Ronda Rousey climbs into a boxing ring to spar at her gym in Glendale, California, her white headgear blocking almost her entire face except for her laser-focused, intense eyes. Stitched in gold cursive across her forehead are the words "Rowdy Rousey," her nickname borrowed from professional wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper. Her bare feet dance across the ring's black floor, it too inscribed with her name.
On this Tuesday afternoon in early July, the gym is just warm enough to be uncomfortable, sending drops of sweat down the backs of the people who have gathered to watch her face off against boxer Lissette Medel. Each time Rousey lands a punch on Medel, she expels air and loudly grunts "esh." In the more tired moments, the "esh" becomes breathier, sounding almost like a pleading "bless you."
With 60 seconds left in the sixth and final three-minute round of sparring, Rousey's coach, Edmond Tarverdyan, says to her from the corner, "A minute, champ. Let's go." As the seconds tick away, Medel leans forward onto Rousey's body. Rousey physically pushes her off and back and in the final 15 seconds lands a series of hard punches, a wave of "esh"es echoing through the gym.
Rousey, the current and so far only UFC female bantamweight champion, always goes hard to the very end, even in a midweek sparring exercise.
Rousey is known for this drive. She has a bronze medal in judo from the 2008 Summer Olympics. She has won all of her 14 mixed martial arts fights (three amateur, 11 professional). She will declare to anyone who will listen that she is "the best fighter in the whole world," and if you watch any of her fights, it's hard to argue against that statement.
As she prepares for her next match on Aug. 1 in Brazil against undefeated Brazilian Bethe Correia, Rousey's focus is precise: another win. Odds are she'll get it. And so she's also thinking beyond that moment, beyond all the fights to come. She is concerned about her legacy in women's MMA and about what will happen to the sport she has almost single-handedly thrust into the popular consciousness when she says goodbye to it.
But fighting is by no means the totality of Rousey. She is instead a set of juxtapositions packaged together. She's a beautiful woman who is the most recognizable face in a sport known for its brutality. She's both laid-back but also obsessive. Her hard outer shell, the one on prominent display when she is in the Octagon, protects her soft, vulnerable underbelly. She gushes about fellow athletes Serena Williams and Gennady Golovkin but never misses an opportunity to put an opponent in their place with her words.
Rousey is a complicated and compelling athlete who has proved herself repeatedly in the Octagon yet finds that she must always keep at it. Both her sport and her career are riding on her ability to continue to enthrall a public that, for now, can't get enough of her.
Boxing is a part of the mixed martial arts skills that Rousey has had to learn over the last few years. Medel, a champion boxer who has trained with Rousey four times now, says Rousey is a formidable fighter in the ring and that she has "more [boxing] skills than people think." In typical Rousey style, "she's a nonstop opponent," Medel says, who "keeps you constantly on your feet."
This should put some (more) fear in the hearts of Rousey's opponents since Rousey's background in judo—a fighting style that involves takedowns and on-mat grappling—has made her a beast when the women are on the ground.
Her signature move that has led to nine fight-ending submissions out of the 11 professional matches she has fought is the armbar. Rousey tackles her opponent, traps their arm between her legs and then bends it back at the elbow. If her opponent doesn't tap out—indicating that they acknowledge they've lost the match—the move will eventually snap the ligaments in their arm. It's so effective that in her last match in February, Rousey beat Cat Zingano with an armbar in 14 seconds, the fastest submission in a UFC title fight on record.
Now Rousey is working on her boxing, giving her more moves that will help her when she and her opponent are standing. The endless quest to be better and to remain the best is the central focus of Rousey's life. It has been for a long time, in fact.
"I'm compulsively competitive," she admits. "I can't help it. I don't know why. I'll create little competitions throughout the day." She launches into storytelling mode, explaining how when she used to have a microwave, she would always try to stop the microwave at the exact moment it hit zero.
"Some people shy away from competition," she concludes, "and I just constantly thrive on it. I'm a very goal-oriented person, so I'll just give myself goals to have."
One physical manifestation of that competitive drive and goal-oriented approach to everything Rousey does is a bunch of what appear to be Wiffle Balls piled up along the wall behind the small Octagon at her gym. They are not Wiffle Balls, though. After practice, Rousey slowly and carefully unwraps the tape from her hands and wrists and then the gauze and padding underneath. She then meticulously rewraps it on itself, gauze first and then tape on the outside, forming a small white ball.
"Every one of those is a day of hard work," she remarks. When a fan visiting the gym that day asks her if he can have the ball as a souvenir, Rousey acts surprised that someone would want it. Except she wants it, to add to her collection, a visible reminder of her training. This day, though, she happily signs her name on the ball and hands it off.
After boxing with Medel and cooling down, Rousey hangs around the gym. A woman has shown up to administer a random drug test to Rousey, and the fighter needs a fair amount of time to drink down enough water to take the test. Someone from her crew brings over an older man, probably in his early 50s, who is clutching a hardback version of Rousey's autobiography, My Fight/Your Fight, in his hand. He's an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department and a huge Rousey fan.
"You are awesome," he gushes. "You are amazing." Rousey chuckles, smiles and then says to him, "You seem pretty awesome yourself."
He asks her to sign his book, which she is happy to do. She asks him to whom she should inscribe it and he answers, "John." His nervousness is apparent when she asks him, "With an 'h'?" And he replies, "No, it starts with a J." She smiles and patiently clarifies, "J-o-n or J-o-h-n?" He answers, she signs and then they snap a photo together. Some of his parting words to Rousey are about her next opponent, Bethe Correia: "You're going to kill her."
Her ease and comfort with John is as natural as the Rousey who swaggers through press conferences and verbally trashes opponents. She is disarming and charming in such a way that it's not difficult to forget you are sitting across from a champion fighter and movie star (she has recently been on screen in Furious 7 and Entourage). If you get her on the topic of pop culture or sports, you might as well be chatting with your buddy at the bar after work.
Rousey can quote The Lord of the Rings at the drop of a hat. She used to read it while working the graveyard shift at 24 Hour Fitness and has seen all the movies, including the director's cuts, many times over. She was obsessed with Dragon Ball Z when she was younger and was so into Pokemon that "I was a moderator of a Pokemon forum online at Gametalk.com." In conversation, she is able to drop jokes from The 40-Year-Old Virgin and use the late '90s sci-fi thriller Gattaca to metaphorically explain her competitive drive.
When she talks about her favorite athletes, she turns into a geeky fan. She wants to meet Serena Williams but hasn't yet. "I'm bummed because I feel like we are meant to be best friends," she says with a laugh. Pretending she is drafting her future best friend a letter in which she pleads her case, Rousey jokes, "Dear Serena, we are meant to be best friends. And we just haven't met and you don't know it yet." She laughs again. "That sounds so stalker-ish."
The other athlete she loves to talk about is Kazakh boxer Gennady Golovkin, the undefeated IBO middleweight champion. Rousey trained with Golovkin at the Summit Gym in Big Bear, California. Perhaps part of what she likes about him is that they have the same ability to fight hard and then switch into a friendly, congenial mode. He's "the sweetest guy," she says. "You would see him trying to knock some dude out and then he would five minutes later be like, 'I have some cake. Would you like some cake?'"
At Summit, "they had a sign in there that said, 'No pets, no women, no kids,'" she recalls. "They'd never had an MMA fighter and they'd never had a woman in there. And then they let me come in." Her face lights up as she tells this story, her smile broad. "They have all these T-shirts on the wall, and they put, like, my T-shirt, like, next to, like, Oscar De La Hoya!" She then holds her fists up in a celebratory stance and taps her feet quickly as she says with glee, "I was like, 'I have a shirt on the wall!'"
Rousey's breaking down that gender barrier arguably serves as the foundation of her overall impact on the masculine world of combat sports. With hard work and talent, she has pushed herself into places women were told they were not welcomed. It is no wonder she speaks about that T-shirt on Summit's wall the way officer John of the LAPD speaks about Rousey and her fighting.
For Rousey, fighting is the balm to the vulnerability she carries with her all the time. It is her natural response to the part of her that is warm, caring and open. In her autobiography published earlier this year, some of the first words are, "I am vulnerable; that's why I fight."
"The fighting is a representation of my life outside of it," Rousey says. She is thoughtful here, pondering how to describe the relationship of what she does inside the Octagon to who she is outside of it. "I go in there winning fights so I can feel like I'm winning in my life. Even if all the worst things are happening in my life, I still have that. It's the purest, most incorruptible thing. And so, if I'm emotionally weak in another area, being physically strong is kind of my own way to combat that."
She looks around, taking in the place where she's sitting. "Outside of this gym, people say my first and last name when I meet them. When I'm inside this gym, it's just my first name. You know? So I'm just me when I'm fighting."
A part of what makes Rousey Rousey is the passion she carries with her all the time. This is most obvious in her tears. Ronda Rousey cries, a lot. She says she does it whenever she "meets a threshold of emotion." To deal with the people who faulted her for her tears, Rousey says she "just had to develop my not-give-a-s--tness." Then she turns contemplative, explaining why people who react negatively to someone's tears are the problem, not the person crying.
"People will fault you for caring that much about something. I think it's a very cynical approach to life to look down on somebody who cries," she says. "They would be lucky to care that much about anything. And so people mock me or make fun of me because I cry, I pity them for their callous outlook."
It's such a fighter's approach to an emotional reaction that most people chalk up to being weak or too "girly." Rousey has taken that part of her and made it good and strong by casting it as a physical representation of the passion that allows her to go into an Octagon and tear someone apart. "I'm lucky that of all the things I've been through, I still care that much about anything."
Rousey lost her father to suicide when she was eight years old, after he suffered a bad back injury during a sledding accident. She spent her teenage years training in judo, sometimes living thousands of miles away from her family. She was disappointed in the 2004 Olympics when she left without a medal, despite being the youngest judoka there. Even her bronze in 2008 was not the medal she wanted. Rousey then spent some years scraping by—including that job working the graveyard shift at 24 Hour Fitness—before she found MMA and—with a successful stint in the now defunct Strikeforce—convinced UFC president Dana White to start a women’s bantamweight division.
Now she is probably the most famous fighter in the UFC. She just also happens to cry a lot.
Rousey's gym has glass panels along the two sides that run along the street. As she works out inside, passersby slow down when they recognize her. A group of three people passes by multiple times, at first strolling as if they are simply out for a walk but eventually stopping to press their faces up to the glass, their hands cupped above their eyes to help block out the sun for a better glimpse of the champion fighter.
At one point after her workout, a man in a UFC shirt stands for a long while at the front door to the gym (which is locked, probably for this exact reason). Eventually, Rousey tells her coach that "this guy is burning a hole in my peripheral vision." Within minutes, a group of her male friends exit the gym from the back, walk around to the front and escort the man away.
There are a bevy of reasons that fans are drawn to Rousey, from her dominant fighting to her pretty face. Part of her popularity stems from her looks, and Rousey knows this. She actively exploits it. "That was always one advantage that I had over the men, to get attention for my fights," she says. "Because they couldn't play that card whereas I could. And I had to do every single thing possible from the beginning to get people to care, to watch, you know."
She's extremely pragmatic about this aspect of her work. And she's not at all resentful of it. "It's part of my job, you know? People put on suits to go to work." Rousey cleans up and looks stunning as part of hers.
When she's off the clock, not appearing at media events or being interviewed, she doesn't worry about it at all. "In my free time," Rousey says, "I'll go to Wing Stop without brushing my hair. And I won't wear makeup at all. And I'll wear what's comfortable." Then she adds, "That's my free time. But if I'm going to work, I gotta clean up and look professional."
Another part of her draw comes from her commitment to perfection and the confidence that goes along with it. Often this combination means Rousey is cast in the role of the villain in her fights, a role she is comfortable with going back to her judo days. "I've been booed in every language," she says of her globe-spanning judoka career.
When she's in the Octagon, she's not dolled up. She is serious and intense, her eyes rarely leaving her opponent, a permanent scowl affixed to her face. Then she fights hard, intelligently and without mercy.
Between her fighting in the Octagon and her professionally done-up look outside of it, Rousey is a master of getting people to watch, over and over again.
"The thing is," she says, "you can show people something shiny to get them to look, but you have to show them something of substance to get them to keep looking. And so, yeah, [looking pretty] was the shiny thing in the beginning, but the fights themselves are the substance." Looking good still helps, but she says, "It's no longer needed."
That it's only taken two years for women's MMA to prove its substance in the UFC is remarkable, considering White himself said on camera to TMZ in January 2011 that we would "never" see women in the UFC. Rousey appealed to him personally, and he responded by making her the headliner of UFC 157 in February 2013.
"I was sick and tired of constantly having to prove myself over and over and over again because I'm a woman," Rousey says now, looking back on her push to get women's MMA on par with the men's. But getting women in the UFC wasn't enough. As a woman, she continues, "your reputation doesn't carry over. Every time I would go to a new gym, 'Oh, she's an Olympic medalist, but is she really good? Oh, she's a UFC champion, but is she really good?'"
Rousey believes, though, that she has basically silenced the skeptics. Still, "to a point," she says, "people just wonder if it's all hype or whatever. So they still wonder and I still gotta prove myself a little bit, but it's less and less all the time."
When she takes to the Octagon on Aug. 1 against Correia, it will be after weeks of the two women trash-talking. Correia fought and defeated two of Rousey's good friends and teammates, Jessamyn Duke and most recently Shayna Baszler. Correia made it clear each time that it was Rousey whom she really wanted to fight. In May, she told reporters, "I will beat Ronda and I will only need two punches to knock her out. One to rip off her mole and the other to actually knock her out."
Correia added in a different interview with Brazilian website Combate (h/t the Washington Post), "There are a lot of people around her, because she is winning. When she realizes she is not all that, I don't even know what could happen. I hope she doesn't commit suicide."
Rousey was understandably angry about the latter due to her father's suicide. Correia apologized, saying she didn't know about Rousey's father. Rousey told Jimmy Kimmel earlier this month, though, "I just wanted to beat her in the most devastatingly embarrassing way possible, so I wanted to beat her in front of her people."
The fight is taking place in Brazil, where Correia is from. Rousey added that she would not make the fight a quick one to ensure "she's gonna walk out looking different than she did walking in."
This kind of heated banter is par for the course in fighting. White describes Rousey and her talk this way: "When she's in fight mode, she's in your face, cracking off with all kinds of stuff that gets people going."
Julie Kedzie, a former MMA and UFC fighter and current commentator for the all-female MMA fighting organization Invicta founded in 2012, says MMA is "a sport where you have to gear yourself to believe that nobody in the world can touch you, that you are invincible, and when you do that, sometimes you have to cheer yourself on. And sometimes cheering yourself on—for some people—it's at the expense of another person."
Like most other parts of the public persona Rousey cultivates outside the Octagon, the trash-talking functions to generate press and noise and interest. This explains why Rousey trades barbs with people she has not fought (and quite possibly never will). Most recently, when she took home the ESPY for "Best Fighter," she looked right into the camera and said, "I wonder how Floyd feels being beat by a woman for once," referring to boxer Floyd Mayweather's criminal record of domestic abuse. In a March interview with the Daily Beast, Rousey responded to retired boxer Laila Ali's comment, "No woman can beat me," by saying, "If she wants to take me up on that, I'm around."
Over the last couple of years, Rousey has repeatedly said she doesn't think trans MMA fighter Fallon Fox should be allowed to fight in the women's division. Rousey has made transphobic comments like, "She can try hormones, chop her pecker off, but it's still the same bone structure a man has. It's an advantage. I don't think it's fair."
Fox has responded in detail, explaining the science she says debunks Rousey's claims. Rousey said as recently as May that she would fight a transgender MMA fighter, so perhaps this, of these three high-profile verbal spars, is the fight that will happen.
When asked if going after other women in this way is anti-woman in a world that spends so much time tearing women down, Rousey looks confused and slightly annoyed. She responds, "I don't understand how you say it is anti-woman." She is defensive, at one point relieving the tension by getting up to toss an empty cup in the trash. She then asks pointedly, "When have I gone after a girl's looks?"
When told that, for example, she once quipped about Miesha Tate, "I don't have respect for Miesha's inconsistency. One minute it's about the sport, the next she is wearing booty shorts on her website," Rousey responds passionately. She was simply correcting Tate, she says. It was Tate who tried to say Rousey was the one being anti-woman, so Rousey pointed out that Tate wasn't being honest about her own approach to the sport.
In the end, the reason we pay attention to what Rousey says and how she says it is a measure of her influence, of the potential impact she has anytime she steps in front of a microphone. Kedzie says there are "some women in the sport that trash-talk each other at the expense of other women by kind of bringing all women down, but I don't think that [Rousey] is one of them. I've never seen her do anything but elevate women in this sport, through her actions, through her performance and what she's done."
Ronda Rousey is strong enough to dominate women's MMA, but is women's MMA strong enough to go on without her?
Rousey is a phenomenon, and the fervor that surrounds her is why there are question marks about what will happen to women's MMA when she eventually retires.
"The level of competition in women's MMA has been exploding," she says. "MMA is the only women's combat sport that offers enough money so they can make a living. And so every single other discipline where the best women are, they all have incentive to move to MMA."
White says women’s MMA "is on fire" and that the fire will only spread. "You look at what these women [MMA fighters] are doing on a global scale and how many people know who these women are. It's just getting started."
Kedzie agrees, saying the sport's popularity is "at an all-time high. There's never been a better time to be a female mixed martial artist in the sport, in terms of what you can do with opportunities, visibility, interest level, and everything like that. The doors aren't closed anymore for us."
Investing in other female fighters and the sport at large is integral to the longevity of her own career.
"I need these girls to come up and people think they have a chance to beat me," Rousey says. "And I need them to have weight behind them and attention, and some hype and other things. And so I do whatever I can to make them look as good as I can, until they are ready to get their ass kicked by me."
Yet Rousey knows this is about much more than her personal career. As she imagines her life beyond MMA, she says, "I think about legacy a whole lot more now than I did in the beginning, when I was just thinking about paying the bills. That's one of my fears, always, that [the sport] would kind of fall into obscurity" after her retirement.
"I want it to be stable without me. And when I feel like that day has come where it's at a point where it's surviving on its own and 20 years in the future it'll still be going without me, then that's probably the day that I'll be able to take my belt off the last time it's put on and turn around and hand it back to Dana. That's how I picture it."
Her chance to live out that moment knowing her sport will survive her and continue to thrive looks more and more possible with each passing bout.
In December 2014, the UFC crowned its first-ever female strawweight champion, Carla Esparza. Months later, in March 2015, Joanna Jedrzejczyk beat Esparza to claim the crown and still currently holds it, having successfully defended the title last month. The UFC airs Invicta via its online streaming Fight Pass service. Unlike the UFC, which only has two weight classes (bantamweight and strawweight), Invicta has fights in five different weight classes, ranging from atomweight to lightweight.
Rousey says, "The women's 115 division [strawweight] is operating fully independently of me. Everyone loves Joanna. She's really a popular champion right now and she's a really exciting fighter. And that has nothing to do with me. That has to do with her and her division. That gives me a lot of faith and confidence that the sport is going to survive me."
Kedzie admits that Rousey's retirement will matter. "I don't know if we're ever gonna see a female fighter with the same impact, with the same level of just interest, the way she demolishes people, the way she conducts herself, the amount of mainstream attention that she's gotten," Kedzie says.
White isn't at all concerned about what will happen to women's MMA whenever Rousey retires. "I think Ronda has launched women's MMA," White says confidently. "I see little girls all the time that come up to me at fights and say, 'I'm going to be your next world champion.' And now how much of that happened before Ronda? The answer is zero. I never had little girls coming up to me saying they were going to be the next world champion, ever."
Because of Rousey, he says, “We're actually looking at women differently now. Men look at women differently. Women are looking at themselves differently. And little girls look at what's possible. There was never a scenario in the history of the world before where a woman can kick a man's ass. And now there is." According to White, there's no going back now.
For now, Rousey is focused on Aug. 1. She flew to Brazil a couple of weeks before the fight to give herself time to adjust. And she already has plans for what she will do when it's over.
Immediately after the fight, she is going on vacation with her family. Or as she calls it, "resorting." She hasn't stopped working since her fight in February. "I'm always working," she admits. Imagining her post-match relaxation, Rousey paints a scene. Sitting back in her chair, her legs out in front of her, she says, "I'll have a really full stomach and a drink in my hand. A coconut drink. Ray-Bans on. I'll be in a bikini with a potbelly and not give a s--t," she says and then laughs.
After her vacation, Rousey will go right back to work, as she is wont to do. She'll soon be filming a new action movie with Mark Wahlberg and, most likely, will still have a belt to defend. People will continue to press their faces to the glass of her gym to catch a glimpse of her, and little girls will go on imagining that they will be the next Ronda Rousey.
For many years to come, we will compare other fighters to Rousey. She has set the bar, and it is high. She has cast her shadow, and it is long. She has set the standard inside the Octagon and out for what it means to be a compelling fighter. As we learn the names and watch the fights of the next generation of women's MMA fighters, it will be fun to see who can live up to or surpass this legacy.
Jessica Luther is a freelance journalist and writer living in Austin, Texas. Her sportswriting has been published by Sports Illustrated, Vice Sports, Texas Monthly and the Texas Observer.