Ronda Rousey sits in a curtained-off room at the sprawling UFC Gym in Torrance, California. Open workouts, more specifically girls gaping at Urijah Faber's new blonde locks, are happening in the Octagon in the middle of the gym, just on the other side of those curtains.
But back here, Rousey has found a respite from the commotion, relaxing with her team and family. Or at least, she's relaxing as much as she can, what with a history-making fight coming up on Saturday night and an utter deluge of media commitments that prevent her from taking a spare breath, much less finding any real time for herself.
And then, it's time for Rousey to hit the Octagon. She walks through the curtained doors and the crowd explodes.
This is not a crowd made up of your usual fans that attend open workouts, a sea of Tapout and Affliction shirts, grown men with replica title belts and signed UFC gloves waiting to meet their heroes. There's plenty of that here too. But they aren't the majority.
The bulk of the crowd here are fans that you'd never usually see at these kinds of workouts. They are soccer moms with daughters and sons in tow. I ask one, who would only identify herself as Kelly, why she took off work on a Wednesday to come to Torrance and bring her daughter to hang around the outside of a cage while a group of sweaty athletes went through something that, to a casual observer such as herself, probably looked a lot like choreographed dancing.
"She's a really big fan of Ronda. I don't even remember where we first saw her, but she's been a big fan. I think it's really neat, what (Ronda) is doing, and she's a great role model," she said.
This is the appeal of Ronda Rousey. Soccer moms in place of Affliction shirts. Young daughters congregating at workouts instead of tank-topped dudes with a bevy of terrible tattoos splashed across their one-size-too-large arms.
Rousey hits the cage in black yoga pants and a gray UFC jacket; she's sponsored from head to toe by the promotion. She goes through a series of judo throws that look, to my eye, like something straight out of professional wrestling. Each time Rousey executes a throw, her partner hits the canvas with a resounding thud, and the crowd responds with plenty of oohs and aahs.
Sure, she's doing these things to someone that looks like her little brother, but they're still thrilling and loud, and the crowd appreciates her effort.
The yoga pants and jacket come off. In their place are spandex pants and an Under Armour-style UFC training shirt. Rousey begins working with coach Edmond Tarverdyan, shadow-boxing as Tarverdyan paws at her with pool noodles. The crowd continues to cheer, and one fan standing next to me turns to his friend and says that all of that training Rousey did with the Diaz brothers is paying off. I don't know if this is true, but it's clear that Rousey is worlds better standing than the first time I saw her fight at Tuff N' Uff in Las Vegas a little over two years ago.
Rousey spars far longer than your typical open workout competitor. In fact, this seems a lot more like a real workout than something designed to please the fans. But then Rousey takes off the UFC training shirt, revealing a sports bra emblazoned with sponsor Gaspari Nutrition's logo on the front. The male fans in attendance scream and whoop much louder than they probably should, in a way that would likely be quite embarrassing if they heard themselves on tape just a few minutes later.
And then you remember just how Rousey worked her way to the top in such meteoric fashion. Beauty, brains and brawn, all combined in one super-sellable package.
Something for everyone.
Rousey finishes up her workout and leaves the cage a sweaty mess. She's instantly surrounded by fans seeking autographs, but it's the collection of media that swarms around her that grabs my attention. Our usual gang of mixed martial arts journalists waits patiently by the side of the cage; they understand the drill, and they know they're going to get their quotes and pictures and what-have-yous.
This isn't the MMA media; this is the mainstream media, all turned out in full force, all attempting to get the headlines, photos and video that their editors are demanding this week. Because, along with Danica Patrick, Rousey is one-half of a pretty big week for females making history in sports.
They surround Rousey, a lone figure clad in white and surrounded by a sea of black, as she patiently signs autographs for nearly every single fan in the gym. A mother places a UFC glove in the hands of what appears to be her three-year-old daughter and pushes her underneath the fan restraining rope, towards Rousey. UFC PR can't be happy about this breach of their perimeter, but Rousey doesn't give it a second thought. She signs the glove, hugs the girl and sends her on her way.
There is a young girl who spent Rousey's entire workout session frantically screaming the champ's name. It turns out that the young girl is completely blind. And yet, not being able to see anything doesn't prevent her from screaming for an athlete who has quickly become her greatest hero.
I realize, after observing all of this, that Ronda Rousey is a much bigger star than I anticipated. As she wraps up her day with a host of national media interviews, I begin to realize that those hardcore fans who, for whatever reason, are rooting for Rousey to fail as a pay per view headliner are going to be fairly upset on Saturday night.
Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones and Anderson Silva are all huge stars in mixed martial arts. But Ronda Rousey could surpass them all. She could transcend the sport and help push it forward into arenas where Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta never dreamed they'd be. And she'll do it by turning fans who have never purchased a UFC pay per view, those who would never dream of buying an event that featured Silva or St-Pierre, into a paying customer.
In short, Rousey could be one of the most important and influential stars in the short-lived history of this sport, and it all begins on Saturday night.
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