If there were one thing that UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey lived for, it wouldn’t be fame or material things; it would be a good challenge. The 27-year-old believes in the mantra that pressure busts pipes or makes diamonds and is becoming one of the most polished jewels in all of mixed martial arts. Ever since she overcame a speech impediment that garbled her words until the age of six, Rousey has doubled down on every challenge in front of her and cleared the hurdle in the most fascinating way possible. “The stakes are always higher and those are the situations I excel at,” Rousey said earlier in the week before she scored her first MMA TKO with a first round victory over Sara McMann at UFC 170. It was a fight she took 56 days after her last fight when she retained her title against rival Miesha Tate. Not only did she get her first win by something other than her trademark armbar, she broke the record for shortest time between UFC title victories. “I was groomed to perform the best in high pressure situations. I purposefully stack the deck against me to make the stakes higher.”
Some of the things that Rousey has done during her MMA career would be a cause for concern if she were any other fighter. She filmed both The Expendables 3 and Fast & Furious 7 as well as the reality show The Ultimate Fighter while preparing for her rematch with Miesha Tate last December (“How else was I going to get people to doubt me considering I had already beat Tate before?” she asks rhetorically). Then, before she even stepped into the Octagon on December 28 with Tate, Rousey had already accepted the fight with Sara McMann set for February 20. It wasn’t as if McMann was some kind of slouch. Here was an undefeated opponent who took home the silver medal in women’s freestyle wrestling at the 2004 Summer Olympics. That stacked deck kept getting taller but all it did was make Rousey more determined. Oh, and to top it all off, Rousey promised to her coaches that she would beat McMann with a body shot. And, of course, Rousey ended the fight in just over a minute with a well-placed knee to the liver.
Some might call it arrogant, but if you spend enough time with Rousey, you’ll realize that the presence of doubt fuels her hunger. “I keep trying to top myself,” Rousey said. “It’s hard to keep thinking about what’s more creative than the last thing.” After Rousey became the first American to win an Olympic medal in women’s judo when she took home the bronze back in 2008, the California product started toying with the idea of becoming a mixed martial artist. Her judo coaches and mother (who just so happens to be AnnMarie De Mars, the first American to win at the World Judo Championships) heard the idea and, as Rousey puts it, was told to go screw herself.
“My mom told me it was the stupidest thing she ever fucking heard,” Rousey reflects. “That was her exact line! So that was my ‘me against the world’ moment and I wanted to prove everyone wrong.” Rousey had to do something after the Olympics considering that there was no professional Judo federation where she could make a living. So, against the wishes of her coaches and mother, Rousey began to pursue a career as a female mixed martial artist. She debuted in 2011, won her first four fights by armbar in under a minute and earned a title shot people thought she didn’t deserve against Miesha Tate in the now defunct Strikeforce. The skepticism of her quick ascent fueled her to yet another armbar submission over Tate and earned her the organization’s bantamweight title. Her next step was to get to the big leagues over at the UFC, where Dana White once suggested that he could never see women competing in his organization. Well, Rousey changed all of that and ushered in a women’s division while also becoming the first woman to hold UFC gold.
In less than three years, Rousey has become a megastar. To go along with her world title, the undefeated fighter has done everything from covering ESPN The Magazine‘s 2012 Body Issue to launching a career in acting. But no matter how Hollywood you think Rousey is, it all comes back to kicking ass and taking names inside of the eight-sided cage. “No way. There would be no movies if it weren’t for me fighting,” Rousey says when asked if there’s a possibility that she would give up a career of getting punched in the face for Hollywood. “Nobody would care if I wasn’t winning. There are quite a few UFC champions and quite a few action stars but there is nobody who does both. I want to do that.”
See? Stacking the deck. It’s just who she is. But don’t ask her to run down her numerous records because she doesn’t really think about her accomplishments before a big fight. “I don’t really bask in the glory until I’m sitting in my hotel room after a fight, eating Buffalo wings with my friends and say ‘Hey, that was pretty cool.’” With her ninth straight victory under her belt, Rousey will take some time off to film the forthcoming Entourage movie in March. But even though she has been allowed a generous amount of time away from the sport by Dana White, Rousey doesn’t think she’ll be able to stay away long. “I always told Dana that I’d fight on 24 hours notice,” she says. “My best hypothesis is that I’ll be back in the Octagon late summer.”
Although she’s been granted fame and fortune, Rousey cares only about success. Fancy cars, nice clothes, Olympic medals and even the UFC title mean nothing to her without overcoming a challenge to get it. “I lost my bronze medal seven times!” Rousey says when discussing material possessions. “I left it in a bar a couple of times because I would realize that people would buy me drinks when I went out with my medal and there was so many times I woke up like “Where’s my medal?” A friend of mine woke up on an airplane, reached into his pocket and said “Hey look at that, it’s a medal!’ “It’s all just stuff,” Rousey says. “I wouldn’t even be upset if I lost both my medal and my UFC belt. It’s all about what it stands for that actually means something to me.”
As they say, it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey.
Image credit: Maxim