Editor's note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
“I have been booed in thirty countries. I have been booed following UFC victories. I’m more used to being booed by a crowd than I am being cheered. I have never been a fan favorite. Pretty much my entire competitive career has been defined by people hoping to see me lose. In the UFC, I’ve embraced the role of the villain. I don’t shy away from controversy. I don’t hold back when it comes to speaking my mind. That doesn’t always endear me to the masses. In a world that loves to root for the underdog, I’m always the favorite -- and I always win. But there are moments where no matter who you are or what you represent, people will be so impressed by what they see that they will forget everything else. If the performance is great enough, nothing else matters.” -- Ronda Rousey, “My Fight/Your Fight”
In her revealing and insightful memoir released a few months ago, Rousey explained what makes her tick with a self-awareness few athletes possess. In this key passage, she articulated why she has always been more of an antagonist than a protagonist. Yet, the seeming paradox is that she is one of the most popular fighters in the sport. A recent survey by Nielsen put her likeability rating at 70 percent. She has her detractors, but she also has many supporters.
Rousey in her book nailed the precise reason for that contradiction: She’s a winner. Sports fans in general and American sports fans in particular tend to embrace winners. The rough edges of Rousey’s personality are justified by her tremendous success inside the Octagon. She has become a legitimate female icon because she makes no excuses for herself, and she wins. Victory is not an inconsequential part of that equation.
With team sports, fans root for their teams and tend to support them through thick and thin. Individual sports are different. We watch because we want to see impressive performances, wherever they come from. Fans embrace certain fighters more than others, whether it’s due to personality, nationality, life story or fighting style. However, winners tend to get embraced because they deliver the excitement that fans want to see.
Brock Lesnar was initially vilified by Ultimate Fighting Championship fans. He didn’t fully win over all of them, but he earned the respect and admiration of a great many by proving he could fight and by showing the heart he showed, especially against Shane Carwin at UFC 116. On the flipside, Tito Ortiz was cheered throughout much of his run as the UFC’s best light heavyweight. When he started losing, that quickly changed. He labeled himself “The People’s Champ,” but the people weren’t with him when he wasn’t winning.
Following her shocking knockout loss to Holly Holm at UFC 193 on Saturday in Australia, Rousey is now in a similar position. She is not presently defined by her dominance. That poses a quandary for her as a public figure. What exactly does she represent if not sheer excellence? What if the performance is no longer great enough to negate everything else?
There is a hyper-competitive gene that exists in many of the world’s best athletes that we simultaneously admire and abhor. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant’s excellence on the basketball court comes in significant part because they’re competitive to an unhealthy degree. Off the court, that competitiveness manifests itself in frayed relationships, addiction and chaos. Unfortunately, the competitive greatness that we celebrate would not exist without a drive that has many unfortunate side effects.
Rousey unquestionably has that hyper-competitive gene. It’s one of her defining characteristics. She has since childhood been driven to win in anything she does. Woe be to those who get in her way. That’s evident in the hostility she shows towards most of her MMA opponents, but it goes well beyond that. In her book, her wrath extends to former judo opponents, referees, trainers, media, ex-boyfriends and many more. Even the alphabet is not exempt: In explaining that her first name is spelled without an “H,” she boldly declares that “H” is a stupid letter anyway. There’s obviously humor in the comment, but her competitiveness is fierce and unrelenting.
The hostility Rousey has always had for those she perceives as enemies is understandable in the case of her biggest MMA rivals. She engaged in a war of words for years with Miesha Tate, and there’s no love lost there. Bethe Correia was disrespectful in a way that would have raised the ire of the most even-tempered fighters -- even Gegard Mousasi might have slightly frowned and muttered in a mildly belligerent manner in response. The anger Rousey demonstrated towards Tate and Correia didn’t demonstrate much about who she is. The fury she directed at Holly Holm before their fight was much more telling. This is a woman whose nickname is “The Preacher’s Daughter.” Holm is soft-spoken, even-tempered and had been respectful to Rousey throughout the build.
What was Holm’s crime? It was moving up her hands in response when Rousey charged towards her at the weigh-in and stuck her hands in Holm’s face. You’d have thought she spit in Rousey’s face. Rousey screamed threats at Holm, called her a “fake humility bitch” and refused to touch gloves the next day. Holm seemed baffled by the whole thing. In truth, it wasn’t about anything Holm did. She was an obstacle in Rousey’s path, so it was very easy for her to become an enemy. It wasn’t inevitable, but it would take only the slightest provocation.
This type of anger and vitriol doesn’t come across well to the public, but without it, Rousey might not have been good enough for so many people to notice. It wasn’t surprising to see schadenfreude in Rousey’s loss from some MMA fans given her outspoken personality. However, when Lady Gaga is calling you out for poor sportsmanship on Instagram, it’s a sign that your status as beloved icon may be in jeopardy.
The question now is whether Rousey cares and what she wants at this stage in her life. The easier course may be to distance herself from the fire inside. She can turn on the charm and focus on putting forward a smiling public image that will satisfy the movie producers and sponsors that can make her rich and comfortable for the rest of her life.
On the other hand, she could also harness that anger and competitive drive that she knows so well. She recognizes she is a natural antagonist, like Roddy Piper, the pro wrestling icon from whom she got her “Rowdy” nickname. She can give up the comforts of movie sets for a sweaty gym, where she spends months plotting her strategy for destroying a hated enemy. It won’t help her public image like a photo shoot or red-carpet appearance, but it could produce big dividends in the end. There’s just one catch: She has to win.