Ronda Rousey Breaks the Glass Ceiling: The Birth of UFC's First Female Superstar

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Ronda Rousey Breaks the Glass Ceiling: The Birth of UFC's First Female Superstar

Ronda Rousey is a fighter. 

It started at birth, as the umbilical cord tried to choke the life out of her. It culminates this weekend, when Rousey, along with opponent Liz Carmouche, becomes the first woman ever to step inside the Ultimate Fighting Championship's iconic Octagon. The two will square off at the UFC 157 pay-per-view event in Anaheim, Calif. on Saturday.

It's something UFC president Dana White said would never happen. And he was adamant. As recently as 2011, the normally verbose White had a single-word answer to TMZ's question about when he would promote his first women's match: "Never."

For Rousey and other fighters on the burgeoning women's circuit, that was a problem.

Founded in 1993, the UFC was the big leagues of mixed martial arts. While a fighter can make ends meet in smaller promotions, no one was going to get rich or even make a respectable living anywhere but in the UFC.

"I was always asked about Dana saying women would never be in the UFC," Rousey told Bleacher Report. "And I just said 'Look, he has no choice about it. I'm going to make him love me. There's nothing he can do.'

"I was going to be so good and capture so much attention it's going to be impossible for him to ignore me. It was something that had to be done if I wanted to have any future in this."

While there had been other stars on the women's scene, including Gina Carano and Cris "Cyborg" Santos, who drew major television ratings for a UFC competitor on CBS, nothing seemed capable of changing White's mind.

Nothing, that is, until he met Ronda Rousey.

White and Rousey backstage at UFC 148 (screen capture).

The two had engaged in friendly banter in the past, and White was impressed with Rousey's athleticism and skill in the cage. It was clear that women were capable of fighting at a high level. But he remained unconvinced that it was the right fit for his promotion—until a moment backstage in San Diego last August prior to Rousey's title bout with Canadian Sarah Kaufman.

"I've been in the fight business since I was 19 years old," White told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "And I know real fighters when I see them. She's a real fighter. She looked right through me with these eyes, like we'd never f***ing met and she didn't give a f*** if we'd ever meet. I loved it. Loved it."

 

The Birth of a Champion

"You're going to win the Olympics."

That's what Ronda's dad, Ron, told her for years. On the surface, though, Rousey's journey from judo champion to MMA star is an homage to her mother.

Before Ronda became the first American woman to medal in judo in the Olympic games, her mom, Dr. AnnMaria De Mars, was the first-ever American world champion in the sport. De Mars took the top prize in 1984, four years before women's judoka competed on the Olympic stage.

Baby Ronda with her father (De Mars family photo).

But as young Ronda grew up, it wasn't her mom she patterned herself after. And judo wasn't her sport. Ronda was daddy's girl, and their passion was swimming.

Early every morning they would get up and go to the pool. And every day when they were done, he would reaffirm that, despite a slow start, she could be anything she wanted to be.

To him, she was a "sleeper"—a child with vast potential despite her difficulties with speech that kept her from completing a coherent sentence until she was six years old. Ronda's condition, a product of the umbilical cord that nearly ended her life, had done serious damage to her throat.

To get the speech therapy she needed, the family moved from California to the wilds of North Dakota. There, her mother would study psychology, and the university would provide free treatment for Ronda.

When Ron got a job about two hours from the school, therapists suggested that rather than meet in the middle in a single home, the family should give their youngest daughter some space by keeping two separate residences.

With her two older sisters translating everything she said and making life a little too easy for the runt of the family, Ronda might never progress at the rate she needed.

Her sisters stayed with mom. Ronda moved in with dad.

"He always told her she was going to be the best in the world," De Mars said. "He always believed in her."

With her dad, she learned to hunt and to love the outdoors. And to laugh. But it was there, in the hills of North Dakota, where tragedy struck.

A freak sledding accident left Ron with a broken back. With no hope of recovery, he took his own life. When she came home to find black-robed priests in the house, Ronda knew that her father was gone. She was just eight years old.

"I had never seen my mom cry before," Rousey said in a 2012 interview. "My mom told me 'your dad's gone to heaven.'"

A withdrawn Ronda (De Mars family photo).

Already a girl with communication and social issues, Ronda withdrew further into herself. A return to California only made things worse. Without her father and any friends at school, Ronda was struggling, bad enough that De Mars homeschooled her in the fifth grade.

The answer, however, was staring them all right in the face: judo.

De Mars was hesitant. Expectations, she knew, would be huge. She was a legend in the sport. Ronda would not enter this world unnoticed.

"'Do your own thing.' That's what I told her. She's never been the best at doing what she's told," De Mars said with a laugh. "She was having a lot of trouble in school. I thought, well, with judo at least you have to have a partner. She would have to go out and meet some other kids. Maybe that would help her? I guess it did."

Some boundaries remained. Mom was never her coach. That would require more tough love than was healthy. But she did help Ronda hone her game.

At just a pinch over 100 pounds and with a knee injury that had hobbled her for years, De Mars focused her attention on the mat, becoming the master of the armbar.

"My only prayer to win was to get them to the ground—armbar them or choke them out. Ninety-five percent or more of the judo I did was mat work," De Mars said. "It's going to be a lot easier to win if you focus on the area most people are weak. I did that deliberately."

Armbars became the bane of Ronda's existence. Her mom would apply them from anywhere at any time, sneaking up on her daughter and applying the hold—a move designed to dislocate an opponent's elbow—while she lounged around the house.

Rousey applies her mom's patented armbar against Sarah Kaufman. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports

What felt like torment at the time was actually a blessing. Ronda learned not just how to defend her mom's bread-and-butter hold, but how to apply it. By age 13, she was a very dangerous individual.

By age 17, Ronda was an Olympian, surprising everyone but herself by qualifying for the Athens games in 2004. A scrawny kid who didn't quite fill out her judogi, she suddenly sprouted. After she was already beating grown women with her technique, the added muscle was her ticket to the top of the sport.

"In less than two years, she doubled in size, from 70 or 80 pounds to 140," De Mars said. "Once she had the muscle, nobody was going to stop her. She went from not fighting in a senior tournament ever to sitting on a flight to go to the Olympic Games in four months."

 

Battle with Bulimia

While her judo career was progressing at an incredible pace, Rousey was hiding a secret that was eating her up inside. Her growth spurt had made it difficult for her to make the 138.9 pounds required for a half-middleweight.

For her, there were two battles at every judo competition: the match itself, and the war with the scale two hours before the weigh-in. 

"I would get weighed all the time and yelled at for my weight. I had a lot of issues eating healthily and having a healthy self-image. It was something that I struggled with for a very long time," Rousey said.

"Any sport that involves weight divisions is going to make you super conscious of your weight. And it makes you way more susceptible to having problems. And being a teenage girl certainly didn't help. I thought I was alone in it. I thought I was only having problems because I was a weak-willed person. I thought having problems with my weight made me a bad person."

A high point in 2004.

The result was a miserable experience at the Olympics and an internal struggle with her love-hate relationship with judo.

"I felt so bad for Ronda in 2004. She was 16 years old and couldn't go anywhere by herself. We would all leave and go out, and she would have to sit in her room," Olympic teammate Rhadi Ferguson said. "She would cry. Her face, man. She was so sad, I'm really not sure how much she enjoyed those first Olympics."

After the games, she took a break from everyone and everything in her life. She left home, her mother and her judo coach Jim Pedro for two years. Though she only quit judo for two weeks in that two-year span, she was taken completely removed from her comfort zone. 

"She started competing at 11 and made the U.S. team at 16. And that had taken up a lot of her life," De Mars said.

Ronda wanted to do things her way after living a structured life for so long. But in mom's house, there were limits.

"I'm very old and Catholic and I think if you're living with somebody you ought to be married to them," De Mars said. "And she didn't think that way. There are a lot of things I don't approve of. And maybe I'm wrong, but if you're living in my house, I expect you to respect that."

When Rousey returned to the fold after two years, it was at a new weight class and with a new attitude. She was a happier Ronda, one who screamed, "I want a margarita" after qualifying for the Olympics and who documented her experience at a blog she called, "the judo life from a blonder perspective."

Rousey wins bronze in 2008.

She would win Olympic bronze in 2008 at 154 pounds, giving up significant size to her opponents rather than drain herself again.

"Sometimes you reach that edge and something pulls them back," De Mars said. "They realize 'My God, if I don't stop now, I'm going to really be in trouble.' I think Ronda reached that point with finding a healthy weight. It was so hard to make that weight, and Jim Pedro and I told her 'You don't have to. You're good enough to go out and win anyway.'"

Her brush with bulimia is something Rousey hasn't forgotten. When she recently traded in her 2005 Honda Accord for a new BMW, a gift from the UFC, her mom asked her what good she was going to do the world with her new-found fame. What cause would she get behind?

The answer was immediate: eating disorders.

"It's not one of the sexy or cool causes. People don't really want to talk about it," Rousey said. "I don't give a damn about being cool. I just want to help people. I'm secretly kind of a squishy, cuddly type. Because of my profession, people think I'm a lot meaner than I am.

"But fighting for a living has quite the opposite effect. I fight every day. It's what I do. It's what I've been doing my whole life. That means the whole rest of the day I'm so calm, mellow and chilled out. I have no more mean left over."

The result of a spur of the moment brainstorming session with family and friends was a partnership with the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Clinic called, "Don't Throw Up, Throw Down!" Together with the experts, Rousey will be taking the fight to bulimia.

She will match donations up to a total of $5,000 and perform a clinic for just the second time since beginning her professional career, donating all the proceeds to help young people with eating disorders.

 

Inside the Cage

Rousey, like all female fighters in what is still very much a man's world, has had to prove herself every step of the way. And every step of the way, she's silenced critics and convinced skeptics that she is every bit as dedicated and talented as her male counterparts.

Even her closest allies needed some convincing. Her trainer Edmond Tarverdyan initially didn't even want to give her a chance. The Armenian-American muay thai specialist didn't take women fighters seriously.

But like everyone else, after spending some time with Ronda, he now sings a different tune.

"She's so strong mentally. She's special to me," Tarverdyan said. "I try to treat all the fighters the same and get the most out of them. But Ronda is special. She listens. And she's a fast learner. She puts a lot of thought into what she does so I have to be the same way."

Ronda's professional MMA debut.

Rousey has met six opponents in mixed martial arts action, starting with Ediane Gomes in March 2011. All six have fallen in the very first round, and all six were dispatched by her mom's favorite hold—the armbar.

Part of her success is driven by instinct. Her mom calls it her "spider sense"—an innate ability to know exactly when and where to strike.

Ronda, a pragmatist, sees her success as the result of thousands of judo matches and hours on the mat.

"It's not quite chess, where I know where she's going to be in five moves," Rousey said. "But I know with every move what her options are and the answers to every one of them. So it's kind of like being a step-and-a-half ahead."

The results speak for themselves. Her opponent Liz Carmouche this weekend, in the minds of oddsmakers at least, is an almost impossible underdog. Rousey is a minus-1200 favorite, meaning you would need to risk $1,200 to take home just $100 with a Rousey win.

White is completely on board the Rousey hype train, but he's also been around the fight game long enough to know that things don't always go the way you plan.

"If she just keeps wrecking people in the first round of every fight, she'll go down as the greatest ever," White said. But the UFC president rejected the notion that Rousey may be unbeatable. "When she medalled in Beijing it wasn't the gold. So somebody in judo was a little bit better than her."

White has signed 10 female fighters to contracts with five more on the way, building a division specifically to put Rousey to the test. Potential title fights are in the works, including a potential rematch with former Strikeforce champion Miesha Tate or a bout with Olympic wrestler Sara McMann.

White figures that will buy him another year, and by then some new challengers will hopefully be established. For now, fans don't seem to mind that Rousey is fighting someone who seems so far out from her talent level.

Media requests are exceeding anything the UFC has ever seen, even when WWE superstar-turned-heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar was at the peak of his drawing power.

Although he won't publicly speculate about the UFC's proprietary pay-per-view predictions, White will say that there is every reason to be confident this weekend's fight card will be a hit.

Speculation is mostly about how quickly Rousey will end the bout. Few seem to give Carmouche much of a chance, but De Mars is one of a handful who worries. Days before the fight, she was at lunch with her priests, harnessing the power of prayer on her daughter's behalf.

"Maybe because I've fought myself so much, but the physical part is not what worries me," De Mars said. "I worry that some freak thing will happen, she'll slip on the mat and not win the match. That would kill Ronda. That would be more painful for her than anything physical, even if it's unlikely."

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