What Ronda Rousey Needs to Do to Return to the Top of the UFC

Patrick Wyman@@Patrick_WymanMMA Senior AnalystJanuary 4, 2017

Ronda Rousey suffered her second consecutive defeat at UFC 207.
Ronda Rousey suffered her second consecutive defeat at UFC 207.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

After beginning her MMA career with 12 consecutive victories, all of them inside the distance and 11 inside the first round, Ronda Rousey has now lost her last two fights.

Actually, it's an understatement to say Rousey lost. Amanda Nunes and Holly Holm shellacked her. They beat her up and embarrassed her, knocking every last bit of her once-potent mystique and aura of invincibility into nonexistence along with her ties to waking consciousness.

Rousey wasn't competitive against Nunes.
Rousey wasn't competitive against Nunes.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Rousey's fall from grace has been shocking in its speed and totality. It took less than 14 months for Rousey to go from the baddest woman on the planet, a dominant champion on top of the world and still making improvements to her already lethal game, to an afterthought in a division and a sport that seem to have moved on without her.

When we strip away all the narratives and the hyperbole, though, Rousey is still one of the most talented fighters the UFC has ever seen. Her judo skills are off the charts; in the clinch and on the mat, few fighters in the division can compete with her. She's an imposing physical specimen with great speed, size, explosiveness and power. Most of all, she's still only 29 years old and is in her athletic prime.

There's no reason to believe Rousey will go this route, and even if she does it won't be easy, but the right team could set Rousey back on a path to the top.

If she were to commit to shaking things up and becoming a better fighter, what would that process look like? What does Rousey need to fix in order to have success against the new monsters of the women's bantamweight division?

First, she needs to ditch her current coach—boxing trainer Edmond Tarverdyan. Everything else is predicated on her getting fresh and more competent coaching.

The inanity of his work in the corner is a running joke among fans and the media. "Beautiful work, champ," he told Rousey between rounds at UFC 193. Nunes walking over to Rousey's corner and ostentatiously shushing Tarverdyan after knocking out his pupil sums up the MMA world's feelings on the man.

When Mark Henry, trainer of Frankie Edgar and Eddie Alvarez, was trying to insult Conor McGregor's coach John Kavanagh, he called him "Irish Edmund" (sic). One trainer who has worked with multiple UFC contenders and champions told me frankly and drily, "Edmond doesn't carry much respect among the coaching community."

Leaving aside the fact Tarverdyan is currently in court for financial problems, Rousey's mother has said some colorful and pointed things about him, including calling him an idiot and a fraud and he tried to get in former heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum's face and got push-kicked for his trouble following his rematch with Travis Browne, the results speak for themselves.

Rousey and Tarverdyan after UFC 207's main event.
Rousey and Tarverdyan after UFC 207's main event.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Browne, Rousey's boyfriend and another Tarverdyan student, has lost three of his five fights since moving there. Former welterweight contender Jake Ellenberger worked with Tarverdyan for a number of fights, a period that coincided with the worst results of Ellenberger's career. None of Rousey's friends and training partners, such as Jessamyn Duke and Shayna Baszler, still work with Tarverdyan.

Tarverdyan is a negative presence, but on a substantive level, the basic and manifest problems with Rousey's game would never have gotten past a competent trainer. Listen to MMA Fighting's Luke Thomas dissect one of Tarverdyan's many puzzling statements:

Rousey has bad fundamentals. She doesn't turn her hip into her punches, she doesn't move her head at all and her footwork, supposedly a point of emphasis, is bad. Her defense is nonexistent. It's not that Rousey hasn't been taught footwork or punching technique; it's that she's been taught badly. We know this because, when she hits pads or drills, she does it the same way every time, always with objectively incorrect form.

All of these problems can be traced to Tarverdyan's coaching.

So let's assume, for the sake of discussion, that Rousey leaves Tarverdyan in the dust and finds a new camp. What, specifically, would she need to work on?

Fundamentals are one. I mentioned above the basic issues with the way she throws punches, and a competent boxing or kickboxing coach will need to tear everything down and start from scratch to make her work more efficiently and effectively. She has natural power, and she'll hit even harder if her whole body is working as one unit when she throws. It will also take her less energy if she throws with sound technique.

Footwork should be another major point of emphasis. Holm and Nunes are both excellent strikers, but they had very different approaches to beating Rousey on the feet; the only uniting factor was their drastically superior footwork. Holm used it to play keep-away when Rousey rushed at her, and Nunes used it aggressively, to stay just close enough to land shots while staying just far enough away to avoid the clinch.

Rousey wants to be aggressive, to come forward and pressure her opponents. That's her natural tendency and an expression of her personality, and it doesn't need to be altered, just honed and refined.

If she wants to do it effectively and safely, without eating the kinds of shots Nunes and Holm put on her, she needs to improve her footwork. That means cutting off her opponent instead of following when she circles out, and it means anticipating her opponent's movement. Better footwork will also allow her to find angles as she enters, which will help her avoid counters.

 

Next, as a basic corollary to that, she needs to work on her defense. Coming in on angles is one piece, but she needs to move her head as she attacks. This means slipping as she jabs, rolling under after throwing hooks, and being both consistent and unpredictable with this. Footwork is an inherent part of that: You can't move your head if your feet aren't in position under you.

Rousey's head is always right on the center line.
Rousey's head is always right on the center line.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

As a pressure fighter, it's a given; you're going to get hit, simply because you're constantly putting yourself in ranges where your opponent can hit you.

That's no excuse for eating every shot the opponent throws, though. There are plenty of aggressive but defensively responsible MMA fighters, including Demetrious Johnson, Cris Cyborg and Rafael Dos Anjos. Learning head movement and a solid defensive guard is essential.

Finally, and most importantly, Rousey needs to learn to be comfortable with both the idea and the reality of getting hit. That's not a knock on her toughness or her heart—she took tremendous beatings from Holm and Nunes without giving up—but on her reactions when an opponent's fists crack her. 

Part of that is her abysmal defense; when Rousey gets hit, she tends to get hit cleanly, which is naturally more stunning than eating a glancing shot.

Still, there's no getting around the fact she tends to panic a bit when she feels the shot land. Whatever plan she might have had goes out the window, and she either dives forward blindly looking for a clinch (the Nunes fight), rushes into range from too far away without cutting off the cage (Holm) or runs after her opponent flinging haymakers (Correia). This is a consistent reaction from her, and it has to change.

Panicking after eating a shot is bad on multiple levels. First, it drives any coherent game plan or strategic approach out of the fighter's head, something we saw clearly in the Holm fight. Second, it quickly drains the fighter's gas tank as the heart rate rises and the adrenaline takes over. Emotion, not work rate, is cardio's greatest enemy.

The solutions for that issue are probably more hard sparring and a coach who is willing to watch her closely and talk her through what's happening in those sessions.

There are a number of other things a competent coach would want to fix, and we could point to many, but these are the major issues.

This isn't an insurmountable task. Rafael Cordeiro, the trainer of Dos Anjos, Fabricio Werdum, Beneil Dariush, Kelvin Gastelum, and in the past legends like Wanderlei Silva, Shogun Rua and Anderson Silva, specializes in coaching aggressive fighters. The legendary boxing trainer Freddie Roach has been talking about Rousey for years. If she leaves the greater Los Angeles area, there are many teams that would be happy to take her in.

If Rousey commits to rebuilding herself as a fighter, she can return to the top again. Whether she chooses to do so is another question entirely.