbed Tate's left arm and stretched her legs across the champion's body, isolating the vulnerable limb. There were wild cheers and a few groans from the crowd as Tate's arm was bent in an unnatural way.

But Tate rolled toward Rousey to defend the submission attempt, maneuvered her arm out of danger and ended up on top of Rousey, whose face suddenly wore an expression of utter surprise. No one had escaped one of her submissions before, and no one had taken her into the second minute of a fight.

"She's much more savvy on the ground than I anticipated," said Rousey afterward. "She's good. She's legit."

Here's where the Rousey-as-Tyson analogy falls apart. When Tate stood up to her, as Evander Holyfield famously did to break the will of Tyson, Rousey didn't wilt, she worked. After Tate grabbed back control, looking to set up a choke, the challenger continually fended off the arms reaching for her neck, the legs wrapping around to immobilize her. Eventually, just before the midway point of the round, the work paid off as she reversed position and ended up on top.

Rousey allowed the champion to stand briefly, only to throw her to the mat again. But she couldn't keep her there. Tate got to her feet again, created some separation and landed a couple of nice punches, backing up the challenger. It was at that point that Rousey seemed to tell herself, "Enough is enough." She grabbed a hold of Tate, took her down again with a robust judo throw, and within seconds had moved from side control to full mount and was punching away. With a minute to go in the round, Tate gave up her back, and Rousey transitioned to the armbar that would finish the fight. Again, the left arm of Tate was twisted in a way it's not built to twist, and with Tate's face the picture of anguish, the tapout finally came.

"It's a little sore," Tate said afterward when asked how her arm was. "But you know what? I came here to put on a fight. I really didn't like her, so I wanted to come here and come out hard. I got a little overzealous, and she caught the arm. I gotta give her respect. I do respect her as an athlete."

Rousey expressed no reciprocal respect -- or remorse over whatever damage was done to her opponent's arm. "I don't feel bad about it," she said. And the crowd cheered.

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the MMA mailbag, click on the e-mail link at the top of the page.

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