When you think of Ultimate Fighting, the first thing that might come to mind is a bunch of bros watching two muscular men face off in a ring. But there’s a growing following for women in the sport — and no one is more successful than 28-year-old Ronda Rousey. The first woman ever to be signed to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (one of the largest fight promoters), she’s currently undefeated in every match.
Rousey, the daughter of a world-ranked judo champion, began competitive judo at the age of 11. She went on to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she won the bronze medal in judo. In 2010, Rousey transitioned into mixed martial arts, and by 2012 she won her first major championship against another prominent female fighter, Miesha Tate, a decisive victory that made people take notice (especially after the YouTube video went viral). Using a move called an armbar (it’s become a Rousey signature), she pinned down her opponent and hyperextended Tate’s elbow. Normally, an opponent would tap out, but Tate’s arm popped out of its socket, to everyone’s shock.
Since 2012, Rousey has racked up victories, with her last two wins taking 16 seconds (via a total knockout) and 14 seconds, respectively. In addition she’s served as a mentor to wannabe fighters on Fox Sports’ reality show The Ultimate Fighter 18. She also gained the attention of Hollywood with a small role in last summer’s The Expendables 3, and this April she’ll be seen in the latest incarnation of The Fast and the Furious series, Furious 7. Add to that a burgeoning modeling career as well — Rousey became the face of denim brand Buffalo Jeans in 2013 — and she is becoming a quadruple threat. The Cut caught up with Rousey recently to talk about crying, doing the movie stunts that even trained stuntwomen fear, and what it was like to enter a male-dominated industry.
How did you wind up getting into the UFC?
[When I was training for the Olympics] I saw Julie Kedzie and Gina Carano fight. The way the men in the room received their fight blew me away. The amount of respect and admiration coming from them was something I never heard directed at me. I was jealous. I wanted to join them. I wasn’t supposed to want that because I already had the Olympics coming up, so I pushed it down. My mom says, “You can’t un-have a thought.” Once I had it, I couldn’t make it go away. After the Olympics, I quit judo. I grappled with staying in shape, and the guys would say all the time, Oh Ronda, girl, you would wreck all of them in like a minute. One day I thought, They’re right, I want to try. They all changed their mind! They were like, No! No! Don’t get hit, you’re too pretty to get hit, don’t get hit!
But that’s a legitimate concern. Are you not worried that you’ll permanently wreck your face?
I feel putting a perfect body into the ground would be a waste of what I would give it. I have a cherry blossom tattooed on my arm. The samurai used them as their symbol because it would [die] at the peak of its beauty, and so it’s like saying that sacrificing yourself is a natural thing. I’m not saving my face for anything, I’m 28 right now, what do I really need my face to look good for when I’m 38? I’m using it right now. I’m getting all the mileage I can out of my face because, you know what? I’m probably not going to need it in a couple years.
The UFC is definitely a male-dominated sport. I noticed on Ultimate Fighter, you mentored the women. What was some of the advice you gave them?
No one should ever make you feel like you don’t belong. We deserve to be here. You deserve to be fighting and to be treated the same as all these guys. It’s hard to feel like that, because when I first started, I would walk into these gyms and I could tell that I was being laughed at. You have to not care. And another thing I told them was — a lot of these are words I stole from my mother — “No one has the right to beat you. All the reasons why somebody has advantages over you are all the reasons that you should win in spite of that.”
What’s the relationship like between yourself and other female fighters? Considering how women are pitted against each other, you guys are literally fighting one another.
I don’t feel bad for them at all because every single girl that I have beaten to retain my title has walked off with at least a down payment on a house. We’re all still benefiting from it. And it’s funny that fighting is very different from fashion or Hollywood. I’m literally in the business of making enemies. Every other industry is about making friends, connections, and meeting the right people. MMA is getting people interested in the people that you don’t like. [Laughs.] So it’s more fun that way. I don’t need to know this person, it’s about your performance: Can you fight, and do people care?
Do you have any beauty routines to prep for a fight?
I don’t braid [my hair], I put it into a ponytail because I don’t know how to French braid. I wish I did. That was one of those girl things that I missed out on. Makeup-wise, I’ll put it on in the beginning of the day. I’ll purposely kind of rub it off, so whatever’s left is gonna be stuck on and it won’t smear when I’m fighting. If you see my first title fight ever, I had some eyeliner left on. The earlier fights, I was making sure I was super-tan and now I just go in there to do my business. I know what I look like, and my fans know what I look like.
You just did your first fashion campaign with Buffalo Jeans recently. How did that come about?
I’d purposely been staying away from MMA brands, and I wanted to do something unprecedented in our business. When Buffalo approached me it was exactly the type of thing I had been looking for this whole time. They were absolutely amazing and spoiled the hell out of me. Not to mention I got so many awesome free clothes! I was with my roommate Marina and I was like, Goddamn! Why didn’t I get a sponsor before this?
Did you always have an interest in fashion or was it something that developed as you grew up?
When I was younger, I was so shy. I never put on makeup or dressed up. I would constantly wear baggy clothes and put my hair up because I thought that putting an effort into how I looked showed that I really cared. I train with all Armenian men, so I used to roll in, sweating in clothes that I had since I was 17 because my one window was the only thing that worked in my car. They were the ones that said, [Armenian accent] You have to start dressing up, you are going to be a star and you need to put more effort. Backwards, right? You would think that the girls would come to the gym and try to Barbie the guys up. No, I was their makeover project.
They would actually take me shopping and dress me up. And once I was encouraged into putting effort into how I looked, then I started to embrace it. I’m glad that I delayed it because I’m more enthusiastic and passionate about it now than I would have been messing with eyeliner in high school. I appreciate being able to express myself, especially because I had so much trouble speaking as a child. I didn’t talk until I was 6.
I don’t think you have a problem being vocal now.
No, I’m trying to catch up for all the years I didn’t talk. I was born with the umbilical cord around my neck and suffered from hypoxia. I was very delayed in development. So all the nonverbal ways of communication I got very good at, which is why I think I cry so easily.
Most people can’t imagine a UFC fighter crying.
I cry all the time! It’s because you have so much passion. I think I cried for every single judo practice that I was in from 2003 to 2005. Every. Single. Night. Not because something hurt, but because I wanted to be better than I was and it frustrated me. I would be training with a guy that was 60 pounds heavier than me and had five more years of experience, and if I couldn’t throw him — even though I had no reasonable reason to expect myself to, I would still be so upset that I would cry.
So I noticed that you’re transitioning into acting now, you did The Expendables 3 and Furious 7. I also heard that you did a lot of your own stunts. Tell me about that.
All the fight scenes I did 100 percent myself, and some stunts that I came up with, even the stunt chick said, “You are crazy and I am not doing that.” The first scene was done in six-inch stilettos. [I was] in a mini red dress and the stunt girl said, “I ain’t putting those heels on.” I told her, “Go through it with your boots and then I’ll do it for real in heels, don’t worry.” I had a stiletto break while I was reaching for a bottle to smash on this guy’s face. I took a sidestep and I guess these shoes were not designed with that motion in mind. I don’t think they thought, Hey, let’s make sure when we make these heels, let’s reinforce the sides — in case someone has to do a giant lunging sidestep to grab a bottle and smash it on some dude’s face in the middle of Bulgaria.
Do you ever feel like there’s an expiration date to your time with the UFC? Or will you fight for as long as you possibly can?
That’s one of the things I’m scared of. I don’t know how I’m going to handle it. There are so many cautionary tales of the fighters who didn’t know when to say it was enough. And that’s one reason why I’m getting into acting and modeling. After the Olympics, I didn’t really have a plan B. That was a pretty big mistake I made, and I’m not making it again. MMA has a very short shelf life. If I keep winning these fights and coming out without any damage, then I’ll keep fighting a long time. After every single fight, I reassess, and I think, Okay, let’s do one more, let’s do one more.
This interview has been edited and condensed.