Ronda Rousey: The Human Element

Michael Stets@@DarcesideradioContributor IIIFebruary 12, 2013

August 18, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA;   Ronda Rousey (black shirt) celebrates after she defeated Sarah Kaufman (not pitcured) during their Strikeforce MMA women's bantamweight title bout at the Valley View Casino Center. Rousey won in 54 seconds of the first round. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

“Teardrop on the fire of a confession, fearless on my breath.”

─Massive Attack, Teardrop

While watching last week’s episode of UFC Primetime: Rousey vs. Carmouche, I recognized a familiar song.  It was a cover version of “Teardrop,” written by the UK trip-hop group Massive Attack.  This stripped down, and haunting acoustic version by Swedish singer-songwriter José González, was quite apropos; as it played after one of the most gripping and visceral scenes of the episode.

Viewers saw a different side of Rousey this time.  Instead of more B-roll footage of her pulling arms across her waist for her patented submission, we saw tears falling down her face as she submitted to her own overwhelming emotion. 

She was telling the story of the death of her father, who committed suicide when she was very young after complications due to a severely broken back suffered from a sledding accident.

He deteriorated very fast and was told he would become a paraplegic, then quadriplegic, and had two years left to live.

“My dad decided that he didn’t want the girl’s last memories of him to be in a bed with tubes running in and out of him,” said Rousey with tears in her eyes, explaining her dad’s reasoning to end his own life.

Rousey confessed she hated talking about it, and accused herself of prostituting the memory of her father for personal gain.  I disagree with her.  Seeing this side of a polarizing athlete and star is one of the greatest qualities of sports. 

She has answered questions about this very topic since her days of competing in judo.  If anything, I thought it was courageous to bare her soul to television cameras the way she did. 

The human element is compelling.  Fans want to be able to relate to their sports heroes.  They are moved by knowing that a superstar like Rousey, who is a fierce competitor in the cage, can break down and cry just like they can. 

They are amazed that the first ever women’s UFC bantamweight champion, who every time she has a fight─it’s now compared to the aura of the Mike Tyson era in the 80’s, couldn’t talk until after she was three years old because she was born with her mom’s umbilical cord around her throat. 

Fans want to know that stars like Rousey have faced hardships like the death of a loved one in their lives, just as they have in their own.

What really struck a nerve with me while watching this episode of UFC Primetime, was hearing this familiar quote.

“I never saw my mother cry before, ever,” Rousey said.  “She looked at me and Jennifer (Rousey’s sister) and sat us down and said your dad went to heaven.”

I heard this quote when I was 11 years old.  Only it was my father talking about my mother.  And I, like Rousey with her mother, never saw my father cry, ever.  After I digested that scene, I thought of all the other viewers who watched along with me and how it must’ve touched them the same way it touched me. 

As Rousey was crying and talking about losing her father, I got the impression she would give back her UFC bantamweight title and Olympic judo medal tomorrow, to have him back in her life.  That, to me, was the other fascinating part about this episode, how the events in someone’s life change their course and affect its outcome.

Maybe if Rousey’s father didn’t die, she wouldn’t have come this far as an athlete.  Maybe that drive, ambition, and fierce competitiveness that she has displayed her entire athletic career would cease to exist. 

Maybe she wouldn’t have become an Olympic medalist or the women’s UFC bantamweight champion.  There is no way to know that, but we know from watching UFC Primetime that his death is a huge part of her journey.  She revealed that she thinks about him all the time, and she wonders what he might think of her now.

“That’s why I always say I hope he would be proud of me, because I don’t know,” Rousey said before taking a long pause.  “I don’t know, but I hope.”

Many of us would like to borrow Clarence Odbody from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, to show us how our life would be without someone in it, like he showed George Bailey how his would be if he were never born, but it just isn’t possible.

We all deal with the hand we’ve been dealt, whether we are a star athlete, or an average Joe.  What happens to us, and how we handle it, ultimately makes us who we are. 

Ronda Rousey drew her fans in by winning her first six pro fights in less than 10 minutes.   It’s that human element that Rousey displayed during a half-hour television show that will connect her with that fanbase, and keep them there.