Ronda Rousey not only followed in the footsteps of Megumi Fujii, Gina Carano and Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos but left a set all her own. Carano’s transition to the Silver Screen and Santos’ positive test for anabolic steroid use opened the door for someone else to carry the torch for women’s mixed martial arts. In stepped the opinionated, skilled and attractive Rousey, a 25-year-old blessed with an almost perfect combination of Carano’s beauty and Santos’ beast.
In the span of five professional appearances, the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion has become the face of a movement. Rousey shoulders a considerable burden entering her first title defense against Sarah Kaufman in the Strikeforce “Rousey vs. Kaufman” headliner on Saturday at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego, having already established herself as one of the promotion’s marquee attractions.
“I’ve been putting the same amount of pressure on myself since the beginning,” Rousey said during a pre-fight media call for the event. “I took the responsibilities on myself to make [women’s MMA] relevant. I feel like I’ve been doing a good job so far. We’re the main event for the second time in a year. When has that ever happened before? It’s not like I feel like I have to do it. I don’t casually walk after my goals; I break them with an ax.”
Despite the strides females have made, Rousey does not believe they receive their just due. Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White has yet to clear their presence in the Octagon and has spoken out against the idea on a number of occasions. However, he showed up to the UFC 150 weigh-ins in Denver wearing a Rousey T-shirt.
“I think women in general all have something to prove,” Rousey said. “We all have a chip on our shoulders and should be angry about the lack of respect we receive. I think women get more emotional and come out slugging. There’s no feeling-out period and wanting to walk away with a better number on their record. A lot of guys can get away with that because, to be honest, their sport is not in peril.”
Rousey’s mainstream bloom has only begun to blossom. One of the centerpieces of ESPN The Magazine’s annual “Body” issue, she recently appeared on “Conan” and received her own two-part “All-Access” series on Showtime -- further evidence of the impact she continues to have in advocating women’s MMA. An Olympic bronze medalist in judo at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, Rousey hopes her presence and success encourages other elite female athletes to consider the cage.
“This is a real career that you can make a real living off of,” she said. “In women’s sports, that’s not an easy thing to come by. The more that come in, the more stable we’ll be. Whether they want to promote their own sport or find a good way to make a living, women’s MMA is here to stay.
“I see more and more girls coming up, and with Showtime and other promotions like Invicta [Fighting Championships] developing new talent, I see only positive things coming into MMA,” Rousey added. “Women were hesitant before because it wasn’t a secure career option.”
A protégé of “Judo” Gene LeBell, Gokor Chivichyan and Jimmy Pedro, Rousey has transitioned seamlessly to the cage, with aggression, brutality and precision as her hallmarks. She has finished all five of her MMA opponents via first-round armbar, four of them inside the first minute.
“I don’t want to change anything at all,” Rousey said. “I was raised not just to win matches but to defeat my opponent. I felt like if I didn’t finish the fight, if it went to the referee, it didn’t matter. I wanted to be good enough [in judo] to win every match twice on a bad day. I don’t want to leave any doubt that they might have a chance of ever beating me.”
Rousey, who has not competed since she lifted the Strikeforce title from rival Miesha Tate in March, has a formidable hurdle in front of her. A rugged, skilled and experienced martial artist, Kaufman will enter the cage on a three-fight winning streak. The once-beaten former champion has delivered 10 of her 15 career victories by knockout or technical knockout.
“I don’t have any problems with Sarah at all; she’s a pretty cool chick,” Rousey said. “I’ve been working on the fluidity of my striking a lot more, mixing it with my grappling and stuff like that. I want to be as underestimated as possible. I don’t feel as much of a need to give any details. I’m now much more focused on retaining the title than basking in having it.”
Ahead of her five-round duel with Kaufman, Rousey spent two two-week training sessions with the revered Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu team, one of the toughest and most respected gyms in the sport.
“I got a lot out of it,” she said. “They teach you things outside your typical training camp, and they train however they feel and whenever they want. It’s a different style. I think that change keeps you interested and keeps fighting from being a novelty.”
Through her extensive international experience in judo, Rousey has developed, honed and perfected the kind of one-fight-at-a-time discipline that could prove instrumental in sustained success. Great expectations have overtaken other capable competitors in her position.
“I treat every fight like everything I’ve ever done is on the line,” she said. “Everything on the outside doesn’t compare to the pressure I’ve put on myself.”
Should Rousey successfully defend her bantamweight crown against Kaufman, it could lead to a potential blockbuster super fight with Santos, as the former 145-pound champion’s year-long suspension ends in December. However, Rousey has not allowed herself -- at least publicly -- to look that far into the future. Kaufman remains her sole focus.
“After this fight,” Rousey said, “I’ll let you know my intentions.”