Being a woman in combat sports presents unique challenges when it comes to audience perception. For Ronda Rousey, the fairy tale-esque origin story of her being an American Olympian with tragedy in her childhood catapulted her into the spotlight as a mainstream media darling. But as quickly as she was built up as the newest UFC star, her coaching position on The Ultimate Fighter has torn her down from the pedestal of adulation.
This all raises the question — who is the real Ronda Rousey? Is she a spoiled brat who overruns boundaries because she feels entitled to preferential treatment? Or was she manipulated into losing her cool on the Ultimate Fighter set, with the results being slickly edited to paint her in the worst light possible?
CagePotato’s Elias Cepeda attributed Ronda’s athletic success to her crazy attitude, writing “Ronda Rousey hasn’t met anyone meaner or madder and that’s a big reason why she’s the champ.” However, the truth can’t be so simple when nice guys like Lennox Lewis and Georges St-Pierre have utterly dominated their competition throughout their respective eras.
Doing media in the lead-up to her rematch with Miesha Tate at UFC 168, Rousey was in fine form recently, riffing lines to FightHubTV that could be penned by whoever writes Chael Sonnen’s politically incorrect jokes.
“How long ago was it that Kim Kardashian had dicks in her mouth and now she’s selling my little sister shoes?” she said at one point, trotting out some old material to the delight of the reporters in the room.
Talking to AnnMaria De Mars, Ronda’s mother, I thought I’d uncover some hidden clues to unlocking or understanding Ronda’s personality. The idiom of the apple not falling far from the tree has been used to compare the 1984 world judo champion to her daughter who placed second at the 2007 world championships and earned a bronze at the 2008 Olympic games.
“People are sometimes offended by Ronda because she does not fit how they think she should act,” wrote AnnMaria on her blog about Ronda’s stint on TUF. “At Ronda’s age, given the same degree of provocation, I would have punched out a few people, hit someone with a chair, told everyone to fuck off and walked out.”
Far from the out-of-control attitude one might perceive from her writing, AnnMaria De Mars comes across as a sensitive, polite and hyper-intelligent woman. She’s an overachiever across the board who has earned a PhD, runs a group of technology companies and co-authored a book (Winning On the Ground). If she has a flaw that’s rubbed off onto Ronda, it’s her hypercompetitive attitude and an overbearing sense of right and wrong that splintered Ronda into a rebellious spirit.
In a blog that appeared on The Telegraph, Ronda recalled breaking three bones in her foot jumping a 12-foot fence while cutting class at the age of 15. AnnMaria was out of town at the time, but she sent her daughter to Northern California to compete in a fierce rival’s tournament without a coach.
“You hurt yourself skipping class, you don’t get any sympathy from me,” says AnnMaria, who learned of the extent of her daughter’s injuries after the fact.
The pressure from AnnMaria might have made Ronda angry at the time, but in the long run, AnnMaria rationalized that it made her a stronger competitor because it would help her deal with the hostile environments that athletes so often find themselves in on the international judo circuit.
“I see so many people in life who are held back because they don’t believe they can do something,” says AnnMaria. “You learn not to give yourself excuses.”
There’s still no telling what kind of emotional impact AnnMaria’s authoritative parenting style had on Ronda. Demanding oneself to do things better and better with each successive attempt has a way of cultivating insecurities side-by-side with confidence.
There are only superficial parallels to sports dads who pushed their sons too hard, like Marv Marinovich and his troubled son Todd Marinovich or Roy Jones Sr. and his ultra-talented son Roy Jones Jr. In those two cases, Marv and Roy Sr. expected their sons to fulfill what they couldn’t by making it to the big time of the NFL and professional boxing, respectively.
“I was against judo, I was against MMA, so I’m batting zero on this,” says AnnMaria.
After the Olympics, Ronda had a free ride to attend any of the top 500 private universities in the US thanks to her mother’s job at the University of Southern California. Her decision to make a foray into professional fighting had her mother scratching her head, to say the least.
“I told her ‘That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. There’s no money in it.’”
Ronda proved her mother wrong, first by winning the Strikeforce bantamweight title and then by becoming the first women’s champion in the UFC. Beyond her skills in the Octagon, Ronda has an even more impressive record of giving back to the community: giving judo clinics for charity, being an advocate of a positive body image for women, and even helping facilitate the donation of rice for the World Food Program.
Ronda’s flaw is purely a matter of perception — she’s easily disturbed and oversells what the audience needs to judge for themselves. Maybe Miesha Tate isn’t a great coach. Maybe Ronda’s team needed her to console them in defeat backstage instead of her giving an interview after the TUF 18 finale. But in MMA, fans want to see an athlete who seems grateful to appear before them, like when Georges St-Pierre got down on his knees to beg for a title shot after beating Sean Sherk at UFC 56.
Georges St-Pierre had an excellent mental game that he never got enough credit for throughout his storied career. No matter how hard BJ Penn pushed him before their rematch at UFC 94 — even going so far as saying he would kill St-Pierre — GSP was unperturbed, and responded by saying that he liked BJ Penn.
“He can say whatever he wants. A lot of people can talk – it’s easy to talk, but it’s harder to walk the walk,” St-Pierre told me.
After all, the two truest things in combat sports are that everyone loves a winner and a fighter is only as good as their last performance. On December 28th, Ronda doesn’t have to concern herself with the opinions of fans, pundits or fellow-fighters. She only has to drag Miesha Tate into deep waters and slap on her signature armbar in order to exorcise the ghosts of her Ultimate Fighter experience.
While we can say anything we want about Ronda Rousey as a person, her wins will define everything that we can say about her career as a fighter.
Brian J. D’Souza is the author of the recently published book Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts. You can check out an excerpt right here.