By Paul Fontaine, WrestlingObserver.com
After watching Wrestlemania on Sunday it’s hard to fathom just how fast the rise of Ronda Rousey has been. It’s been just over 2 years since her first UFC fight and since then she’s become arguably the UFC’s top draw and certainly no worse than 3rd along with Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. She’s undoubtedly the UFC’s biggest mainstream celebrity. From the Olympics in 2008 to small shows in Vegas to Strikeforce to UFC and then to Sunday night in the middle of a WWE ring, the “grandest stage of them all” with two of the 3 public faces of WWE as well as one of the two biggest mainstream stars the company has ever produced and the highest grossing movie actor in Hollywood today, it’s been a whirlwind ride for the undefeated 28 year old UFC Champion.
I first remember hearing about Ronda Rousey on a Wrestling Observer radio show with Dave Meltzer talking about how she was a former Olympic medallist and was undefeated as a pro. He thought it was cool that she had something of a pro wrestling gimmick with the “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey nickname and former pro wrestling personality “Judo” Gene Lebelle cornering her with the stopwatch. She was set to make her Strikeforce debut on the undercard of a Challengers show in August 2011.
Prior to that she’d fought on a show for Hard Knocks Fighting against current Invicta Featherweight Charmaine Tweet. After winning in under a minute with an armbar (another pro wrestling tie-in, a ready made finisher), she announced that within a year she planned on fighting, and beating Cris Cyborg for the World Women’s Featherweight title in Strikeforce. At the time, women’s MMA was in a serious decline due to the departure of Gina Carano from the sport. Bellator and Strikeforce were still promoting women’s fights but Dana White was emphatic that women would never fight in the UFC.
After another first round armbar win in her Strikeforce debut, she followed that up with yet another first round submission win in the follow-up in November. After that fight, people were starting to take notice. She was in the co-main event position on that show and after the fight she challenged either Cyborg or newly crowned Bantamweight champion Miesha Tate to a title fight. Tate had won the title from Marloes Coenen and had former champion Sarah Kaufmann waiting in the wings for a title rematch. Cyborg was suspended due to a drug test failure and rather than wait for that title, she lobbied hard for the shot at Tate and Scott Coker knew enough to strike when the iron was hot. Rousey was pushed to the title shot in a move that some thought was too soon. Kaufmann was very vocal about the fact that she deserved the fight and that Rousey was only getting it due to her looks and her mouth.
Strikeforce did an excellent job promoting the Tate-Rousey fight in March 2012, airing Countdown-style specials leading up to it and marketing it as these two beautiful women who could fight. The show did incredible ratings, doing the best numbers since a show the previous July headlined by Fedor Emilianenko and Dan Henderson, at 472,000 viewers. At this point there was no doubt that Rousey was a star. The question was how big a star could she become without the promotional backing of UFC. I remember Dave talking again about Rousey and said that she was going to be a big star but there’s no way she’d get to the level of Gina Carano. But that’s okay, no one’s going to be bigger than her….or so we thought.
In August 2012, Kaufmann finally got her title rematch against Rousey. Same story. Another first-round submission and another great TV rating for Showtime, 529,000 viewers. It was the best rating that Strikeforce would do in 2012 and was the proof that Dana White needed that women could draw in UFC and that he needed to sign Ronda Rousey. Shortly after that fight it was announced that Rousey had signed a UFC contract and would debut in early 2013, not on TV but headlining a PPV in Anaheim.
UFC tried to make the fight that Ronda had been asking for for over a year in Cris Cyborg but she turned down the fight. They wanted it to be Gina Carano but she was unavailable and/or uninterested in doing an MMA match. Tate was offered the fight as well but had just had a war of a fight on the Ronda-Kaufman undercard and wouldn’t be ready. The opponent was settled on as veteran Liz Carmouche who had been on TV previously for Strikeforce 3 times as well as fighting a couple fights in Invicta. They did a good job promoting Carmouche and she came off as extremely likeable going into the Rousey fight but it was very much the Ronda show. They did load up the undcard with names such as Dan Henderson, Lyoto Machida, Urijah Faber and Josh Koscheck as it was still very much uncertain whether a card headlined by the first women’s fight in UFC history would draw. Ticket prices were scaled down from what they usually were for PPVs but people would still have to pay full price for pay per view.
The show did beyond expectations, with 450,000 buys. Rousey was immediately booked to coach a season of TUF, which for the first time would feature female fighters mixed in with the male fighters. It was in the process of doing this that she met two of the three women who would come to be known, along with her, as the 4 Horsewomen (Jessamyn Duke and Shayna Baszler). A #1 contender’s match was booked between Cat Zingano and Miesha Tate where the winner would coach against Ronda on TUF and fight for the title at the year end show in December. Zingano won the fight but just before the season was about to start filming, she suffered an injury during training. Tate was offered the coaching spot and the fight with Rousey and accepted.
Tate had lasted longer in a fight with Ronda than any of her other opponents and the two had a great natural rivalry. Both traded barbs back and forth in the buildup with even Miesha’s boyfriend Bryan Caraway involved. By the time the fight took place on the undercard of Weidman/Silva 2 at UFC 168, it may have been the most anticipated fight on the card. Certainly when Ronda came out, it was clear that she was at worst the 2nd biggest star on the show and possibly the biggest. The show did over a million buys and was the biggest show of the year.
Ronda was very quickly signed to headline another PPV which was in need of a main event, UFC 170, against Sara McMann. McMann was an undefeated fellow Olympian and this fight took place right after the Winter Olympics concluded. The show had a much weaker undercard that was hurt greatly by a late injury to Rashad Evans, who was set to fight Daniel Cormier in the co-main. They instead turned to unknown Patrick Cormier who did a great sell job the last week of the fight but the show did what some considered to be a disappointing number of 340,000 buys. That would turn out to be one of the bigger shows of the year but wouldn’t have been thought to be at the time.
It was still uncertain whether Ronda was a draw or whether she had been helped by the undercards. People who were really paying attention were starting to figure it out but at least in UFC they must not have been sure because for her next fight, she was placed in the co-main event position against Alexis Davis underneath a Chris Weidman title defence against Lyoto Machida. The show did the biggest number of the year at 525,000 buys. With a double main event with two of the biggest active draws in UFC, some thought this was disappointing and a sign that PPV might be on the downswing. The run from June through October would back this up.
Ronda was again booked with Weidman, again in the co-main event slot, against Cat Zingano for the February 2015 PPV. Weidman was scheduled to defend against Victor Belfort and they also had Frank Mir, Bigfoot Silva and Jacare Souza all scheduled for the card, which was looking to the most stacked card in over a year. Every fight but the Ronda fight fell apart due to injuries and we were left with a co-main event of Holly Holm, making her UFC debut, against Raquel Pennington a career .500 fighter who had debuted on the TUF show that Ronda coached. Most people (unless they’d really been paying attention) expected this to be the lowest purchased show of Ronda’s UFC career.
By the time the fight happened, it was essentially marketed as the Ronda show. She had by this point appeared in the Expendables movie. She’d filmed parts in movies that had yet to be released such as Entourage. She had appeared on multiple talk shows and was on the cover of the Body issue of ESPN magazine. But people still questioned whether she could carry a card on her own. Leading up to the show, she was getting covered in places that don’t normally cover MMA and by the time the fight happened, it felt like a big event. Ronda was a huge star in the building and with a second straight sub 20 second finish over a top contender, she was the talk of the combat sports world. She was being talked about on the daily sports panel talk shows.
Google searches for her topped 1 million on the day of the right. And then word came out that the show was tracking to do over 600,000 buys. This was on the level, perhaps slightly higher, than the show 4 weeks earlier headlined by a superfight between the acknowledged top star in MMA, Anderson Silva and proven draw Nick Diaz. And this was with no undercard support, with the biggest name being Josh Koscheck (who would go on to fight in the co-main of a TV card that did the lowest rating for UFC in months just 3 weeks later).
Now, no one could deny the drawing power of Rousey. Even prior to this, Wrestling Observer readers voted her the top draw in MMA and Pro Wrestling as well as the MVP. My own statistical formula at MMADraws.com had her as the top draw in the sport for 2014 and in the top 5 overall (and rising fast).
Along the way, Ronda became a huge fan of pro wrestling. She and her fellow Horsewomen were regulars at PWG shows. Baszler cornered ReDRagon on the last ROH PPV. Talk had been on again/off again for the last year that Rousey and/or the Horsewomen could do an angle with WWE and they were apparently close at Summerslam last year, where they did attend the show and by all accounts had a blast.
So that brings us to Wrestlemania Sunday. Ronda and her Horsewomen enjoying the show in the front row. Stephanie McMahon in the ring taking credit for the success of Wrestlemania and delivering a verbal beatdown of the Rock, who had interrupted her promo in defence of “the people”. Stephanie knew that Rock couldn’t (and wouldn’t) hit a woman. But the Rock, and the 70,000+ in attendance knew someone who could and they’d seen her on the Titan Tron earlier in the show and spontaneously starting chanting RONDA RONDA RONDA. Rock played the crowd perfectly and then invited Rousey into the ring.
You’ve all seen the angle. There Ronda was, 3 ½ years removed from fighting in a dingy ring at the Orleans Casino in front of a couple hundred people. Ronda standing side by side with the most electrifying man in Sports Entertainment and the biggest drawing star in Hollywood at the moment. Standing across the ring from 2 of the 3 most powerful people in wrestling. And she was not out of place. In that moment she may have been the biggest star of the 4.
This was WWE’s big angle to try and sell out Cowboys Stadium for Wrestlemania 32 and it couldn’t have worked better. This angle is getting play everywhere and Ronda is likely an even bigger star coming out of it. Due to Rousey’s popularity, WWE is getting exposure that they never would’ve gotten. And Rousey was clearly having a lot of fun, doing something she’s obviously wanted to do for a long long time.
It’s a great time to be a pro wrestling and MMA fan and I can’t wait to see what’s next.