While some of the words that could describe Ronda “Rowdy” Rousey include abrasive, polarizing and provocative, there is no denying her popularity. Although her bad girl persona is revolutionizing the perception of women in sport, she has risen as the premier name in the UFC empire.
Considering the absence of once bankable stars such as Tito Ortiz and Georges St. Pierre, Rousey has become the selling point for the promotion, including the headlining of pay-per-views. In the 2014 edition of the official UFC calendar, Rousey gained the coveted January slot, testament to her already remarkable popularity.
The highly anticipated yet historic UFC fight in Seattle last March between lesbian fighters Jessica Andrade and Liz Carmouche gained traction as the presence of Rousey propelled a need to establish rivals in a rapidly expanding women’s division. It came as no surprise when the most recent season of The Ultimate Fighter series featured Rousey and her arch-rival Miesha Tate as trainers.
Of note, Rousey’s December 28, 2013 tussle with Miesha Tate for the women’s bantamweight title was the main event at UFC 168. Although many experts believed the match could have resulted in an upset, they were proven wrong when Rousey gained another victory by submission. As a side note, Rousey’s trainer, Edmond Tarverdyan actually placed a photo of Tate on his body protector so that Rousey could strike it during warm-ups.
While Rousey entered the octagon to a chorus of boos, she did not endear herself to the haters after the match. Although bad blood existed between the two fighters, issues over who paid their dues and overt sexuality, Tate offered Rousey a hand shake to which Rousey walked away. Some sporting purists may say that it was poor sportsmanship on her part but the true reality is that she has established herself as a lightning rod for controversy.
Despite the controversies in her career, her impact in popular culture is indisputable. From making Jim Rome blush in a TV interview about her approach towards intimacy before a fight to guest hosting on TMZ, Rousey’s star has also caught the eye of Hollywood. Having inked film appearances for the next installment in The Fast and Furious film franchise along with The Expendables 3, Rousey is breaking ground for female athletes.
While her bravura could easily be translated into cockiness, the combination of her bad girl persona, sex appeal and rough and tumble demeanor has captured the imagination of sports fans. From her appearance in 2012’s ESPN Body Issue to gracing the cover of Maxim Magazine in spring 2013, the editions quickly flew off the newsstands, becoming collector’s items.
Having emerged as a household name in a sport where brutality and aggressive behavior is the norm, it may be seen as ironic for the hardcore fans of the Mixed Martial Arts brand that a female fighter has emerged as the flagship. It harkens back memories of professional female wrestler Mildred Burke.
During the Great Depression and the early years of the post-World War II era, Burke was the biggest star in professional wrestling. At a time when the male grapplers endured difficult selling their sport, Burke’s personality and enthusiasm shone as women broke barriers in the traditionally male-dominated domain. It was not uncommon that matches Burke main-evented drew five to ten thousand paying customers. Today, Rousey is following in her footsteps and emulating her impact.
Her next test shall come at UFC 170 against fellow Summer Games competitor Sara McMann. With a background in wrestling, there is certainly no bad blood between these two. Having started wrestling at the age of 14 in North Carolina, she gained a silver at the 2003 World Championships. Of note, she would follow it up with bronze medal performances in 2005 and 2007. In typical Rousey style, she did state to reporters that she did not mind if she was seen as the bad girl compared to McMann’s cheery image.
Aficionados of the sport believe the Rousey is not as good on her feet and that her strategy favors getting opponents off their feet so she can place them in her patented arm bar. Even a loss to Rousey would do nothing to tarnish her image. All of the greats eventually lose. Considering she earned a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, she can be beaten.
Of note, legendary boxers Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson ruled their generations with an in-ring presence that was undisputed. Despite the eventuality that their careers would peak and losses were inevitable, their legends were firmly entrenched. Rousey has established the same type of legacy as she has helped to not only challenge the cultural norm but provide women with the opportunity to main event on the biggest stage in MMA.