In the Cage with Ronda Rousey: Opponents Dish on Fighting the Champ

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterNovember 13, 2015

On Saturday at UFC 193, Holly Holm, a former boxing champion who is chasing the bright lights and bigger paydays available to women in mixed martial arts, will step into the cage with the most dominant fighter in the sport's history.

Ronda Rousey is not only the UFC's first and only women's bantamweight champion—she's a wrecking ball without precedent, a fighter of such ferocity that lasting more than one minute in a confined space with her is considered a badge of honor.

Rousey has finished opponents in all 12 of her professional fights. Eleven fell in the first round—eight in the very first minute.

At first glance, nothing stands out about Rousey. She displays no identifiable physical tool that would lead an observer to suspect she was a fighter without peer. And yet her success leaves no doubt: Rousey is special.

What creates that seemingly insurmountable gulf between Rousey and her peers? Bleacher Report tracked down five of her former opponents, women who pitted their own fierce will and carefully honed skills against hers and came up short.

Rousey's success starts before the first bell sounds, when ring announcer Bruce Buffer begins his endless pre-fight routine. In this calm before the storm, some fighters disappear within themselves, seeking peace and clearing their minds for the battle to come.

Rousey, instead, paces. She snorts, as the promise of violence to come is unmistakable in her every move. But her eyes tell a different story, darting around the arena and never quite settling on anything. The eyes reveal all—and Rousey's, contrary to every myth about the cool and calm professional fighter, show the fear roiling around in her gut.

"When you look into her eyes you can see she's different," Ediane Gomes, Rousey's first professional opponent, said. "She has a different heart. When you are a warrior you have to admire someone like her."

"She's scared and excited and feels like she literally has her life on the line with every fight," former Strikeforce bantamweight champion Sarah Kaufman said. "She thinks of it as a fight more than a sport. She sees it as a fight for her life. That's why she comes out as quickly as she does. I don't think she necessarily spends that much time thinking about what her opponent is going to do. She has this mindset of 'this is what I'm going to do.' There's not a defensive thought in her head. That's pretty huge.

"My brain doesn't quite work like hers does. I don't think I'm as much of a psychopath. Or at least not in the same way. I'm super happy to get in there, and that makes me a little bit crazy. Whereas she is scared but also 100 percent determined and confident. I think she literally would let her arm dislocate and spin around backward. And she'd still try to hit you with it."

While physical violence must wait for the confines of the cage, the psychological war begins long before the two women ever strap on gloves and make the long walk to the Octagon. In the last several years the opportunity to fight the world's best has also come with unprecedented promotional responsibilities and media attention.

A Rousey fight is more than an athletic contest. It's an event that is as likely to be discussed on Good Morning America as it is on the ubiquitous MMA blogs dotting the Internet. For some such as Liz Carmouche, that's a good thing. The UFC's first openly gay fighter, her appearance opposite Rousey in the UFC's inaugural women's fight brought plenty of positive attention from gay-friendly media outlets that aren't necessarily MMA's bread and butter.

"I spent so much time in the closet in the Marine Corps and I wasn't going to hide who I was," Carmouche said. "If it meant I was going to lose out on opportunities, they weren't meant to be. But it took off with a whole different energy than I ever expected.

"There was a point when people didn't see the UFC as supporting the LGBT community or homosexuality. But by embracing me, the UFC showed that wasn't true and that it wanted to support the community as much as possible. I thought our fight would be overlooked. But it had such an impact. Young women in college and high school talk to me about it. We're in textbooks. We made history, for women's rights and for the LGBT community."

For other fighters, the attention is an overwhelming hassle. As Rousey's stature grew, so did the responsibilities heaped on every opponent.

"Do I want to be champion? Hell yeah. Do most people have what it takes to offer themselves fully and wholly to that responsibility? Honestly, probably not," Cat Zingano said. "It was huge. There was a lot of buildup to it. Everything that Ronda has to do, media-wise and travel-wise and promotional-wise. I was spread thin in an already thin life."

Whether she embraced extra promotion willingly, such as Miesha Tate did, or begrudgingly, such as Kaufman did, the other woman in the cage was always the "opponent." Equal time was never an option. Rousey, promoters have made clear, is the star.

Everyone else is just there to provide a foil for her greatness.

"I remember a Showtime producer telling me, 'Ronda's the next big thing. She's the star. We have to make her look good.' Over and over again it was clear that Ronda was the one they cared about. You're just the other person," Kaufman said. "At the shoot there's Ronda. She has her hair all blown out and they've done her makeup and they have her in front of this big fan doing all this different stuff.

"They put me in this white latex suit that was two-and-a-half sizes too small so I can't sit down in it without busting the seams open. They didn't do my hair at all. I asked if they were going to do something with my hair, and they said it really didn't matter. They just wanted Ronda to look extreme. Flat out to my face they said, 'We want Ronda to look like a badass star, and you're here as a counter to that.'"

"It's always only about Ronda," Tate said. "Ronda has earned a tremendous amount of respect. She's an incredible athlete who has done great things for our sport. But sometimes it feels like she's being shoved down our throats 24/7. Every show has Ronda on it. Every promotion involves Ronda. I don't think the UFC has a single marketing product that doesn't have Ronda Rousey on it.

"It's the Ronda show. I don't think the other women get enough credit."

Fighting Rousey takes a mental toll beyond the press appearances, reality-television cameras and endless telephone interviews. There's also the battle within, as competitors have to convince themselves they can be the exception to Rousey's reign of terror. Without a regimen that steels the mind every bit as much as the body, the fight is lost before a foe ever sees Rousey pacing like a wild animal across the cage.

While she's added a striking element in recent fights, Rousey's success is predicated on a refined execution of a few simple moves borrowed from her life on the mats as an Olympic judoka. There's little subtlety to her game plan.

She dares her opponent's best shots and gets in tight and low for a harai goshia judo hip throw, one of the sport's most basic techniques. She usually succeeds at getting her hips so deep under her opponent that her leg sweep meets nothing at all—her victim is already in the air and on her way to a rude awakening.

It's classic judo: Her koshi guruma headlock grip is the only concession to MMA's lack of judogi. In every other way, Rousey may as well be on the judo mats where she's lived her entire life. It's a throw that, despite appearances, requires little in the way of upper-body power. Her body acts as a fulcrum, representing the definition of science over strength.

Once on the mat, Rousey truly shines. While she had some success there as a judoka, she wasn't the armbar machine she'd become in MMA. The chaos of an MMA scramble suits her, as her brain operates in the moments between being on her feet and being on the ground at lightning speed. While others are still processing their next move, Rousey is already in action and already in dominant position.

"She's very technical," Gomes said. "She is several steps ahead. She's like a razor. So fast. You don't even notice what she is doing until it has happened. That's how fast she thinks."

"It comes down to her athletic awareness and her ability to adapt on the spot," Kaufman said. "I think she had that already from her judo. She's done so much fighting that it comes out without her having to think about it."

By the Numbers: Ronda Rousey
Height5'7"
Weight135 pounds
Age28
Record12-0 (9 Submissions, 3 KO)
Total Fight Time25:36
Estimated Income$6.5 million
Forbes.com

There's no denying that Rousey is an excellent athlete. No one steps onto the podium to accept an Olympic medal without possessing a certain exceptional physicality. But 27 other judoka won a bronze medal in Beijing in 2008 just like Rousey did. She finished fourth, because Judo hands out two bronze medals per weight class, and that felt about right.

In judo, she was one of a dozen fighters in her weight class who were competing for the same top spot. But she was no Ilias Iliadis, a 17-year-old male prodigy who dominated the world en route to winning Olympic gold. If you weren't following Rousey because of her nationality or burgeoning Internet presence, you may not have taken much note of her at all.

Her speed, quickness and strength were not at the heart of Rousey's success on the mats. And that remains true in the cage.

"Physically, no disrespect to Ronda, but I don't think she has an advantage over anybody else," Carmouche said. "She's not physically stronger than any other opponent I've gone against. I've fought other women where I've gone to move them and thought, 'Oh, she's not budging.' I didn't experience that with Ronda."

In a recent UFC commercial for her fight Saturday, announcer Joe Rogan called Rousey an athlete unequaled in human history. That's not quite right, at least according to opponents who felt every bit as strong and quick. What separated Rousey, instead, was an unbreakable will and unflinching belief that victory is predestined.

"There have been psychological studies on champions. They have clear advantages over contenders. Champions believe in their heart of hearts that they deserve to have that title," Carmouche said. "She truly believes she's the champion and that nobody can take that from her. She doesn't have a doubt in her mind, while her opponents are questioning themselves. And you cannot have doubt when going against Ronda."

As you might expect, her opponents don't have any definitive advice about how to topple the queen from her throne. Tate, who has pushed Rousey the furthest in their two fights, doesn't feel that beating her is an impossible task.

"People tend to only remember who won and who lost," Tate said. "But I think it was a very competitive fight. It was a very compelling fight. There were a lot of things I did really well. But all people remember is me getting my arm dislocated. That was my choice. I didn't have to let her take my arm to that point. It's one of those things. Because I was tough enough not to tap out and let her mutilate my arm. It made her look bigger and badder."

Rousey has displayed enough moments of vulnerability, from Carmouche taking her back to Tate's ability to survive, to give opponents hope. But putting her at a disadvantage has proved difficult.

She makes mincemeat of fighters who approach her defensively, forcing them back into the cage where they are susceptible to her judo throws or haymaker punches. The ultimate fear, of course, is of the armbar.

"I've changed my mentality thanks to that fight," Carmouche said. "I don't train based on what their strengths are and what they do. It's implemented into my training, but it's not my focus. I'm not going to give in to my opponent.

"You think, 'Don't get caught in that armbar.' You've already mentally psyched yourself out going into the fight," Carmouche said. "It's like telling somebody not to look at a car crash. You know you're going to look. That's what everybody does against Ronda. And they've already set themselves up for failure. If you're so focused on that, you aren't doing anything offensive. You need a balance."

But abandoning all caution and charging forward, as Zingano did, has its own consequences. Even if you hit Rousey, and almost everyone does, she's shown an ability to take it on the chin and move forward into close quarters. That's where things tend to get ugly for her opponents.

"I made history. Unfortunately it was for the fastest submission in UFC history," Zingano said. "I wanted to be aggressive. I wanted to do something exciting. I saw the approach other people had taken with her, and I wanted to do something different. If what I did worked, hell yeah! That's what everyone should have been doing to fight Ronda the whole time.

"But because what I did didn't work, I was a flop. And how stupid of me. Whatever, whatever. It was a risk that I took that didn't work. Next time I'm going to do something else. I'll figure it out."

If it sounds like doom if you do and doom if you don't, Gomes agrees. No matter what you do, combat sports tend to guide athletes to the clinch. Every time you square up and throw a right hand, you're inviting an opponent into the dance. And that's where Rousey tends to dominate.

"Most girls train to attack Ronda," Gomes said. "That's not the way to go. Because of her judo background she will throw you if you charge into her arms. You have to think defense and movement. Even then, she will get you anyway."

On Saturday at UFC 193, Holm will attempt a strategy Rousey has never seen. Instead of squaring up and trying desperately for a fight-changing blow, Holm will turn the bout into a track meet.

Rather than moving back and forth on a straight line, she will circle and force Rousey to chase. In those moments she'll attempt to keep the champion at bay with her jab and the reach of her wide array of body kicks. It's a strategy that could work, but it's one that will demand near perfection for 25 minutes.

The result will be either surprising success, and a true challenge to Rousey, or another in a long list of spectacular failures. Oddsmakers are leaning toward the latter. At press time, Rousey is a 20-1 favorite at Odds Shark.

 

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.

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