One of the true pioneers of the sport, Ronda Rousey put women’s MMA on the map.
While she was preceded by Gina Carano and Cris Cyborg, who indeed gave ‘Rowdy’ her platform, Rousey brought women’s MMA, and MMA in general, into the living rooms of millions of people around the world.
Rousey’s career in MMA began with her taking up judo at the age of 11, the daughter of AnnMaria De Mars, herself a world champion judoka.
Rousey unsuccessfully competed at the 2004 Olympics just six years later, but aged 20, she claimed silver at the World Judo Championships in Rio de Janeiro, before claiming Olympic gold in Beijing 12 months later.
Hanging up the Gi following her Olympic medal, Rousey turned to MMA.
In the space of six months, Rousey won all three of her fights as an amateur, all by her trademark armbar, all within 60 seconds, and turned professional.
Her first pro fight played out much like her three amateur fights. While still relatively new to MMA, Rousey had yet to encounter anyone who could live with her judo skills. Rousey often didn’t throw a strike while on her feet; she didn’t need to. Ediane Gomes was her first victim, immediately falling foul of Rousey’s judo, and submitting to an armbar in just 25 seconds.
Most of Rousey’s professional career would play out in similar fashion.
Her second professional fight against Charmain Tweet was the same – early takedown, and in the blink of an eye, armbar, instant tap, 2-0.
Rousey then made her Strikeforce debut against Sarah D’Alelio and locked another armbar in within 20 seconds, before a controversial stoppage. Rousey claimed her opponent said ‘tap’ and the fight was waved off. Sensing there was unrest in the crowd, Rousey said she was ready to start the fight from scratch, such was her confidence that she’d win a second time.
D’Alelio later claimed she said ‘ahh’ rather than ‘tap’ (itself enough to force a stoppage), and Rousey moved to 3-0.
Julia Budd was next up, a step up in class this time. Budd’s early professional career had seen her share a cage with Amanda Nunes, even beating future UFC champion Germaine De Randamie in the fight before taking on Rousey.
She had her elbow ripped from its socket by Rousey in 39 seconds. An ugly end to a fight, and a warning to future opponent of what she was capable of.
This wasn’t simply about winning anymore for ‘Rowdy’; it was about seeing how quickly she could submit her opponents. And her demeanour wasn’t like most fighters. There was little sense of relief or accomplishment, it was more happiness and excitement. This sport didn’t carry any risks to Rousey like it did everyone else. It was a game to her.
What followed was the start of the defining rivalry in the early years of women’s MMA. Miesha Tate v Ronda Rousey.
After her win over Budd, Rousey pleaded for the title shot with newly-crowned champion Tate. Tate said she wasn’t ready. Looking back, you could make the argument Tate wanted to prolong her time at the top, taking on Sarah Kaufman first and letting the hype for a fight with Rousey build.
Rousey had no interest in the long game and wanted the strap as soon as she could get her hands on it. She got her wish, and the pair made a headline fight.
As for the hype, there was no shortage of that either.
The pair repeatedly exchanged barbs, Tate calling Rousey ‘pampered and protected’ throughout her career, prompting a lengthy article in response from Rousey, detailing the adversity she’d been through: suffering a dislocated elbow twice in one fight, a torn ACL, the broken noses, a broken foot. It was a long list that seemed to get under Rousey’s skin.
For the first time, Rousey was taken past the first minute of a fight. Tate came out swinging – and landed a couple of shots – but couldn’t prevent an early takedown. She couldn’t prevent the early armbar either, but did manage to escape.
This was the most adversity Rousey had faced in her MMA career, being taken beyond the first 60 seconds of a fight, with Tate even attempting a submission of her own.
But the challenger’s class told, and once again found a route to an armbar. Tate was reluctant to tap, even with a dislocated elbow, but more manipulation from Rousey was simply too much.
Rousey was a champion, and on her way to stardom.
She was featuring on TV outside of MMA, on a two-part Showtime documentary, even appearing on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, and posed for ESPN’s The Body Issue.
Rousey had transcended the sport.
And while MMA wasn’t the fledgling sport it was in the 90s, it hadn’t yet become mainstream. Remember, all of this was more than a year before Conor McGregor’s UFC debut.
At this point, there had only been three UFC PPVs with more than 1,000,000 buys that hadn’t featured WWE star Brock Lesnar. Since then, there have been 13.
The UFC didn’t even host women’s fighters. It was only five years earlier we had seen the first live televised female MMA event.
Her extra-curricular activities didn’t slow down her dominance in the cage either.
Kaufman finally got another shot at the title, and Rousey saw another opponent off with an armbar inside 60 seconds.
Enough was enough for UFC president Dana White, who not two years earlier had said women would “never” compete in the UFC. He signed Rousey up as their first female fighter, installing her as the first UFC women’s bantamweight champion.
Her UFC debut was her toughest fight yet. Liz Carmouche had withstood early pressure to put Rousey into a standing neck crank – so tightly locked in it actually dislocated Rousey’s jaw. But in the dying seconds of the first round, a stubborn Carmouche eventually relented, and Rousey added another armbar win to her record.
Next up came the long-awaited rematch with Tate. Rousey was dragged into a striking battle more than she’d have cared for, unable to fully utilise her judo and grappling, and for the first time, was taken beyond the first round.
The fight went as far as the third, but once again, that familiar armbar was locked in, with Tate tapping, and Rousey refusing to shake her hand after the fight.
Few – if any – fighters have ever been so reliant on one type of finish. These weren’t just submissions with Rousey, they were all armbar submissions that were so often set up the same way. The fact every opponent knew what she would try to do and simply couldn’t stop it only reflects her dominance of the sport while at her peak.
But in her ninth professional fight, with Sara McMann penned up against the fence and Rousey looking to work her way into position, the champion launched a vicious knee into the liver of McMann, and just like that, the submission streak was over. Rousey had a win, after 66 seconds, via TKO.
Her next three wins came close to making a mockery of the division.
Alexis Davis: Hip toss after 11 seconds, TKO stoppage after 15 seconds. Davis was so separated from her senses she was trying to grapple with referee Yves Lavigne after the stoppage.
Cat Zingano: On the ground after *two* seconds, armbar submission after 13 seconds.
Bethe Correia: Knocked clean out in 34 seconds.
We were well used to seeing Rousey finish fights inside 60 seconds, but here she’d finished three inside a *combined* 60 seconds.
Mike Goldberg on commentary remarked that she was the best in the world, and that they hadn’t yet found a close second. She’d cleaned out the division. The talk was that Miesha Tate would get a third crack at Rousey next.
She was the greatest female of all time. The suggestion that Rousey could be beaten at this point was laughable. That suggestion that she would be beaten within the next four months and would never win again? Impossible.
But that’s exactly what happened.
Make no mistake, Ronda Rousey was the best judoka to have featured in the UFC, but her boxing was mediocre at best. She simply wasn’t a boxer, and never needed to be. In the same way Khabib Nurmagomedov would ragdoll opponents around the Octagon like an enraged pitbull, he never needed to fall back on boxing.
The UFC initially marketed itself as a quest to find which was the most effective martial art, Could a wrestler beat a boxer? Could a jiu-jitsu black belt beat a kickboxer? It’s what has made mixed martial arts and the UFC what they are. While top level boxers often go through 95% of their career unbeaten, such streaks rarely last in MMA, as sooner or later, a fighter comes up against a martial artist that isn’t suited to them.
That happened to Ronda Rousey on 15th November 2015.
Rousey would face world champion boxer Holly Holm in Melbourne, and Holm presented a very different challenge to those Rousey had faced previously.
Naturally, Holm was still a huge underdog. It wasn’t easy to make a case for any of Rousey’s opponents at this point in her career, but those attempting to for Holm would point out she was rangy. She might be able to keep her distance, and would be able to cope with the onrushing Rousey. But Rousey’s chin had stood up to decent shots in the past, and Holm, despite her excellent boxing record, wasn’t known as a knockout artist by any means.
However her switch to MMA was proving successful. She was 9-0, and racking up stoppage wins using long-range kicks – five of her first seven wins came by kick-induced stoppages.
For some reason, Rousey opted not to touch gloves when prompted before the fight.
As always, Rousey was the aggressor, relentlessly coming forward, but Holm, as expected circled away, keeping her distance, and catching Rousey with the odd shot when she came in. Rousey was unable to smother Holm as she had all before her.
The first real warning sign came when Rousey was unable to ground Holm and took a kick to the body and ate a left as they broke. Holm then caught Rousey with an elbow. Holm was then able to get up quickly after being taken down with Rousey looking for an armbar. The frustration was setting in two minutes into what was scheduled to be a 25-minute fight.
Rousey’s coach Edmond Tarverdyan claimed Rousey’s boxing was as good as Holm’s. This wasn’t true. It may have been an attempt at mind games, or an attempt to bolster Rousey’s confidence, but it wasn’t true. Her head rarely moved off the centre line, she was being hit with a series of straight left hands. She was flat footed. The difference between the two was stark, and when Rousey was unable to impose her judo, it presented a real problem.
She began chasing Holm around the Octagon, swinging – and missing – wildly. With 30 seconds left in the round, she glances up at the clock, desperately needing to sit down with her cornermen.
It did no good. The very first word she heard was ‘beautiful’. Again, was this just an attempt to boost Rousey’s confidence? The opening round was anything but beautiful for Rousey, who staggered back to her corner with a bloody mouth.
Over in Holm’s corner, she was told Rousey was going to get desperate. A more accurate reading of proceedings.
The moment of the fight – before the finish of course – came when Rousey threw a left, which Holm telegraphed and ducked underneath, sending Rousey to the canvas. The champion sprung straight to her feet, but she was off balance, out of control.
What seemed like the millionth left hand landed not 60 seconds into the second round. Rousey was off balance again, dazed, and turned face first into the headkick from hell. The streak was over. The champion was defeated.
It wasn’t quite the end for Rousey though. She was too big a star for this to be the end.
She appeared on talkshows, in TV and film, all while stepping up her recovery. So devastating was the knockout, Rousey admitted it could take up to six months before she could even eat an apple again.
Understandably, Rousey wanted a crack at Holm. Meanwhile, Holm needed to prove she was no one-hit wonder, and Miesha Tate was given her best chance at a UFC belt. Holm’s game plan wasn’t as well suited to Tate, who successfully choked out the champion to claim the title.
Tate’s first and only defence would come at UFC 200 against Amanda Nunes. The Brazilian took the title and set up a showdown with Rousey.
The fight was announced at the weigh-in for Conor McGregor’s fight with Eddie Alvarez, with Rousey refusing to speak to media in the build-up. She seemed to have a renewed focus.
Whenever a champion loses a title to such a big underdog, there’s a clamour to A) see the champion defend their title, and B) see the former champion bounce back. See Tyson v Douglas, Joshua v Ruiz, GSP v Serra.
Holm had already lost the title. We hadn’t yet seen Rousey return. Understandably, she was favourite to reclaim her title.
What happened was almost as shocking as the defeat to Holm.
There were unanswered questions after the Holm fight; fans clamouring to see Rousey back in the Octagon, many desperate to see her reclaim her crown, to see that the Holm fight was just a one-off, a Douglas, a Ruiz, a Serra.
There were no such calls this time. How she’d so often done to others, she’d been dismantled inside a minute. For the duration of the fight, Nunes was landing a significant strikes every two seconds.
Rousey really was finished this time, and a year later became a star in the WWE.
She claimed in 2015 she was the highest-paid star in the UFC, and if we’re going by her hourly rate of around £3,600,000/hour for her six UFC wins, it’s hard to argue. And all this when just three years earlier there were no women in the UFC.
In 2018 she became the fourth fighter to be inducted into the modern-era wing of the UFC Hall of Fame, as well as the first female.
While she may have lost her bantamweight title, and even the title of ‘GOAT’, her legacy in the sport will last forever.
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