Prior to the March 3rd Strikeforce event, I didn’t know much about Ronda Rousey. I knew she was young, adroit at shit-talking and had a pension for arm bars. Miesha Tate was a clearer story – I’d seen her fight, heard her name, understood that she was an established fighter amid very, very few established female MMA fighters. Having finished opponents in a number of different ways and having a record with losses on it made her far more interesting to me than Rousey, who is undefeated – a quality I don’t find appealing in fighters. That said, being undefeated and having finished every opponent with the same technique is intriguing.
Here’s the thing about one-trick ponies: every one of his/her opponents should be aware that this one trick has done in everyone before, so ostensibly she’s looking out for it. In defense (and praise) of the pony, she must have a bevy of tricks in her arsenal in order to set up and get to that one trick. In Rousey’s case, she submitted every one of her opponents (though few in number) with an arm bar within the first minute of the first round. She’s never had a real fight.
She hasn’t had a real fight because she finishes them so quickly – Tate has actually fought her way to where she is. It’s true that Rousey talked her way into that fight and she admitted it in her victory interview, saying she felt that Kaufman (who’d just put on a great fight) was cheated out of the title match. Kaufman’s fight was exciting and full of action, but there was no tension in it. With the Tate/Rousey fight, I stopped breathing after the first takedown/arm bar attempt by Rousey within the first minute. The fight was amazingly technical and I know very little about JiuJitsu, so I can’t even imagine how much more was going on that I couldn’t even see.
Every woman I was in contact with throughout that fight told me directly after the match that they were pissed Rousey won. I was inspired by Tate, how strong she was, how aggressive she came out and how long she refused to tap when it was clearly an about-to-break situation; and she fought beautifully. But I was really impressed by Rousey. I’d watched all the prefight interviews and footage of the two of them walking around and I could feel Rousey’s bizarre fight energy. Tate is relaxed, she gives the right answers and is polite and beautiful. She reminds me of Carano in that she seems to fight from a place of anger about her beauty, but she also uses it in her marketing. It’s a conflict, inevitable as it may be for beautiful women. Rousey not so much. She’s beautiful too, but not obstructively. She weighed in with her hair in front of her face, fights with makeup on (cheap non water-proof stuff), and appeared offended by the interviewer suggesting she was a “one trick pony.” She glares. She fights out of something else entirely; she’s not being looked at the way Tate and Carano are.
After the fight she looked disturbed – partly because she’d just had to have a real fight, even though it didn’t last long, but I think also it affected her, perhaps painfully, to almost break Tate’s arm. She said she didn’t feel bad about it, but that may have been a momentary realization. I’ve knocked women out before and it doesn’t feel good. But her speech after the fight was nothing short of inspiring. She was thoughtful and assertive – she criticized Tate for backing down after being aggressive at the weigh in, saying she should have owned up to the head-butt instead of crying about it and suggesting Rousey get fined. She’s also talked trash in the past about George St. Pierre, saying he’s no longer good for the sport because he is so technical that it’s boring. She said, “it’s not the Olympics,” where you’re just trying to bring home a medal; it’s about gaining fans. This coming from an incredibly technical, Olympic fighter.
Rousey is “controversial” because she talks so much trash, but here’s the thing: she’s got a point. She named herself after Rowdy Roddy Piper, who comes from a sport that is obtusely theatrical and ridiculous. She claims she markets herself this way because women’s MMA needs controversy, needs theater because women all act like they’re gunning for Miss America. I hate how male MMA fighters talk shit and give this whole fake beef performance to hype fights. I like GSP. In his book, “The Fighter’s Mind,” Sam Sheridan notes that all the best martial artists are humble and ruminates on whether success makes one humble or one must be humble in order to really commit to the kind of mental, physical and emotional challenges that being a martial artists entails. Chael Sonnen talks a lot of trash, but he’s right – it’s intelligent and thoughtful and it’s not about how great he is.
And here’s where Rousey is right. I don’t know that women need to be trash talking the way men do, but a figure like her is going to bring attention to women’s MMA in a way that Tate’s hotness or Kaufman’s politeness won’t. Picture boxing in the 1950s and 60s. It was rough times for African Americans and the boxers who made it were quiet, “seen and not heard” figures that cut a big silhouette and had no voice. Along comes Cassius Clay who can whup ’em all, is boastful and loud, he’s political and vocal and he hangs around with Louis Farrakhan who names him Muhammad Ali. Holy hell!! Talk about shaking things up. Could he have gotten where he was without the boxers who played the game before him? No. Could boxing have gotten where it did without Ali? No. Same with women in MMA. Gina Carano cut a path and then abandoned ship; along come a few women who are really talented, work really hard and play the game in the way they feel is right. (Tate fought her way onto the male wrestling team in High School and kicked ass. She’s not afraid to push for what she wants.) But who are they fighting? The audience knows maybe 3 names of female fighters and everyone else is just another body in the cage. They’re fighting nobody, getting nowhere. And here comes Rousey, playing a different game, cutting a different path and all of a sudden you recognize both names on the card. That’s incredible. She’s using the tried and true method of creating a “black hat” to every “white hat” fighter she might face; she will always be the villain.
But I cheer for villains and I’m not the only one; it also makes it more fun to cheer for the hero – Margarito’s villainous, cheating depiction made Pacquiao’s quiet, polite approach visible where it otherwise wouldn’t be. Same with Mayweather, I love to hate that guy. My dad always told me it’s a greater performance to get people to hate you (talking about actors), that it takes more intelligence than playing a hero. And Rousey’s in a good position to play the villain – she’s young, blonde, attractive and she’s worked hard. Cris Cyborg is so scary just as is that being the villain in women’s MMA would have further ostracized her and made her a real beast – like being the only MMA fighter to ever test positive for steroids did. The interesting thing about Rousey though is that she breaks character. When interviewed after the fight she wasn’t a disrespectful little brat – she was actually very respectful and thoughtful and even a little political. Political in that she’s attacking how women play the game, not the merit of individual women (which is what the media and Tate is attacking about her.) It takes smarts to play dumb, as they say.
Perhaps more amazing is that I really like Rousey. She comes from pain – lots of it. Her grandmother pushed her mom out of the car at the YMCA and said, “go learn something,” which led her to take up Judo. This must have been in the 70’s – badass Grandma. Then Rousey watched her dad break his back during a family sledding trip and later he was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder that made full recovery impossible, so he took his own life in aversion to being a drain on his family and so his children’s last memories of him wouldn’t be a in a hospital bed, full of tubes. Rousey was 8 years old at the time. So at age 9 she switched from swimming (her dad’s sport) to Judo (her mom’s sport) and by age 13 was drilling these arm bars with her mom to the point she can do it in her sleep. Then she became the first American woman to medal in Judo at the Olympics. Now she’s turned pro before she “should” and wins a title before she’s “earned” it.
Here’s the thing: whatever it is that gets you in the ring or the cage, whatever it is that gets you to training every day and keeps you from quitting when it hurts or you’re losing or your heart is broken or nobody believes in you, that‘s what it is to earn it. These fighters have earned it before they ever step out into the lights.