This Saturday, mixed martial artist "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey will fight defending Bantamweight champion Miesha Tate for the 135 lb. title. Using her strong past in judo as her anchor, 25-year-old Rousey has shot to the forefront of the women's MMA scene since her debut in August of 2010. She's got an Olympic medal in judo, her stepfather is literally a rocket scientist, and her only fear is getting an extreme wedgy on national television. Her high skill level and comprehensive understanding of how to fight has landed her at 4-0 and vaulted her over Sarah Kaufman for a chance to be the best in the 135 division. With the fight in sight, the Venice, Calif. native spoke to Complex about hustling boys for some extra cash as a kid, hating sweat, and cleared up her "beef" with Tate.
Interview by Tony Markovich (@T_Marko)
Your mom was the first American to win the World Judo Championships, but you started out as a swimmer. What made you want to finally take up the family sport?
My mom went to go visit her old teammates when we moved to L.A., and they opened up a club there. What I really loved about it was the creativity. When you swim, there’s only one way to do the butterfly, and if you open your legs just a little bit, you’re disqualified. You have to be exactly a certain way or you’re out. Judo was one of those sports where they give you guidelines, but then try to tell you to develop your own style. I was showed my first throw, which was a soto gari, and they’re like, “Okay, this is one way to do a soto gari, but you have to experiment with it and figure out the way it works best for you.” My judo is not going to be like somebody else’s. It’s always going to be unique, and it’s something that I could get creative with. I remember when I got older, I had an epiphany where I saw how everything was connected from one throw to another and one move to another. You see when something doesn’t work, you can end up in the starting position of another, and you see how they fit together, like chains almost. It’s really hard to describe. It was just such an amazing creative outlet for me. It took a hold of my imagination in a way that nothing ever could.
Do you have any other creative outlets aside from your judo?
I make fractals. They’re like mathematical pictures. My stepdad is actually a rocket scientist, so in his free time, he gave me a fractal program for fun. He showed me how to use it when I was about nine or 10, and I made thousands of fractals. You know how you make a graph, and you see the line on the graph of an equation? If you take that same equation through every single point, it will make a picture. You’re pretty much seeing pictures of different equations that you mesh into each other. You see fractals in nature all the time like nautical shells and stuff like that. They are those things that people look at when they’re tripping on acid, and they’re like, “Oh my God, it’s infinite,” because you can zoom in forever and you an zoom out forever, because it’s a number. It’s infinite. It’s really cool, you can play with the colors and everything. If you go to fractaldomains.com you can go to the galleries and see Ronda’s galleries. Those are a bunch of the fractals that I made when I was younger. I still make them. It’s different. I’m a closet nerd.
It seems like your mother has played a pretty instrumental role in prepping and keeping you going. How has she been a factor through your fighting career?
It’s been a bumpy road for both of us. When I was younger and I was getting in my whole adolescent rebellion phase, I thought that my mom was just mean and trying to ruin my life, and now I’m very grateful and happy for everything she’s done for me. Some things I thought were mean when I was a kid, I realize now she was just trying to develop me into a good fighter. It’s really funny, because she was always a big hardass when I did judo, and now that I switched over to MMA, she’s in worried mommy mode every time that I fight. It’s a total flip. When I did judo, she’d always be like, “Suck it up, I don’t care if your arm is hanging out of its socket, pop it in and keep fighting.” Now if I’m doing MMA she’s like, “Oh my God, the other girl that Ronda is punching is bleeding on her, oh my God! Please, somebody get in there and slap that girl and tell her to stop bleeding on my baby!” [Laughs.] She’s just super worried and overprotective now. I get to see this mighty maternal side that I never really got to see much when I was younger. It’s kind of cool to see that change.
I just have this phobia that I’m going to get camel toe when I fight, and I’m constantly pulling my pants down. That’s really the only thing I’m scared of.
Have you ever asked her why that is?
Yeah, it’s because she was so accomplished in judo. She knew everything that was going on. MMA is a sport that she doesn’t know that well, doesn’t understand all of it, and of course, it’s a lot more graphic. You don’t get as many internal injuries like on joints and other things in a match like in judo, it’s mostly cosmetic damage. But if you see the person before your daughter fights gushing blood all over the place, it’s gonna make any mother worry, no matter how thick her skin is.
But you’re going to put your kids in a cage fight, right?
Well, I understand the sport, so I want them to be prepared if anything came up. Kids are going to fight anyways, so I might as well make them fight with padding.
It might as well be organized, right?
Exactly! [Laughs.] No eye-gouging and no groin shots, go! [Laughs.]
What is something that you are actually afraid of?
I am really scared of getting camel toe on national television. That just scares the crap out of me. If you notice, I’m constantly pulling my pants down when I fight, because those are some tight little spandex shorts. I just have this phobia that I’m going to get camel toe when I fight, and I’m constantly pulling my pants down. That’s really the only thing I’m scared of: [Laughs.] Broadcasted camel toe.
You mentioned that being the muscular fighting girl didn’t exactly help in school. What was that like growing up?
Kids don’t like what they don’t understand, and judo was always my social outlet. I always felt really socially awkward, and I couldn’t speak very well when I was younger. When I was doing judo, it was something that I could understand and some place where I felt that I belonged and fit in. Even though, a lot of times, if you walked in the room, you wouldn’t think I’d fit in, because there was one blond girl and a bunch of Armenian dudes. But at school, I was a muscular girl. I never wore makeup and I would never really spend that much time thinking about what to wear. I wasn’t always the most fashionable, and I would come to school with cauliflower ear and ringworm. I got made fun of a lot. People called me "Miss Man" and "Guns," and people directed a lot of karate jokes at me. I wish that I was at school now that MMA and martial arts is cool, but back when I was in school, people associated it with nerdy stuff. I wasn’t a normal teenage girl, so I didn’t fit in, and people that don’t fit it get made fun of.
What kind of toll did that take on you?
It gave me that chip on my shoulder. It might not sound very correct, but I’m greatly motivated by spite. A lot of people have told me I wasn’t good enough, and I love to prove people wrong more than anything. All these people telling that I was a dork or a nerd or saying that I’m ugly or masculine, it just feels very good to be successful in fighting now. It motivated me to prove all these people that put the insecurities into my head wrong.
Have you been in any real fights with guys?
A couple times. The only time I fight is with guys. When I was in sixth grade, some kid tried to take my lunch money or something, and I threw him onto the concrete and burst the back of his head open. He had to go to the emergency room, and I got community service for that. I remember when I was in high school, me and my friend Jackie would go to Palisades Park [Santa Monica, Calif.], and we would bet guys that we could beat them up for $5 or $10. I would throw them down and arm bar them until they would say, “I give up, I give up!” We’d take the money and go buy frappuccinos. That’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t expect in Santa Monica, right? Two girls picking fights, getting the prize money, and getting a frappuccino. [Laughs.]
So you hustled people and beat them up?
[Laughs.] Yeah, and I have my now infamous movie theater fight story. A bunch of guys jumped me, I beat them up, and then they sued me, because, hey, we’re still in Santa Monica, right? They probably wanted to buy some frappuccinos, too.
What happened with them suing you?
The case got dismissed, because it was self-defense. They tried to get a civil case filed on me, but I’m very elusive and hard to find. My address isn’t anywhere, and I was working like three jobs, so anytime they’d try to send me a subpoena, they couldn’t find me. The lawyer has to pay every time that you send a subpoena, so eventually the guy was just was like, “You guys aren’t going to win this anyways,” and refused to defend them anymore. It just got dropped. I’m really a ninja, they can’t find me. I fight and then poof, gone. You’re not really a ninja if you’re easy to find. [Laughs.]
What’s more deadly, judo or wrestling?
Judo, but it has to be a specific style of judo. I lucked out in that the kind of judo I developed was perfect for MMA. I tore my knee out when I was younger, so I spent an entire year only working on my ground game, and my mom always made sure to send me to both Japanese-style places and European-style places. I did wrestling, tae bo, judo, and proper Japanese judo that is very applicable to no-gi [grappling]. I went to wrestling a couple times. I always thought that was gross when I was younger, though, because I didn’t like skin-on-skin contact for some reason. They would walk outside and then they would come in and walk on the mats with their dirty shoes. In judo, people are impeccably clean with the mats. You never walk on the mats with shoes or anything. The feeling with dirt on the ground and sweat, rubbing skin-on-skin really grossed me out when I was younger. My mom made sure I was very well rounded, though. I think that my style of judo is much more effective in MMA than wrestling is.
How did you get over your dislike of touching other people and sweat?
[Laughs.] Well, after I quit judo and after the ‘08 Olympics, I started doing grappling a lot with guys that I knew, and it was on judo mats, so at least they were clean. They were all guys that I knew since I was young, so I wasn’t too grossed out. I was cool about it. Then all through 2009 I did grappling with them, all no-gi, just for fun. It wasn’t full-time or anything, because I was working.
So you just got used to it?
Yeah, and now I like it way more. I don’t like putting a gi on. I hate having the extra friction, because I can’t move and can’t put combinations together as quickly or as smoothly. It’s much easier to be defensive in a gi. I’ve switched over to the dark side. I like the no-gi a lot better.
I would throw them down and arm bar them until they would say, “I give up, I give up!” We’d take the money and go buy frappuccinos. That’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t expect in Santa Monica, right? Two girls picking fights, getting the prize money, and getting a frappuccino.
The gis are a lot heavier than people think.
Oh my gosh, the gis are like armor. Especially when they’re soaked with sweat, it weighs several pounds and the gi on the neck, like, oh my God. It takes a while to get used to. When I first put a gi on, I remember hating that stuff on my neck.
You talk a lot of trash. What’s your reasoning behind that and how does that benefit you?
I don’t think of it as talking trash, I just think of it as any kind of banter that I would have with anybody in the gym. I come from a very intellectual house. My mom has a PhD, my stepdad is a rocket scientist, my sister has a masters, and my other sister has a bachelor’s in journalism at NYU. I would go from that environment to the gym, where the guys make themselves comfortable with me being there by pretty much talking shit to me all the time. It’s weird to have a girl there for them, you know? They would tease me all the time to make themselves more comfortable, so I developed this way of talking that is a mix of intellectual and bullshit in the gym. I come off as a little brash to a lot of other people. I make fun of my teammates and talk trash to them in the exact same way that I talk to my opponent. It’s just because they don’t know me and I’m not saying it with a smile that it becomes so jarring to some people. People aren’t used to seeing a girl talk like that.
What kinds of things would the guys say to you?
They would call me Big Ron all the time. They called me Ron for years. Anything, if somebody messes up that day, you make fun of them. It’s hard to quote. Everybody gives everybody else a hard time. I feel a little bit out of place when I’m hanging out with a bunch of girls, because I’m more comfortable in the vernacular that is used with the guys. I’m more of a guy’s girl, and that comes off as being brash when I’m talking to other women.
Do you think that benefits you when people don’t realize that's your normal talk?
It's definitely beneficial, because it’s something different, and people aren’t used to it. People are entertained by new things. When there’s a girl that shows up that can fight, talks like a guy, and can still look hot when she wants to, that’s something different and something that people want to see.
You and Miesha Tate have been going back and forth with some jabs.
Sefore she was saying that I was getting this fight because I was pretty. Then I beat the hell out of her at a debate, and she’s changed to saying that I talked my way into the fight. I’m like, "Yeah, you changed your mind on that one." And I don’t know how she could call me fake, because she doesn’t even know what I’m actually like. All this other stuff, I don’t take personally. She didn’t do anything originally to piss me off. If you make the two hot chicks fight, everybody will want to watch it. So, I thought maybe if people think these two chicks don’t like each other, they’d want to watch. I just started focusing my banter in her direction. Her stuff doesn’t really bother me, but I’m sure it bothers her. I’m used to going back and forth with people like that, and she’s not, you can tell. She takes a lot of it personally. For me, everything is resolved after the fight. I’m willing to have a clean slate, because I can’t really take offense to anything. I started it and I understand why she would be pissed off.
I guess that depends on who wins, huh?
So nothing she’s said has hit you personally?
One thing that bothered me was when she was trying to say that my Olympic medal isn’t legitimate. Anyone who says that obviously doesn’t know how the brackets and stuff in judo work. It’s just completely wrong. I was appalled by the fact that she would try to defame one of her own country’s Olympic medals. I worked really hard to represent my country well. I didn’t talk or act this way when I was an Olympian, because I wasn’t just representing myself, I was representing my country. I went through a lot of pain and hardship and sacrifice to bring this medal back to my country, and I was very proud of that. That deserves a little bit of respect. I didn’t just do it for myself. MMA is just for myself, but that medal wasn’t. I wanted to make history for America, and I did. I was the first female to win a medal in judo since it became a full-fledged sport in 1992. For her to try to say that my medal doesn’t count because it makes her feel better just shows how selfish she is. She’s basically putting herself over her own country’s accomplishments. That’s very ungrateful. I won that medal for her country.
Do you think there is an element of jealousy in there?
No, I don’t think it’s jealousy as much as she feels threatened. She’s threatened by the fact that I’m an Olympic-level athlete, and she’s a high school-level wrestler. She feels the need to try and bring me down to her level to feel like she has a chance. If she convinces herself that my Olympic medal isn’t legitimate, then she feels like she’s a little bit more in my league. Psychologically, it’s understandable, but it’s still selfish.
What do you think about the progress that women’s MMA has been making?
It’s extremely encouraging just to see how much it has picked up in the last six months. I’m super excited about how things are going. Gina did so much and was this complete pioneer for the sport, but I feel like it really stagnated in her absence and was starting to go down again. I felt that when I started doing MMA it was at a tipping point. It could start falling into obscurity, or something could happen to make it take off again. I just took it upon myself to be that something, because if you want a job done right, you gotta do it yourself.
How can you be that catalyst?
I think because I am an Olympic-level athlete. I’m not just some weekend warrior that thought it would be a good idea to try an MMA match one day. I’ve been fighting and doing this professionally my entire life. I think that there are more women that are coming in that are Olympic athletes like Sarah McMann and Randi Miller that are going to try to do MMA. I think that I’m the first of that new wave that can show people that there is a future and a career here. Not only that, but there are going to be younger girls that have seen Gina and me and Meisha and hopefully, they will want to emulate women like that. There are a lot of girls now that are training younger and are more well-balanced with every style. If we maintain women getting good exposure, then the depth of the division is just going to expand exponentially.
How do you think they should be getting that exposure out there?
You need to put on good, well-publicized, entertaining fights. They have to be entertaining outside the ring as well. I feel like that’s one thing that I have contributed that they were missing before. I am adding some theatrics outside the match. For this match, you’ve never seen so much focus on the interviews and what’s going on with the supposed beef between me and Miesha. It’s gotten so much press because it’s different. We need more things like that, take hints from the guys, and mimic that. There’s this perception that women have to be on higher ground and more ethical and all this stuff, but you know what? You need to put your ultra-feminist ideas of what’s ethical on pause and take a little look at the WWE and see what’s working.
What do you think of girls like Gina who are using their image to venture into other avenues?
I think it’s great for her! I think she’s shown that not only can women do well and succeed in MMA, but they can use MMA to succeed in other areas like doing action movies or doing stunts. She really is a pioneer in every way and she’s opening up all these new opportunities for women MMA fighters. I got a lot of criticism when I quit judo, because people wanted me to be the first American to win the gold medal in judo. They were like, “Why are you quitting? Why are you doing this?” There were so many other people giving me reasons why I should be doing something that I just didn’t have a passion for anymore. If she doesn’t have a passion for fighting anymore, she shouldn’t fight. You can't fight for anybody except yourself. For her to go on to make her career take off is a great thing. I think it will make it easier for other women to do the same in the future.
So you lost your passion for judo?
I just didn’t have fun doing judo anymore. The whole training part of it got to be too much. Competing and winning I loved, but the lifestyle required to be the best in the world didn’t make me happy anymore. I wasn’t willing to be miserable for four years so I could possibly be happy for one day. After my last Olympics, I realized that getting a medal is great, but it doesn’t change your life afterwards. It doesn’t make your life better and all sunshine and butterflies because you are an Olympic medalist. They’re going to give you a handshake, a few grand, and then kick you out the door to figure out the rest of your life. It wasn’t worth it to me anymore. Now with MMA, I’m so happy and interested and enthralled to be there every single day in a way that I never was with judo. I found my niche.
There’s this perception that women have to be on higher ground and more ethical and all this stuff, but you know what? You need to put your ultra-feminist ideas of what’s ethical on pause and take a little look at the WWE and see what’s working.
If or when you win this match, what’s next for you?
I don’t know. The match has my full attention at the time. Whatever the fans want, I’m willing to do. I probably want to set up a fight with Sarah Kaufman, because she is the girl that everybody felt should have gotten the next title shot before I came along. I think the most fair thing to do would be to have a fight between me and the winner of her fight with Alexis Davis. They are fighting on the undercard of our fight.
I wanted to congratulate you on reaching 15 million grains of rice in your Free Rice campaign.
Yeah, thank you. We’re still doing that until March 3rd, the day of the fight. We’re giving away more prizes, because I haven’t released my new clothing line. We’re going to give out the first ones to the top donors as of March 3rd, and a couple more to just random people that donated even a little bit. We thought it would be cool, because I’m cutting a bunch of extra weight, and I’m hungry all the time, so we thought we could do a fundraiser for hungry people. Being hungry sucks! [Laughs.]
Do you know how many people that can feed?
I’m not sure, several thousand people.
How did you get involved in that?
My mom was programing with some other thing, she showed me Free Rice, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is so cool.” It was originally her idea, and she suggested doing something to raise money for hungry people while I was cutting weight and getting ready for the fight. She has been taking care of that and sending out all the prizes and everything, and I do all the promotion and am supplying everything.
Were there others that you considered?
The Pink Fuji Gi that I wear to my fights is the only other thing. I don’t think I’ll be able to wear it this time around, but a portion of the proceeds for that go to breast cancer, so it was a breast cancer awareness gi. That one’s cool. We’re trying to do more things as I progress. I want to use my popularity for good things, you know, not just to make myself money. We’re just getting started. The more time that goes by and the more reach that I have, the more I can do.
Also saw that your sister had a baby, congratulations on becoming an aunt.
I was already an aunt, so now I’m doubly an aunt, because she had her second baby. We’re going straight there after the fight to watch the old and new baby.
Are you a kids person?
Yeah, I love teaching kids, working around kids, and eventually I want to end up having some kids.
I’m sure they’ll be tough little guys.
Yeah, little warrior babies. Every time they have a fight, I’m just going to stick them in a little cage and be like, “Okay, figure it out.” [Laughs.] Wouldn’t it be so cool to get a playpen that’s like a cage? [Laughs.] It would be cruel slash cool.
You could be the marketing person for that. You could start that up.
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