January 27, 2016 Ronda Rousey: There’s more than one way to be a knockout

She probably came to your attention, as she did to mine, when she hit headlines for a ‘shocking’ knockout late last year. It made me wonder, who is this woman, and what was she knocked out while doing?

Dubbed, ‘the biggest upset in UFC history’, (I also had to find out what that was), Ronda Rousey was the undefeated favourite set to win in the bantamweight championship fight against relatively unknown boxer-turned-mixed martial artist Holly Holm.

Holm knocked Rousey out 59 seconds into the second round with a left kick to the head. Rousey was taken to hospital, physically fine but emotionally devastated for this totally unexpected defeat: Rousey was voted on an ESPN poll as the Best Female Athlete Ever and is currently the UFC’s highest paid fighter, male or female.

Obviously she’s a great athlete, but why was she the third most googled person in 2015?

Rousey fans are obsessed. They revere her with the same intensity as she approaches her work. She often says things like, “Every single day that I lay down and collapsed in the bed, I was so convinced that that sleep was really earned and every spare moment that I had, every spare thought that I had was for fighting. I was shadowboxing with the droplets in the shower, just trying to get better every single second.”

Her burning work ethic was kindled by pain in her early life. Rousey didn’t learn to speak properly until she was six because of a hearing disability, and when she was eight years old her father committed suicide. To cope with it she began judo training; “Spite was my greatest motivator in the beginning. I was so angry at everyone.”

In her teens she said that she felt, “self-conscious that I was too masculine. I was a 16-year-old girl with ringworm and cauliflower ears. People made fun of my arms and called me ‘Miss Man’. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized: These people are idiots. I’m fabulous.” Throughout her life she’s struggled with eating disorders and body image issues, but manages these anxieties with the self-confidence she’s earned in sport.

It’s this combination of vulnerability and self-confidence that makes her such an appealingly 3D person that fans can relate to. She’s not ashamed of her vulnerability, and in an interview with Ellen says, “I’m the biggest crier”. In another interview she says, “People say to me all the time, ‘You have no fear.’ I tell them, ‘No, that’s not true. I’m scared all the time. You have to have fear in order to have courage. I’m a courageous person because I’m a scared person’”.

In the octagon, she certainly doesn’t seem it. As Mary Pilon says in her Esquire feature on Rousey, “She makes no apologies for appearing in the public eye without makeup, trash-talking her opponents, and not looking like ‘the other girls’, in her words… She is completely comfortable with being cast in the role of the communicator of rage and has become a positive icon of female anger, a hero for a temperament too often ridiculed as ‘bitter’ or ‘complainy’”.

In August last year, Rousey knocked out Bethe Correia 34 seconds into the match, a victory that seemed particularly sweet after Correai’s comments about her father’s suicide. Rousey said, “I’m just happy that being a professional, I can do something about it… I knocked her out flat on her face and ate some hot wings afterwards and laughed about it.”

Rousey is freely critical of the culture of poor self-esteem, and particularly how this impacts on women. When Conan O’Brien asked about her love life and whether men are intimidated by her, she says, “Maybe, but I wouldn’t want to waste any time with a guy that’s intimidated by me. There’s more intimidating things than me in the world and if that’s stopped you, then you’ve saved my time… A lot of guys go for women who are less so that they can feel like more, but I want a guy who can be my equal”.

She’s held up by many as a feminist icon, but I felt a bit uncomfortable after seeing Beyoncé’s homage to her in concert last year, when she played an audio clip of Rousey making her famous ‘do-nothing-bitch’ speech. Since then Rousey’s sold 56,000 tshirts emblazoned with the words “Don’t Be a D.N.B.” which Rousey defines as, “A bitch who just tries to be pretty and be taken care of by someone else”.

Of course, if a woman wants to be taken care of by someone else, it’s their choice. Although it might not be Ronda’s choice, criticizing the choices of other women so viciously does nothing for feminism in my book. With that in mind, I’m reticent to celebrate Rousey as a feminist icon, but rather a complex, charismatic figure whose words often smack with truth that is as refreshing as it is raw.

Kate Cole
is a writer, journalist, and graduate of the University of Sydney