WrestleMania 34: Can Ronda Rousey Make It in the Cutthroat World of Wrestling?

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterApril 6, 2018

Rousey is all smiles these days.
Rousey is all smiles these days.Photo courtesy of WWE

She appeared with Joan Jett blaring, making an entrance in front of tens of thousands of fans. We had seen it all before: the purposeful walk, the steely look of concentration, the sense of danger only a martial artist can bring to bear.            

But something was different at WWE's Royal Rumble in January. Ronda Rousey, the most famous woman in the history of combat sports, the woman who rewrote the manual about what is possible in women's athletics, was smiling.

Even when she attempted to glower, to look serious while pointing at the WrestleMania sign like it was her destiny, she couldn't hide it from her eyes. WWE's newest superstar was smiling. And that was something no one outside her inner circle had seen for quite some time.

Fast-forward two months, and the smile was replaced with a scowl. A smile would have just been odd seeing as she had just been slammed through a table by WWE executive Stephanie McMahon, a wrestling rite of passage delivered less than a week before her in-ring debut, now just days away. 

Even then, with debris and table shards all around her, Rousey couldn't keep the twinkle from her eye. Whatever else may come from this experience, whether it's a temporary jaunt or lifelong endeavor, in these early days, there can be little doubt she's having fun.

Whether she will be smiling after her debut, a tag team match in which she will partner with Kurt Angle to take on McMahon and her husband, Triple H, at WrestleMania, is the question of the day among wrestling fans and insiders. Getting into a wrestling ring for your first match is a huge challenge. Doing it on The Grandest Stage of Them All is unprecedented in the modern history of the sport.

"In the UFC, all she had to do was worry about herself and her training," says deputy managing editor of SBNation's MMAFighting Marc Raimondi, who has followed her transition to wrestling closely. "In wrestling, she will have to protect her fellow performers while still trying to look good herself. There is nothing easy about professional wrestling. It's an incredibly nuanced, technical art.

"When done right, it can look like a magician pulling off an audacious sleight of hand. When done wrong, well, it can devolve into a total mess in front of thousands of unforgiving fans. ... The best thing about WWE, though, is it can accentuate your strengths and minimize your weaknesses if it chooses to. And I believe that will be the case here."

A wrestler debuting at WrestleMania is like a quarterback taking his first snap under center during a two-minute drill in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl. WWE is asking a lot of Rousey—all in front of an audience known for its brutal catcalls and exacting standards.

The 49-year-old Angle is a Hall of Famer.
The 49-year-old Angle is a Hall of Famer.Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

"I will tell you this: The most difficult thing in the world to do would be to have your debut match at WrestleMania," says Angle, who has been training with Rousey ahead of the event. "Ronda Rousey is doing the impossible. It is asking a lot of Ronda. But I think she's going to be ready by then."

And the payoff for doing the impossible?

"If she hits the ground running, there's going to be no looking back," Angle says. "Her potential is limitless. Within a couple of years, she could be the best female performer in our company." 

He says that with a chuckle. But is that fear or confidence lingering behind that laugh? The world will find out Sunday night.


           

Bringing in a celebrity serves a single purpose for a wrestling promotion: It brings eyeballs that otherwise might not consider watching a match directly to the product. It's everyone else's job to give them a show worth tuning into a second time.

When done right, a well-timed celebrity appearance can spark a revolution. Mike Tyson helped make "Stone Cold" Steve Austin a mainstream star, launching a wrestling glory period that set business records for the WWE. The NWO never looked cooler than the days when the group was palling around with basketball bad boy Dennis Rodman at the height of his powers. 

When done wrong, it's a ploy the audience sees right through, a costly anchor that can sink a show financially and creatively. The horror stories outnumber the successes, from C-list actor David Arquette's world championship victory to rapper Master P looking bored to death during a failed run in 1999.

"Truly, truly embracing the business is key," UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, a longtime wrestling fan, says. "You have to truly be in love and passionate about it. You'll be exposed if you aren't. We've seen celebrities who you could tell were just trying to make some money, and it did not work. 

"Floyd Mayweather Jr.—he engrossed himself in it when he did the match with the Big Show, and it showed. But back in WCW, there was the No Limit Soldiers. Master P was just trying to make some money. You could tell it was a money grab. Master P showed up and was gone and left all these random new guys nobody cared about. You've got to engross yourself, in the sport and the business."

Eric Bischoff, who ran WCW when it was the coolest promotion on Earth in the 1990s, worked with many celebrities over the years, from talk show host Jay Leno, a man whose lack of athleticism defied rational belief, to Rodman and football Hall of Famer Kevin Greene.

The formula was simple: Get in, get out and give the celebrity just enough to do to make it interesting but not so much to do they could muck up the whole thing.

WWE will likely attempt some version of this smoke-and-mirrors routine with Rousey, but the scenario is somewhat unique.

"Generally, the celebrities are surrounded by any number of experienced performers who can camouflage every thing they don't know or aren't capable of doing," Bischoff says. "Ronda is not going to have that luxury—at least for any extended period of time.

"Initially, like we did with Bill Goldberg when he debuted, they could limit her participation from a physicality point of view so that she's not exposed for what she doesn't know or the skills she hasn't developed in terms of wrestling technique. But you can only do that so long. At some point, Ronda—or any other athlete like her who is making the transition—is going to have to be able to stand on her own two feet."

In other words, this isn't your average celebrity wrestling match. Instead, if done right, it's the launch of a new era.

"This is a different situation than, say, when Mayweather did a match at WrestleMania," Raimondi says. "Or when Lawrence Taylor did it. Or when Tyson was a special guest [enforcer. Rousey] has been pegged as a real, full-time WWE talent. This isn't a one-off; it's being billed as the first of many. If any of those aforementioned stars from other sports screwed up, they got to go home the next day and return to their regular jobs. This is now Rousey's job, so there is more pressure on her to perform."


               

The WWE Performance Center, a 26,000 square foot state-of-the-art training complex hidden in what appears to be an ordinary office park in Orlando, Florida, was built with Rousey in mind. Perhaps not the former UFC star specifically but the idea of someone just like her.

"We are recruiting the best athletes on the planet, and when we bring them here, we'll try to take them to another level," Paul "Triple H" Levesque said in a 2013 interview conducted the day the facility officially opened. "Nobody has a facility like we do because nobody has a product like we do from the performance side. We are not only training the athlete but the performer as well."

The Performance Center has cutting-edge training equipment, a studio to help prospective wrestlers learn to perform on the microphone and a professional support staff to keep the athletes up and running. But best of all, it houses centuries of institutional knowledge in the form of former wrestlers who spent decades learning their craft.

Professional wrestling might seem easy on first glance. In theory, you just grunt at the right time, stomp your foot when throwing a punch and pull theatrical, outrageous faces any time an opponent catches you in a gruesome submission hold.

In practice, it's a complicated performance art like no other—part-physical opera, part-improvisational car crash, part-Broadway burlesque.

"To create emotion using that physical dialogue is truly a magnificent art form," Bischoff says. "In many respects, the physicality is the easy part, particularly for somebody who is a gifted athlete like Ronda. That's not the challenge.

"The psychology of wrestling and the understanding of the art form very much is. That's going to be the biggest challenge. Particularly, in my opinion, with somebody who has an extensive, competitive, athletic background in combat sports. She's going to have to unlearn many of her instincts, instincts that have been cultivated and built for decades."

In recent, the Performance Center has had another guest working alongside Rousey, and he agrees with Bischoff's assessment.

Rousey and Angle are working hard to deliver.
Rousey and Angle are working hard to deliver.Photo courtesy of WWE.com

Angle had his first wrestling match just three days after he started training. An Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling, he's famous in the industry for picking up the business faster than anyone before or since. A multifaceted performer, he mastered the twin arts of drama and comedy, making him one of the most adaptable wrestlers of his era, equally capable of wrestling in a cage match as wearing a tiny cowboy hat and singing terrible songs.

WWE first approached Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson to be Rousey's WrestleMania partner, according to Dave Meltzer, writing for MMA Fighting, but Angle was the perfect fallback. Not only could he be there to help her train for her debut and to work through her weekly television appearances, but he understands the inherent challenges in moving from combat sports proper to combat sports simulated. Everything Rousey is going through, he faced when he made his transition to the sport 20 years ago.

"She's competed in front of 20,000, 30,000 fans, but she's never had to do that while also remembering everything she's supposed to do," Angle says. "She's always gone by instinct. Her training as a fighter, her judo, it's all instinct. You train, you prepare, you go out there and you react to your opponent.

"Here you have to think, about what you're doing and what's coming next. You have to remember to sell. You have to show anger, fear, excitement. You have to include the crowd in all of it. It's a very difficult transition. But she has been doing an incredible job. And I think she's going to succeed. Besides me, she's the quickest learner to ever transition from real sports to sports entertainment. I honestly can't be anymore impressed than I am right now." 

Ken Shamrock, too, has walked a mile in Rousey's wrestling boots. The first UFC star to transition into the world of WWE, he started a pipeline between the two companies that subsequent talent like Brock Lesnar and CM Punk have navigated in both directions. 

Ken Shamrock was the first to jump from UFC to WWE.
Ken Shamrock was the first to jump from UFC to WWE.JANE KALINOWSKY/Associated Press

"These girls are gonna be afraid of Ronda," Shamrock says. "They won't admit it, but they are giving their bodies to a person who hurts people for a living. These people are going, 'Hey, if I give you my arm or give you my neck, are you gonna hurt me?' There has to be a trust built up.

"When she has her first match or her second match, she has to let them know 'I'm young at this, and when I go in there, I need your help. And I promise I'm not gonna hurt you. I'm gonna follow the program and try to have a great match.' It really is about building trust with your opponents. Them trusting that when you pick them up and slam, you're not gonna put them on their head."

Angle concedes that getting Rousey to turn things down a notch has been a big part of their training together.

"Ronda's a judo Olympic medalist," he says. "She's used to throwing people without them assisting her. When you throw people like that in sports entertainment, that's when injuries occur. Ronda has been trying to snap out of that and, instead of throwing a girl on her head, to jump with her opponent, go down with her to land the opponent safely.

"It's been a tough transition. But I think Ronda's starting to get the hang of it."

Rousey started her combat sports career in judo.
Rousey started her combat sports career in judo.Charles Dharapak/Associated Press/Associated Press

Angle continues: "She's been adjusting pretty well. Is she going to be a little bit stiff? Yes. But she's well aware of what she's capable of doing to people. And she also knows she's going to be in the ring with a McMahon. That's her boss. I think we have the match planned out to the point we don't have to worry about Ronda breaking Stephanie's nose. You aren't going to see any punches to the face." 

It will be the highest-profile match on the biggest card of the year. As Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Meltzer reports, the match has huge stakes. Not only does it have to make Rousey a star, but it's also designed to make McMahon a household name like her father. That's why, days before the big bout, Angle and Rousey are working so hard to get it just right, focusing not just on general moves and storytelling but also on the parts and pieces of their contest.

"We have been training her repetitiously," Angle says. "She's been going over how to the take the right bump, how to throw the correct punch, how to do the proper throw. We do have a lot of the match planned out, but we've left some room open. You need that.

"There are certain reactions we'll get from the crowd that we can't plan out. And we're going to have to change things during the match to get the right reactions. This match is going to be real good. I would have never said that three months ago. I would have said it's going to be average at best. But this could be a really exceptional match. And you have to give credit to Ronda for that."


            

There are two elephants in the room every time Rousey competes. Their names are Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes. The former's left foot sent Rousey's professional life spiraling in 2015. The latter embarrassed her badly in her 2016 return. Years later, the two aren't any further in the rearview mirror, something very noticeable as Rousey has made the media rounds to promote her wrestling debut.

Holm knocked Rousey down and out.
Holm knocked Rousey down and out.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

"She got her ass handed to her, not once but twice," Bischoff says. "And it wasn't even close. The illusion, the perception, the mystique, evaporated with the Holm loss. And she didn't handle those losses well. I think it's fair to say, at least from my perspective, that she was very immature in the way she handled it. She turned her back on the fans and acted like a spoiled brat. And the audience doesn't like that.

"It's unfortunate. Had someone been managing her properly, or if she would have just had the right instincts, she would have lost those fights but shown respect to her opponents and the fans and for the sport. She could have honestly become a bigger fan favorite in her losses than she would have been in a victory.

"People will love you for holding your head high and treating your opponent with respect. They will love you more for that than they will for winning if you let them. Unfortunately, she didn't let them."

It raises the question, what happens when things don't go her way in the wrestling ring? 

"If we know anything about wrestling fans, it's that they are territorial, and if Rousey is perceived as being pushed beyond what she deserves, they can turn quickly," Raimondi says. "Roman Reigns and John Cena are excellent performers who have, for the most part, paid their dues. But even as babyfaces, they still get booed by fans because many don't want to see them continue to get pushed as such. 

Even the great John Cena is often booed by demanding WWE fans.
Even the great John Cena is often booed by demanding WWE fans.Kevin Winter/Getty Images

"That's the kind of thing that could very well happen to Rousey. Right now, she's getting mostly cheers, but it's not over the top. There are some boos mixed in. ... I don't imagine she'll fly off the handle or break character if she gets booed. Nor do I think she'll lose it if she messes up and the crowd lets her know it.

"I feel like this is a different dynamic than her talking about her UFC losses. ... If a crowd turns on her, it's part of the world of wrestling and a problem she has to solve." 

Bischoff, who managed the hundreds of wrestlers' careers with WCW, says Rousey may never get a second chance to make an impression with fans, many of whom are carefully withholding judgment. Wrestling fans, he believes, are smart. They understand the business implications of this signing and just what Rousey could mean for the company. They have, as a concession to her potential role in delivering a new television deal and her outward respect for the business they love, given her a chance. Singular. Multiple chances are a different matter. If she doesn't deliver and reward their loyalty, they will turn on her faster than a Holly Holm headkick.

"We already know the audience is predisposed to making a judgment," he says. "She better be able to live up to that moment. If she can, she'll get over like she was shot out of a rocket. If she's not ready, it will be hard to overcome. Wrestling fans don't forget. They're passionate about the product and the history and the legacy. If WWE or Ronda tries to fast-forward through the process of learning the art and craft, there will be backlash.

"She has an uphill battle, or at least a real challenge, in learning the psychology of wrestling, how to gain sympathy, how to put her opponents over, how to advance a story, how to keep her character intact in the sometimes compromising situations that are going to be created for her in a script. She has to learn all of that. If she does, if she focuses on the art and the craft, I think she could be a huge star. Because she has so many other things going for her."

Cormier has some experience with a fickle fanbase. He was once beloved by fans, but many of them eventually sided with his archrival, Jon Jones. When the boos come, he says, Rousey has to be ready to deal with it.

"When they turn on her, which they will, you don't run away from it—you steer into it," he says. "When Jones and I were going to fight and the fans decided, 'We missed this guy when he was on his drug suspension, and we hate you,' I remembered Bret Hart.

"When everybody started liking Stone Cold, Bret was booed everywhere. So I did what he did. I started playing it up. You hate me for saying he's this or that? I'm just going to say it even more. I'm going to be louder about it, even more obnoxious. You take it head on and use that reaction."


              

In 1951, Mildred Burke, a 5'2" dynamo with a beauty queen's smile and a brute's dense musculature, defended her championship belt in a main event match against June Byers. It was one of more than 5,000 contests she won during a title reign than spanned almost 20 years.

Ed Ford/Associated Press

Three decades later, Wendi Richter stood next to Cyndi Lauper and Hulk Hogan as WWE spread like a virus from its Northeast stronghold, first conquering the nation and then the world.

If there's a women's wrestling revolution, it's been a long time coming.

"We cannot, ever, ever, forget where we come from," Madusa Miceli, a WWE Hall of Famer who also performed as Alundra Blayze, says. "I'm here because of the women before me."

Rousey stands at the tip of a spear that has been forged for nearly a hundred years. And being the forward-facing figurehead out in front of a movement isn't always easy. No one knows this better than Madusa, hand-picked by WWE chairman Vince McMahon to lead a women's revolution of her own in the 1990s.

Paul Heyman, a living legend in the sport, called her the Ronda Rousey of her time in a Yahoo Sports blog in April 2016, explaining that the two shared many common traits:

"WWE's presentation of Madusa as the fiercely competitive, fit-but-feminine athlete ready to take out an  entire division was ahead of its time, as the public in the mid-1990s didn't know how to react to such a character. Of course, today, one of the biggest box-office attractions in sports is UFC's Ronda Rousey. You know, a fiercely competitive, fit-but-feminine athlete ready to take out an entire division. Sound familiar?"

The industry wasn't ready for Madusa in the 1990s, when the "wrestling" part of women's wrestling was all too often forgotten. The Attitude Era brought with it lewd and crass indignities like bra-and-panties matches, a move away from the kind of athleticism Miceli brought to the business. Seeing the direction the business was going, she walked away rather than take part.

But Rousey has come along at the right time to make this work. A crop of talented female wrestlers, from Sasha Banks to Charlotte Flair, has laid the groundwork for success. What they lacked to get to the next level, promotional rocket fuel, Rousey has in spades.

"What she has done for women in her sport is amazing," Madusa says. "She crushed it. She crushed the doors down and made it possible for other women. And she had her eyes on pro wrestling the entire time."

Rousey needs these women, and they need her. But that's going to require the women who built the launching pad she will use to shoot herself to stardom to move out of the way while she makes her mark on the business they have devoted their lives to. In an ego-driven enterprise, where other wrestlers are both artistic collaborators and ruthless opposition for a handful of top spots, this isn't always an easy sell.

"There are going to be people who want to see you fail because they put their whole life into getting to where they're at, and here you are going to jump right in front of them," Shamrock says. "And that's going to make them angry. Even though they won't admit it, inside they're like, 'What did she do to deserve to get here? She didn't put in the hard work and the training.

"The only way she puts that to rest is for her to go in there as a student, to humble herself and make sure everyone understands that this is something she wants to do and that she's going to work at it and follow their lead. ... You have to figure out a way to get along, be able to have great matches. And to me, that is the most difficult thing to do when you are being thrust into an organization where people worked a long to get there and, all of a sudden, you are being put over on them."

Rousey faces a dual challenge, required to both put on a match beyond her burgeoning skill set and navigate a locker room filled with smiling faces and mixed feelings.

"They're cordial, and they're smiling, taking pictures, because that's the right thing to do," Madusa says. "But deep down inside, it's almost bulls--t if you don't say, 'What the f--k?' A bunch of them are saying it to themselves. 'I've been here busting my ass from the beginning. And I'm still not at WrestleMania. And she walks right in and she's here.' It's OK to feel that way. Because that means you're real. But what is that going to do?

"I say embrace it, girls. And enjoy the ride. Because there's another era starting. I see a shift changing. And it's about to become bad-ass."

              

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report and is the author of Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling

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