The kick the UFC doesn’t want you to see landed squarely on the neck, immaculately timed and perfectly placed. The result was instantaneous—the complete removal of UFC champion Ronda Rousey‘s motor skill and higher-level functioning.
There were 56,214 people in attendance at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, that night, the largest crowd in UFC history. But for a brief moment, silence reigned.
For the first time ever, a woman other than Rousey was UFC bantamweight champion. That fact required a bit of processing.
More than a mere fighter crashed to the mat that night in Australia. A legend fell as well. Maybe even a sport.
Rousey was women’s MMA. She dragged it, almost single-handedly, into the light, overruling UFC President Dana White‘s objection to having women fight in the promotion with her overwhelming combination of violence and good looks.
“Once in a lifetime does not apply to Ronda Rousey,” announcer Joe Rogan once said. “It’s once ever in human history.”
Now, more than a year later, Rousey will finally attempt to get up off the mat, to prove to herself and the world that she’s the champion we all wanted so badly for her to be. The division has played a game of hot potato with the championship in her absence, but new standard-bearer Amanda Nunes has the kind of well-rounded game Rousey lacks.
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Is the woman who dominated a sport, carrying it on her back from the fringes to the spotlight with her indomitable will, still lurking inside a seemingly broken husk?
Rousey is not tipping her hand.
“I don’t care about anything except for winning this fight,” Rousey told the UFC 207 Embedded cameras in a brief appearance. “And I’m not spending energy on anything else.”
With her media boycott as firm as ever, we can only guess what she’s thinking and feeling. But, as is often the case, the key to predicting the future can be found in past.
Holly Holm, it turns out, didn’t care one bit about any of the bombast and hyperbole about the great Ronda Rousey. Hers was a victory for professional coaching, for the blur, stink and thrum of the gym, for orthodoxy over emotion, precision over power.
Rousey charged like a bull, at one point crashing into the cage in a wild attempt to do Holm harm, her own impotence only fueling her rage. The southpaw Holm, ever so calmly, stepped to the side, a tall blonde torero delivering doom one cracking left hand at a time.
Jimmy Pedro Jr., America’s first two-time Olympic judo medalist and Rousey’s former coach, watched the fight from his home in Boston. It was a crystallization of all his fears, the reason he discouraged her from pursuing a career in mixed martial arts.
Time had proved him wrong. He could admit that much. MMA had made Rousey richer and more famous than a judo gold medal ever could. But just maybe, Holm had validated his concerns about his former protege entering the wacky world of professional prizefighting.
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“The entire planet thought that Ronda was invincible,” he says. “She had all of this pressure to finish every fight—fast. For Ronda, it was no longer even just about winning. It was about annihilating people.
“She had all this fame, all this notoriety, all this feeling of invincibility. And, in that fight, she got hit early in the face, and it rocked her. That’s when panic and anxiety set in. And she didn’t have the ability to really think coherently the rest of the fight. When an athlete goes through an anxiety dump, they can’t function. They’re exhausted. And I think that’s what happened with Ronda.”
For the first time in her 13 fights as a professional mixed martial artist, Rousey truly got hit in the mouth. Her response, to put it kindly, disappointed.
“The loss to Holly Holm validated something she felt deeply,” her former strength and performance coach Leo Frincu says, “that she wasn’t good enough, that something was fundamentally wrong with her.
“In those seconds, everything she thought was true was proved wrong. Her entire world made no sense. Ronda’s reality was shattered. She was traumatized.”
A fighter battles more than her opponent across the ring. The first and hardest fight is with herself. It’s there that Rousey failed. And that, perhaps, was the most difficult part to swallow. She had spent her entire life proving others wrong. Proving them right, instead, was particularly galling.
Despite criticism of her striking technique and aptitude, Rousey had embraced her new identity as a boxer, Frincu says. She believed in it, in the idea she could create a new person from the ashes of the old.
As a judoka, Rousey was never happy. For all her success, she could never live up to the standard set by her mother, former world champion AnnMaria De Mars. Rousey had given her life to the sport, representing the United States in two Olympic Games. She even came close to winning a world championship of her own. But, in the end, it left her living out of her car after the 2008 Games, wondering what was next.
“Judo led her to rock bottom,” says 2012 and ’16 Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison, Rousey’s former teammate and roommate. “I understand why she might have mixed feelings about it.”
Boxing was something new, something that was hers. Here she believed she could stand on her own, Frincu says, far from the shadow of her mother. Here was greatness to be seized on her terms.
Her professional coach, Edmond Tarverdyan, had fueled that illusion, eventually encouraging her belief that she could stand and trade with Holm, one of the best female boxers of all time.
“I bet she felt like a fraud,” Frincu says. “Or even more, the way she lost to Holm, Ronda probably felt like she can never escape her past, can never feel good about herself. Boxing, or her new and better self, let her down that night. That explains her suicidal thoughts and the reason she collapsed emotionally. It is a pretty lonely life being Ronda Rousey.”
As great as she’d been, when the lights were brightest, Rousey had failed to live up to expectations. Worse still, every weakness—every secret fear a fighter harbors about her own competence, heart and skill—was confirmed for all to see.
“There is pressure in judo, and you want to win, but it’s not like the whole world is watching you,” Harrison says. “Even at the Olympics, judo is not a mainstream sport in America. It’s not like she came home and people said, ‘Oh God, Ronda, you only got a bronze.’ They were like, ‘Oh God, Ronda, congrats!’
“Whereas in the Holm fight, it felt like do or die for her. There was so much pressure, and she was trying to please so many people. It caught up to her in that fight.”
Rousey hid her face upon her return from Australia, too crushed to face her public.
“I’m just really f–king sad,” she told ESPN The Magazine‘s Ramona Shelburne (warning: explicit language) one month after her shocking loss. “I just feel so embarrassed.”
While no one with her level of fame can truly escape, Rousey has done her best. She addressed the fight a single time in the media in a carefully controlled interview with Ellen DeGeneres that made international news for its revelation of suicidal thoughts.
“In that exact second, I’m like, ‘I’m nothing. What do I do anymore?'” a tearful Rousey, whose father Ron committed suicide when she was eight years old, told DeGeneres. “No one gives a s–t about me anymore without this.”
Rousey was a top prospect from day one in the sport. Even back in 2010, she could have had her pick of top gyms and trainers. Instead, she focused on an unknown Armenian with no track record of success before she had arrived.
For months, she would stare longingly at Edmond Tarverdyan as he trained other, lesser fighters. It’s unclear, even as she tells the story in her autobiography, My Fight/Your Fight, why exactly that was.
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But this man, the alpha dog in his own tiny yard, wanted no part of working with her. And that drove Rousey toward him, not away, much to the chagrin of her outspoken mother.
“He is extremely disrespectful to women,” De Mars told Pro MMA Now’s Dr. Rhadi Ferguson in 2015. “When she walked into his gym she had been a junior world gold medalist, Olympic medalist, world medalist in judo and he didn’t give her the time of day.
“And he has had that exact same pattern with many women in the gym and I have seen it with my own eyes where they train there and it’s basically a waste of their time. And they’re talked to in a way that just makes my jaw drop.”
Frincu, a keen student of psychology, believes it was Tarverdyan’s disinterest, feigned or not, that attracted Rousey to him.
“He may not even know he does it,” Frincu says. “Maybe it’s cultural. Maybe that’s who he is and that’s how he treats women. It just happens that the worst thing that could happen to her is pairing up with that guy.
“She associates guilt and emotional blackmail and all this poison with love. That is love to her. To show anything different than that—to show respect, to treat her like a professional and a human being—that’s foreign to her.”
Courtesy of Leo Frincu
Tarverdyan still has no track record of success with fighters not named Ronda Rousey, but for a time, their partnership worked. Rousey was eons ahead of most of her opponents on the mat, a luxury that allowed her to focus her attention on the stand-up fighting that intrigued and excited her. It was an area she had never explored before and one that, despite her overwhelming success, allowed her to assume the role of dark horse.
“Each athlete is different and has her own way of being motivated,” Harrison says. “I think Ronda does best when she’s the underdog. You have something to prove, you have that bit in your mouth. You’re hungry.”
Rousey has written that her tumultuous relationship with Tarverdyan—one Frincu says could include dozens of messages and calls an hour, even in her off time—was making her a better fighter. His erratic and emotional coaching, she wrote in My Fight/Your Fight, helped prepare her for the vagaries of the cage:
Edmond is really good about pushing me to use my anger as a tool. In training, he will purposely ignore me or make comments to try to make me emotional, and put me in a situation where I have to suppress it…
He would intentionally do things to try to get me aggravated before I sparred. He would ignore or snap at me, and I would get upset because I didn’t understand why he was acting that way.
What Rousey saw as a calculated attempt at introducing chaos, others viewed as rank incompetence.
“I think Edmond is a terrible coach and I will say it publicly,” De Mars told Humberto Guida of LatiNation in 2015. “I think he’s a terrible coach. I think he hit the lottery when Ronda walked in there.”
“Every time I go in his gym, he used to say, ‘How are you?’ And I’d say, ‘How the f–k do you think I am? I’m in your f–king gym and I f–king hate you!'” she said in a section of the video later removed from the internet but transcribed by Bloody Elbow.
“I would run him over with my car if there wasn’t a law against it,” she continued. “I hate that guy! He’s like the most worthless human being God ever put on this earth.”
The breaking point for Frincu came during shooting for The Ultimate Fighter in June 2013.
Rousey is an emotional person on her best day.
“She cries six times a day,” De Mars says. “And that’s just when she loses her phone.”
But this, Frincu says, was different. Rousey and teammate Marina Shafir were emotional wrecks, all jangly nerves and inexplicable fear. Their hair, he says, was falling out, and the vibe was all wrong.
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“The way he talked to her—wow, what I witnessed,” Frincu says. “The way he talked to everybody, going on these rants. Cursing about how terrible she is. I didn’t feel physically safe. I’m a guy who can take care of himself, but I felt uncomfortable. The next morning I took a plane and I left.”
Tarverdyan did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Like Frincu and almost everyone else in her life, the support structure Rousey had created for herself during the taping of the show soon vanished. The “Four Horsewomen,” Rousey’s posse of friends, left Tarverdyan’s Glendale Fighting Club for more emotionally healthy homes. After all, when not forced into the foxhole, most soldiers aren’t keen on taking fire day after day.
“It’s all emotional,” Frincu says. “There’s no logic in that camp. And that makes it very unstable. It’s like walking on eggshells. It’s terrible. It’s so stressful to be in that camp. It’s supposed to be hard work. But it has to be rational. There has to be a plan. Everything there is rage and anger.”
More than ever, at least from the brief glimpse provided to Shelburne, emotion will be Rousey’s guiding principle in the cage. Her motto, once “Retire Undefeated,” is now “F–k Them All.”
It’s a catchphrase designed to isolate Rousey from everyone on the outside. But all the bluster in the world can’t completely rebuild her emotional defenses. Shelburne wrote:
Rousey still cries sometimes as she relives details from the fight. It’s painful and embarrassing. But she is the one who kept saying yes to everything. She left herself vulnerable going into the fight, and Holm made her pay. Rousey’s got to own that.
It’s easy to fall back down that shame spiral, but that’s not productive anymore. Now she has to train and feel strong again. To remember why she fights. That was the point of coming up to this cabin. Having a physical boundary is essential for someone who has trouble setting any limits on herself. It’s a way of compartmentalizing.
Tarverdyan’s continued emphasis on Rousey’s striking game, despite her failures in that realm, give some critics pause. Even between the only two rounds of the Holm fight, Tarverdyan never once suggested the best grappler in women’s MMA take the bout to the mat. Singularity of focus can work—but in this case it seems to be misplaced.
Just as off-putting are the stories Rousey is telling the world, and perhaps even herself, about the Holm fight. In Shelburne’s ESPN story, she said she had only 44 days to prepare for UFC 193.
While the fight was rescheduled for an earlier date than originally planned, Rousey had more than 10 weeks to prepare. The standard fight camp is eight weeks long.
“It’s almost like there’s not a real world around her,” Frincu says. “Nobody keeps it real. It’s almost like a self-destructive organism.”
Frincu is concerned about reports from the Fight Network’s Robin Black and others that Rousey needed to be consoled after a staged staredown with Nunes at UFC 205, as well as with her refusal to confront the press she feels abandoned her when things were darkest.
“She went MIA and blamed it on the media…it’s a little scary,” former boyfriend and UFC heavyweight Brendan Schaub told The Pony Hour podcast. “She also said something like this is one of my last ones, and whenever a fighter even hints that this might be the last one, they’re one foot in, one foot out, or both feet out. When they say that, they get annihilated, and if I hear that, I always take the other guy.”
Those closest to her from her judo days are less concerned and more confident in Rousey’s ability to move ever forward.
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press/Associated Press
“I don’t think there are unconquerable problems with her game or her character,” Harrison says. “It’s just a matter of getting back to basics and staying true to who she is. She’s a fighter first.
“She’s come back from losses before. She wasn’t undefeated in judo. She lost in the world championships and was able to come back at the Olympics and be successful. I know she’s capable of doing that again.”
Pedro, her former coach, agrees.
“I think she needed the time off. She needed to heal,” he says. “She was severely depressed. She needed the time to put things in perspective and realize, again, that everyone is human. Everyone gets beat. No one is invincible.
“When Ronda has something to prove to the world, she’s tough. It’s the way she was brought up. It’s part of her DNA. The Ronda that I know, you have to kill her. She’s never going to quit. If she’s alive and breathing, she’s still fighting.”
Pedro’s prediction: “I think she’s going to come out, win this fight and you may never see her again.”
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report. All quotes and information obtained firsthand except as noted.
Is Ronda Rousey Broken or Ready to Roar Back? Her Past May Offer Some Clues – Bleacher Report