I’ve seen a lot of people contending that Ronda Rousey was “exposed” over the weekend—that Holly Holm’s kick-heard-‘round-the-world is proof that Rousey was never all that good in the first place. Those people are wrong.
To recap for the 2.47 people who don’t know: former UFC women’s bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey, one of the most dominant athletes in sports, got knocked out over the weekend. It wasn’t a fluke, either. She was dominated bell-to-bell. Her opponent, Holly Holm—previously a professional boxer with multiple championship belts under her, uh, belt—was elusive and measured in her approach. The perfect matador to Rousey’s recklessly charging bull. At times, the disparity between the two was almost comical. Rousey grew visibly frustrated, nearly smacking face-first into the fence when Holm ducked yet another punching flurry.
The fight ended in round two, with a beautifully timed head kick during a chaotic scramble. Rousey collapsed, looking less like the most dominant athlete in sports and more like a spilled sack of potatoes. The ref hesitated on the stoppage, allowing Holm to land two more (unnecessary) shots to Rousey’s battered, misshapen cranium. It was a finish equal parts gorgeous and ugly, but there was no question as to who had won. Holm fought a brilliant fight. She exploited every known hole in Rousey’s game. It was amazing to watch.
Since then, I’ve seen everyone from douchebro Twitter randos to Donald Trump and Lady Gaga piling on the “fuck Ronda Rousey” bandwagon. Many in the former category, especially, seem all too pleased to say things to the effect of, “Hah, she was never a good fighter. I could take her, easy. My masculinity is fragile, like a baby swan hatched from a snowglobe egg, and I say these things to protect my own sense of self from The Scary Questions.”
But there’s so much more to this than that. Rousey’s loss, in my opinion, reveals two key things: 1) fight fandom and celebrity culture are similar in their fickleness and 2) perceived “invincibility” creates a vortex of reality distortion that affects even the best fighters and most ardent fans.
Point one is nearly self-explanatory. People are trying to discount Ronda Rousey for one loss after she obliterated everyone in her division, took the sporting world by storm, and put the mainstream eye on MMA like never before. Oh, and that came after she, you know, medaled in the goddamn Olympics. For many, she was (and still is) a role model, a pop culture heroine. If she were to retire tomorrow, her previous accomplishments would still be unassailable.
If you don’t like Rousey’s personality, fine. That is completely, 100 percent cool, and I cannot blame you. Honestly, there are times when I don’t like her personality. She’s said some contentious-ass shit, some of which has been almost gleefully ill-informed. But going from “whoa she’s the most badass lady to ever live” to “she was shit all along” overnight? That’s the very definition of fickleness, and disliking her personally isn’t a great reason to do it.
But I’m not really surprised. Rousey—again unlike any MMA fighter before her (at least, outside of Japan)—straddles the line between mega-popular fighter and bonafide celebrity. There is, in both cases, a documented pattern of fans leaping from bandwagons like they’re aboard sinking fucking Titanics, almost always when a fighter or celebrity reveals their deepest, darkest secret: that they’re human, just like everyone else. A celebrity might age or say the wrong thing (something worthy of critique, certainly, but not abandonment or hate). And a fighter? Well, they lose. (Or, you know, they get popped for being a juiced-to-the-gills steroid balloon, but that’s not really relevant here.)
That brings me to point two: invincibility. It’s kinda at-odds with that whole “Actually She Was A Human All Along” thing. But it’s the double-edged sword of being a truly dominant fighter: you don’t get to be human anymore. People come to expect almost mechanical in-cage performances time in and time out, refusing to accept that—even at the top of the world—it’s possible for someone to have an off-night. Somewhat ironically, the higher fighters climb, the more chances to make painfully human mistakes they receive.
In hindsight, it’s almost not shocking that Rousey lost to Holm. Rousey was at the center of the perfect storm of outside factors, across the cage from an experienced boxer with some of MMA’s most tactical coaches behind her. Rousey’s mom was publicly feuding with her coach, and—seemingly out of nowhere—her coach filed for bankruptcy under strange circumstances. Meanwhile, her new relationship with UFC heavyweight Travis Browne—a man recently accused of domestic violence—stirred up a controversy that Rousey had to field. On top of that, Rousey had to contend with one of the most intense media tours of her life. And all the while, she was flirting with opportunities in boxing and pro wrestling.
Perhaps because of hubris, perhaps because of ambition and some events that were beyond her control, Rousey over-extended. She fucked up. She made a human mistake—or maybe a whole bunch of them. To top it all off, she severely underestimated Holm. She said she wasn’t worried about Holm’s striking. Ultimately, Rousey paid for that.
And yet, the perception that Rousey was invincible still distorted the views of fans and pundits alike. In the MMA world, especially, all the above background stuff was known. Rousey’s closet was wide open, and people were digging out skeletons left and right. But still, the betting odds remained overwhelmingly in her favor. Still, everyone felt her victory was a foregone conclusion. At best, some (myself included) figured, Holm would last longer than most of Rousey’s opponents—actually make a fight out of it. Then she’d fall like all the others.
I think people want Rousey to be so much more than she is. We live in a world where women get sadly few role models, especially in athletic competition. People want Rousey to be flawless and emotionless—a combination of brawn, beauty, and sick burns against dicks like Floyd Mayweather. And she is... sometimes. However, she’s far from perfect. The less savory elements of Rousey’s personality and fighting style often get swept under the rug in favor of this idealized perception of her. People don’t want to acknowledge her mistakes—nor give her leeway to occasionally make them—because they need her to represent something. A powerful woman in sports, a larger than life figure. Some love her for that, others hate/fear her. In both cases, tempers flared when she fell.
I think people are in such uproar about Rousey’s loss in part because it was a sobering reminder that nobody can escape their humanity. Nobody can climb that far. We hope for superheroes, but we get human beings. Every single time.
Despite all that, I’m actually glad Rousey lost. As I said in a previous article, the way she recovers from a loss will be infinitely more interesting than another dozen wins. Based on the path Rousey seems to have been headed down, I think it will be good for her too. She was getting distracted, failing to keep her eyes on the prize. She was underestimating people and buying into her own hype. This loss, hopefully, will refocus her—force her to add new dimensions to her game and become more well-rounded. Ronda Rousey is still great, but perhaps she can become greater.
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