The Mental Game: Does Ronda Rousey Have What It Takes to Regain Her Throne?

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterMarch 9, 2016

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 15:  Ronda Rousey exits the Octagon after being defeated by Holly Holm in their UFC women's bantamweight championship bout during the UFC 193 event at Etihad Stadium on November 15, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Holly Holm's left leg did more than take the UFC championship from Ronda Rousey. That emphatic loss changed everything, and not just for Rousey. It was one of the few times a single athlete's performance has effected the landscape of an entire sport.

It was the shot heard around the MMA world, its echoes still being felt by a promotion that had devoted much of its energy to building Rousey as a sport-defining superstar.

For months after the first loss of her professional career, Rousey kept a low profile. When she did emerge, it was for mainstream appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Saturday Night Live. Fighting seemed the furthest thing from her mind, to the point she even banned journalists from asking her about it.

That all changed within minutes of Holm's upset loss to long-time Rousey rival Miesha Tate. Suddenly Rousey was texting UFC President Dana White that she was ready to "get back to work." 

What should fans make of her instantaneous about-face? Bleacher Report lead writers Jonathan Snowden and Chad Dundas are here to help you figure out what's really going on here.

 

Jonathan Snowden: There was something so utterly predictable about Rousey's decision to insert herself back on the chessboard the very moment Holm was removed from the game. It fits perfectly with everything she's revealed to us since things didn't go exactly her way for the first time in almost eight years.

MMA fans have been blessed with great champions over the years, men and women with a true martial spirit. MMA fighters, traditionally, have challenged themselves and the world, willing to take the hardest fight, the most compelling challenge, to avenge even the most heinous loss. 

Rousey, it seems, wasn't cut from that cloth. At least not the post-Holm Rousey, a fighter who seemingly lost more than just a fight. She lost the aura, confidence and swagger that made her so compelling to fans and intimidating to opponents. The first time she drew a bad hand, after she'd spent her entire career with pocket aces, first for Strikeforce and then for the UFC, Rousey folded.

Only when Tate, a fighter she's beaten twice, emerged with championship gold, did Rousey regain interest in the sport. That's the antithesis of what MMA has always been. That's a boxing mentality. Is that where this thing is headed Chad, into a brave new future where carefully protected company champions do their best to avoid danger? If so, I don't like it.

 

Chad Dundas: I agree it’s an awkward look for both Rousey and the UFC. The complete about-face it represents from her emotional appearance on Ellen makes you wonder what’s really going on in the ex-champ’s world.

From the company’s side, we can’t be surprised by the sheer cold-blooded pragmatism. If the rise of stars like Rousey and Conor McGregor has reinforced any one truth, it’s that the UFC will go for the money every single time. Right now, it obviously feels the most lucrative choice is to have Rousey back as champion. 

Remember though, it also seemed pretty gung ho at first to move her into an immediate rematch with Holm, even though conventional wisdom said Rousey would only lose again. To me, that doesn’t necessarily equate to careful protection so much as good business.

And as for Rousey herself? Considering all we have to go on is White’s secondhand account of their text exchange, I’m not quite ready to hang her out to dry. For all we know, she was planning to return against the winner of Tate-Holm anyway. So long as she comes back and continues to fight every top contender in her weight class, I suppose I won’t find much fault, aside from perhaps a poorly timed text.

 

JS: I agree that we don't know with any certainty what happened. What we do know is that when Holm was champion, Rousey was conspicuous by her absence. The very night Holm was deposed, Rousey is suddenly ready to step into the limelight again.

Maybe she would have been ready to return either way. Maybe she would have sent White the same text message if Holm had won the bout. But that it happened only when Tate secured the title seems telling in some way.

I don't think there is much doubt that UFC wants Rousey to succeed. They've spent much of their institutional capital in Los Angeles and New York making sure she made a bigger splash than any fighter ever. 

But this is hardly a sport built on pragmatism. This is a spectacle made great by the will of its athletes to dominate all comers. We love great fighters because they look the hardest challenge dead in the eye and agree to see what happens when they step into a steel cage.

The difference between how Rousey has handled her upset loss and the way Conor McGregor faced his own unexpected defeat speaks volumes about who they are. McGregor immediately owned up to his loss, faced the media in a series of intimate interviews and issued a promise to face his conqueror Nate Diaz again. 

That all speaks highly of McGregor, but it's not particularly unusual. We can conclude Jose Aldo wants nothing more than to face McGregor again, despite being brutally knocked out. Brock Lesnar couldn't stop thinking about Frank Mir until he'd avenged his defeat. And Georges St-Pierre made it his life's goal to knock an albatross named Matt Hughes off his shoulders.

That's how fighters respond. If Rousey really is keener to fight Tate than she was Holm, that signals to me a problem with her makeup. Is it possible, for all her athletic skill, Rousey's mean mask and manufactured rage was covering up something deeper, some insecurity she tried to hide even from herself? Don't get me wrong here. Rousey has proven her courage over and over again. But this is a sport that requires absurd confidence to succeed on the highest level.

"This is a broken woman," Tate opined on the Jay Mohr Sports Show. "I don't know if she'll ever come back the same."

Unfortunately, Tate may have hit the nail on the head. I want to see the Rousey we'd all grown to care about, whether we loved her or hated her. That Rousey was a monster. That Rousey would have wanted Holm in the worst way. And if that's not the Rousey who's returning, she belongs in the world of "lights, camera, action" and not the less forgiving world of "let's get it on."

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 15:  Ronda Rousey of the United States leaves the arena after losing to Holly Holm of the United States in their UFC women's bantamweight championship bout during the UFC 193 event at Etihad Stadium on November 15, 2015 in
Scott Barbour /Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

 

CD: No doubt about it, Rousey’s immediate response to getting KOed didn’t do her public image any favors. Especially now that it’s juxtaposed with McGregor’s grace in defeat, it seems particularly ignoble.

Maybe I’m being naïve here—and, believe me, I made disapproving, sportswriterly clucking sounds as I watched Rousey walk through LAX with that pillow over her face—but I’m OK with the idea that people respond to losses differently.

Rousey hadn’t experienced that kind of pain in a long while, and the amount she had to lose, as well as the public scrutiny on her, outweighed even what McGregor had to deal with. If I had that many people exalting in the worst moment of my life, I might seek refuge in my favorite pillow, too.

Look, has Rousey done a lot of things I didn’t love? Sure. I didn’t love the pillow thing. I didn’t love the text. But do I think those things are indicative of some deep flaw in her spirit? Maybe. Maybe not.

The proof will be in the doing. If she takes out Tate in under a round and then immediately announces her retirement as champion? Or if she ducks Holm in some way? Then, yeah, that’ll be pretty janky.

If she comes back, fights Tate, fights Holm and goes on with the business of being Ronda Rousey? That’ll be good enough for me.

 

Jonathan Snowden and Chad Dundas cover combat sports for Bleacher Report.