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Ronda Rousey fans were finally given an answer to the questions surrounding the former MMA champion’s future, when she appeared at World Wrestling Entertainment’s Royal Rumble on Jan. 28 and confirmed she had signed a multi-year deal with the professional wrestling conglomerate.
No, she would not be returning to the Ultimate Fighting Championship. No, her abilities as an actor had not improved to the extent that putting a microphone in her hand was a safe option. Yes, she is still not talking about her last two starts in the Octagon, where she suffered devastating knockout defeats to Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes at UFC 193 and UFC 207.
With her transition from the UFC to WWE complete, it is appropriate to comment on the footprint she leaves behind in mixed martial arts and to ask how she should be remembered by the sport that jettisoned her into mainstream stardom.
Rousey’s status as a pioneer of women’s MMA is undeniable and unlikely to be equaled by any of her contemporaries or successors. As UFC President Dana White is fond of saying, it was Rousey who persuaded him to bring women under his company’s banner in 2013. Her six successful defenses of the bantamweight title set a company record and drew an unprecedented degree of mainstream attention to MMA, in general, and women combatants, in particular. In her eight UFC appearances, cards that Rousey headlined or co-headlined generated an estimated six million pay-per-view buys, and her unremitting work ethic saw her compete at the highest level and take acting roles in several Hollywood blockbusters. Her physicality and doggedness challenged traditional conceptions of femininity, and she quickly became one of the faces of the female empowerment movement. She was a transcendent figure, heralded as an icon for women and combat sports worldwide. She was, to borrow a phrase used by UFC commentator Joe Rogan, a “once in human history”-type of human being.
Yet, two years removed from her violent fall from grace, her legacy in many ways is one of unfulfilled potential. Most obviously, Rousey’s hubris and manifest inability to cope with losing her title cost her dearly in terms of fan support and brand power. In a sport where humble pie is served in liberal proportions to its competitors, Rousey’s retreat from the public limelight after losing to Holm -- and reports she had lashed out at fellow fighters for congratulating the new champion -- exposed an ugly hypocrisy that was not received well by the MMA community.
Once a gleeful purveyor of trash talk who attacked Miesha Tate for her “sense of entitlement” and disparaged Cristiane Justino at every opportunity, Rousey was now accusing MMA of “turning on her.” Once a poster girl for resilience -- she had overcome the suicide of her father, abject poverty and homelessness and battles with alcoholism and bulimia -- Rousey seemed unable to deal with the reality of losing a fight. Once a champion whose fans identified with her over her love of Dragon Ball Z and hot wings, Rousey embraced a victim mentality and demanded special treatment. Even if we exclude the last two years, a sober appraisal of Rousey’s career reveals no shortage of hypocrisies that were downplayed by the media and/or eclipsed by the sheer magnitude of her athletic accomplishments.
Despite all the talk of breaking down gender barriers and challenging the body-shaming culture, Rousey didn’t hesitate to embrace sexist tropes when it suited her. In leapfrogging rightful contender Sarah Kaufman to get a shot at the Strikeforce bantamweight title in 2012, she reportedly argued that Kaufman wasn’t “pretty enough” for the platform; and in her longstanding cold war with Justino, she brazenly labeled her an “it” and “not a woman” and made multiple unsubstantiated accusations of longstanding steroid use. She also used her platform to bully ring girl Arianny Celeste and was callous in her treatment of transgender fighter Fallon Fox.
Contrary to popular perception, Rousey was also an ardent defender of the status quo in many respects. In 2012, not long after the UFC purchased Strikeforce, she appeared before the California State Assembly committee to lobby against legislation that would protect fighters from coercive contracts and create higher standards for licensed promoters. To the delight of many in the predominantly male MMA audience, she also consistently eschewed questions about the gender pay gap, declaring -- dubiously in retrospect -- that she was the “highest paid fighter in the UFC,” shielding the UFC’s potentially discriminatory compensation structures in the process. She aligned herself closely with White, and in return for the shine she gave to the UFC, he went to unprecedented lengths to protect her from scrutiny in her comeback at UFC 207.
None of this is to say that Rousey wasn’t a phenomenal athlete or a genuine inspiration to millions of young women around the world. It’s just to say that she could have been so much more. Subtract the egotism, and Rousey may have been able to rebound from her losses and even mount a successful comeback. See the bigger picture, and Rousey could have used her platform and the cultural currency to achieve something so much greater.
As her time as a professional fighter shrinks in Rousey’s rearview mirror, she can be content in the knowledge that without her women’s MMA might still be languishing in relative obscurity. She still holds the record for women’s title defenses, and it will be a long time before female champions’ successes aren’t measured against the Rousey benchmark. However, for all the glass ceilings she shattered, her legacy will be one of ambiguity.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. His work has been published widely, including on Fight News Australia, LawinSports, LowKickMMA, MMASucka De Minimis and Farrago. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA Industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.