MMA's sudden star is unbeaten, fighting for a championship this weekend, and the target of venom from rival fighters. She's also a woman.
One year ago, Ronda Rousey had yet to fight as a professional mixed martial artist, having just completed an undefeated amateur career with three swift first-round wins. Yet on Saturday she'll be headlining a card at the Nationwide Center in Columbus, Ohio, attempting to wrest the bantamweight championship from current title holder Miesha Tate.
The 25-year-old's quick rise has been both swift and controversial. She's fought just four times, taking just 138 total seconds to dispatch all four of her foes, each one by arm bar submission. While it's been an impressive run, she's faced backlash from many who feel that she hasn't done quite enough to truly earn her title shot. Among her biggest critics: Tate, who feels Rousey basically talked her way into a championship bout, and top contender Sarah Kaufman, who was essentially leapfrogged for the match.
From Strikeforce's perspective, Rousey's appeal is multi-dimensional. A 2008 Olympic judo bronze medalist for the United State, she is a killer in the cage, hunting for limbs in every situation. She's also a brilliant self-promoter, unafraid to slam other contenders and create rivalries where there otherwise might be none. And finally, she's attractive, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed California girl at her core.
Not surprisingly, the resentment that's boiled over during her quick rise is of no bother to her. As Rousey has mentioned repeatedly, she didn't come into MMA looking to make friends. After years of struggling to make ends meet on the amateur judo scene, she was simply hoping to use her hard-earned skills to make a living.
"If a bunch of girls I never knew before suddenly don't like me, it's not really my problem," she said on Wednesday. "And it really seems like the only girls that don't like me are champions or former champions who have a sense of entitlement that everyone should throw petals at their feet. They don't like me because I'm not going to sit around and bow my head and say pleases and thank yous, but I'd rather be blunt than work graveyards at 24-Hour Fitness."
The "broke fighter" archetype is one of the most common in combat sports. Tate, for example, noted that for two years during her early days as a fighter, she lived in a 22-foot camper with her boyfriend and a friend to save money and be closer to their gym. But everyone handles the experience differently, and it was those days that infused Rousey with a proactive attitude that refuses to sit back and wait for opportunity.
After her last win, she immediately challenged Tate, among the earliest championship callouts from a fighter in recent memory. That Rousey has shown so much courage yet so little of her game makes her a curiosity as much as a star. It also makes it a leap of faith to pick her to win against her most experienced opponent to date. The typical Rousey fight has gone jab, jab, takedown, arm bar, victory speech, but Tate, who is 12-2 in her career, has never been submitted. Still, Rousey has been installed as a sizable favorite over an experienced veteran. At that surprise, Tate groans.
"I just don't think she's on this level yet," Tate said.
At least in one aspect of the fight game, she is. Rousey has been one of the hot topics in the sport for the last several months, and without her, the championship main event might not have been a main event at all. Partly because of her, Tate and Rousey are only the second pairing of female headliners for a major MMA show, following in the footsteps of Gina Carano and Cris "Cyborg" Santos back in August 2009.
Whether it's a story made of smoke and mirrors or blood and sweat, it's the best thing going in women's MMA. But that is partly the point: which is it? That's part of the allure of Rousey in this nascent stage of her career. So good, so fast, but is there more to her than what we've seen? Because in the end, what matters most is what happens between the cage doors. Then we'll find out if MMA's newest beam of light is just a shooting star or a sun ray with staying power.