Ronda Rousey made history in 2012, inside and outside the cage. | Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images
Some athletes knock on the door. Others, like Ronda Rousey, kick it in.
Rousey -- Sherdog.com’s “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year” for 2012 -- captured the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight championship with a first-round submission over Meisha Tate in March and needed less than a minute to defend it against Sarah Kaufman five months later. Along the way, the 25-year-old judoka emerged as the new face of the women’s mixed martial arts movement and, more importantly, forced Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White to reconsider his stance on females competing inside the Octagon.
“I’ve been putting the same amount of pressure on myself since the beginning,” Rousey said. “I took the responsibilities on myself to make [women’s MMA] relevant. I feel like I’ve been doing a good job so far. 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.”
Her rise to superstardom began with Tate, who had done nothing to hide her dislike for Rousey in the weeks leading up to their Strikeforce main event on March 3 at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Their bad blood reached its peak during a face-to-face, forehead-to-forehead confrontation at the weigh-in.
The actual fight was eventful while it lasted, though Rousey eventually submitted “Cupcake” with an armbar. The reluctant tapout came 4:36 into round one, with Tate’s left arm grotesquely hyperextended between Rousey’s legs.
“She was much more savvy on the ground than I had anticipated,” Rousey said. “She’s good, she’s legit, but I don’t feel that bad about [the armbar finish]. I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt since I kind of started [the bad blood between us], but after the weigh-ins, when she got in my face and I pushed her back and she said I should be fined for head butting her ... if you’re going to try to act hard, just follow up with it. Don’t pull back and say I should get a fine. I thought that was kind of messed up.”
Tate held nothing back, came out firing and tagged Rousey with a stiff right hand during their opening exchange. The onetime Olympian responded with the first of her two takedowns and transitioned immediately to an armbar. Tate freed herself and initiated a scramble that resulted in her taking the decorated judoka’s back. Eventually, they returned to their feet, and Rousey scored with a beautiful judo throw. She then moved to mount, punched Tate into surrendering her back and latched onto the arm again. This time, there was no escape.
Kaufman was next in line on Aug. 18 at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego. Rousey retained her title with frightening ease, as another patented armbar coaxed a tapout from the former champion 54 seconds into round one.
“I have great coaches,” Rousey said, “and I listened to what they said.”
The 25-year-old champion punched her way into an immediate clinch and brought Kaufman to the floor with a superb inside trip. Rousey mounted and transitioned to the armbar without hesitation, and a brief but fruitless struggle from the challenger could not undo the maneuver. Beaten for just the second time as a professional, Kaufman had nowhere to turn but to surrender.
Rousey -- one of the centerpieces of ESPN The Magazine’s annual “Body” issue -- has not fought since, but she has stayed busy building her brand away from the cage. In December, White introduced her as the UFC’s first women’s champion as part of the Strikeforce merger and revealed she would defend the title against Liz Carmouche in the UFC 157 headliner on Feb. 23 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. In an instant, history was made and the UFC’s gender barrier broken.
“Ronda is the real deal,” White said. “She’s nasty. She’s mean. She’s like [retired UFC hall of famer] Chuck Liddell. She goes out there and tries to finish her opponents.”
Rousey’s accomplishments in MMA should come as no surprise, as she was a bronze medalist in judo at the 2008 Summer Olympics in China. A protégé of “Judo” Gene LeBell, Gokor Chivichyan and Jimmy Pedro, she has transitioned seamlessly to the cage, with aggression, brutality and precision as her hallmarks. Rousey has finished all six of her professional opponents via first-round armbar, five of them inside the first minute. She wants to blaze a trail to combat sports for other elite female athletes.
“This is a real career that you can make a real living off of,” Rousey 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.”
The approach she adopted in judo has served Rousey well in MMA.
“I don’t want to change anything at all,” she 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.”
Despite being front and center in women’s MMA, Rousey understands only a showdown with disgraced former Strikeforce 145-pound champion Cristiane Santos will satisfy the masses. The 27-year-old “Cyborg” received a one-year suspension after testing positive for suspected use of performance-enhancing drugs following her December 2011 encounter with Hiroko Yamanaka.
“I think she was a detriment to women’s MMA,” Rousey told the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Savage Dog Show” in February. “I think that no little girl is going to watch Cris ‘Cyborg’ fight and want to be like her one day. I don’t think that she’s a good example. I think it was obvious all along that she was doping and I think it’s a really bad message to send to kids that you need to dope to be a champion.
“I think it’s better with her gone and I think that when she comes back ... I plan on fighting her when she comes back and I plan on beating her when she comes back,” she added. “I feel like that will be a good example. She earned her sentence, and when she’s done, she can come back and get her real punishment.”
For now, a blockbuster bout with Santos remains on the back burner. Carmouche has Rousey’s undivided attention.
“[The Santos fight] is going to happen eventually. I can’t make these girls fight me when I want them to fight me,” Rousey said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Liz. She’s the only one that stepped up and said she wanted this fight right now. It speaks a lot to her. When the other girls actually want to come to the big show, they know where I’m at.”