“In the days after her stunning defeat, Ronda Rousey says that she’s ready to fight again.”
But Ronda Rousey opens the red door of her smallish boho town house in Venice, California, on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving because one day she does want to be Ronda Rousey again.
“I’m just really fucking sad.”
Her voice is so soft you have to lean in to hear her. Sad is all she can feel since her knockout loss to Holly Holm at UFC 193 on Nov. 14. She speaks slowly, letting each word hurt. Like her hands in that ill-fated fight, her guard is down.
“I need to come back. I need to beat this chick. Who knows if I’m going to pop my teeth out or break my jaw or rip my lip open. I have to fucking do it.”
A FEW BLOCKS away on the Venice Beach boardwalk, a painter touches up the neon-green wall below a mural of Rousey, painted after her 34-second win over Bethe Correia in August. It was the third straight fight she’d won in less than a minute and the one that made UFC announcer Joe Rogan say, “Once in a lifetime doesn’t apply to Ronda Rousey. It’s once ever-in human history.”
Brazilian street artists Bicicleta Sem Freio drew Rousey as a colorful superhero with a green-eyed, orange-tongued leopard growling at her side. Her hair is flowing wildly along her face. Her fists are up, ready to fight. Her eyes are fixed and fierce.
Rousey is not going to want to see that mural for a while. Aside from a little puffiness in her bottom lip, she still looks like Ronda Rousey. She just doesn’t much feel like her.
“I’ve turned off my phone,” she says. “I haven’t looked at it. I’ve just been having long conversations with Mochi [her 7-year-old Argentinian Mastiff].”
She did shower today and eat a bit of onion bagel with cream cheese. She got dressed — yes, sweats count — and opened her door, first to her sister Maria Burns Ortiz, who brought her coffee, and then again for this interview.
“I was thinking, ‘On the bright side, I’m more like crushed idealism and sardonic sense of humor now.'”
The loss to Holm is still too scary to fully feel or see. The retelling is told in fragments.
“I got hit in that first round. … I cut my lip open and knocked a couple of my teeth loose. I was out on my feet from the very beginning.”
“I wasn’t thinking clearly. I had that huge cut in my mouth and I just spit [the blood] out at my feet. Then they brought the bucket over and I’m like, ‘Why didn’t I spit it in the bucket?’ I never spit on the ground.”
“It was like a dumbed-down dreamy version of yourself making decisions. … I was just trying to shake myself out of it. I kept saying to myself, ‘You’re OK, keep fighting. You’re OK, keep fighting.'”
“I just feel so embarrassed. How I fought after that is such an embarrassing representation of myself. I wasn’t even fucking there.”
Ronda Rousey’s confidence and outspoken nature have made her one of the first global female superstars who’s been able to brand herself authentically. But how will she bounce back after her devastating loss to Holly Holm? Ramona Shelburne has the story.
IT’S HARD TO square this shredded version of Rousey with the superhero a 10-minute walk away. Was she the one who put the cape on? Or did we just need her to fly?
It wasn’t enough for her just to win fights; she had to win in 30 seconds with some completely implausible takedown. She did it enough times that some of the great male athletes of our age — LeBron James, J.J. Watt, Kobe Bryant — started bowing down and tweeting respect after her fights.
Then she started taking on opponents outside the ring-from convicted domestic abusers like Floyd Mayweather to the “do-nothing bitches” who just “try to be pretty and be taken care of by somebody else,” as she put it. That’s when some people started describing her as a new feminist icon. English writer John Berger once described the world as a place where “men look at women and women watch themselves being looked at.” Rousey was like, What are you looking at? Beyonce gave her props. Ellen DeGeneres became her small-screen BFF. Movie studios began to find roles for her. Teenage girls and middle-aged lawyers bought $1 million worth of “Don’t be a D.N.B” T-shirts and added “Rowdy” to their social media profiles.
She does not apologize for her ambitions: “Maybe I can’t do it all before my prime, before my body is done. But fuck it, maybe I can.”
She does not soften herself to make anyone more comfortable: “Most people get scared away from having an opinion. It’s not so much my opinions everybody relates to, it’s that I don’t care about being punished for it.”
She says things women have wanted to say for years but have worried might be misconstrued: “It’s not my responsibility to make everything I say idiot-proof. If a dumbass can’t understand it, then I’m not going to spend my time putting everything I think into layman’s terms.”
She refused to be judged by any standard of beauty: “I think it’s hilarious if people say that my body looks masculine,” she said on an episode of UFC’s “Embedded” that aired before the Correia fight. “I’m just like, ‘Listen, just because my body was developed for a purpose other than fucking millionaires doesn’t mean it’s masculine.’ I think it’s femininely badass as fuck because there’s not a single muscle on my body that isn’t for a purpose. Because I’m not a do-nothing bitch. It’s not very eloquently said, but it’s to the point. And maybe that’s just what I am. I’m not that eloquent, but I’m to the point.”
She was the perfect megaphone for the moment. This was the year the NFL recognized the domestic violence committed by its players; the year Mayweather’s camp tried to pull the press credentials from two female journalists who’d criticized him and was skewered for it; the year the leading Democratic presidential candidate was a woman, as was a top-tier Republican contender; the year women wanted to gladiate like Olivia Pope and tear down walls like Becky Hammon.
“People can say I am a terrible role model because I swear all the time or that I fight people,” Rousey told ESPN in 2013. “Look, I don’t want little girls to have the same ambitions as me. I want them to know that it is OK to be ambitious. … I want them to know that it is OK to say whatever it is that is on their mind.”
The more invincible she seemed, the louder she was cheered and from more corners. She was becoming everyone’s avatar. That’s a lot to put on someone who makes a living fighting in a cage-it’s a lot to put on anyone, probably too much. But she kept living up to it until Holm’s thunderous kick to the side of her head sent her crashing down to earth.
Seven years ago, Rousey was such a compelling personality and fighter that UFC president Dana White, who’d previously said “Never” when asked if women would ever fight for him, happily ate his words and created the women’s division. Now she makes well north of seven figures per fight, plus another $3 million to $5 million in endorsements annually. Then there are the movies (Furious 7 and Entourage this year, a reboot of Roadhouse next year), the autobiography (My Fight/Your Fight, published in May) and countless media appearances.
Now we’re left wondering what really ended that night in Australia. The Rousey Myth of Invincibility? The idea that one woman could fly in on a cape and take down male hegemony with an armbar? The UFC’s marketing strategy of Ronda as Amazon? Or just a winning streak?
Rousey sinks into her couch to ponder the question. “I feel like I’m grieving the death of the person who could’ve done that,” she says.
Mochi leans her head against a blanket on the floor and whimpers. The big, beautiful dog has been crying a lot lately. They’ve been together since Rousey’s last lowest moment, when she won bronze, not gold, in judo at the Beijing Olympics, and when Rousey cries, so does Mochi.
“I always say you have to be willing to get your heart broken. That’s just what fucking happens when you try.”
SHE SLEPT THE entire 15-hour flight home from the fight in Australia, numbed by the painkillers she’s always hated taking. TMZ caught her leaving the airport when she landed, a pillow in front of her face to protect her from the world’s sight.
The next day she got into a truck with her boyfriend, Travis Browne, and drove 15 hours to a remote ranch in Texas. It was supposed to be a celebratory trip, a long rest after a long year. Three fights in nine months, two movies, white-hot fame and a series of simmering controversies during training camp-12 months way up close to the sun. The plan had been to beat Holm, celebrate with a gigantic batch of chicken wings and a lot of cider beer at a restaurant in Melbourne, fly home and drive off with Travis to hunt wild turkey for Thanksgiving at her sister Jennifer’s house.
They took off after her last fight in August, and it was one of the best weeks of her life. No phones. No obligations. Just the two of them sleeping on a mattress in the back of his truck each night, making up silly names and voices for the animals on the ranch and enjoying the honeymoon stage of a new relationship. She says she loved the way he made her feel taken care of and safe. How he’d wake up at 5:45 a.m. to make her coffee and fix her breakfast so she could sleep an extra 30 minutes before training. How he hunted with a bow and arrow instead of a gun. He reminded her of her father.
Rousey’s father committed suicide when she was 8 years old. Browne was 10 when his father drank himself to death. When they first starting seeing each other in April, they bonded quickly and deeply, two fighters with holes in their hearts.
That was before Browne’s ex-wife, Jenna Renee Webb, accused him of domestic violence in a series of tweets and a graphic Instagram post in July. Browne categorically denied it.
The UFC suspended him from competition while Campbell & Williams, a law firm they hired, investigated the accusations. “We retained an incredibly well-respected investigator who spent 25 years … with the FBI and interviewed all relevant parties, including both Browne and the alleged victim,” says managing partner Hunter Campbell. “Ultimately, the investigator comfortably determined there was inconclusive evidence to support claims of alleged domestic violence.”
Over the summer, Webb called out Rousey on social media. “I expected more from her. She should be ashamed of herself. … It’s only a matter of time that she sees his true colors.”
“The investigation wasn’t about clearing me,” Browne said. “It was about finding the truth if I did something. … I knew there was nothing because I did nothing. If anything, yeah, we yelled at each other. Would I say nasty things to her? Fuckin’ A. But I wasn’t the only one saying them.”
Browne called Rousey and her mother the first day his ex-wife made allegations on social media. He swore to them he hadn’t done anything violent but that he’d understand if she wanted to end the relationship. Rousey believed him and decided to stand by him. “Why can’t [people] have some confidence or trust in me that I would make a good decision and be with a good man regardless of how it looks?” she said during training camp. She refused to answer questions about their relationship before the fight.
She said she didn’t want to shame the accuser, because that’s so often what happens in domestic violence cases. She hung up on reporters who pressed the issue, thinking it was too complicated to explain in conference calls, where her quotes could be chopped up into tweets and contextualized by people she had never met. She had to focus on beating Holm first.
“It’s hard, it’s really hard. I’m very anti-domestic violence,” she said one day after training at her gym in LA, tears streaming down her cheeks. “But I know that he didn’t do anything. Now I’m put in this situation where I’m finally happy with somebody that respects me and cares about me, and I’m like, ‘What do I do?'”
The issue quickly got conflated with a controversy over her autobiography, in which she writes of fighting her way out of a confrontation with an ex-boyfriend she had caught taking nude pictures of her. According to her account, she punched him when he blocked her from leaving their apartment, and when he got into her car and grabbed the steering wheel, she yanked him by his hoodie and dragged him out of the car. Rousey says it was self-defense. Others wondered whether it was domestic violence.
After the Holm fight, she’d explain it all, she said. She’d ask people to trust her after hearing her conflicted feelings on the issue. And if they still couldn’t understand, she would live with that.
“At the end of the day, I can’t curl up with people’s opinions,” she said. “Even when everyone thinks the world of me, I still go to bed anxious and freaking out because I’m afraid of everything. The only time I’ve gotten a reprieve from that [feeling] in my life is since I’ve been with him.”
Then she lost to Holm and there was no plan. They just got into the truck and drove. Texas was freezing. The wind howled every night. She watched Browne hunt once. He didn’t get anything. Another group of hunters gave them a deer they’d killed.
It was miserable.
“I kind of just slept a lot and ate fast food,” she says, sitting up a bit on the couch to see what Mochi is doing. “First I was so sick I couldn’t eat anything. Then I just slept and pooped in the woods. I used a whole roll of toilet paper in one day.
“Physically, my body was refusing its own failures. It was, like, sick of itself. Expelling itself. Like all the skin came off my face. My whole body flushed it out.”
She left her phone at home. Travis answered texts from her family, trainer and agent. She shut out the outside world. She’s been selling the fight game for so long, she knew what was being said about her.
“That I’m a fucking failure and I deserve everything that I got,” she says sharply.
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