The legend of Ronda Rousey has been sketched out pretty clearly before you walk with her, after a vicious recent workout, down the steps from a second-floor gym in the San Fernando Valley.
Ronda Rousey is, first and foremost, the singular force of women’s mixed martial arts – both for her prowess inside the Octagon and for her larger-than-life persona in the media, which has found her on the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s “Body Issue” and on Conan O’Brien’s late-night show. It’s that combination of skill and bombast that caused UFC president Dana White to create the first women’s division in UFC history, which will debut Saturday night in the main event of UFC 157 at Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.
She’s an Olympic bronze medalist in judo whose signature armbar has won her all six of her professional mixed martial arts fights in the first round. She swears like a sailor. She lacks a self-censor mechanism, which means she often blurts out headline-grabbing things, like calling Kim Kardashian a “glorified porn star” and saying she wants to fight the reality TV star, or proclaiming that she tries to have “as much sex as possible” before fights because it raises her testosterone. She once beat up two guys in a movie theater, and she’s the sexiest thing in an Octagon this side of Brittney Palmer.
All that is the legend of Ronda Rousey. But as the exhausted 26-year-old trudges down the steps, throws her gear in her bumper-sticker-covered, beat-up 2005 Honda Accord – the BMW X6 M that the UFC bought her is in the shop – and walks toward a coffee shop for a quick breather, you begin to realize: Her legend is much deeper that all that. She isn’t just the say-anything, beat-up-anybody persona that captures the attention of media and fans.
Ronda Rousey’s story is of a life that has skirted danger at every turn. By any measure, for any number of reasons, she should not be where she is today, as the first women’s title-holder in UFC history, as a rock-star fighter who now counts rock stars like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis as her friend, as the main attraction who is about to fight challenger Liz Carmouche before a massive pay-per-view audience at a packed arena.
She looks at her life this way: If it weren’t for going through the worst things in life, she would never have gotten to the best things.
Like when her family had moved from Los Angeles to Jamestown, N.D. And her father, Ron Rousey, took 8-year-old Ronda and her two older sisters out sledding. And a rare disease called Bernard-Soulier Syndrome, a hemophilia-like disorder where the blood can’t clot, threw a wrench in this happy family’s best-laid plans.
“One day when we were sledding, he went down to test one of the runs out,” Rousey begins, sitting in the shade and sipping an iced mocha. “There was a log covered in snow. He hit it and broke his back. He wasn’t healing, and no one could figure out why. Until they brought in some specialist and all that [expletive]. So they did surgery on him, and he wasn’t getting any better, and they put a metal rod in his back.”
Her voice is monotone and unemotional as she tells about her father’s bones crumbling away from the rod in his back. She talks about him being in constant pain. She just as easily could have been talking about training for her upcoming fight, not about the tragedy that set the rest of her life in motion.
“He couldn’t even sit up long enough to go to work,” she continues. “My dad was a very capable person. And having our family paying all his medical bills, and falling into debt, and him being dependent on us – it was one of those things that really got to him. They told him that he had two years to live. First he’d become a paraplegic. Then he’d become a quadriplegic. Then he would die. And so, he told my mom that he didn’t want his kids’ last memories of him to be in a bed with tubes coming in and out of him. So one day he took the car, and drove it to a place where we used to skip rocks and stuff, and put a hose in the exhaust, looped it back in and killed himself.”
And there it is, laid out there in Rousey’s typical pull-no-punches fashion: The worst moment of a difficult life.
Ronda didn’t know her father was dying. She didn’t even know he was sick. And she didn’t know this tragedy would be the catalyst for the family to move back to Los Angeles . . . which became the catalyst for her quitting swimming and at age 11 starting judo . . . which became the catalyst for her heading to the 2008 Summer Olympics . . . which became the catalyst for a mixed martial arts career that’s made her an international fighting and marketing phenomenon, and after this weekend’s fight, very, very rich.
From the worst moments in her life came the best.
It’s a refrain you could repeat again and again with Rousey, even from birth. She was born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck and nearly died. The lack of oxygen at birth meant slight brain damage, which led to the signature characteristic of Rousey’s youth: She didn’t talk. Like, ever. She didn’t say an intelligible word until she was six. Her parents wondered if it was autism, especially when she displayed other signs, like always walking on her tip toes.
“My mom took me to the doctor, and the doctor said, ‘Well, there’s nothing wrong with her – but it sure is weird!’”
She was weird. So her dad put her in sports, thinking that could socialize her. And judo – a sport that requires interaction with a partner – eventually brought her out of her shell.
From the worst came the best. Like when, a week after Rousey turned 18, she ran away from home. She had a difficult relationship with her mom, Ann Maria Rousey DeMars, who was the first American to win the judo world championships and who demanded a lot out of her daughter. Rousey bought a plane ticket and flew to the other side of the country, to Albany, N.Y., and lived at a judo dojo. In those two years away from her mother’s control, Rousey was on her own. She learned to be tough. She learned to stand up for herself. She found her independence, and her voice. (Even better: She’s now incredibly close with her mother.)
From the worst came the best. Like when – after winning the Olympic medal that was enough to buy her half of that 2005 Honda Accord – she came back home and fell flat on her face. She stepped away from judo, but her only skill was throwing people down and breaking their arms: “You can’t put that on a resume.” She worked at three Los Angeles bars. She got her ass grabbed. She lived out of her car as she saved up for her own apartment. She hates being in debt to anyone – to her mother, to credit-card companies; it’s a pride thing, a trait inherited from her father – so she worked her way up: From sleeping in the Accord’s back seat to a 10-foot-by-10-foot studio she shared with a friend and her 90-pound mastiff. Then to a crappy apartment that always leaked sewage and had the hot water cut off. (She got ring worm from not showering enough.) Now to a nice rental house in Venice, close enough to the beach that she goes skim-boarding every morning. And eventually – after her big UFC 157 payday – to her own house she can buy with her own money.
It’ll help if she wins Saturday night on her biggest stage since the Olympics.
“It would take a miracle for somebody else to beat her, a miracle,” says Darin Harvey, Rousey’s manager since when she first got into mixed martial arts. “I’m not going to lie – I’m nervous about the fight. You can’t go in there calm. But there’s nobody in the world that can beat her right now. Nobody.”
In the shade outside the coffee shop in the Valley, Rousey considers how crazy the past few years have been: From being broke and living in her car to being the fighter whose presence single-handedly created the UFC’s women’s division. She’s glad she went through all the bad parts in life. She really is.
“Easy lives result in boring people,” she says. Then she laughs – “It’s a trip, huh?” – still very much in awe of her life’s unexpected ride.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.