GLENDALE, Calif. — The best mixed martial arts fighter in the world might be a woman, and Ronda Rousey shrinks from neither identity. As a stylist spritzes hairspray and a makeup artist dabs a brush across Rousey’s face for a fashion shoot, it’s easy to forget she can snap an opponent’s arm in an Ultimate Fighting Championship match.
That’s exactly how Rousey wants it. She wasn’t always comfortable with the baggage that came with these truths — not girly enough for teenage cliques, too pretty to be taken seriously as a fighter in a combat sport that combines disciplines such as boxing, jujitsu and karate — but today she embraces both. It’s her modern-day take on what exactly femininity entails: the beauty and the beast.
“I don’t think you have to forgo or shame women for embracing their sexuality,” she said, “or their professions or anything like that.”
Rousey’s appearance has helped propel her fighting career, and her fighting career has created a marketplace for her acting and modeling career. Now, with some of UFC’s other top headliners embattled — Jon Jones and Anderson Silva both recently failed drug tests — Rousey appears to be the sport’s most stable mega-star. Suddenly, UFC, the world’s largest promoter of mixed martial arts, might need Rousey more than she needs it.
As the 28-year-old puts her 10-0 record on the line Saturday in UFC 184 against Cat Zingano — and she begins the biggest year of her professional life — Rousey feels like she’s come to terms with herself as a fighter, as an entertainer and as a woman. More importantly, she knows how to balance the wide-ranging responsibilities and expectations that accompany these roles.
UFC President Dana White calls her a pioneer, someone he thinks is at the front of a “female revolution” both in the sports world and beyond.
“She’s changing the way we look at women,” White said. “And she’s changing the way women look at themselves, definitely little girls. When we were growing up, you were told, ‘You little girls play over here and boys play over here.’ Ronda Rousey smashes that whole thing.”
Truth be told, fighting was always the easy part. She was, after all, a two-time Olympic judoka. The rest has taken some adjustment, though. Family photo albums are filled with awkward, crooked smiles and baggy clothes. She didn’t wear makeup until she was 21.
“I was bartending, and I needed tips,” she said with a laugh.
As her mother points out, Rousey loves getting “dolled up” whenever she leaves the house these days — and with good reason. She’s a certified Hollywood vehicle. She appears in two movies coming out this year — “Furious 7” and “Entourage” — plus there’s a book in the works, a Reebok contract and regular appearances in glossy magazines.
White famously vowed to keep women out of UFC and now concedes that no men are as technically sound as Rousey when it comes to a judo throw or an armbar. Few others have created as much separation from their peers. White joked recently, “She’s gonna have to start fighting men if she walks through Cat Zingano.”
“The thing that’s scary is, Ronda’s still learning,” White said. “Every time Ronda comes out, she looks better. She came in here as a judo fighter. Well, now she’s becoming a well-rounded fighter.”
In many ways, her celebrity is bigger than UFC. She has retained agent Brad Slater from William Morris, who also works with wrestler-cum-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and fields more pitches than she has time.
“I always prioritize fighting first,” Rousey said. “Everything comes from fighting. The only reason Hollywood is interested in me at all is because I fight and I win. So I have to protect that.”
While she could walk away from MMA today and carve out a formidable non-fighting living — not unlike Gina Carano, the former fighter who appeared in “Fast and Furious 6” — Rousey said that’s not under consideration. The money, she said, is a perk; the actual fighting is something more primal and innate. “It’s just what I was born to do,” she said.
Nonetheless, it’s a juggling act. Her coach, Edmond Tarverdyan, said that once training camp begins, no one around the Glendale Fighting Club talks about scripts or Hollywood. Celebrities don’t stop by the gym, and Rousey doesn’t take on any other work until after a fight.
“We always keep it very strict,” Tarverdyan said.
That’s the only way. Rousey filmed “The Expendables 3” in the months leading to her December 2013 bout against Miesha Tate. Several weeks on set in Bulgaria kept Rousey on edge, and Tarverdyan said his fighter “got a little sick.”
“When she came to camp, we had 45 days to prepare,” Tarverdyan said. “I was a bit worried, I’ll be honest. . . . She wasn’t in the shape I would want to see her in when she starts camp. We did the best we can.”
The result: Rousey beat Tate at UFC 168, deploying an armbar in the third round. It was Rousey’s only pro fight that lasted past the first round.
“I don’t want to make excuses, but Miesha is a lucky girl,” Tarverdyan said.
Fight fans know her back story by now. Rousey was born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. She didn’t speak in sentences until she was 6. Her father committed suicide when Rousey was 8, after breaking his back in a sledding accident and becoming sick. And when Rousey was 12, still grappling with grief, she began studying judo at the urging of her mother, AnnMaria De Mars, who had been a world champion judoka herself when she was younger.
“I really do believe judo saved me from following a much darker path,” Rousey said.
But judo also trapped Rousey in an insular world with competitive pressures and physical demands. It fostered insecurities and body issues, eventually nudging the 5-foot-7 Rousey toward bulimia. She had to battle to make weight before competitions, faring better at 138 pounds than against the more powerful, taller girls in the 154-pound weight class.
“I started thinking if I wasn’t exactly on-weight, then I wasn’t pretty. . . . It sucks when you’re a teenage girl to be setting weight limits for yourself for your self-esteem,” she said. “There were real repercussions for it. If my weight was bad, I would suffer physically for it later because it had to come off somehow.”
At school, classmates would grab her arms and ask her to flex. She remembers them calling her “Miss Man,” and she started wearing baggy hoodies to school, no matter the weather.
“I felt extremely self-conscious about it,” she said.
By age 16, Rousey was a top-ranked judoka, choosing to drop out of high school to focus more on her sport. A year later, she was the youngest judo participant at the Athens Olympics. The physical and emotional strain took a toll on the entire family, though. The sport that had saved Rousey also had drained her.
Rousey’s half-sister took up the sport, and De Mars, who remarried, remembers her husband saying: “I hope Julia’s not very good at judo.”
“I felt really bad when he said that because I love judo and my kid just went to the Olympics,” De Mars said. “But I also knew exactly what he was saying.”
At 21, Rousey became the first American woman to bring home an Olympic medal in judo, winning bronze at the Beijing Games. But that brought her to a crossroads. For years, all she knew was judo. She finally had an Olympic medal but little else. She thought about sticking around four more years, maybe quitting sports altogether to become a rescue swimmer or give college a try. When she settled on MMA, her mother was not pleased.
“I told her, ‘It’s the stupidest [expletive] idea I’ve ever heard in my life,’ ” De Mars recalls. “ ‘And coming from you, Ronda, that’s saying something because you’ve had some dumb ideas in your life.’ Oh, I just thought it was the stupidest thing.”
They agreed Rousey would give it a year. At first she couldn’t find fights and certainly couldn’t make a living. But she kept trying, eventually convincing White that women could do more than carry ring cards. She became UFC’s first female fighter in November 2012, then its first bantamweight champion. There were more fights, more wins and more opportunities outside of fighting.
“Any way, shape or form you can monetize yourself as a fighter, she’s done it,” White said.
It’s such a mom thing to say, but De Mars can’t help herself. She thinks about her daughter posing for magazines, wearing what’s barely a hint of a bathing suit, and then thinks about all those people paying to gawk. “I just don’t want her to be naked,” De Mars said.
Whether it’s Maxim, ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue or Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue, declining the provocative shoots was never really an option. Rousey thinks “withholding any sexuality at all” sends the wrong message. She would rather present a realistic portrait of a woman.
“Changing the kind of media and images directed at men changes what women expect out of themselves,” she said.
Her broader message: Embrace who you are and what you have.
“I come from a very matriarchal lineage of strong women,” she said. “I don’t know why feminism became like a bad word or something insulting to call somebody. We’re not over the top. We’re not unreasonable.”
Following a recent workout, she conducted a handful of interviews at her home gym in Glendale, with stylists accompanying her to each camera. Then she jumped on a teleconference to promote the fight against Zingano. Eventually a reporter from Breitbart Sports asked whether female fighters could produce the same pay-per-view numbers as a male-dominated card. And if they can’t, might women’s place in the sport be harmed by Saturday’s show?
Rousey answered respectfully — “It’s a great opportunity to be able to prove something.” But the discussion kept simmering.
The reporter noted that MMA is still a niche sport and “the women’s thing for a lot of fans, whether you like it or not, it’s a turn-off for certain guys.”
Needless to say, Rousey did not like this.
“And you know what? Lighter divisions are a turn-off to some people,” she said. “But you don’t ask [male fighters] about that. . . . This is the thing that we’re starting to change. You are what we need to change about this culture.”
The gym erupted in laughs and cheers. Later, she called the reporter unprofessional and “a mama’s basement blogger.”
“But whatever,” she said. “Not everybody can be good at their job.”
Rousey is an entertainer and a fighter and, White said, so many other things, too. He made it clear he’s not about to pit her against a male fighter, and in the next breath, he noted there’s a good chance it wouldn’t be a fair fight.
“In the history of the world, there’s never been a situation where a woman could kick a man’s ass. Ever,” he said. “Now there is. I’d take Ronda Rousey against anybody, man.”