Ronda Rousey has lost two in a row, but her career is far from over.
The former longtime women's bantamweight champion is back in the news. It’s WrestleMania week, the biggest of WWE’s year, and the UFC star’s long engagement with professional wrestling has driven her into the headlines once again.
Paul Heyman, the longtime advocate for former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar and old hand in the world of pro wrestling, talked extensively about Rousey in an interview with the Fight Society podcast.
“I think the WWE audience would embrace Ronda Rousey with open arms,” Heyman said. “Just her name recognition alone is huge. It doesn’t matter, her past two experiences in the UFC. All that matters is if she got involved in a story that people could relate to and sink their teeth into and get excited about.”
It’s not just Heyman, either: Stephanie McMahon, daughter of Vince and chief brand officer of WWE, was likewise bullish about the possibility of having Rousey in her organization. As she told ESPN’s His & Hers, “I would love to add Ronda Rousey! I know that she loves WWE and we certainly love her, so it would be a match, no pun intended, made in heaven. So hopefully one day we’ll have that opportunity.”
With her career in the UFC up in the air after a pair of losses and her acting career seemingly on hold, Rousey’s next move is a mystery. Bleacher Report’s Steven Rondina and Patrick Wyman discuss and debate what her future might hold and whether pro wrestling is really the right fit for her.
Steven: I’m sure you know that the MMA news cycle can get really strange, Patrick. Possibly the only thing stranger is the pro wrestling news cycle. In both of those circles, there has been a noticeable uptick in chatter about the subject of Rousey getting into the world of professional wrestling.
This isn’t necessarily a new thing. Rousey famously appeared in the crowd at SummerSlam 2014 and appeared in-ring at WrestleMania 31 alongside McMahon and top stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Triple H. The WWE has been smitten by Rousey ever since and has publicly courted her through executives and talent alike.
While a lot has changed for all involved parties since that 2015 segment, all those changes have worked in favor of a potential longer-term relationship between the WWE and Rousey.
The WWE has been doing generally solid work rebuilding, legitimizing and highlighting its women’s matches. Meanwhile, it has reintroduced the brand split (which assigns separate rosters to its Monday Night RAW and SmackDown Live shows), offering up many different ways for Rousey to be introduced and utilized.
On Rousey’s end? There’s nothing really tethering her to MMA at this point. She doesn’t have a title, and the mainstream sports world isn’t buzzing about her return anymore. On top of that, we see WME-IMG and the UFC at the very least entertaining the idea of Conor McGregor entering the boxing ring, potentially opening the door for a similarly bright star to take a much less risky leap.
Unless Rousey is suddenly disinterested in making a go of it in the ring, I don’t see anything getting in the way of this arrangement. Do you?
Patrick: No, I don’t see any real impediments; on the contrary, I see a ton of upside for everybody involved here.
The best-case scenario for Rousey, the UFC and the WWE involves all three parties working out a deal similar to the one that brought Brock Lesnar back to the UFC for his UFC 200 bout against Mark Hunt.
At this point, Rousey’s time as the best women’s bantamweight on the planet is over barring a major switch in trainers and approach. She would need to fundamentally change a great many things about her game in order to compete with the fighters who are emerging at the top of the division she used to rule with an iron fist.
Can you see her finding a way to beat Amanda Nunes, or even Valentina Shevchenko, with her current skill sets? I can’t, and I doubt I’m alone in that regard.
What Rousey can do, however, is turn herself into a special attraction.
She still has enormous star power outstripping everyone else on the UFC roster (with the exception of McGregor) by orders of magnitude. If she wants to fight, people will tune in, but there’s no reason to slot her into difficult matchups with the very elite of the division. Her opponent is irrelevant: Rousey is the draw.
This is just as true for the WWE as it is for the UFC. There’s no reason to put Rousey front and center on every Raw or SmackDown broadcast, but she’s an incredibly compelling piece for them to use in small doses. That’s how the WWE has used Lesnar since his return, and while you’re the expert, Steven, my understanding is that has proven quite effective for them.
This works out for everybody. Rousey has the time to work on her acting career, but she’s also in the limelight regularly for the WWE and perhaps once a year for the UFC. There’s money in it, the schedule fits and so too does the broad category of attraction. She maintains her public profile while raking in cash from several sources and the WWE and UFC benefit from the full measure of her star power.
Was WWE impresario Paul Heyman correct, Steven, in thinking that the industry would welcome her warmly? Do you see that being an impediment in any way?
Steven: It was silly that people scoffed when Heyman stated that Rousey would be warmly received by WWE fans. There’s certainly no question that Rousey’s standing with the general population has suffered after back-to-back losses in the cage, but that doesn’t invalidate her prior wins, and it certainly doesn’t disqualify her from playing a tough gal on TV.
There's plenty of precedent to go on here. Lesnar received one of the biggest and longest ovations in recent WWE history when he returned to the WWE in 2012 just four months after having his diverticulitis kicked in by Alistair Overeem.
When Ken Shamrock was a special guest referee for a match between Steve Austin and Bret Hart, fans didn’t chant “Royce Gracie” at him. The NWA Invasion angle didn’t fall apart because Dan Severn was tapped by Mark Coleman a year prior.
Those aren’t apples-to-apples comparison, but they’re also not apples-to-oranges.
Rousey is a known commodity to the general population, and even in 2017, she is defined by her ability to assassinate opponents in MMA fights. Add to that her legitimate intensity and on-camera presence, and you have somebody that, in my mind, works as a plug-and-play option for pro wrestling. The only question for me is how deep they can throw her into the pool.
Even with a guy like AJ Styles, who was 17 years and dozens of titles deep into his wrestling career at that point, the WWE kept the training wheels on for his first six months by having the Miz and Chris Jericho carry him through feuds. Rousey can make her way through a few squashes with just a bit of training, but the big concern for me would be her mic work.
I haven’t seen any of the flicks involving Rousey, but how good is she as an actress? She did fine delivering a one-liner at ‘Mania 31, but do you think she could get in the ring in front of a live crowd and make it work?
Patrick: Well, I don’t think Rousey will be a favorite to pick up an Oscar anytime soon, but in the right circumstances, she can hold her own in limited action. Her raw charisma is real and always has been. More importantly, there’s no reason to think she can’t improve given time and practice.
With that said, I think the best option is the Lesnar route: Let Rousey be a force of nature, an unstoppable steamroller who runs through her opponents in the ring, and have Heyman or someone else with the right skills take care of the mic work for now.
That fits with the “small doses” approach I outlined before. One of the real risks with Rousey, something we saw with her time as the champion in the UFC, is the risk of burnout both from her personally and in terms of fans’ reactions to her. Rousey is a natural heel, and villains work best when they get to pick and choose their spots. Overexposure limits their effectiveness.
A couple of appearances per month is more than enough Rousey. She’s special. Outside of Lesnar and John Cena, there’s nobody else even close to her level of stardom, and her presence needs to be sparing in order to have its full effect.
The same goes for her future in MMA. There’s no reason to bring her in to headline a random April pay-per-view; she should be there for the big Fourth of July or New Year’s events, nothing more, to add a half-million or more buys and some mainstream media exposure through softball segments on the major talk shows.
To do otherwise, even to force her to carry all the promotional weight, is to misunderstand her appeal and limit her value.
What do you think, Steven? Is this splitting of time even viable? How would you approach her career?
Steven: We keep bringing up Brock, and to answer your question I’ll do it once again.
Lesnar had a very active 2016 in the WWE (by Lesnar standards), working in the main events of the Royal Rumble, Fastlane and WrestleMania. He returned at SummerSlam for a feud with Randy Orton and then started his ongoing feud with Goldberg at Survivor Series, which had a layover in this year’s Royal Rumble. Snuggled in there were more than a few RAW appearances and even a couple of house show matches.
Even with all that, he found the time to beat up a ranked heavyweight in a major UFC show.
While it may have stunted her growth as a fighter, we’ve seen Rousey juggle Hollywood and MMA before. Part-time wrestling doesn’t eat up entire months the way filming a movie does. There is very little doubt in my mind that Rousey could find a way to wrestle a handful of big matches and sneak in an occasional return to the cage.
And I would agree with you that this is basically how Rousey’s combat sports career should go from this point.
If I’m the all-powerful god of combat sports, I would roll out Rousey around SummerSlam in August and have her get in a match before the end of 2017 (Survivor Series being the most obvious landing spot). Let her grow some roots and find her place in the roster for a big appearance at WrestleMania 34. By July 2018? Have Rousey sharpen her teeth and reestablish her in-cage legitimacy at the expense of a fighter like Paige VanZant.