Ronda Rousey is a paradox in spandex. The UFC women’s bantamweight champion shares so much about herself with the public, yet we still know so little about who she really is.
She may be the most discussed female athlete in the world, and few aspects of her life are out of bounds.
As she prepares to defend her title on Saturday against former boxing champion Holly Holm in the main event of UFC 193 before what is expected to be a record crowd of 70,000 in Melbourne, Australia, the many sides of Rousey are on full display.
As fierce and intimidating as she is inside the cage, she is frequently sweet and kind outside of it. At book signings throughout the country earlier in the year to promote the release of her autobiography, she greeted scores of fans who, after reading her story of redemption, bonded with her while sharing their most painful moments.
When Rousey learned that an amateur MMA fighter named Steve Watts was injured in an April 2014 bout and had been paralyzed from the neck down, she sent a heartfelt video message to him, wishing him well and urging him to not give up in his recovery.
“Hi Steve, my name is Ronda,” she said in the video to a person she’d never met, the pain she felt about his injury etched on her face. “I stumbled across your story. A friend of mine sent it to me. I just wanted to wish you the best possible luck in your recovery. … If I’ve ever learned anything, it’s that being in pursuit of a near-impossible goal is one of the most rewarding endeavors you could ever embark upon. … I hope you keep all the faith that I also have that it’s all going to be for a purpose and a reason and that your work isn’t for nothing. It’s going to pay off.”
It was a remarkable act of kindness.
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She posed for Sports Illustrated’s famous swimsuit edition earlier this year, and when asked about it, made a point to take a stand for women with body-image issues. Rousey purposely didn’t lose weight for the shoot, she said, in order to show that women shouldn’t have to be built like supermodels to feel good about themselves.
“When I was a kid, I thought maybe there was something wrong with me or the way I looked,” Rousey said last month at a media day gathering in her Glendale, Calif., gym. “The standard I held myself to, and hoped I would be, was the one that this kid I had a crush on liked.
“When I was 13, I had a crush on this kid who had a stack of Maxims in his room and I didn’t look like any of those girls. It was so hard.”
Her willingness to take a stand is why she’s increasingly asked about being a role model. Rousey is the epitome of the strong, successful woman, but she is uncomfortable with the thought of being a role model.
She’s only 28, and wise enough to understand that the best role model is always a parent.
“It’s flattering, but sometimes I feel I’m not infallible enough to really be the perfect role model for little girls,” she said.
And, indeed, in her book, she admits to domestic violence. She said that after discovering an ex-boyfriend had taken nude photos of her without her knowledge, she punched him, kneed him and tossed him to the ground.
Because she has made so many acerbic comments about boxer Floyd Mayweather’s past issues with domestic violence, critics have called her a hypocrite about the incident with the boyfriend she calls “Snappers McCreepy.”
Before a 2013 bout in San Diego with Sarah Kaufman, Rousey made an extremely tasteless comment that received no response from UFC management.
“If I get her in a choke, I'm going to hold onto it until she's actually dead,” Rousey told MMA Junkie. “And if I get a knockout, I'm going to go all the way. I'm going to try to pound her face into the ground [until] she's depending on the competence of the California [State] Athletic Commission to walk out of that cage alive.”
She’s extraordinarily competitive, and those comments were clearly made in a misguided effort to hype a fight. Wishing death upon someone in the guise of fight promotion makes little sense.
Those aren’t the words of a role model. They’re hateful, vengeful words and seem to diverge from the image she’s crafted over the last five years.
To her credit, she hasn’t come close to repeating such statements.
More recently, she hung up on a conference call to promote UFC 193 when asked by a reporter about news that she’ss dating fellow UFC fighter Travis Browne.
The woman deserves privacy and if she doesn’t care to discuss her personal relationships, she shouldn’t have to.
A loss of privacy is always an issue for someone with newly found, and quickly increasing, fame.
A little more than a month before that conference call, Rousey sat in a room in the bowels of the MGM Grand and spoke of life in the fish bowl.
The toughest part of living in the frenzied world as a paparazzi target is keeping some semblance of a private life. She said she’s routinely puzzled by the deeply intimate questions she’s asked.
Nothing, it seems, is sacred: Not her sex life, her politics, her personal relationships or the death of her father.
“I give so, so much but a lot of the time, it seems like even all of that is not enough,” she said. “I just want to have some parts of my life that are just for me and only me and don’t belong to the rest of the world.”
Prior to her UFC debut in 2013 against Liz Carmouche, she was besieged by queries about the impact of her father’s 1995 suicide. She angrily cut off all questions on the topic. She made one statement about it and then declared it off limits.
She’s largely held that stance since.
Rousey admits she has a great relationship with and been tremendously influenced by her mother, former world judo champion AnnMaria De Mars.
She was joking about De Mars in an interview and talking about how wild her mother can be. There are a lot of similarities between them, she admitted, but insisted her mother was more extreme than her in many ways.
“Everyone says I’m the normal one in the family, so that should tell you something,” she said.
A big smile creased her face as she talked about her mother. Asked how she was like her father, the smile instantly left her face and her eyes darted to the floor.
“Well, I didn’t really get to know him that much,” said Rousey, who was 8 when her father died. “I … I don’t know. You’d have to ask my mom. She’d know how to answer that better than me.”
She’s an enigmatic businesswoman who is the best in the world at what she does, perhaps the best ever. Her worldview has been shaped in large part by the lifelong pursuit of athletic greatness.
Typical high school activities like the prom weren’t part of her world because she was off preparing for the world championships or the Olympics, and she dropped out of high school as a sophomore to pursue those goals.
Rather than get a part-time job to learn those responsibility, she’d go to a local mall with a friend and bet men $10 that she could beat them up. She’d use the proceeds from those wins to fund her sweet tooth and buy Frappucinos at a local Starbucks.
Rousey is the most public of public figures, but there are so many mysteries about her life. De Mars said that few understand her daughter’s deep commitment to charity and the many charitable endeavors she undertakes.
Rousey is popular for a variety of reasons, but her humanity is at least part of her appeal. She’s rich and famous, but still acts like a nine-to-fiver going about her daily chores.
She’s long raised funds for FreeRice.com, an organization that attempts to combat world hunger.
Following her 34-second victory over Bethe Correia in her last fight at UFC 190 in Rio de Janeiro, Rousey remained in Brazil for a few days after the fight for vacation.
One day after the bout, she trekked to a local judo academy, where she donated $30,000 and left her championship belt as a way of thanking Brazilians for their hospitality.
UFC president Dana White was speaking recently of Rousey as he watched her work out. He’d run out of superlatives, not just about her ability to fight, but about the way she’s handled herself in the incredibly intense spotlight.
“There’s no one else like her,” White said.
For a variety of reasons, White never spoke truer words.
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