How Ronda Rousey built an industry that eventually destroyed her
The first lady of the UFC, Rousey took the sport to unchartered terrain and eventually paid a painful price
It’s good being bad. Very good, just ask Ronda Rousey. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Rousey became the first American to ever win a judo medal when she captured the bronze before parlaying that victory into a highly unlikely and wildly successful crossover career. Thanks to her insatiable desire and charisma, she became an industry unto herself by creating an invincible aura the likes of which sports has rarely seen.
It’s important to remember all this because today, at the still youthful age of 29, Rousey is no longer bad. Not even close. The first female UFC champion, Rousey was absolutely obliterated last week at UFC 207 by Amanda Nunes in the bantamweight championship. The beat down came on the heels of an equally painful dismantling little more than a year ago at the hands of Holly Holm.
In her first 12 fights, Rousey systematically destroyed her opponents so thoroughly that only one match made it past the first round. She was just as ruthless outside of the ring as well with her condescending and disrespectful attitude toward her opponents.
Such was the hype that there was even talk of her being a viable opponent to undefeated welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather. Of course it was all folly but the fact that it was even mentioned spoke volumes about Rousey’s appeal.
Over the last five years she became the most visible female athlete in the world and took the UFC to places it had never been before. There have been a number of great male fighters in the UFC but none of them sat next to Oprah on the couch or shared a hug with Ellen.
She became a much in demand movie commodity as well appearing in The Expendables 3, Furious 7 and Entourage. Photogenic and confident, Rousey came to embody the true essence of a crossover star. But just like Dr. Frankenstein, the monster Rousey created would ruthlessly destroy her.
She personally made women’s UFC a potentially lucrative vocation for a number of talented and tough female fighters, which meant that eventually the competition would get significantly better. And hungrier, much hungrier. It has to be all consuming when you prepare for a championship bout against a worthy opponent, which becomes more and more difficult when you split your time between the movie set and the gym.
The notoriety also makes you a target and no scalp would be more impressive on a resume than Rousey’s.
Things are so much more different for trailblazers in an individual sport. Even when a sports team goes through a rough patch, most are firmly embedded in the civic fabric and history so it behooves the community to get behind them. Despite being an Olympic medalist, Rousey was still very much on her own in a career that was predicated on her being the baddest woman in the world. Lose that aura and fans will simply say, next.
And it’s not like anyone ever compared her on screen work to a young Meryl Streep either. Her whole movie shtick was because of her fearsomeness, an element that no longer exists.
Of course, no one should shed a tear for Rousey. While her career in the octagon may be over, she still has enviable options and should be financially secure. There is also a modern parallel for redemption for Rousey, albeit on a slightly grander scale. No athlete has been as dominating and intimidating in this century as Tiger Woods. Like Rousey he took a somewhat fringe sport to places it had never been and pumped so much money into the game of golf both in the US and abroad that a generation of wide eyed and talented young athletes desperately wanted to follow in his footsteps. But when his focus waned, so too did his success.
Physically broken, he is trying to make a comeback at 40 despite the presence of a number of top flight young studs, most of whom he inspired, in a sport that desperately needs him. His struggles have made him human, even sympathetic and so could Rousey’s.
There is little debate about her role in the sale last year of the UFC for US$4.2 billion. Long time UFC fans may disagree, but that kind of money is spent on engaging new fans and while you most certainly cannot desert your core, you still have to grow the sport.
Nobody grew it like Rousey, she single-handedly made women’s UFC and left a massive imprint on the entire sport. While she may have gotten her comeuppance, there could well be a future in humility for Ronda Rousey because if you build an industry, you may as well enjoy it.