Ronda Rousey didn't crack many smiles during this season of the UFC's groundbreaking reality television show The Ultimate Fighter.
On the surface, there was plenty to grin about. Rousey, newly crowned as the UFC's first women's champion, was taking the world by storm. Movie offers were pouring in. Every spare second seemed devoted to a television appearance or photo shoot, and the wider world was taking note of the blond bombshell who combined a quick wit, muscular physique and surfer cool into one tantalizing package.
Coaching The Ultimate Fighter was supposed to be another step in Rousey's rise, a sign of respect and validation. But instead of Cat Zingano, who had earned her way onto the show, there she was again, riding Rousey's wave of success, trying to take what Ronda had earned.
What might have been the culmination of a journey, one that took the young Californian from the 2008 Olympics to the top of the professional heap, had been soiled.
"I shook her hand when she came onto the show," Rousey told Bleacher Report, detailing what might have been the last moment of civility during the reality television tapings. What followed was one of the most intense seasons in the show's eight-year history, a battle of words, wits and rage, Rousey meeting every challenge with her middle finger extended to the world.
And to Tate.
"It's not a joke. It's not an act," Tate said. "It's not like when the cameras turn off we're buddy-buddy and she's respectful. No. She's flipping me off whether there are cameras there or not."
But Rousey rejects the notion that she was a poor sport. Her actions, she says, were in response to Tate's provocations, which included offenses like smiling and celebrating her team's success. On the surface, nothing worth losing your cool over. Rousey, however, noted a pattern of disrespect, including some directed at her coach, Edmond Tarverdyan's, Armenian ancestry—and didn't take it lying down.
"I was taught that the people who are next to you are your family. If anyone insulted my family like that, I'd absolutely lose it," Rousey said. "It was the way she did a lot of backhanded and cheap things to the kids on my team. And she really insulted my coaches and friends. When she's just focused on me, that's fine. I expect that. But when you come after my kids like that? I won't accept it."
No one who tuned in could possibly be without an opinion. Rousey's default reaction to Tate, no matter how innocuous the insult, was too obscene even for cable. The threat of physical violence lingered, a looming tension that was hard to escape.
Even for a fight show, it felt over the top.
"Ronda Rousey is not someone I personally like representing women's MMA as a whole," Tate said. "Because you can see how she really is. ... It's all about Ronda and the Ronda show. She doesn't care how she comes off or how she represents women's MMA. It's going to be her way or the highway."
As the new year and UFC 168 approaches, there are no fence-sitters. You're with Rousey or you're against her. Either way, believing that any emotion at all leads to a pay-per-view purchase, she's just happy anyone cares.
"I think seeing women outside of the roles people are used to really incites a lot of powerful emotions," Rousey said. "A lot of powerful positive ones and a lot of very powerful negative ones. That's why it seems like nobody is just alright with me. It seems like they either hate my guts and want me to immediately die of a painful cancer, or they absolutely love me. And that's good. It's good to cause really polarizing opinions and really incite debate. Because that's what causes interest."
On the surface, the intensity of the rivalry doesn't compute. There doesn't seem to be any reason for the ill will, beyond the normal competitive spirit that drives high-level athletes.
But digging a little deeper, the real issue quickly rises to the surface.
Rousey, with all of her magazine shoots and late-night talk shows, is reaping rewards that some in the industry don't believe she's paid the sweat and blood equity to earn. And that doesn't sit well with veterans like Tate.
"She's so in the limelight that a lot of people don't even know other women exist," Tate said. "Especially before this season of The Ultimate Fighter. Ronda was that 'it girl.' Ronda gets a lot of the credit for carrying women's MMA on her shoulders, but I've got to say—there's a lot of women who have been working really hard for a really long time to get women's MMA to a place where there was even a platform for Ronda to stand on.
"I feel like Ronda is kind of standing on all of our shoulders. We're the foundation, but she's at the top of the pyramid. Everyone notices her and sees her, but all of the girls working for a really long time is what's really gotten women's MMA to where it's at [sic]. It can't just be one girl. She isn't fighting herself.
"A lot of girls have given just as much to the sport; they just didn't get nearly as much given back to them. The girls like Marloes Coenen, the girls like Shayna Baszler, the girls like Megumi Fujii and Tara LaRosa. Those girls were fighting and not making any money. Not a dollar. There was no publicity. Nobody cared about it. It was kind of a sideshow. There was a freak show aspect to it. It was given credibility by very few people. Those girls? I admire that. They kept doing it because they really loved it."
Rousey agrees that before she came on the scene, women's MMA wasn't in the best place. The top box-office attraction, Gina Carano, had left the sport for a career in the movies. Her replacements, like Tate, though capable in the cage, weren't drawing the same kind of attention.
Yes, they toiled under the radar. But to Ronda, Tate and others share some of the blame for that.
"That's why women's MMA was dying before. That's why, when Miesha Tate was the Strikeforce champion, no one was talking about bringing her to the UFC," Rousey said. "She was just one of many girls trying to play the Miss America role. Trying not to piss anyone off to avoid accumulating any critics. Because they were really scared to take on what comes with that. To really become a real entertainer and a real personality—it brings a lot of hate as well as praise, and a lot of people can't deal with that hate."
Of course, in many ways Rousey is talking about graduate-level fight promotion, the little differences between a major drawing card and a run-of-the-mill champion. Such nuances were the furthest things from the mind of the sport's women pioneers.
When Tate first started competing, women fighters didn't feature on major cards. They weren't mainstays on cable television. They didn't even fight the full five-minute rounds men do, forced instead to fight for just three minutes per stanza. They were barely second-class citizens in a sport already on the margins.
"To be a female drawn to this sport takes something really special," Tate said, suggesting society places women in a box, one that doesn't often include combat sports.
"Going against that grain takes a different mentality. Especially when you don't have a support system and everyone's looking at you like you're freaking crazy. Because you're a woman and what the hell's wrong with you? Why would a girl want to do this? Why would you want to punch someone or get punched? That's something that's reserved for men. This is a man's sport. You're a woman. What's wrong with you?
"I think people are really surprised that women fighters can do what we do. I think most of the time people are shocked that we aren't these weak, fragile little flowers who will crumple if we exchange a punch with each other. We're actually strong, capable professional athletes who put on one hell of a performance that people enjoy watching."
Tate would prefer to let her actions speak for her. A product of both the Nick Diaz ethos and the seemingly incompatible Chael Sonnen mentality, Rousey is happy to feed the media plenty of juicy tidbits to keep the machine fed and the fight in the headlines.
But the feud between these two women is bigger than a difference in promotional philosophies or a grudge over not paying appropriate dues. It's a difference in understanding.
"It's just crazy to see the evolution. I wasn't even sure at the beginning of my career that I would ever see the inside of the Octagon. I was hoping and dreaming and reaching for that, but I thought it might take more time," Tate said. "... It's hard to take it all in. Sometimes I have to take a deep breath—you know? I did it. Here I am. This is my goal. These are my dreams.
"I've been around this sport for about seven years now. There are girls who have been doing it longer, but I got into it when there was still no platform. Strikeforce hadn't even brought women in yet when I started fighting. I've seen the growth and evolution of it all. I kind of came in at just the right time to have the appreciation for the veterans who really had to give so much, but also get to take part in the reward we've gotten for working towards that common interest and common goal."
Tate believes that, because Rousey didn't suffer through the hard times, she doesn't appreciate the potential cost of every middle finger and every mention of death in the cage. She only knows success, catapulting to the top of the ladder others carefully constructed rung by rung, not quite understanding the tenuous ground upon which the whole sport is carefully teetered.
"For me, the big picture for this sport I love so much, sportsmanship is huge. That's what turns this bloodsport, this human cockfighting, all the negative connotations that have gone along with MMA for so long," Tate said. "We've had to battle these stigmas for so long. Companies wanted nothing to do with us. No one wanted to sponsor us. They were scared to death to even touch MMA. What was able to change that was us being able to show we're just like any other professional athlete.
"We have rules in our sport. We train hard. We train on offense. We train on defense. Most importantly, we have sportsmanship. We aren't fighting each other because we are angry, like bar brawlers who just want to knock someone's head off. We had to change the perception of what people thought MMA was about.
"You don't have to be angry to fight someone. You can turn this into a sport where there are points and there's sportsmanship above all. You see the guys hug after the fight. There's no hard feelings. They're not angry. This is just like any other sport.
"I have a heavy appreciation for that, and it's like Ronda doesn't. Maybe that's because she's naive? She hasn't been around quite long enough to realize where we started and how important it is to keep growing our image as professional athletes. Not emotionally unstable, angry people who just want to go out and break each other's faces."
To Rousey, the bad blood, the rivalry that the UFC and Fox Sports have pushed so heavily, is necessary to promote this particular fight.
In their first bout, Tate looked completely overmatched. She didn't just lose the fight; she had her arm surgically dismantled by Rousey's signature move. Since then, she's lost a bout to Zingano and done little to make anyone believe that a rematch would look any different than the first blowout.
"I think the rivalry is necessary. It really is. Because based on how the first match went alone, I don't think a rematch would sell," Rousey said in a moment of candor, perhaps giving fans a glimpse of the method behind her seeming madness. "There has to be a rivalry to bring interest in. It was the showmanship and entertainment that grabbed attention in the first place.
"Fortunately I'm at a point where it won't be necessary anymore. Everyone knows about the women fighters now. It's not like I have to blow horns and wave shiny things to get people's attention. We have their attention, and it's the sport and athleticism that keeps their attention. I'm grateful to be really maturing past that stage of my career."
That sounds a lot like Rousey looking past Tate toward the future, and she does it often. Losing, she says, never even crosses her mind. It's not even a possibility in Ronda's world, which is why she stirred the pot a bit earlier this year when she speculated she could even beat UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez in the right circumstances.
That comment didn't win her any new fans among hardcore MMA fans who scoffed at the very notion. But Rousey, who was recently ranked in the top 10 pound-for-pound fighters in the world alongside nine male counterparts, says she places no one above her. Even the baddest dude in the room.
"A lot of people took that to mean I was delusional and all these things," Rousey said. "But they totally missed the point. I don't want to put limits on myself. If I say the heavyweight champion of the world can beat me, then I'll be entertaining the idea that there is a limit somewhere—that there are people who can beat me and people who can't. And I'm never going to acknowledge that.
"There's not a single person in the world I couldn't find a way to beat."
Tate, too, feels like this is her fight to win. While every fighter says that in the days leading into the bout, talking with her, you get the sense she really believes it. Though different from Rousey in tone and tenor, Tate sounds every bit as confident she will be the first to beat Ronda in the cage.
"I'm just discovering how strong I am," Tate said. "How strong I am in my mind and how strong I am in my body. And there's nothing that I'm not willing to do to win this fight. It's all come together for me so well. I've never had such an amazing training camp. I've grown so much and matured so much, at the right time. I just really feel in my heart that this is the time."
Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate fight Saturday night for the UFC bantamweight title at UFC 168. Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer and the author of three books on MMA. All quotes, unless otherwise mentioned, were gathered firsthand.
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