The Gentle Way: Strikeforce Champion Ronda Rousey and the Birth of a Judo Star

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterApril 6, 2012

(Photo by Esther Lin/Forza LLC/Forza LLC via Getty Images)
(Photo by Esther Lin/Forza LLC/Forza LLC via Getty Images)

Part One of a two-part series looking at the art of judo in MMA.

The Title

Miesha Tate thought she had a chance against 2008 Olympic judo bronze medalist Ronda Rousey. After all, Tate was the Strikeforce bantamweight champion and had been competitive with everyone she had ever fought. More than competitive, in fact. Her world-title belt signified she was the best female fighter in the world in her weight class. 

So Tate just smirked when Rousey suggested she was on another level athletically. How can she be so confident, Tate wondered, with only four professional fights under her belt?

Before the bout, trash talk flowed freely, with Tate giving as well as she got. Fans and media were excited—a good, competitive grudge match seemed to be brewing. Rousey's former judo teammates just shook their heads and wondered how the world got so stupid.

"Miesha Tate's not in the same league. I don't even know where people got off saying Miesha had more experience than Ronda. What experience did Miesha have over Ronda? None! Look at Ronda's competition record," Dr. Rhadi Ferguson, Rousey's teammate at the 2004 Olympic Games, said. "Ronda has stepped into more fire than any fighter in women's MMA. Ronda Rousey has seen and done things other women in MMA can't even possibly fathom."

What about Tate's experience on the wrestling mats?  Why didn't that end up being an equalizer?

"Women's wrestling doesn't compare to women's judo," Ferguson continued, now in the middle of a sermon on the history of grappling, part rant and part seminar. "Because judo had been around longer. When women's wrestling came along, the people who were number two and didn't make the Olympic team in judo went over to wrestling and won championships. Just walked over and won." 

Jimmy Pedro Jr., arguably America's best ever judoka and Rousey's longtime coach and training partner,essentially agreed with Ferguson, though he was a bit more diplomatic. People still didn't quite grasp, Pedro thought, just how special Ronda Rousey was.

"It's no surprise to me that she's taken the MMA world by storm," the two-time Olympic medalist said. "I don't think, physically, any girl can match her. And technically, when you look at the universe of women and the sports they might come from and how Ronda matches up with them, I don't think there's anyone who's going to beat her for a very long time."

The battle almost ended early, but Tate survived the initial onslaught on her arm. She deserves all the credit in the world for that. Many opponents had been in her shoes; many had tapped. That was what Rousey did. She was an arm collector, and everyone knew it.

All seven of her professional and amateur MMA fights had ended with the hold judo players call the jujigatame. You may know it as the armbar. Tate knew the armbar was coming, yet she couldn't do anything but watch with wonder as Rousey put her exactly where she wanted her to finish the fight.

As Tate turtled, a defensive move designed to escape Rousey's constant pressure, the judo community knew the fight was almost done. It was like watching a German watch. The leg grip roll and the armbar were that systematic, the techniques that predictable, beautiful, brutal, and indefensible. It was a move Pedro had learned from British judo great Neil Adams and passed on to Rousey. Its efficacy was never in question.

"I'm used to that situation, because I've seen it so many times," Rousey told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "In judo a lot of people will turtle like that and hope the referee comes in to save them. It didn't happen by accident. I kind of led her to turtling up.

"She ended up in the turtle position because first I threw her , then I jumped across her body so I could get my knee on her belly, which led to the mount, and she turned out of it. I forced her onto her stomach and from there, the only way she could get out was to turtle up."

(Photo by Esther Lin/Forza LLC/Forza LLC via Getty Images)
(Photo by Esther Lin/Forza LLC/Forza LLC via Getty Images)

If grappling is a game of human chess, Rousey is a grandmaster. She didn't need to think about what Miesha Tate was doing in the moment. She knew.

Ronda's mom, herself a judo champion, calls it her "Spider Sense." Like Bobby Fischer or one of the greats, she knew what her opponent intended to do. Better still, she was the one who put the spark of an idea in her victim's mind. Sometimes it's easier for the snake if the mouse thinks it was its idea to bolt.

"It's not quite chess, where I know where she's going to be in five moves," Rousey said. "But I know with every move what her options are and the answers to every one of them. So it's kind of like being a step and a half ahead." 

In the Beginning

If anyone was born to be a judo champion, it was Ronda Rousey. Her mom, Dr. AnnMaria DeMars, was the 1984 World Champion, America's first to conquer the world. DeMars, as much as she loves judo, didn't push that path on any of her children, although she did demand all of her four children at least give judo a try. For Ronda, it stuck. She was a born fighter and had gotten into two scraps in her first two weeks of school.

Even then, her mom was skeptical. There would be pressure, and lots of it, simply being Anna Maria's daughter. She would be expected to win, often and early. Ronda was undaunted.

"'Do your own thing.' That's what I told her. She's never been the best at doing what she's told," DeMars said with a laugh. "She was having a lot of trouble in school. I thought, well, with judo at least you have to have a partner. She would have to go out and meet some other kids. Maybe that would help her? I guess it did."

Rousey was a natural, mixing the throwing techniques so common in judo around the world with her mom's special blend of tricks and strategies. DeMars was notorious in the judo world for her ground game. Pins and submissions were her bag, and for good reason. Because of her unsteady base, a product of an severe knee injury that went essentially untreated for years, the mat was the only place she had a level playing field.

"My only prayer to win was to get them to the ground—armbar them or choke them out. Ninety five percent or more of the judo I did was matwork," DeMars said. "I'm a statistician by training. There's three ways to win on the mat and one standing up. Your odds are better on the mat. Despite that, most people in judo focus on throwing. So it's going to be a lot easier to win if you focus on the area most people are weak. I did that deliberately. And with Ronda we worked on areas where people had deficits. Most people don't work on transitions during the movement from stand up to the mat. I call that the golden second.

"When you get thrown you think 'Oh man.' When somebody does a thrown they think 'Ah ha, I've got them.' In both of those instances, there's often a brief hesitation where the person lets their guard down. And if you're ready then, you can nail them. If there's an opening most people don't take advantage of, and you do, you're going to win more."

Ronda didn't have her mom's physical limitations. She could uchimata and throw with the best of them. But she also developed her ground game until it was razor sharp and lethal. She had an example of just how important it could be sitting in her living room.

"My style came from my mom and my early coaching," Rousey said. "My mom tore her knee out when she was 17 and they didn't have any ACL reconstruction or anything back then. She wanted to stay with judo so she had to have an exclusive ground game. My mom was really innovative in the judo world. She was the first woman to really spend any time on strength and conditioning. And the first to spend a lot of time on the ground.

"It's funny how something that happened a long time ago could affect my life to this day. If the mats at the YMCA where my mom was training weren't crappy and slid apart, if my mom's foot hadn't gotten caught that day, I might be a different fighter today. I might not have won the belt. It's crazy to think of it like that."

The Road to the Olympic Games

Eventually, there's only so much you can learn from any coach. Even when that coach is your mom. Sometimes especially when that coach is your mom and you are a teenage girl. To grow, Ronda needed a place where she could really test herself. Against competition without sentimental attachment. Top competition that wasn't afraid to drop her on her head.

"Up until she was 13 or 14, I would train with her, especially on the mat. But I'm old. I'm literally old enough to be her mom," DeMars joked. "Up until then, I could hang with her pretty well, but when she grew, there was no way. Because I'm a little person. The bigger she got, and the older I got, it became less feasible. So we took her out to Hayastan."

Gokor and Gene
Gokor and Gene

The Hayastan Academy is run by Gokor Chivichyan, a nationalized Armenian judo player who is considered by most to be the legendary "Judo" Gene LeBell's top student. The Academy wasn't a place for softness. LeBell has choked thousands unconscious, most famously actor Steven Seagal. One hesitates to imagine what havoc Gokor and his crew have done in their lives. A concerned DeMars wondered if it was a good fit for her daughter.

"I had heard stories. Because they didn't have any women in their club at all," DeMars said. "People said, 'They're Armenian and they don't like women.' I know nothing about Armenia. I'm a statistician. Geography was my worst subject.

"So I called up Gokor, who is partners with Gene in the club. I told him 'I have to be out of town a lot and her older sister, who is 17, is going to be driving Ronda to practice a lot. Is that okay? I've heard things about your club, but give me your word and I'll send her.'

"And Gokor said 'I give you my word. If anybody hurts your daughter, touches your daughters, I will personally kill him.'"

That was enough. As a condition for getting use of the family car, Ronda's sister Maria drove her to practice with the boys. The fellow judoka at Hayastan were perfect gentlemen to the Rousey sisters—everywhere except on the mat.

DeMars liked that. She was especially amused by the attitude of Manny Gamburyan, one of Ronda's main training partners, who went on to become a star in the UFC. While others at the gym would let up when Ronda began to cry, something that was kind of a routine, Manny said 'Let her cry. I'll throw her again and harder.' It was an attitude that drove Ronda to get better, honing a competitive instinct that still burns.

Karo Photo by Scott Petersen for MMA Weekly
Karo Photo by Scott Petersen for MMA Weekly

" Listen, Ronda grew up in front of us," fellow Hayastan Academy protege Karo Parisyan told my colleague Matt Roth. "When Ronda was a kid we used to yell at her and tell her to suck her lip back in and start doing the techniques. She trained with animals like us and that's why she went and became a world champion in judo.

"Ronda is like my little sister, man. I've known her for over 15 years. She's doing great and she's an animal. I put my money on her...Ronda would tear a limb off. People have no idea how strong Ronda is and she doesn't quit."

For Ronda, success wasn't immediate. She was scrawny as a younger girl. It was only later that she put it all together, but when she did, her ascension was amazing and immediate.

"I don't know if I should tell you this," DeMars said with a laugh. "But she kind of developed late. You see some kids at 14 and they look like men or women. They develop early. Ronda was just a skinny kid. Her judogi was too big.We couldn't get it to fit just right.  

"She was a scrawny little girl, but she had all the moves. She was already beating grown women. I thought, 'When she gets her full strength, nobody's going to stand in her way.' And that's what happened. In less than two years she doubled in size, from 70 or 80 pounds to 140. She had the technique. Once she had the muscle, nobody was going to stop her.

"She went from not fighting in a senior tournament ever to sitting on a flight to go to the Olympic Games in four months."

Big Jim's Place

While athletes compete all alone on the mat, no one is created in a vacuum. That's as true of Ronda Rousey as it is of anyone. More so, because Rousey is the product of many great grappling minds, from her mother to the venerable "Judo" Gene. But on the list of Rousey's influences, the Pedro name is perhaps the most important.

"Ronda had some of the best teachers and was around the best judo players in the country," Ferguson said. "Not only did she have her mother around, but she trained with Jimmy Pedro and Jim Pedro Sr. A lot of her ground fighting style came from being around the right connectors and the right people. She was exposed to the best judo coach, Pedro Sr. and one of the best judo players in the world, Jimmy Pedro, very early."

For Rousey, the move to Pedro's Judo Center was no small decision. She was just a teenager, only 14 years old, when she picked up and moved across the country, leaving California for Boston and a life focused almost entirely on judo. It was there that the two Jim Pedros, Junior and Senior, molded a champion.

"She went out there and trained with Jim for a few weeks," DeMars remembered. "And she called me up and said, 'This is the place. I can really get better here. I can win the Olympics from here.'

"Jim Senior is a hairy, scary, grumpy old guy and he called me one day practically in tears. He has grown men in his club and if he tells them to climb a rope or run laps, they do it.

"But with Ronda it was harder. 'I told your daughter to clean her room and she didn't do it.'  His daughter was probably in her 40s. It had been awhile since he had a teenage girl in the house. She drove him nuts, but he really helped her a lot."

Olympic Glory

At just 17, she made the 2004 Olympic team. Back then, not being able to go out and party with the rest of the team seemed to frustrate her just as much as losing.

"I felt so bad for Ronda in 2004. She was 17 years old and couldn't go anywhere by herself. We would all leave and go out and she would have to sit in her room," Ferguson said. "She would cry. Her face, man. She was so sad, I'm really not sure how much she enjoyed those first Olympics. At the end of the day, she was stuck in her room at the Olympic village with a chaperone. It was tough for her."

By the time she returned in 2008, fully grown, Rousey was ready to win, taking home a bronze medal at the Beijing games.

Celebrating bronze
Celebrating bronzeMike Hewitt/Getty Images

"We trained every day. Every day. She didn't just train with men. She trained with high level men," Jimmy Pedro Jr. said. "We had a room full of Olympians that Ronda trained with, who were right around her weight. That strength and that level of technique, using it the way you're supposed to, catapulted her into a whole other level for a female athlete.

"We helped Ronda make the Olympic team when she was just 16 years old. Ronda had an incredible judo career. She was a junior world champion, she won a silver medal at the senior Worlds, and won a bronze medal at the Olympics. "And the whole time we trained every single day. Her level of technique is as good as anybody's out there."

Jonathan Snowden is a Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand. Look for part two of this story Monday as we go in depth on the mammoth transition from judo to MMA.