She will hurt you: Ronda Rousey, 24, ‘owns it’ in MMA ring
Flat on your back is not an ideal position in combat sports. Boxers blankly stare at the lights, trying to comprehend how they got there. Wrestlers’ shoulders are that much closer to getting pinned. And judo players have probably just been hurled over an opponent’s hip.
But in Ronda Rousey’s relatively new world of women’s mixed martial arts, it can be an advantage. And when the former world-class judo player clutches her opponent’s wrist to her chest, laces her legs around that arm and across her victim’s chest and wrenches with all her might, the outcome is inevitable.
Hips arched and staring above, all that’s left for Rousey is the waiting. As she forces that elbow to bend in an excruciatingly unnatural way, she’s wonders.
What’s next? The tapping or the popping?
Either one’s fine by Rousey. Because what follows is a feeling that cascades through her body with an undeniable rush.
Thankfully. A sense of relief.
At 5 feet 7 and fighting at 145 pounds, Rousey is a walking dichotomy. Her toned physique and fighting pedigree are belied by her soft features and engaging smile. Unknown to many is that for anyone who enters the cage, it’s a killer smile, for their radius and ulna risk being yanked out of position from their humerus.
Truth be told, while the armbar has become the weapon of choice for Rousey, just the mere talk of the submission causes the 24-year-old Venice resident to be repulsed into a series of mini-convulsions.
“You’re dislocating someone’s elbow right over our crotch,” Rousey said, punctuating it with an involuntary shimmy. “It’s like POP! POP! And after it pops out, it squooshes into nothing. It kind of squooshes right on your crotch.
“It’s so disgusting. It gives me jitters.”
Rousey knows the pain. She’s dislocated both elbows, along with three knee surgeries, a dislocated shoulder, a broken foot, broken toe, broken nose (three times). It all adds up.
“I look like a 2011 Camaro with 300,000 miles on it,” she laughs. “It looks like a good model, but it’s beat the hell up.”
Rousey’s disdain for her finishing move is of little comfort to other fighters. In three amateur bouts and two professional matchups, all have ended via armbar. All in the first round. All in less than a minute.
Gene LeBell, the legendary former judo champion and renowned “Godfather of Grappling” who serves as one of Rousey’s mentors with Team Hayastan, said Rousey’s skills, conditioning and drive provide the potential for her to go all the way.
“She gets in that ring and she owns it mentally,” said LeBell, 78, who not only has the experience to assess Rousey’s talents but the background in pro wrestling to express them colorfully. “She says, ‘This is my house. This is my bedroom, my kitchen, my garage and my front room.’
“She’s gonna annihilate you. She’s gonna mutilate you. She’s gonna assassinate you.”
In two minutes and 57 seconds over the span of a year, Rousey, a former Olympic bronze medalist in judo, has been able to put away five MMA opponents, dislocate three elbows and create a stir in the MMA world.
On Friday, Rousey (2-0) will take on Sarah D’Alelio (4-1) in a featherweight fight on the main card of Strikeforce Challengers at The Pearl at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. Televised on Showtime, it is her first fight with Strikeforce, which has been a stalwart in the industry when it comes to promoting women’s MMA.
The catch is that five months ago, Strikeforce was bought by Zuffa, LLC, the parent company of the UFC. And while UFC president Dana White has said Strikeforce will be an independent promotion, the nonexistence of women in the UFC — unless you’re a shapely ring girl — is hard to ignore.
Whether’s it comes down to skill or a gender issue, some MMA fans have no desire to watch female fighters. And that is an issue that turns the affable Rousey into a defiant pundit.
“Some people are stupid. Some people don’t understand. Some people just like to hate and disagree,” Rousey said. “They’re sitting on the couch in their mother’s basement and don’t want to think about some chick doing better than they are.”
AnnMaria De Mars is more pragmatic about it. Or at least as pragmatic as a psychologist and former judo world champion can be about her own daughter.
“Think about why people come and watch. I think Ronda has a good chance of making that happen more,” said De Mars, who in 1984 became the first U.S. athlete to win a World Judo Championship, three years before Ronda was born. “To be completely frank, she’s pretty. If she were butt ugly, they wouldn’t come watch her.”
Rousey knows what a pretty face can do for women’s MMA. Look no further than Gina Carano, whose beauty helped elevate the sport and her image to the point where she is starring in the yet-to-be-released Steven Soderbergh-directed action movie “Haywire.”
Carano’s dismantling two years ago at the hands of top-ranked Cristiane ‘Cyborg’ Santos brought forth cries of overrated … and huge ratings for Strikeforce. Rousey, however, is as eager to praise Carano as she is to fight her.
“I think Gina Carano saved my life. I would not be doing MMA if it weren’t for her. I don’t think I would have a viable career if it wasn’t for her,” Rousey said. “People can hate on her all they want, but you know what? I don’t care how she did it, but she made women’s MMA a real product. And I’m very grateful for her.
“If I fight her one day, I’ll do everything in my power to slap her across her face with her own arm, but I have lots of respect for everything she’s done. She changed my life and I never met her. I don’t have one bad thing to say about her.”
The one person who matters the most though doesn’t trade leg kicks and left hooks. He’s the one who signs the checks.
“I am going to make Dana White love me. I love listening to him talk,” Rousey said with a laugh. “He’ll come around because he’s a smart businessman. As soon as he sees it’s gonna make money, he’ll come around. So I’m trying to do whatever I can to make women’s MMA marketable and profitable.”
For Rousey, it’s simple.
Eventually. A sense of fairness.
With a dearth of female MMA fighters in Southern California, Rousey is accustomed to working out with men. And not just any men. UFC featherweight and Ultimate Fighter runner-up Manny Gamburyan. Strikeforce lightweight Karen Darabedyan. Ultimate Fighter participants Roman Mitichyan, Sevak Magakian and Sako Chivitchian.
“Because she’s a girl, they go harder. Because she’s a girl, they come at her harder,” wrestling and conditioning coach Leo Frincu said. “It works to her advantage.”
LeBell said the difference is that Rousey remains grounded.
“She listens. A lot of guys get a couple of wins in MMA and all of a sudden their heads are so big they can’t get through the door,” LeBell said. “She’s got her game plan, she listens, she looks right through you and does what you say.”
Aside from the obvious advantages of training with stronger fighters, Rousey sees another edge.
“They’re more technical than girls are. They’re much more disciplined with staying with a more structured way that they fight,” she said. “A lot of girls spaz out and it’s kinda hard. It’s harder to handle a spaz than someone who is actually a good fighter because you can play a game with them and you can actually make decisions. With a lot of girls, you have to improvise way, way more.”
Structure has been a part of Rousey’s life since she was young. She was a swimmer — “a skinny, scrawny, tiny, little thing,” De Mars recalled — growing up in North Dakota, her father Ron Rousey coaxing her out of bed before dawn to drive her to practices and meets. Between her mom molding her to have a mind like an athlete and her dad constantly pumping her up, the road had been set.
“I was always convinced I was going to be the best in something if I just believed in it,” Rousey said. “Because when you’re a little kid, your dad’s right about everything.”
But Rousey’s world was rocked after Ron Rousey broke his back in a sledding accident. His recovery was slowed by a rare blood disorder — Bernard-Soulier syndrome, which causes abnormal bleeding — that led to a prognosis of two years left to live. Not wanting his daughters to see their dad physically deteriorate as the medical bills mounted, Ron Rousey took his own life.
Ronda was 8.
“Her father truly loved her. There’s not a doubt about that,” De Mars said. “It’s really hard to lose a dad, but in a way, if you lose a horrible father, you never had a day with a good dad. And Ronda had a lot of good days with her dad. It was a terrible loss, a terrible loss of a really good person.”
For Rousey, it was the loss of a man who always saw the best in her. When she didn’t speak in complete sentences until she was 6 because of a speech impediment and a heavy dose of shyness, it was Ron Rousey who brushed it off. “Ronnie’s a sleeper,” he’d say.
He knew her best. He was her biggest fan. Even in his final moments.
“He left on the note that I am gonna be the best in the world in something. Whatever I do, I’m gonna be the best at it,” Rousey said, a hint of emotion showing as her eyes soften. “And I think making him proud is a big motivator for me. I just want to prove he didn’t believe in me for nothing.”
Sadly. A sense of purpose.
De Mars packed up the family and moved out to Southern California. Rousey lost interest in swimming and decided to follow her mom into judo. Her ascension in the sport, between her genes and her will, was hardly a surprise.
But to make the U.S. Olympic team at 17 and be the youngest judo player at the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics? That was a bit of a shock. With that success came struggles.
She was teased at Santa Monica High for having big arms and called Miss Man. Rousey also battled maintaining her fighting weight of 138.6 pounds, which led to bulimia.
A move up to the 154-pound weight class brought an end to the fights with the scales. A silver medal at the 2007 world championships was the harbinger for what was to come in 2008 at Beijing: Becoming the first American to win an Olympic medal in women’s judo.
With a bronze medal around her neck, Rousey was coming off a high. At least it seemed that way.
What people didn’t see was the toll the grind took on her. The years of pressure to make weight. The same coaches. The same training sessions. All the traveling. And the lofty expectations.
“You get to the point where you’re beating everybody, you win this, you win that,” De Mars said of the strain on her daughter. “You go to a tournament, winning is expected. But if you lose? ‘How could you have lost?’ It was a no-win situation.”
So Rousey walked away from it all. Estranged from her family and upsetting her coaches who had visions of gold at the 2012 London Summer Olympics, the 21-year-old Rousey landed a bartending job, got an apartment and embraced her carefree life. After a year, she looked into a career as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, but getting moved around every four years held little appeal.
“You didn’t have any say where you would go. And I’ve already worked in four-year cycles,” Rousey said, alluding to her Olympic experiences.
Meanwhile, Rousey would occasionally go to grappling workouts, staying in shape, rolling around with male fighters and having fun dabbling in disciplines far less regimented than her life in judo. She remembers watching the Carano-Cyborg fight and not being blown away. Before long, the men who tangled with her, who competed in Strikeforce and the UFC, suggested a new career for Rousey.
But where to start? She knew legendary coaches LeBell and Gokor Chivichyan and their camp at Team Hayastan in North Hollywood. She trusted their tutelage, their instincts, their decisions. It helped that she had known them since the day she was born, which proved vital when conquering that last opponent.
Who better to help convince her mother?
“She didn’t want me to do judo, that people would expect too much out of me because I was her daughter,” Rousey said. “She didn’t want me to do MMA. She thought I’d get my face bashed in.”
For De Mars, she had mixed feelings. She trusted Chivichyan and LeBell, but whereas judo was second nature for her, MMA was a new world that she admittedly viewed with a jaundiced eye.
“In judo, I knew exactly what was going on, I knew the people she was fighting, I knew the odds of her winning were pretty good,” De Mars said. “Any time you’re uncertain about something, you’re more anxious.”
After De Mars signed off on it, Rousey went at it full bore. Coaches Frincu and Edmond Taverdyan (striking) were brought in. From March to August in 2010, Rousey trained, worked as a veterinary assistant at CARE, volunteered her time teaching judo to kids and trained even more.
“We started out on Day One, we had a goal,” said Frincu, a former world champion wrestler from Romania who owns Results Personal Training Studio in Sherman Oaks. “When you start with somebody in anything, you set small goals. You accomplish that first step, then you go to the next step.
“With her, we set the goal to win the world title. We look at Cyborg or Gina Carano, those are two people we train for always. She still has that goal since Day One. Her progress has been spectacular.”
When Rousey signed her Strikeforce contract in June, it allowed her to quit her job at CARE and train full-time.
It’s not unusual to see Rousey going through a strenuous workout at Results, then later that evening rolling on the mats at S K Golden Boys Wrestling Club in Van Nuys or sparring at Glendale Fighting Club or teaching judo at Dynamix MMA in Santa Monica.
“Very few people have that championship mentality. She visualizes what she wants and goes for it,” Frincu said. “She’s in a zone every time she comes in here. Not everyone can pull that off.”
It is an exhausting routine. Most evenings find Rousey collapsing at home with her dog, a Dogo Argentino named Mochi, and checking out her Facebook and Twitter pages and sleeping.
“I have no life,” she said without regret.
It is a perfect scenario for Rousey. Several coaches for several disciplines. Training never gets stagnant. Decisions are made together.
“When I was in judo, they had to push me to train more. Now that I’m in MMA, my coaches tell me to do less,” Rousey said with a smile. “I haven’t had that kind of enthusiasm in forever, so it’s really refreshing.”
Rousey reflects on her life and recognizes the roller-coaster aspect of it all. After all the pain, sacrifices and injuries, she knows the journey has been difficult.
But the current path has never felt so good.
“I’m glad the hard part is over. Now I’m just doing the fun part. I’m getting all the good stuff, finally,” she said. “I can’t remember the last time I felt so positive about my life. I was living my life in a state of emergency for years, now it’s like, ‘Wow, finally.’
“I always feel bad. Friends of mine are going through hard times, finding employment and all this stuff. I almost feel guilty for being so happy. I’m one of the lucky ones right now and I know it.
“I earned it.”
Finally. At long last.
A sense of belonging.