Ronda Rousey: Getting to know WWE’s latest acquisition

Former UFC Bantamweight Champion and MMA superstar Ronda Rousey is set to take the WWE by storm, but how did she arrive in the premiere wrestling promotion on the planet?

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(Photo credit: Disney / ABC Television Group)

At this year’s mega Royal Rumble event in January, the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was set alight at the arrival of a crossover superstar of epic proportions. Ronda Rousey, the first woman to ever raise a belt aloft inside the UFC’s infamous octagon, made her arrival to wrestling’s premiere promotion in shocking fashion as she stormed her way to the ring with the eyes of millions of fans around the world focused intently upon her.

Her interruption of Asuka’s jovial victory celebrations catapulted the 31-year-old into the limelight of the WWE’s massive audience, and Rousey became one of the hottest news topics within the media at once.   

However, the American has been faced with some backlash since her full-time debut in the ranks of the WWE, with numerous former and present-day women’s stars voicing their displeasure with her show-closing appearance. Many hardcore fans shared in these emotions, with their primary concerns being based around Ronda’s in-ring ability, her anticipated push to the top of the women’s division and whether she is fully committed to the wrestling business itself. 

I would like to address these worries and introduce Rousey’s background to readers in a way that is both relevant to her career going forward and informative of why she is so highly respected inside the sport of mixed-martial-arts and beyond.  

Early life, building a fighting spirit and journey to Olympic success

Ronda Rousey’s fighting spirit can be traced back to the earliest moments in her life, when ‘Rowdy’ was said to have been born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. The severe issue is suspected to have caused her speech apraxia, a condition that massively hindered the child’s ability to speak for the first six years of her life. The apraxia led to frustration for Ronda, who was brought to North Dakota by her parents and given intensive therapy to help with her lack of communication skills.

Luckily, Rousey began to speak fluidly as her therapy progressed, and she was able to put the condition behind her. Ironically, it is not speech that best conveys Rousey’s abilities in her current career; it is her vast array of martial arts skills and the mean mugging facial expressions she became known for during her life prior to arriving in the WWE. In hindsight, the troublesome time gave the young child strength and, as Rousey has said in the past, experience that helped her later in life when the going got tough once again. 

A central part of Rousey’s early life was her judo career. Her mother, AnnMaria, was the first American woman to claim a gold medal in the Judo World Championships, and she instilled a fierce competitive spirit in Ronda at a young age. She began training Rousey at the age of 11 and was a key component in the future star’s success in the martial art. 

At just 17, ‘Rowdy’ qualified for the 2004 Olympics Games. And, although she did not claim a medal at the tournament, the American was the youngest judoka to compete in Athens all those years ago. Later in 2004, Rousey won a gold medal at the World Junior Judo Championships, and in 2006 she added a win at the Birmingham World Cup to her list of accomplishments. 

Rousey’s greatest triumphs in the sport were to come in her final two years of competition, with her next medals coming in three different shades of glory. At the 2007 World Judo Championships, Ronda took home a silver medal, before improving it to a gold at the Pan American Games in the same year. 

Her Olympic dream was reinvigorated at the 2008 Olympic Games, but it was not gold that Rousey would taste as she reached the podium in Beijing. She became the first American to medal in judo since the sport’s inception in the Olympics by winning a bronze medal against Annett Boehm in her final match. Even though Rousey had been dead set on taking home Olympic gold, her achievements in judo on the grandest stages the sport had to offer were nothing short of magnificent, and were to have major implications on her future endeavours. 

Retirement from judo, adopting the ‘Rowdy’ nickname and the dawn of the Rousey era in the women’s bantamweight division

After the 2008 Olympics, Ronda opted to step away from judo. To her surprise, her Olympic success did not culminate in immediate sources of income, despite her lifelong dedication to judo. As many people won’t know, she struggled financially after her retirement from the sport, and winded up working multiple jobs just to keep a roof over her head. Rousey was frustrated with how her Olympic accomplishments had ultimately left her with nothing of monetary value but a piece of bronze, and the 21-year-old was forced to search for another avenue to follow in life.

One of her best friends and longest-term training partners, Manny Gamburyan, led her to the blossoming sport where Rousey would make a monumental mark. Gamburyan had trained with the American for years, and his journey in mixed-martial-arts enticed the ex-Olympian to follow suit. Manny was a central competitor on the fifth instalment of The Ultimate Fighter in 2007, and Rousey commenced training for her MMA career in the same gym as the rising Armenian.

As expected, her grappling skills shone from the offset. In such a young sport and an even younger weight class, the women’s division had yet to see someone with the judo credentials of Rousey. Many saw promise in the determined youngster although even they could not have expected the dominance that was to ensue. 

In 2010, Rousey entered the amateur leagues of MMA and quickly took it by storm. Her first three bouts ended inside a minute, with Rousey claiming an armbar victory in each contest.

It was a similar tale in Ronda’s professional career, as her streak of first-minute submission wins carried her to a 4-0 record. Now competing within a Strikeforce cage, Rousey was expected to face the very best women the sport had to offer. Strikeforce was a haven for MMA talent, and without a women’s division in the UFC, the majority of the female stars in the sport flocked to the promotion.

Her streak brought her to a fight with Miesha Tate, the Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight Champion. The feud the two would share catapulted both into widespread fame within the MMA community and beyond, as the animosity shown between the pair was something that had yet to become commonplace in women’s mixed-martial-arts.

Rousey came out on top as she claimed her first championship in the sport, dislocating the spirited Tate’s elbow in the final minute of round one. The brutality of her victory cemented Rousey as a must-see attraction and a woman to be feared, and the television network Showtime (who hosted Strikeforce events) were quick to help her star grow.

With the female side of MMA gaining publicity, Rousey made her first and only defence of the 135-pound Strikeforce title in August 2012. She defeated another top contender in Sarah Kaufman in only 54 seconds, and caught the eye of UFC President Dana White with her signature armbar finish and brash behaviour in the lead up to the fight. 

Signing with the UFC, adopting the ‘Rowdy’ nickname from the late Roddy Piper

Shortly after the flawless performance, Rousey made history by becoming the first female fighter in history to sign with the UFC. Dana White had stated in 2011 that women “would never compete inside the octagon”, but he was in awe with the ability and personality that Rousey displayed, and realised that she was the right person to build a fresh division around.

He declared that Ronda would be the inaugural UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion, with ex-Marine Liz Carmouche being her first challenger. It was to be a monumental showdown, and one that was pivotal in the progression of women’s combat sports.

Around 2012, Rousey spoke with the legendary Roddy Piper. Piper and Rousey shared a mentor in ‘Judo’ Gene Lebell, who Piper had met at a young age. Rousey had been called ‘Rowdy’ by some of her friends and teammates, but she felt using the name in competition would be disrespectful to the infamous wrestling heel. However, Gene Lebell secured her an opportunity to speak with one of her wrestling heroes, who was enthusiastic about her use of the name.

Rousey nervously asked Piper for permission to use the ‘Rowdy’ nickname, to which the WWE Hall of Famer said “of course”. The two would keep in touch for the years that followed, and Rousey continues to commemorate Hot Rod in her new-found career in the WWE. She credited her fight with Bethe Correia at UFC 190 in August of 2015 to Piper, who had sadly passed away the day before the event took place. 

Equipped with a standout nickname and an attitude to match, Rousey was ready to take the UFC by storm. Given main event billing, Rousey and Carmouche put on a show that immediately earned women’s MMA the respect that it deserved. Much to the surprise of all in attendance, Carmouche came extremely close to winning the bout with a standing neck crank in the first round, only for Ronda to battle her way out and back into a dominant position and finish the fight with her patented armbar late in the fourth minute of round one. 

In one night, the UFC had established its lead female star and the face of a revolutionary movement in MMA. Elite female talent soon spilled into the ranks of the promotion, and the women’s division became one of the sport’s hottest topics. The Rousey era had been truly kickstarted, and changes in women’s sports soon took shape as Rowdy’s success grew to phenomenal heights. 

Reign as UFC champion and attention in mainstream media  

With the loss of regular appearances from the UFC’s biggest draws in Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva and Brock Lesnar, Rousey was soon passed the pay-per-view torch, a task that no woman had been given in combat sports until that point. It was no surprise why, either; her next bout with fierce rival and former opponent Miesha Tate drew over a million PPV buys in December 2013, albeit as a co-headliner.

Tate was filling in for Cat Zingano as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter, the reality show that would take her feud with Rousey to new heights. The rematch the two would have at UFC 168 had massive success, with the eyes of fans around the world witnessing an exhilarating battle between the pair that, for the first time in Rousey’s career, made it out of the first round and into the third. 

She would retain her title by defeating Tate with another armbar submission. Ronda caused huge controversy and drew a lot of boos from the crowd after the contest by refusing to shake hands with the brave Miesha Tate, who already carried a large amount of crowd support into the fight. The personality she showed in the moments following the contest is something I would love to see her convey in the WWE, with the exact handshake refusal being a potential way for her to turn heel in the future.

In 2014, Rousey’s victories over former Olympic wrestler Sara McMann and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Alexis Davis marked her first wins by way of knockout in MMA. The two performances further cemented her dominance in the sport, and people wondered who could stop the undefeated American phenom. Many pointed towards the unstoppable Cris Cyborg, but the current-day UFC women’s featherweight queen had little hope of cutting down to 135-pounds to face Rousey, and the bout never culminated.

Her next challenger, Cat Zingano, had been on a tear of her own. Many fans and experts alike felt that she had the potential to steal the belt from Rousey’s grasp as they met at UFC 184. However, Zingano was far too deliberate in her attempt to surprise Ronda with a quick start, and she was caught and finished by an armbar in just 14 seconds, making it the fastest victory in a championship fight inside the octagon up to that point (the record was broken by Jose Aldo vs Conor McGregor later in the year). 

Rousey’s next fight did not last much longer. After a personal and aggressive feud leading up to UFC 190, she defended her belt for a record sixth time by knocking out the Brazilian Bethe Correia in under a minute. The challenger had been destroyed in her own country, and even the crowd in Rio (who are always extremely passionate in their support for their own countrymen) showed Rousey respect after her emphatic victory. 

Loss to Holly Holm, fall from grace 

By the time UFC 193 rolled around, Rousey was still the biggest money-drawing star in the UFC (with Conor McGregor soon to take over). The pressure she faced as an unstoppable champion was immense, and with former boxing and kickboxing world champion Holly Holm next in line for a title shot, Ronda was faced with arguably her sternest test to date, although it cannot be argued that she had yet to face a striker of Holm’s calibre in her 12-fight career.

It was clear early on that Rousey was not in for an easy night. As a member of JacksonWink MMA, Holly Holm entered the cage with a perfect gameplan; escape Rousey’s takedown attempts, and utilise the world class striking skills she had been honing for years. She executed it flawlessly, evading Ronda’s furious onslaughts, stinging her with hard straight left hands, bamboozling her with exquisite movement. 

Holm stunned the world in the second round. After a dominant opening five minutes, the substantial underdog stunned Rousey yet again before sending her crashing to the canvas with a vicious head-kick that ended the former Olympian’s three-year title reign in an instant.

Rousey had finally tasted defeat inside the sport of mixed-martial-arts, and the loss weighed heavily on her. She was transported to a hospital following the fight, and little word emerged from her camp for months after the fight. Although Holm offered the dethroned bantamweight champion a rematch, Rousey did not rush back to action, and the 135-pound weight class moved on without her.

Holm lost her championship at UFC 196 in spectacular fashion at the hands of Miesha Tate, who would also fail to defend her title as she was beaten by Amanda Nunes at UFC 200 in July, 2016. The division was more open and exciting than it had ever been, and the interest in women’s MMA did not dwindle in spite of Ronda’s defeat. Yet, people were not ready to write her off yet, and her fellow competitors knew that the division would not truly enter a new phase until Rowdy returned and attempted to win back the golden belt that had defined her dominant run from 2012 to 2015.

Return to action, exit from MMA and path to professional wrestling

After over a year of silence and mystery, Rousey returned to face fearsome champion Amanda Nunes at UFC 207 in December 2016. To much controversy, she was exempt from making media appearances leading up to the event, leading to speculation over her mindset heading into such a hugely important contest against a dominant force in Nunes, who was given a distinct lack of promotion for the fight in the months prior to UFC 207. 

Despite the many question marks, Ronda returned in peak physical condition. She was ready to reclaim her title, but there was one problem – Amanda Nunes is one of the greatest female fighters to have ever lived, and the Brazilian was eager to prove herself to the massive audience Rowdy could draw to the fight. Although much of the fanbase wrote Amanda off, I felt from the start that she was a horrible matchup for each of the top women at bantamweight, and Rousey was no different.

Nunes’ punching power and accuracy was too much for Rousey, who got in little to no offense in the 48 seconds she lasted with the Brazilian champion. ‘The Lioness’ has since defended her title against Valentina Shevchenko, an elite fighter who has never shared the cage with Ronda, but shares a similar road to glory with her in that they both came from highly competitive martial arts where little is left to chance.

It is clear that this fight was the moment Rousey fell out of love with the idea of competing in MMA. Although she still refuses to comment on her status as an active fighter, this could well be the final contest in Rousey’s stellar martial arts career as she now turns her attention to a line of work with more forgiveness than the cruel world of MMA.

Reaction to the fight 

Her loss was nothing to be ashamed of, but Ronda has faced huge swarms of backlash since the bout. Her lack of willingness to discuss her fight with Nunes has left a sour taste in the mouths of many MMA fans, and her silence has somewhat enticed her disapprovers to voice their opinions even louder. This is likely to carry over into her career with the WWE, who had hoped to draw in much of Rousey’s old fanbase from her days as UFC bantamweight champion to the world of sports entertainment.

I do expect to see a lot of non-wrestling fans tune in to her WrestleMania 34 exploits, but Ronda’s public image is far from pristine at this moment in time, and her shelf life as a top babyface act may not be long. Due to the stigma around Rousey, her crossover from the cage to the ring will not be quite the same as someone like Conor McGregor, who is sure to be on the WWE’s watch list for potential WrestleMania guests in the future. Ken Shamrock had huge success when he traded the octagon for the ring, but it is tough to say if a similar move would be quite as well-received in 2018.

It is encouraging to see that Rousey addressed her last fight on a recent promo package aired live on Raw, but it would surprise me greatly if the older audience, to whom her appeal is strongest, respond well to the American’s stubbornness around the topic and the WWE’s way of pretending it is not an important part of her story, particularly in their use of the moniker ‘The Baddest Woman On The Planet’, a nickname that does that not ring true with a large portion of the WWE’s target audience.

Her overall contribution to the progression of women’s MMA, and her influence on the WWE Women’s Revolution

In a world free of Rousey’s success in MMA, the aptly-named ‘Women’s Revolution’ may not have occurred inside a WWE ring for quite some time. Although there are hundreds of inspiring women who compete at the highest level of mixed-martial-arts, ‘Rowdy’ was the one who brought female combat sports to an entirely new level. She was the confident female badass that the women’s division needed, and her monumental pay-per-view success (cards she headlined drew a total of 4.525 million buys) showed that in even the most openly-violent and highly-technical sport there is, women have a chance to steal the show and reach the top. 

This undoubtedly influenced the WWE, who had to take a second look at the female talent on their roster. Gone were the days of sex appeal being the sole purpose of their women; they knew the demand for female wrestling had grown, and the matches put on by the likes of Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch in NXT gave the company confidence that they could replicate the success of the UFC’s women’s divisions (which there are now four of).

Rousey helped shift public opinion around female sports. MMA is now the most egalitarian athletic competition one could ask for, and wrestling is following suit. Without Rousey, it is difficult to know just how long it would have taken for the women of the WWE to reach their current status, and while many will be quick to deny it, Rousey indirectly influenced the Women’s Revolution greatly. 

She arguably has the largest mainstream presence of any MMA fighter in history. While pay-per-view kings such as Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva and Conor McGregor are all megastars in their own right, Rousey helped her bring her sport to a far greater audience than it had ever reached. Her appearances on the covers of The Ring magazine, ESPN and Sports Illustrated are prime examples of why Rousey changed the game. Furthermore, she has hosted Saturday Night Live, SportsCenter and has made regular appearances on the largest US talk shows on television. Ronda made her film debut in 2014, and has appeared in giant movies such as Fast & Furious 7 and Entourage.

For better or worse, an entirely new audience has arrived in the UFC since her debut in the promotion in 2012. Rousey will not be carrying the torch for women’s MMA any longer, but her help in progressing her gender’s role in the sport gives hope that she will do the same in the WWE. 

What can Rousey add to the WWE that isn’t already there?

There are a few things that excite me about Rousey’s career in the WWE. Firstly, the credibility she brings to the ring is second to none. There has never been a person in the women’s ranks of the WWE to carry such legitimate fighting skills into their career, and these talents could undoubtedly be used to make Ronda a top heel act. There are only so many women that the former MMA star can crush before fans begin to turn against her, so a shift to the dark side is not only inevitable if Ronda stays in the company for a considerable amount of time, but it could be the best way for the WWE to harness money from their deal with Rousey. A homegrown babyface act such as Asuka attempting to be the first to stop the dominant former UFC champion is a matchup that I suspect most fans would be willing to invest in, and it is a storyline with money written all over it.

Her unique style will add a different element to the product. While Rousey continues to implement traditional professional wrestling moves into her arsenal, a judo-based moveset is a refreshing prospect. Her trademark hip tosses, throws, trips and armbars can give the WWE’s top women a different match to work, and an increased intensity and shorter match length is what expect to see in Rousey’s career between the ropes. 

Rousey’s star power will be very beneficial to her division. Most of the wrestlers that share the ring will her will get more attention on their work than at just about any point in their careers. Her ability to draw money could give a boost to the idea of a women’s match one day headlining professional wrestling’s marquee event – WrestleMania. And, when someone defeats her, it will send a signal to the fanbase that whichever woman it may be is a top star in the eyes of the company. Ronda was a main event attraction in the UFC, and I have no doubt that she will help in getting other women over as major draws in her time with the company.

Final thoughts

This opportunity means the world to Ronda Rousey. She is clearly passionate about her in-ring career, and one can only hope that she will make a seamless transition from the world of MMA to the wrestling industry that differs so greatly. The early signs from her have been promising, and with time she can become a woman who can take the women’s division to new heights. 

Her WrestleMania match will attract a huge audience. For the time being, Rousey is a novelty act in the WWE, but I do think that she will become a mainstay superstar going forward. Ronda won’t (and shouldn’t) ever be someone who wrestles regular matches on a weekly basis on TV. She is likely to take up the Brock Lesnar role in the world’s biggest wrestling promotion, which may explain their perceived willingness to jeopardise Lesnar’s value by having him no-show events in the lead up to WrestleMania this year. 

With the current Universal Champion rumoured to be on his way back to the UFC, Rousey could easily take his place as the top ‘legitimate’ athlete in the company, which is by no means a negative. There are big things ahead for Rousey, and the potential matchups for her are fantastic. It will be fascinating to see how her growth as a performer continues, and I hope she sticks around in the WWE long enough to deliver us with the matches that would have never seemed possible just a couple of years ago.

Are you excited to see Rousey debut this Sunday? Let us know in the comments below!

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