Three-year-old Ronda Rousey stood in the middle of a Toys"R"Us in Riverside, Calif., looking up at her father, Ron, through blue eyes like his, and tried to tell him what she wanted for her birthday. Because of a speech impediment, all that spilled out was a string of scrambled syllables. So Ronda led her dad around the store, past Barbies and plastic princesses and glittery baubles, until she saw a two-foot-tall Hulk Hogan doll. When the Rouseys arrived home, Ronda body-slammed the Hulk Hogan Wrestling Buddy the way she'd seen the boys in the commercials do it. Not long after, she tore Hogan's stuffed arm from his stuffed body.
This is an article from the Nov. 5, 2012 issue
Ronda's mother, AnnMaria, stitched the arm back on. Ronda kept ripping it off. Then AnnMaria used an old trick from her judo days: dental floss. AnnMaria, the first American—man or woman—to win a world judo championship, in 1984, had used floss to sew the seams of her gi. Today, as she thinks back on her daughter's dismembering the Hulk, AnnMaria says, "Maybe that was a precursor."
Ronda, now 25, has treated each of her six professional mixed-martial-arts opponents the way she treated that Hulk Hogan doll, twisting and stretching their arms and even separating them from their sockets with her trademark armbar. The move, applied when both fighters are on the ground, is to Rousey what the cutter is to Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera: a means of attack that the opposition knows is coming but is helpless to stop. Rousey hyperextends her opponent's elbow or shoulder by applying a few pounds of pressure, and because Rousey has all the leverage, the opponent can't roll out. When you do the armbar right, Rousey says, "you feel all the cartilage and the tendons and bones coming off.... It's gross."
Rousey dismissed her first pro opponent, Ediene Gomes, in 25 seconds, the same amount of time she needed for her third challenger, Sarah D'Alelio. Rousey's six pro bouts have totaled seven minutes and 39 seconds; none have gone past the first round, and all ended in armbars. Wrestling specialist Miesha Tate, from whom Rousey won the bantamweight (135 pounds) belt in March, endured 4:27 before suffering a dislocated elbow. The result of Rousey's armbar sounded like "Velcro ripping apart," Tate wrote in an e-mail. Sarah Kaufman, Rousey's latest victim, lasted 54 seconds. In the 19 months since her professional debut, Rousey's armbar has made her one of MMA's most dominant and recognized figures—male or female.
Outside the cage, meanwhile, Rousey's trash-talking has made her one of the sport's most quoted fighters. She's verbally smacked down everyone from Kim Kardashian ("I don't want some girl whose entire fame is based on a sex video to be selling Skechers to my 13-year-old little sister") to Michael Phelps, who she claims demanded a private room at a Team USA Olympic party in Beijing ("Hello, we're your teammates. We're not a bunch of groupies") to opponents such as Kaufman ("If I get her in an armbar, I'm gonna try to rip it off and throw it at her corner"). The girl who couldn't speak now can't stop talking, and her words and actions are remaking the MMA landscape.
RONDA JEAN ROUSEY entered the world fighting. She was born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, which cut off oxygen to her brain and damaged some sections that govern speech. When Ronda was three, AnnMaria and Ron moved the family—including Ronda's older sisters, Maria and Jennifer—from California to Minot, N.D. AnnMaria, a Ph.D. in educational psychology, had taken a teaching job at Minot State, where the school's renowned speech-therapy department treated Ronda for free.
Ron, an Army veteran, retired from a management position at General Dynamics in California to move but quickly grew bored in Minot. He took a job as director of research and development at Sioux Manufacturing, 120 miles east in Devils Lake. Ron remained there during the week and rejoined his family on weekends. Because her sisters were hindering her speech development by translating for her, Ronda went to live with her father during the week.
Ron couldn't have been happier when Ronda moved in. He taught Ronnie, as he called her, to shoot a gun and hunt quail as they rode in his pickup with their German short-haired pointer. Ron would rise before dawn on weekends to take Ronnie to swim meets, where she regularly won races as a member of a Junior Olympic swim program. "You're going to win the Olympics," he'd tell her. "You're going to be president. You can do anything."
In 1991, Ron broke his back in a sledding accident and also discovered that he had a rare blood disorder, Bernard-Soulier syndrome, which would hinder his healing and send him back to the hospital frequently over the next four years. In '95, not wanting his daughters to remember him in a hospital bed hooked up to machines, Ron drove to a pond where he and Ronnie used to search for rocks and ran a hose from the exhaust pipe to the passenger compartment of his truck. A few days later eight-year-old Ronda sat with her sisters in front of a coffin with a U.S. flag placed on top.
After Ron's death Ronda stopped swimming. "That was more a me-and-him thing," she says. Plus, AnnMaria's resources of both time and money were growing short. To supplement the family income, AnnMaria took on additional teaching jobs and wrote grants for others. She also began teaching judo, and she took the girls along for the classes. Ronda remembers the first time she saw her mom grab a student and execute an armbar.
In 1997, AnnMaria married a rocket scientist (literally), Dennis De Mars, and the family returned to Southern California. Money was no longer a problem, and by then Ronda's speech had improved. AnnMaria encouraged Ronda to get back into swimming, but Ronda remained resolute: no Dad, no pool.
AnnMaria began reconnecting with her old judo training partners, and Ronda found herself hanging around dojos again. "In swimming there's no creativity," she says. "You swim. There and back." In judo Ronda could toss her opponents the way she'd thrown her Wrestling Buddy and could pretzel them into joint locks and chokeholds. Echoing her dad's prediction about her swimming, she declared at the end of her first judo lesson, "I'm winning the Olympics in this now."
Tony Mojica, Rousey's first judo teacher, didn't share her optimism. "She wasn't a very good player at first," he says, "but she was like Al Davis: Just win, baby." What she lacked in skill she made up for in determination, and eventually her form caught up with her feistiness. At 14 she was invited to work out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. National team coaches took notes on each judoka's technique and tendencies. On Ronda's sheet a coach scribbled in a corner, Ronda will throw it down with Olympic team members, national champions. This kid fears no one.
Why would she? Her toughest opponent was at home. Nearly every night Ronda and her mother trained at a club in Venice. AnnMaria drilled her daughter at home too. "I would armbar her every time she'd turn around," AnnMaria says. If Ronda needed to be awakened in the morning? Armbar. Lazing around on the couch? Armbar.
"I hate you!" Ronda would yell at her mother.
"I'm doing this because I want nobody to be able to armbar you," AnnMaria would tell her. "I'm going to do this and do this until no one can catch you."
Ronda learned quickly. At 17 she won the World Judo Championships in the under-20 division and became the youngest judoka at the 2004 Athens Games, where she finished ninth. Four years later, in Beijing, using her mother's lessons to fulfill her father's promise, Rousey became the first U.S. woman to win a judo medal, taking a bronze in the 63- to-70-KG division. As she stood on the podium, up in the stands her family unfurled the U.S. flag from Ron's coffin to celebrate.
My whole life, my whole identity was going to the Olympics and winning the Olympics," Rousey says. "Then the Olympics were over, and I didn't want to go back in four years. I was left with no goals and no direction."
She worked odd jobs. She bartended for a year. She tried to "go and enjoy my life and see what normal people do," she says. Feeling that judo had little left to teach her, she cut herself off from the sport and most of the people associated with it except for Gene LeBell, a trainer with the Hayastan MMA team. "You'd rock at MMA," the Hayastan fighters would tell Rousey. She resisted at first, but slowly she felt drawn to the creativity and challenge of a new sport.
Rousey needed to try something. She was living on what she called "the bomb-shelter diet": mostly nonperishable foods. She carried a $9 cellphone from Target. Then one day she ordered a McDonald's coffee only to discover that she had no cash—not even change—to pay for it. Worse, her bank account was overdrawn.
Rousey did what she always had when things got tough: She started training in earnest, this time with an eye toward MMA. Her mother wasn't thrilled, preferring that Ronda go to college, and even Ronda didn't know what hope MMA held for her. Dana White, the MMA kingmaker and president of UFC, the sport's highest circuit, had repeatedly declared that no woman would ever compete in UFC. Still, Rousey persisted until June 2010, when Darin Harvey, a wealthy real estate developer who had become an MMA manager, walked into the Team Hayastan gym and saw her working out. Harvey, a 5'11", 190-pound brown belt, challenged Ronda to a roll. In roughly the time it will take you to read this sentence, he was lying on his back, and minutes after that he was signing his newest client.
Harvey immediately went to work marketing his new fighter. But it seemed every fight he scheduled led to a cancellation. "These chicks would accept the fight, and then they'd Google Ronda and be like, Oh, hell no!" says Rousey's best friend, Wetzel Parker. Harvey, running out of options, offered money to potential opponents. All he could muster for Rousey's first pro fight was the much more experienced Gomes, who already had seven professional bouts under her black belt. "I would rather it was that way than fighting a bunch of schmoes and building a padded record like a boxer," says Rousey. "I was in a rush."
So, too, were MMA executives. After watching Rousey tear through the competition—noting that she was the prettiest and wittiest fighter out there—Strikeforce, a UFC sister organization and the biggest circuit that uses female fighters, signed her to a contract in 2011. The league leapfrogged Rousey over more experienced contemporaries to get her a shot at Tate's bantamweight belt in March 2012. Rousey rewarded Strikeforce with what may have been the most grotesque submission in MMA history, mangling the tendons and ligaments in Tate's arm in front of Showtime cameras. After claiming the world championship, Rousey grabbed the center-cage microphone and said, "Dad, wherever you are, I hope that you see this.... I hope you're proud of me."
It's after dark on a Tuesday evening in late September when Rousey's tattered beige Honda rattles up in front of the Glendale Fighting Club. She can afford to replace the Fonda Ronda Honda, as she calls it, several times over. The Kaufman bout in mid-August, Rousey's first title defense, ranked sixth among MMA fights broadcast on Showtime, attracting 676,000 viewers—on par with the network's Inside the NFL. She declines to divulge the details of her Strikeforce contract, saying only, "I couldn't retire, but I'd be chilling for a while." Still, she prefers a spartan existence, heeding the advice of Mickey in Rocky III: "You can't get civilized."
She breezes into the studio where Edmond Tarverdyan, a champion muay thai boxer and top trainer who once refused even to watch Rousey work out because he didn't take female fighters seriously, displays pictures of her on the walls of his storefront studio. Tonight she'll work with him on her striking, to round out her skills so that the armbar is a match closer and not a crutch.
Rousey doesn't know whom she'll fight next. A face-off with Brazil's Cris (Cyborg) Santos, a 145-pounder, would be the biggest bout in women's MMA history. It seems inevitable but not imminent because Santos is serving a one-year suspension for steroid use and because of the difference in weight classes. After defeating Kaufman, Rousey took the microphone and said, "I need to send out a challenge to Ms. Cyroid.... I'm the champ now. The champ doesn't go to you—you go to the champ. Come down to 135, and let's settle this."
For now Rousey isn't even sure what league she'll be fighting in. Of all of her submissions, her most impressive one might be that of White and his stance against women in UFC. "She turned me around," says White, who last week announced that he's adding a women's division to the sport's top circuit. "She's a real fighter down to the core. Ronda Rousey will be the first UFC women's champion."
Rousey's influence extends beyond UFC, too. A new all-female league, Invicta, has emerged in her wake, and a line of endorsement offers awaits her approval. But the greatest sign of her success is in the corner of the Glendale studio, where 10-year-old Gabriel Torres waits to ask for Ronda's autograph. As she signs his boxing mitts, she leans over to tell him a variation of what she heard so many times: You can win the Olympics. You can be president. You can be anything.
SI ON NBC
Check out Ronda Rousey as she talks about training, the competition and her infamous armbar on the next edition of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, scheduled for Nov. 3 at 2:30 p.m. EST on NBC.