Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 June 2019

Newsmaker: Ronda Rousey

After cementing her reputation as the world’s best female mixed-martial-arts brawler, it was confirmed this week that the UFC star will have her inspiring story committed to celluloid.
Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

The American rapper Eminem once labelled Ronda Rousey “the slaughterhouse in a blouse”, an athlete whose remarkable story has transcended sport to such an extent that it’s now destined for Hollywood.

The former boxing heavyweight champion of the world Mike ­Tyson, who also happens to be her idol, said of her: “She has that killer aura.” A recent article described her as a “pioneer, megastar, badass, a beast”.

Rousey described herself in The New Yorker as “the anti-hero, and I like it that way”, and her words are set for the silver screen after Paramount Pictures signed the film rights for her autobiography My Fight/Your Fight this week.

Were it just for her fight career, it would be hard to manifest ­itself into a film, bearing in mind she has spent just 25 minutes ­inside an Ultimate Fighting Championship cage for her 12 professional fights – so one-sided have been the contests, after which she celebrates with a post-fight meal with her family of hot wings and blue-cheese dip.

“Trailblazer” seems the most apt description for the 28-year-old in a sport whose chief Dana White adamantly said woman would never fight. Rousey cornered White at a UFC event in Las Vegas saying: “I’m going to fight for you someday and I’m going to be your first world champion.”

She has been true to her word, with White admitting that Rousey single-handedly changed his mind about the gender make-up of UFC fights, the pair signing a deal back in 2012.

In that short space of time, she has become a global star, luring an entirely new audience to UFC – most notably a female one – and becoming one of the world’s greatest fighters, male or female, in the process.

When she beat the likes of Serena Williams and Lindsey Vonn to the ESPY Award for the world’s best female athlete, as well as the world’s best fighter, eclipsing Floyd Mayweather to that particular gong, she caused a stir.

When she was awarded the ­latter honour, she said: “I wonder how Floyd Mayweather feels being beaten by a woman for once,” in reference to Mayweather’s previous track record on domestic abuse.

That she has been able to be so outspoken is remarkable. Rousey was lucky to even make it out of the womb intact; the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck, starving her of oxygen. It caused brain damage to the extent that she did not utter her first words until the age of 5 or 6.

It was her father Ron who tirelessly took her to speech experts – the family relocated from California to North Dakota for that purpose – and who first introduced her to his own sport of choice, swimming. Very much the archetypal daddy’s girl, she was rarely away from his side, going fishing and hunting with him in the warmer months and when sledding in colder climes.

It was while sledding with Rousey when she was 4, that Ron broke his back. Because of a blood disorder, he never fully recovered. ­After four years of decline in health, he committed suicide, turning her life upside down.

The family relocated to Santa Monica where her mother, AnnaMaria De Mars, took three jobs to keep the family afloat, before eventually retraining to become a psychologist. With her father’s passing, Rousey’s passion for swimming also died. She later switched to her mother’s sport, judo; De Mars had been the ­United States’ first judo world champion three years before ­giving birth to Rousey.

The training made her bulky, which in turn made school, where she shone in maths, science and art, an occasionally tough environment. She explained in one interview that she never went to a dance or on a date, while her peers nicknamed her “Savage” and “Miss Man” on account of her muscular build.

It was at the age of 14 that brawling was arguably first rooted into her psyche. She and a friend, Jackie, would bet local boys US$10 (Dh37) to fight her. An armbar – now her trademark move, which entails grappling a rival to the ground, trapping their arm between her legs and bending it at the elbow to a position to dislocate it – would follow and the money would be handed over.

As judo became more serious, school became less so, and Rousey dropped out in her final year to focus on being a world-class judoka, a move that paid off when she qualified for the 2004 Olympics, finishing outside the medals. Four years on, she had another chance. She lost in the quarter-­finals, but via the repechage system, she qualified for the bronze medal match and won, to become the first American female judoka to win an Olympic medal.

But her passion for the sport was unravelling: she had become bulimic to make her weight and was disillusioned by being given what she called “just $10,000 and a handshake” by the United States Olympic Committee in recognition.

The defeats were almost too much to take. In a blog, she wrote: “I can’t describe the way losing hurts. The whole time I’m crying, the salt it stings every bit of mat burn on my face and I just wanna curl up and disappear.”

From there, she rapidly went off the rails, becoming a ­marijuana-loving, menthol-­cigarette-smoking, heavy-drinking waitress who, for a time, lived out of her beat-up Honda Accord – hardly ideal preparation for become one of the world’s leading athletes.

The Honda has been replaced by a BMW, a gift from the UFC, which came calling in 2012 at a time when Rousey toyed with the idea of returning to judo for the London Olympics. Answering their call, she admits, is the best decision she has ever made.

She had already moved into mixed martial arts, adding boxing and muay Thai to her judo repertoire in a gym emblazoned with such phrases as “winning is a habit” – a habit which she shows no signs of kicking.

She has dominated the trash-talking, hard-fighting element of her sport. The only shortcoming appears to be a lack of opponents to match up to her skill set, a facet that White believes is changing, as more women turn to the sport, inspired by Rousey.

From the amateur ranks, like any good fighter, she needed a nickname. Her uncle Gene LeBell had previously coached the former wrestling star “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and she asked Piper’s permission to use the tag “Rowdy”. He gave the nod and the title has stuck to the athlete, who told Rolling Stone in a recent interview: “Right now, I’m the baddest chick on the planet.”

For White, who has overseen the massive growth of UFC globally and a conveyor belt of fighting talent, he’s in no doubt of the best athlete he has ever witnessed. In Rolling Stone, he said of Rousey: “She’s a beast, man. She’s the greatest athlete I’ve ever worked with. With her, it’s like the Tyson era, like, how fast is she gonna destroy somebody and in what manner? Ronda’s one in a ­million.”

Of the UFC’s pound-for-pound fighters, she currently ranks fourth, the only woman anywhere near the top 20, and her prowess in the octagon has led to all manner of endorsements and business offers outside of the ring.

She took 10 months between fights to pursue her acting ambitions, appearing as a bodyguard who took on Michelle Rodriguez’s character in Furious 7, which was partly filmed in Abu Dhabi, apparently leaving Rodriguez with two golf-ball-sized lumps on her head.

There have also been roles in Expendables 3 and, most recently, Entourage, leading to comparisons to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who has transferred from the world of wrestling to the silver screen. He and Rousey share the same agent, and ­appeared together as a double act at WrestleMania 31 in March.

She’s currently filming Mile 22 alongside Mark Wahlberg, with her autobiographical film also now in the pipeline.

In addition, she was recently named as the new face of the burger chain Carl’s Jr, following on from the likes of Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Heidi Klum and Kate Upton, and lucrative deals have been penned with Reebok, Buffalo Jeans and DraftKings.

She lives to train, admitting to leaping out of bed at her morning alarm call to walk her mastiff Mochi and get to the gym.

Her physique has been enough to warrant an appearance in Sports Illustrated’s Body Issue, and she has been outspoken on the issue of women’s body shape.

Her brash approach has occasionally meant she’s the fighter everyone loves to hate. As she likes to say herself: “I like quoting Lord of the Rings. My list of allies grows thin, my list of enemies grows long.”

For someone who didn’t speak for the first few years of her life, Rousey has been playing catch-up in dramatic, outspoken fashion. She talks almost as quickly as she fights – her most recent contest, on August 1 against Bethe Correia in Brazil, ran to just 34 seconds. Only one fighter, Miesha Tate, has been past the first round with Rousey.

Never an apologist, she wears her heart on her sleeve to the extent that she has been known to cry pre-, during and post-contest. Whatever the formula, it’s a story befitting of Hollywood and one set to run and run.

weekend@thenational.ae

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Updated: July 21, 2017 06:50 PM

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