The Fall of Ronda Rousey

Sportsmanship, Domination and Schadenfreude

By Brent Hirose

Ronda Rousey | Public Domain

Ronda Rousey | Public Domain

At UFC 207 on December 30th, no fight grabbed more headlines than the return of one of the most popular female athletes in any sport: Former Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey. The woman who was single handedly responsible for women's MMA entering into the UFC, the biggest crossover star the sport ever produced and a cultural phenomenon in her own right, was finally returning to reclaim her crown after over a year away from the Octagon. Fans waited with bated breath for their favourite fighter to return to form and use her Olympic level judo skills to dominate her opponent and regain her Bantamweight championship. The owners of the UFC, having recently purchased the company for over $4 billion dollars, anticipated one of their biggest draws setting up another string of record breaking pay per views with her victory. Instead, we got something much more interesting. 

Rousey's rise as the Bantamweight Champion was remarkable for a variety of reasons. Rousey brought a skill set never before seen in women's MMA, rising up the ranks and defeating every foe with her judo skills, winning each fight with a textbook armbar in the first round. Along with dominance in her fights she also presented a highly marketable personality: a beautiful and brash athlete who truly believed in her skills and her inevitable rise to greatness. This combination brought women's MMA into the UFC, where president Dana White had previously scoffed at the idea of women fighting in his promotion. Rousey would go on to sell millions of pay per views and enter into the popular consciousness with appearances in movies like Expendables 3, Entourage and Furious 7. She was a media darling, with tons of interviews, and her declaration that no woman should be a “do-nothing-bitch” being incorporated into a live Beyonce show. She was a star with a legion of fans. But the cracks had begun to show.

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While on the surface Rousey was highly likeable, as she became more exposed, criticisms began to arise. Her comments on sex were seen as ignorant, and her views on transgender identity ignorant and possibly hateful. Her appearance as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter 18 drew fire for apparent emotional instability, and her rivalry against fellow Bantamweight Misha Tate began to appear less sportsmanlike, refusing to shake her rival's hand after besting her. Yet even with all of these complaints, there were still the skills that brought her into prominence: she was an undefeated, incredibly effective fighter who could be appreciated for her performances in the Octagon. 

That all changed on November 15th, 2015 at UFC 193 when Rousey defended her Bantamweight Title against experienced kick boxer Holly Holm. What most expected to be an easy challenge for Rousey quickly went off script as the first round saw Rousey unable to bring Holm to the ground. Instead, she took tons of punishment as Holm repeatedly kicked and punched the advancing Rousey who was seemingly incapable of doing anything to prevent it. Finally, less than a minute into the second round, Holm landed a beautiful high kick flush to the back of Rousey’s head, and sent her crashing to the mat. It was a disaster for Rousey and her fans were left in shock.

For her growing crowd of critics however, there was some celebration to be had. Rousey, never a gracious winner, was now nowhere to be found in defeat, not appearing at any of the post fight interviews and slinking off into public silence. Nobody was sure why she lost the fight. Whether it was underestimating her opponent, not taking training seriously enough, or her coach Edmond Tarverdyran (who was thought by many to be largely incompetent), the results were what really mattered. The queen was dead. 

It probably helped that the fight watching public had a very likeable new champion in Holm. Nicknamed “The Preacher's Daughter”, Holm was a humble challenger leading into the fight, never boasting of her incredible world-championship kickboxing career, or the (admittedly lacklustre) undefeated record that she brought into the fight. She served as a stark contrast to “Rowdy” Rousey's brashness. But while Holm did gain more fandom, fame and respect in her victory, what proved more interesting was the way Rousey's life was instantly transformed. 

Rousey was on top of the world leading into the fight. Fight fans debated weather Rousey was the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) fighter to ever live, with UFC commentator Joe Rogan postulating that she could defeat many of the men on the bantamweight roster. A remake of the classic 80s movie Roadhouse was announced starring Rousey, and a generation of female fans flocked to the UFC to see their champion ragdoll her next competitor into submission. With her loss, public perception turned on a dime. Fans now argued whether she had been overrated to begin with, her movie career stalled as projects went into indefinite hiatus and many of those fans seemingly evaporated. And then there were the memes. Countless images of Rousey’s face, busted up, punched over and over again, and of course the infamous head kick knockout, flooded the internet with snarky accompanying text. The queen wasn't just dead, but her idols torn down, and her palace torched.

Ronda Rousey and Connor McGregor |  EA Sports

Ronda Rousey and Connor McGregor | EA Sports

It didn't need to be this way. Rousey's male counterpart, at least in popularity, Connor McGregor faced a similar setback. Known for his incredible pre-fight smack talk and braggadocio both inside and outside the cage, McGregor rose to fame in the shadow of Rousey before his star began to outshine hers. Knocking out opponent after opponent with his powerful left hand, McGregor gave the fans exciting fights with even more exciting build up with his constant stream of patter, a WWE wrestler come to life in the real fight game. However, when his fights concluded a much more humble persona appeared, and when he finally lost in a similarly outmatched bout against Nate Diaz at UFC 201, McGregor demonstrated a truly grounded response. He made no excuses for his loss, congratulating his opponent and promising to return with his lessons well learned. When he defeated Diaz in their subsequent rematch, fighting a smarter fight and outclassing his foe, his fanbase exploded with joy: It was a feel-good comeback story and their love of McGregor was entirely vindicated. 

Instead, after the defeat Rousey disappeared from the public eye and took over a year to return to the Octagon. In the run up to her return fight, she did practically no press. The Bantamweight
Championship had been in turmoil: Holm lost her first title defence to Rousey's longtime rival Misha Tate in a beautiful come from behind submission victory, and then Tate found herself defeated in her first title defence by Amanda Nunez, a fighter with an uneven record but impressive stand up skills. Press for the fight centred largely on Rousey's return, ignoring the feel good story of Nunez's rise and the historical significance of her being the first LBGTQ champion in UFC history. And so Rousey's fans resurfaced and began to wonder if they would once again see the champion they had so venerated. 

The path to victory was clear: Nunez was known to tire in the later rounds, and was largely a boxer. Prior to her loss to Holm, Rousey had discovered increasing success with her own stand up, but it was her judo skills and her mastery of the arm-bar that brought her to the dance to begin with. If Rousey could be patient, let Nunez punch herself out and bring the fight to the ground then victory seemed assured. The last thing she should do against the gifted pugilist would be to continually advance as she had done disastrously in her match against Holm. Surely in her year off she would have evolved her approach, learned from her loss and come in ready to show all her haters and fair weather fans that they had been wrong to abandon her.

As Rousey entered into the arena floor, screams began to fill the T-Mobile arena. This was the woman so many of the fans had come to see, over 18,000 people up on their feet. As Nunez entered, the reaction was much more subdued, even drawing some boos. As the announcer introduced the fighters, Rousey's face was her trademark intense glare. 

The two women face off, the crowd is at a fever pitch, and twitter is exploding with excitement. Finally, the bell rings. Rousey steps forwards and as she does so, Nunez lands a stiff jab. Rousey advances again, and is once again hit by another blow. And another, and another. She moves to clinch with her opponent, but is instead met by punch after punch until the referee steps forward and waves off the bout only 48 seconds in. Rosey is knocked out while standing, her face swollen with the punishment she's endured in less than a minute. It's a shocking victory.

 Nunez entered the fight as an underdog, and while she was given a chance to win nobody expected her to dominate.  Rousey failed so absolutely at mounting any offence or having any answer to the game plan everyone knew Nunez would clearly attempt to execute. Rousey landed just seven significant strikes, Nunez twenty-seven, twenty-three of those landing squarely on Rousey’s head. It was the third fastest championship victory in women's Bantamweight history. The holder of the first and second? Rousey. 

As Nunez raises her hands in victory, the bewildered audience cheers a little, boos as well. Mostly it just finds itself as stunned as Ronda Rousey herself, who quickly storms out of the arena and once again avoids the traditional post-fight conference. If Rousey checks the internet that night, she will see a familiar sight: fans turning, memes generating, and a full scale dance starting up on what might turn out to be the grave of a surefire Hall of Fame career. 

One cannot help but wonder if things might have been different: McGregor suffered losses early in his career, and even considered dropping out of the fight game before being ushered into the UFC and re-making himself as a fast-talking and even faster punching superstar. He made himself into a superstar, where Rousey was thrust into combat sports by her Judoka mother from a young age, and upon entering MMA was quickly anointed as a star. Maybe she never had a chance. 

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All fighters will eventually lose, especially if they fight long enough. Bodies break down, challengers appear every day and martial arts continue to develop. In Rousey, there is a parallel to other young wunderkind, who experience too much success too early and become subsequently insufferable human beings. Her behaviour and the blowback against her isn't unfamiliar to the wholesale hate leveled at oh-so-punchable stars like Justin Beiber. No wonder then there should be so much delight against a target whose downfall is sure to involve oh-so-many, perhaps deserved, punches to the face.