Image capture by Tomas Rios.
Image capture by Tomas Rios.
Ronda Rousey’s eyes were growing razor-lined tentacles. For a reason, though, not just for manga-style yuks. It was for the sole purpose of slowly constricting the life from Heidi Androl’s body. To be fair, Androl—inexplicably Showtime’s interviewer of choice for Strikeforce events—has this weird habit of blinking in 4/4 time while straining for the kind of soulless smile that would make in-person interaction especially challenging even if there were not also a television camera involved. Rousey, just a few hours away from challenging Miesha Tate for the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight title, simply did not have the patience for this bullshit.
After months of being told that she is bad for the sport and undeserving of the very fight many fans demanded, something in Rousey had either snapped or clicked. Whatever it was, she looked ready to go Buffalo Bill on the next poor soul to so much as think about getting on her last, raw nerve. Androl thankfully exercised some self-preservation by keeping the banality short. Still, the image of a supremely pissed-off-and-not-hiding-it Rousey captured the imagination of fans hardened and casual alike. It’s above these words, at right. You should definitely not feel bad about looking at it again.
Meanwhile, Miesha Tate was losing ground with the same audience. Already an underdog in a fight she entered as the champion, Tate’s resentment got the better of her when she endeavored to get all up in Ronda Ro-zay’s grill at Friday’s weigh-in. It’s a common bit of pre-fight drama when both parties openly profess outright disdain for each other, but Tate played the petty nonsense card by claiming Rousey should be fined for responding to her physical provocations. The Mean Girls-level machinations failed, but another source of cheap heat kicked up quickly. Tate’s boyfriend, anonymous UFC featherweight Bryan Caraway, went on an ugly bro-rant via Twitter after Rousey claimed she could beat him in a fight.
It was dumb, but it was also MMA. And it did invert things, for better or worse. After months of Rousey being cast as the knave to Tate’s white knight, the imaginary narrative collapsed under the weight of complex individuals acting in complex ways. It was a relief when, finally, we were left with what really mattered: the damn fight.
Referee Mark Matheny wisely realized that asking for any sort of pre-fight handshake was pointless. Neither woman was ready to set aside the ill-intentioned words fueling the ill-intentioned actions to come, especially not in the name of pretend mutual respect. Few things stoke my anticipation of violence like a referee who realizes he best get out the way. These two were, like the reality TV sub-people say, not there to make friends.
While Matheny granted a wide berth, Tate took the opening bell as her signal to dive straight into the breach. Eyes ablaze with the fury of a champion scorned, she refused Rousey the luxury of settling into her first title-fight experience. Past opponents made the mistake of trying to catch Rousey coming in, but Tate had learned from that folly and stepped into the pocket with punches that made clear she was not about to get tossed by an Olympic judo bronze medalist without at least making her consider a rock-you-in-the-face/stab-your-brain-with-your-nose-bone scenario.
Rousey betrayed her own discomfort with striking by making the amateur’s mistake of moving straight back while attempting to counter-punch. A head-snapping jab was the price she paid, but, like Martin Prince moving all-in on soy, Tate got greedy. That jarring jab gave way to wild hooks that mostly missed and, more importantly, sent Tate barreling into Rousey’s not-so-loving embrace.
Within three seconds, Tate was on the floor. Five seconds later and Rousey had moved to side-control. This was starting to look like every Rousey fight ever, and every Rousey fight ever has ended the same way—with an arm bending in ways arms are not supposed to bend. Thirty seconds later and Tate’s arm wasn’t bending so much as it was on the verge of snapping.
And then Rousey experienced something new. Gamely turning into the armbar, Tate gutted out the pain, got to her feet and, defying every self-preservation instinct of which I’m aware, rejoined the fray wholeheartedly. Suddenly it was Rousey’s turn to stand on the precipice of defeat as Tate deftly took her back and the threat of a rear naked choke loomed large.
Showing the immediacy of someone in danger of losing blood flow to the brain, Rousey contorted her body to disrupt Tate’s offense while scrambling for an escape with equal measures of desperation and skill. Her grand prize amounted to a reboot—the mutual scramble ended with both women back on the feet.
By this point, the fight was over. No hands had been raised and no final bells had been rung, but while both fighters survived each other’s opening salvos, only one emerged with that most valuable of commodities: a plan.
Tate trudged forward with the same looping punches seen in the fight’s opening exchange, but Rousey kept her hands up, calmly stepped off to the side this time and practically goaded Tate into another charge. The reigning champion obliged and walked right into a harai goshi that left her stuck underneath Rousey yet again.
Undeterred by the failure of one already-seen tactic, Tate tried for another grab at back control. Rousey responded with one of the most brilliant displays of positioning this sport has ever seen, from any fighter of any gender at any weight. As Tate strained for the sweep, Rousey whipped her own body over to the opposite side, while maintaining control of Tate’s head and left arm. Forced to counter, Tate tried even harder for the same failed sweep and, in doing so, left herself defenseless. Still, it seemed Tate just might muscle her way through the sweep—at least until Rousey casually pinned her left leg down and took mount so smoothly it suggested she had planned the entire sequence well in advance.
Somehow, every situation from the fight’s wild start had been replayed to Rousey’s favor. Every situation, that is, except for the armbar that Tate had bravely and improbably escaped. Given that, no one would have faulted Rousey for taking a more conservative path—giving up dominant position for an armbar is a sucker’s gambit in MMA, anyway. Instead, Rousey delivered confirmation that she loves narrative unity far more than conventional MMA wisdom. Or maybe she just really likes ruining arms.
Whatever the actual reasoning, Rousey decided that she was going to erase the memory of Tate escaping her vaunted armbar by going for the same technique with a level of execution and mercilessness upped by several orders of magnitude. Game as ever, Tate gutted it out only to realize that there was no escape to be had. The hold was too tight, the opponent was too good and the pain far too much. Just prior to her inevitable tap out, Tate’s elbow was almost fully bent—fully bent, that is, in the opposite of its intended direction. Not content with one disturbing visual, Rousey twisted the already mangled arm into an unnatural right angle that made the inevitable tap out a reality. The visual served as another reason why I suggest all MMA fans keep a shot of scotch and a smoke at the ready.
Blissfully high off violence, skill and drama, I was jarred to my senses by Rousey’s pending post-fight interview. For all her dynamism as both a fighter and a personality, I fully expected the typical end-to-arms pap from Rousey, in which she admits that she was just trying to stir the pot, truly respects Tate as an athlete, and so unconvincingly on. It makes for a stomach-turning experience every time, and serves no point other than to maintain some imaginary ideal of sportsmanship. It’s hard to tell, really, who this is for—people who fight each other in this way shouldn’t have to act like they want to grab brunch sometime soon.
Sure enough, Strikeforce commentator Mauro Ranallo gave Rousey her chance to break kayfabe and she did exactly what I refused to let myself hope for, she went off-script—way off-script. After months of playing the supremely dickish heel, Rousey revealed herself as a supremely complex human. Her interview featured in order: an emotional dedication to her deceased father, a casual dismissal of any guilt over inverting Tate’s arm, the startlingly honest admission that top contender Sarah Kaufman should have been given a title shot ahead of her, and a closing soliloquy directed at Tate that painted her as a spineless choker. The crowd, both at home—or at least in my home—and in the arena, lapped up every last bit of it.
By refusing to be anything less than herself, Rousey blithely stepped over the limitations of being herself. The common perception of Rousey—that of an entitled narcissist-cum-sociopath with a thing for French-braiding ligaments—receded into something more complicated and infinitely more interesting. Rousey ripped through her packaging, revealing herself as both an elite mixed martial artist and a human who lays bare her thoughts and feelings with an honesty to which fight fans (and everyone else) is woefully unaccustomed. For better or worse, she is who she is.
MMA, fans, media, Heidi Androl: this is Ronda Rousey, and she’s a lot more than advertised.