Ronda Rousey’s Strikeforce title bout against Miesha Tate could vault her to MMA stardom

Ronda Rousey is, as she often is, smiling. She’s surrounded by a group of young men at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, all eager to gain her attention and speak with her.

She knows it and clearly revels in the attention. She’s confident, composed and in charge of the situation. She handles their advances with aplomb, as if she’s done it for years.

Rousey, 25, is wearing a dark dress with a plunging neckline and high heels. She’s fully made up and her long blonde hair curls down her chest.

Ronda Rousey won a bronze medal in judo in the 2008 Olympics.
(Getty Images)

She smiles coyly at one young man and wrinkles her nose. He laughs. She winks suggestively at another. With a third, she makes a pouty face, before breaking into a grin and patting him on the back.

The men, most of them in their 20s, are clearly entranced.

The scene is not unlike those that play out nightly in the trendy night clubs along the Las Vegas Strip.

This, however, is not what you may think.

Rousey is one of the world’s finest female mixed martial arts fighters and, on Saturday in a bout televised nationally by Showtime from Columbus, Ohio, she’ll fight Miesha Tate for the Strikeforce bantamweight title.

She’s not in a night club and the men talking to her aren’t suitors, but, rather, MMA reporters conducting interviews.

“She’s quite the sassy gal,” said Gareth A. Davies, a longtime combat sports reporter for the London Telegraph. “She’s incredibly charming and she has all the qualities and the back story to become a star. I came away from that interview with her utterly intrigued. I like her.”

There is much to like about Rousey, who may be on the verge of becoming a massive star.

A bronze medalist in judo at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Rousey is a fierce competitor who has yet to need longer than 57 seconds to defeat an opponent. She is 4-0 as a pro after a 3-0 amateur career, but despite that success, some have speculated that the title shot is too much, too soon.

Tate, long one of the best fighters in the world and the reigning champion, is one of those. She sneers at the attention Rousey has received and says Rousey is getting the title shot ahead of more qualified women because she talked her way into it.

“There’s a lot of hype coming to this fight,” Tate said. “As always with [ex-UFC heavyweight champion] Brock Lesnar, he had a lot of hype, and I think that Ronda has a lot of hype, as well. At 4-0, I don’t feel she’s as deserving as some other people, like Sarah Kaufman, for instance, and even Alexis Davis. ”

“Now, it doesn’t mean that her skill set’s not great. And maybe she’s going to be the next world’s greatest fighter or whatever. But I don’t feel that she’s earned this title fight. I do not feel she’s earned it at 4-0, and never [having] fought at 135 [pounds]. But it’s an entertainment business, and this is the fight that the fans want to see, and from that aspect, I can understand why it would want to be put together and why it’s been so promoted and getting so much attention.”

Rousey is popular for a variety of reasons, the first of which has been the impressive start to her career. Forget for a second that it’s been barely 18 months since she first stepped into a cage.

Ronda Rousey is 4-0 as a pro after a 3-0 amateur career.
(Getty Images)

She’s only had seven fights, three as an amateur and four as a pro. None of those seven opponents lasted even one minute: She finished all of them with an arm bar. Those women had about as much chance as a cow in a slaughterhouse.

This is a Rousey fight: The bell rings, the fighters touch gloves, Rousey moves forward and grabs her opponent. Suddenly, there’s a loud, piercing shriek and, just like that, the bell rings again as Rousey hops up from the floor and bounces on her toes, smiling and waving to a crowd that is still not quite sure what happened.

It took her a total of 103 seconds, or an average of 34.3 seconds a fight, to win her three amateur fights. As a pro, it’s been a total of 148 seconds, an average of 37 seconds per match.

She has all of four minutes, 11 seconds inside the cage in the seven matches combined. One round in MMA is five minutes.

She’s doing things in the sport that are almost unimaginable, and so, despite her lack of a lengthy record, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker had no qualms about offering her a title fight.

“I’ll tell you, it was a very simple process,” Coker said of putting the bout with Tate together. “If you consider the fights that Ronda has fought and who she’s fought, the results that were created, I mean, it’s pretty amazing. We felt good about putting the fight together.”

One of the many things that make her unique is her ability to engage the media. And as she’s been pressed about her relative lack of experience, she’s quickly and easily handled the question.

[Related: MMA fighter Ronda Rousey makes positive change in judo world]

She rarely stutters or stammers when answering a question. She’s thought of everything ahead of time, it seems, and knows the message she wants to convey.

“I think it’s funny that people are saying, ‘You’re winning your matches too quickly. We don’t know if you’re that good,’ ” Rousey said. “Really? OK. Never mind. I just think it sounds dumb.”

She then points out that Kaufman lost the bantamweight title to Marloes Coenen, who was fighting for the first time at 135 pounds. She adds that Coenen then lost the title to Tate, who will defend it against her Saturday.

“I think the reason everyone is making such a big stink about it is that Sarah Kaufman wants a title shot and Miesha never wanted to fight me from the beginning,” Rousey said.

Rousey’s beginnings were a struggle. When she was born, her face was blue and everyone in the delivery room was concerned she’d died. The umbilical cord had wrapped around her neck.

She struggled to speak as a child and would get frustrated by her inability to communicate. She had to go to numerous speech therapists.

“I think what she got from that was an ability to handle and deal with frustration,” said her mother, AnnMaria Rousey De Mars, one of the great female judokas in American history. “She was trying so hard to learn how to speak and, for a long time, she wasn’t able to do it. But she kept trying and, in the end, it paid off. As a parent, you want everything to be perfect for your kid, but sometimes it’s those difficult things that make them strong enough to be successful later in life.”

De Mars, who was the first American woman to win a judo world championship, holds a doctorate in psychology. Her sister and brother, Rousey’s aunt and uncle, have doctorates as well.

De Mars wasn’t sure about her daughter getting into MMA, given that education is so important to the family. But from her earliest years, Rousey was extraordinarily active, said her mother, and had energy to burn. She was frequently beaten up on by her older sisters, Maria and Jennifer, but was never fearful.

“She went through some years as a teenager where the only reason we didn’t set her on fire and throw her in the ocean was that there was a law against it,” De Mars said.

But as athletic as Rousey was – she once was a promising swimmer but lost interest in the sport after the death of her father – she also was bright.

And De Mars, who works for the state university system in California, wanted to see her daughter take advantage of her intellect and not go into a job where getting punched and kicked in the head was an occupational hazard.

“I thought it was a really bad idea,” De Mars said of Rousey’s decision to become a professional MMA fighter. “Ronda is really smart, and she did extremely well in math and science in school. I was at [the University of California at Santa Barbara], so she could have gone to any one of about 500 colleges and universities for free. That’s without even the whole Olympic medal thing.

“Here, she had the opportunity to pick up where she left off, get a good education and go on and have a solid career and maybe do something very good with her life. I told her, ‘Go find a cure for AIDs or save the whales. Let other people, who are not as bright as you go punch each other in the face.’ But you know how well kids listen to their parents.”

As it turns out, this may be one of those times where daughter knew best.

Gina Carano parlayed a brief but successful career as an MMA fighter into becoming a movie star. She had the lead role in the 2011 Steven Soderbergh film, “Haywire,” a film that also featured Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas.

That success for Carano came despite the fact that she lost her biggest fight, a 2009 match with Cris “Cyborg” Santos.

[ See more photos of MMA fighter Ronda Rousey]

If Rousey beats Tate, and the odds favor Rousey by better than 3-1, it could be a life-changing moment.

“I know what I can do,” she says, chuckling. “I know. There is no doubt in my mind of what I’m capable of doing. I’ve got a lot ahead of me, but I know I’m capable of doing big things. If people don’t like it, hey, I don’t care. That’s not my problem. It’s theirs.”

Still, she has perspective. She is not, she says, a celebrity just yet.

“Hey, it’s not like I’m at the gas station filling up my car and people are running up to me asking for my autograph and wanting to take pictures,” she said. “I’m known within this very small world [of MMA], but outside of that, I’m just another normal person.”

If she performs in the cage, though, she ‘will be the verge of becoming a major star.

History, it seems, is in the making for women’s MMA.

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Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Mar 1, 2012