Once in a generation or so someone explodes onto the scene and shakes things up. By their sheer force of talent and personality they transcend their chosen sport and become part of the cultural landscape.
If you haven’t heard of Ronda Rousey yet, you soon will.
To put things into perspective she is this generation’s Bruce Lee. Through his films he brought martial arts to the masses – through her fighting Rousey is doing the same. She has propelled her sport into the big-time.
Her life story is also remarkable.
Rousey entered the world in dramatic circumstances – you could say it was her first fight. Inside her mother’s womb the umbilical cord attached itself around her neck and tightened, choking her and starving her brain of oxygen.
She was born with the cord still wrapped around her neck – it almost killed her.
Growing up, Rousey was a self-confessed daddy’s girl. When she was four her father broke his back in a freak sledding accident. His degenerative spine injury coupled with a rare blood disorder meant he could never heal.
He took his own life when Rousey was eight – he didn’t want the family to endure his own inevitable and painful decline. He left behind strong life lessons.
“He always told me I was gonna be the President or win the Olympics – or anything I wanted. He taught me to aim high,” she tells The New Daily in an exclusive interview before travelling to Australia.
He wasn’t the only powerful influence in her life. Her mother, Dr AnnMaria De Mars, is a formidable woman. She has a PhD in psychology and was the first American to win the World Judo Championships in 1984.
“It’s easy to feel you can be the best in the world at something if there’s a world champion walking through your living room,” she says.
Somewhat inevitably, Rousey took up judo at 11 and by the time she was 16 she was the No.1-ranked American judoka. She dedicated the next decade to the sport. She sacrificed the usual teenage rituals of dating and partying for a life of training.
She played by her mother’s tough, take-no-prisoners rules – some mornings she was woken up with an armbar (the lesson – be prepared at all times.)
She won a silver medal in 2007 at the Judo World Championships and bronze the following year at the Beijing Olympics. But all this success came at a price.
“I wasn’t happy doing judo anymore … the process, the training and all of that, I was really miserable, it starting only being all about the result and not the process … so I decided to make a change in my life,” she says.
The problem was finding something that sparked her interest and made use of her exceptional talents.
“I didn’t have any work experience and being really good at throwing people down and breaking their arms doesn’t get you much but a cocktail waitressing job in a bad neighbourhood.”
After the Olympics she did bar work, drank, ate fast food, smoked and lived out of her car for a short time before finding her direction. She flirted with the idea of joining the Coast Guard, ignored her mother’s advice to go to college and instead settled upon Mixed Martial Arts, despite it being a relatively unknown sport with poor exposure for women.
Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White famously stated no woman would ever enter his octagon. But when he saw Rousey fight in one of the smaller promotions (that had women on the fight card) he changed his mind.
Not only did she change the UFC boss’s mind, she went on to become the face of the UFC.
Rousey is undefeated in all 12 of her fights – and nine of them have lasted less than a minute.
Whether she likes it or not, she is a pioneer.
“I don’t really wake up every morning being like, ‘Oh I’m a pioneer’. I wanted a job that wasn’t there so I decided to create it for myself … and every other woman who wanted to do it as well … I try not to think about things on that grand a scale, so I don’t really get crushed under it all if that makes any sense.”
The sport has made her very rich and very famous – she has lucrative sponsorship deals, her face appears on billboards across the globe, she’s landed parts in Hollywood movies, appeared on all the primetime chat shows and has been referenced in rap songs.
Her rise has been swift. Rousey is still only 28. There must be moments when she pinches herself or at the very least thinks how the hell did this happen?
“Only right after I’ve won a fight … I go back to my hotel room and I have to get out of all my fight clothes and shower and there’s always one moment when I have to look at myself in the mirror and think, ‘What the hell did you just do today?’”
Rousey is a role model. Like her fighting style she doesn’t hold back and this is part of her appeal. There’s an intensity about her, an outrageous air of self-belief that makes her one of the most compelling people on the planet. She has used her fame to condemn Floyd Mayweather’s history of domestic violence and challenge unhealthy stereotypes about women and beauty.
“Well, I didn’t have any role models for my body type growing up. I felt like that somehow made me undesirable – is there something wrong with me?
“I think the only problem is the type of women that are glorified is unhealthy. It’s just a very small fraction of the population – I mean some girls actually do look like that but a lot don’t. I think that every body type in its healthiest form should be represented in the media in a feminine and desirable way.”
This week Rousey is in Melbourne for her fight against Holly Holm. She will create more history. For the first time in combat sports women will feature as the main and co-main events. UFC 193 may even change a few minds.
“It will expose people that are really uneducated about the sport to how beautiful a martial art it really is – and how it really is a sport and something to celebrated and not looked down upon.”
Whether or not she can convince the non-believers remains to be seen.
What is clear is Rousey has already left her mark on history. She’s updated the notion of femininity, inspired a generation and redefined what it means to “fight like a girl”.