A good many folks reading this are probably noting that the Royal Rumble was over a week ago. I’m well aware. However, there were more opinion-based, knee-jerk reactions to this development than I ever could have expected so I wanted to take a minute to let it marinate. I’ll also warn you that this might be a bit rambling and verbose, but I think the subject warrants it.
So Ronda Jean Rousey showed up, “surprisingly”, to the Royal Rumble this past Sunday and announced she was dedicating herself to the WWE. “This is my life now” were her words. I put the “surprisingly” in quotes because this has been rumored to be in process for as long as I can remember and people even speculated, with little to no basis, that she would go to WWE after her one-sided loss to Amanda Nunes in December of 2016. When she made her appearance and announcement though, in the ensuing minutes and hours, there was an avalanche of reactions, as there is with everything Rousey says and does. From the MMA corner, my corner, it was not all positive, to say the least. This is not entirely surprising as MMA fans are known to be a cynical bunch. And I get it. I’ll explain why I think the MMA diehards – and even casual fan, who may have lost out more as a Rousey PPV was like Easter to Holiday Catholics for them – may have reacted so negatively a little later. However to do that it’s kind of important to try and first understand why she is making this move.
The easiest and possibly best comparison for this Rousey’s career path is Brock Lesnar. Sure, he had been a WWF Superstar long before he got into MMA, but he made the transition back when he was still arguably the UFC’s biggest draw, and one of its most talented, successful heavyweights. So why did he go back? Pretty simple actually: Brock has long been considered a bit of a hermit; he is from snowy, remote South Dakota and is inclined to his solidarity in that isolated country. However this is obscuring Brock Lesnar’s preferred ecosystem a bit; serving only to grow the myth of the gargantuan shut-in who appears 6 times a year to terrorize the WWE. In truth, he is simply happiest surrounded by only his family and a few close friends. One might say he follows Drake’s motto of, “No new friends.”
He has his land, his close confidants, and that’s it. That’s just the way he is and what he enjoys. He’s private. You know what he didn’t enjoy? Training like hell 24/7/365, constantly having to answer questions from the MMA press, having to travel a lot for press tours where he’d have to answer even more questions, and then get locked in a cage under big, bright lights in front of 30,000 people where he had to beat up and/or get beaten up by another large man. After which he’d have to answer even more questions. All of that public scrutiny and time away from his family was an affliction for Brock Lesnar (pun honestly not intended). I think after he lost to Allistair Overeem, which itself followed a near-fatal bout of diverticulitis, he had just simply had enough. So he went home, which is now snowy, remote Saskatchewan, Canada, to his family and his privacy. Not very long after that, the WWE, whose own bright lights he had once absconded from, came calling with an enticing offer: show up a few times a year to a huge pop, execute your usual, scripted, powerful maneuvers, and we’ll pay you handsomely. Too good to pass up right? He only leaves his family a few times a year, he has largely makes his own schedule (or at least can predict it), and he gets paid millions. For a private, salt of the earth family man, it’s an ideal arrangement.
Which brings us to Ronda Jean. She too was arguably the biggest draw in the UFC, until Ireland’s favorite son came across, that is. She too achieved monumental success. She in no uncertain terms embodied what it was to be a champion – the hardest worker, the strongest will, the want, no need, to do anything and everything it takes to be the best on the face of the earth at what you do. Then times and circumstances changed, as they do.
She lost two fights in a row, and they weren’t close. She was getting outclassed on the feet by a wide margin. What’s worse, she wasn’t just getting beat, she was getting passed by in the overall game of MMA – her peers were learning and evolving and she seemed stuck in that same gear that previously had made her seem indestructible. Like Lesnar, she had long been under bright lights and media scrutiny. Actually, press-wise, she probably had double the travel schedule, as a constantly-fucking-up Jon Jones and a not yet fully realized Conor McGregor, until the last couple years, meant she was basically carrying the UFC on her back for a bit. Not unlike Lesnar also, she yearned to spend low-key, at-home quality time with the family she had and the one she openly talked about building. She had even found her other half in an also-one-foot-out-of-the-cage heavyweight Travis Browne. Maybe another run, with the full days in the gym and the global press tours and criticism of her technique from keyboard warriors just wasn’t worth it, no matter how bad she wanted it, if she even did.
Which brings us to her own move into the WWE, and the reaction it got from the World of Omoplatas and Overhand Rights. Let me re-state something quick, as there is a need to be honest here, for all of us. The overwhelming reaction from MMA fans, at least initially, myself include, was a negative one. Maybe not a visceral one, but an eye roll. An, “of course she went to pro wrestling”. She can’t win anymore, so she might as well go to a “fake” sport, we thought sarcastically. And you know what? That take isn’t entirely wrong. Her last two fights had shown everyone, Rousey included, that maybe her time at the top had ended and it was time to try something else. That last part though – try something else – is where I think the subconscious of MMA fans was sent reeling. That is where the basis of our reaction lays, in my opinion: we were let down. Before switching gyms, mixing up her training or strategies, really doing anything different than she had in the past, for her entire career, in order to get back to the top, Ronda Rousey gave up. I’m not saying that as bad thing, or a good thing. I’m saying that as a fact. As far as I’m concerned, her making the move to the WWE was her acknowledging she couldn’t make it in MMA anymore, she was giving up.
And that is where our anger and frustration lay: With Rousey conceding without trying any of the numerous solutions to her flaws that seemed obvious. And with why.
Why was she loyal to a fault? Her adopted Armenian family had brought her to glory, in both Judo and MMA, Sure. However, Edmond Tarverdyan had proven by this point he simply couldn’t teach the corrections in her stand up that were necessary to become a champion again. With such an athlete, with such a will, surely there was a coach out there that could. But Ronda wouldn’t leave Edmond, she wouldn’t turn her back, not on the man she felt she owed her career too. Could Duane Ludwig or Rafael Cordeiro have fixed Ronda Rousey on the feet? As of now we’ll never know.
She also didn’t refine other parts of her game either, the ones outside of the realm of Edmond’s two pads. For such a strong, athletic, natural grappler, one would think Rousey could have learned to, for instance, shoot a fundamentally sound, functional double leg, out of the reach of the long punches and kicks she was yet to be able to defend. That didn’t happen either. The trick a one Georges St. Pierre learned, making him more than a hyper-athletic kickboxer, seemed to be outside of Ronda Rousey’s peripherals, too far removed form the Olympic-level Judo and pad session-friendly boxing she concentrated on.
Why? Why didn’t she try? Why did she just give up? Like Brock Lesnar before her, I think that for Ronda Rousey, now married and still wanting for that family of her own, it just made too much sense. No more press tours. No clumsy combos for the public to dissect. No more questions about her next fight before she even puked from the adrenaline dump from her last. Just a handful of dates a year before a crowd that loves her, the handful of zero-laden checks that come with those dates, the handful of rehearsed and precisely timed bumps along the way, and the countless amounts of time with the loved ones she really has never had enough time with. So should we feel let down? Should we feel bitter? She still goes down as the best female fighter ever, in my opinion. She still gave everything. She. Had. To the fight game when she was in it. But now, for her, it’s time for something else. Something simpler, easier, and more conducive to the future she envisions for herself. And we should accept and respect that. Even feel happy for her.
This is her life now.