The Complicated Legacy of New UFC Hall of Famer Ronda Rousey

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJuly 5, 2018

B/R

Most legendary athletes are immortalized in our memories at the peak of their powers. When you think of Michael Jordan, he's switching hands in midair, floating toward the basket like gravity simply didn't apply to him. Likewise, Joe Montana is remembered for that one perfect pass: a mind meld with Dwight Clark that saw him place the football where only one man could possibly catch it, the stakes as high as they come.

If fans recall less spectacular times on less glorious teams like the Washington Wizards or Kansas City Chiefs, they are too kind to mention them. We prefer our heroes with the sun shining on them, beautiful, young and strong.

Ronda Rousey, the UFC's latest Hall of Famer, who is scheduled for induction Thursday night in Las Vegas, won't receive that same courtesy.

For a time, Rousey was the star an entire sport revolved around. In eight title bouts between 2012 and 2015, Rousey only left the opening round once. Five of those top contenders couldn't even survive a single minute with the former Olympic bronze medalist in judo, who was a master of submission with a gift for imposing her will on every contest.

Rousey's excellence was so compelling, her star potential so clear, that even UFC President Dana White, previously a staunch opponent of women's MMA, was taken in by her charms. And, sure, her good looks helped pave the path to wider fame—but make no mistake: Her fierce fighting propelled her into stardom.

Rousey versus Davis was over before it ever truly started.
Rousey versus Davis was over before it ever truly started.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

At the height of her powers, Rousey exuded menace, her stern-faced sneer preceding her to the cage, victory assured by demeanor alone. Some opponents were bested before the bell even rang, felled by fear and doubt. When I attended UFC 175 with writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner, she immediately began referring to Rousey's opponent as "poor Alexis Davis." The fighter's sad body language—all slumped shoulders and tangible terror—made the result a fait accompli.

But despite a reign so dominant she all but single-handedly thrust women's MMA into the American mainstream, Rousey will be defined by her defeats. Fair or not, the lasting image of Rousey isn't one with her hands raised overhead in victory or clasped in her signature armbar submission.

Instead, seared into history is the crack of Holly Holm's shin bone on Rousey's head and the blank look on her face that followed; the exact moment consciousness left Rousey's body, captured for posterity in photos, memes and video highlights.

Holly Holm of the US (R) lands a kick to the neck to knock out compatriot Ronda Rousey and win the UFC title fight in Melbourne on November 15, 2015.   RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE NO ADVERTISING USE NO PROMOTIONAL USE NO MERCHANDISING USE.   / AFP / PAUL
PAUL CROCK/Getty Images

Ignominious? Sure. Combat sports too often are. They're the ultimate binary experience. Other athletic contests allow for moral victories. No such thing exists in a sport that often leaves one of the competitors devoid of their senses, reanimated in a pool of their own fluids, aware only that something has gone horribly awry.

In the end, that was the Rousey story, too. She left the sport a loser, broken mentally by Holm and sent to the lions a final time against current champ Amanda Nunes, shuffling to that inevitable execution with all the vigor of an athlete who knows she's been condemned before the contest even begins.

This, of course, doesn't make Rousey unique. Most fighters come to a sad end. Even Muhammad Ali, the greatest of them all, was reduced to little more than a heavy bag for Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. No one escapes unscathed.

In mixed martial arts, too, we've seen all our heroes made human. Rousey's is a sport where the difference between knockouts and glancing blows is measured in inches and milliseconds. Even the slightest decline can be devastating. From Royce Gracie to Anderson Silva to the once seemingly ageless Randy Couture, Father Time inevitably won.

But this wasn't the case with Rousey. She was drummed out of the sport at age 29 and in good health. This wasn't the willing warrior whose body could no longer keep up with the demands of professional athletics. Physically, she was fine. Mentally and emotionally, however, Holm had rendered her unfit for further competition with a single blow.

In this, Rousey is singular. Before Holm, her four previous title bouts lasted a combined two minutes, 10 seconds. Her success was so unprecedented, her dominance so far removed from what we expect from even the greatest champions, that Rousey almost seemed bored with it all.

A grappling savant, she zeroed in on her striking game by winning three of four fights with knockouts that came with startling ease. A Ring magazine cover followed in October 2015, as did discussion of a bout with male boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. Commentators, such as UFC's Joe Rogan, began speculating that she could beat many of the men in her weight class.

After Holm, everything changed. Things had come so easily for Rousey during her four-year reign of terror that the introduction of adversity left her badly shaken and in seclusion.

"One thing my mother never taught me was how to lose," Rousey told movie director Peter Berg in a rare public appearance earlier this year (via USA Today's Martin Rogers). "She'd say, 'I want you to never entertain it as a possibility. Let it suck. It deserves to suck.'

"I did a whole lot of crying, isolating myself," she also said. "[Husband Travis Browne] held me and let me cry, and it lasted two years. I couldn't have done it alone."

Ultimately, Rousey couldn't fully recover from her setbacks—at least not in a way that allowed her to continue her MMA career. When knocked down, Rousey never truly made it up off the mat.

Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Associated Press

These days her appearances in the ring are heavily scripted, and wins and losses are decided by her bosses at the WWE instead of her own aptitude. She seems OK with this. Happy even. It's good to see her smile again.

Deep down, though, you have to wonder whether Rousey has fighting fully out of her system. She's refused to formally retire, leaving the door open, if only a crack, for a potential return to the cage.

"No one demanded a written resignation from me for judo," she told talk show host Ellen DeGeneres earlier this year (h/t MMA Mania's Jesse Holland). "And I don't really think the same thing is necessary for fighting."

You'd think that induction into the UFC's Hall of Fame would close the door on her fighting career. There's a finality to it, a clear message that you are now firmly part of the past. But Hall of Famer Dan Severn fought more than 40 times after receiving his Hall of Fame plaque—so no door is truly closed in the wacky world of combat sports.

Whether Rousey returns to the cage or not, fans and pundits will fiercely debate her legacy. Without her, mainstream women's MMA likely wouldn't exist. There's no doubt Rousey was an important fighter—historical even. But the nature of her fall makes everything that preceded it open to examination.

Does she truly belong among the greats? That's a question we'll all be grappling with for a long time.

              

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report and is the author of Total MMA and The MMA Encyclopedia.

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