They popped the wine and brought out plates of glazed shrimp, chicken skewers and Mr. Chow noodles – a signature item at the famed, namesake Beverly Hills restaurant – and yet, Ronda Rousey still didn't truly understand why she was even there.
This was last August and Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, had called a couple days prior to invite Rousey out with a big group of people. First there would be dinner at Mr. Chow, White's favorite restaurant in Los Angeles. Then the premiere for season five of the FX hit "Sons of Anarchy."
Rousey was stunned yet excited. She was, after all, a fighter – a bronze medalist in judo at the Beijing Olympics with a budding mixed martial arts career and thus the dream of one day making the UFC, the sport's elite promotion.
The problem was White's long-held opposition to ever letting women fight in the UFC. Over and over he had said he wouldn't even entertain the thought.
"Do you know what's special about this restaurant?" White said he finally asked Rousey that night at Mr. Chow.
"No," Rousey recalled answering.
"About a year ago TMZ stopped me outside this restaurant and asked me if the UFC would ever have a female fighter," White said. "I said, 'never.'"
Rousey's heart sank a bit.
"Well, I brought you here to say women are going to be in the UFC," White said. "And you're the first fighter."
[Kevin Iole: Ronda Rousey is a promoter's dream come true]
This may not be Jackie Robinson breaking into the majors or even Billie Jean King whipping Bobby Riggs, but it was a groundbreaking moment nonetheless.
On Sunday, in Anaheim, Calif., Rousey takes on Liz Carmouche in the first UFC women's fight ever.
This isn't some soft opening or novelty act, either. White promises it's part of a long-term investment in women's MMA. It's the UFC trying to use the star power of Rousey to build entire weight classes, an entire sport nearly from scratch.
Rousey and Carmouche aren't just on the card, they're headlining the pay-per-view telecast, as in: "UFC 157: Rousey vs. Carmouche." The undercard is all men – high-profile fighters such as Dan Henderson, Lyoto Machida, Urijah Faber and Josh Koscheck – serving as the warm-up act, if you will, for the ladies.
"A dream come true," Rousey said.
A dream that wasn't easy to come by.
Rousey returned from the 2008 Olympics with few options and less money. There were a limited number of women fighting in mixed martial arts, which she still needed to learn and develop at, and even then major paydays were rare. She's not one to be intimidated by great challenges though so she trained for it anyway. To pay the bills, she tended bar around Los Angeles. That included a stint at the pirate-themed Redwood in downtown Los Angeles where one day, Rousey said, actor George Wendt came in and ordered an Oban Scotch. "I served Norm from Cheers," she said. "I figured that was the Holy Grail of bartending."
By 2011, she made her professional MMA debut, winning in 25 seconds with an arm bar. She would win five more the same way, which was part of the reason she found herself on White's radar. His company, Zuffa, bought the Strikeforce promotion that Rousey was fighting under, but the acquisition didn't necessarily mean a job for Rousey in the flagship promotion.
For myriad reasons White was opposed to bringing women into the UFC, even as pioneers such as Gina Carano became a viable draw for other companies. He just didn't think there were enough elite competitors and too often fights were lopsided, which he struggled watching.
"It's bad enough when a guy is getting beaten up, but a woman?" he said.
He was concerned the most marketable women weren't true fighters and he wasn't sure how much they really wanted to battle. The UFC, for all its flash, is about violence and toughness. At the level of a major pay-per-view card, a dull, boring fight would be an embarrassment.
"Then I met Ronda," White told Yahoo! Sports with a laugh on Tuesday. "Meeting her is the key to everything. This girl is for real. This girl is a fighter."
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She's also a natural born promoter and outspoken talker. She cracks jokes, is down-to-earth and self-deferential. Every time White met with her he couldn't stop considering the possibilities.
This was no longer just about women's mixed martial arts. It was about being in business with Ronda Rousey, crossover superstar in waiting.
"Obviously she's pretty," White said. "That's the first obvious thing. No. 2 is her fighting style, which is impressive, exciting. She won the same way every time even though they knew it was coming. And then when you meet her and I mean really hang out with her, you see that personality. I don't mean this the wrong way but she's a guy in a girl's body. She reminded me of hanging out with any other fighter.
"There is no way you can meet Ronda Rousey and not be interested in seeing her fight. "
So as White dreamed of America meeting a high-action, photogenic, big personality female fighter via Leno or Letterman and then buying up her pay-per-view fights, he commissioned some of his people at the UFC to look into whether it was feasible to start a women's circuit.
What they found was that there was enough competition at the bantamweight class (135 pounds). As White watched tape after tape of female fighters, he became convinced. He'd been wrong about women's MMA.
"I never saw a Ronda Rousey coming," he acknowledged.
So last August, he called the now 26-year-old and invited her to meet up for dinner. She didn't know what to expect. Rousey grew up in Santa Monica but had never heard of Mr. Chow's, which isn't surprising since it sits a block off Rodeo Drive and a tomboy high school dropout isn't its usual clientele.
As someone who rarely watches television, she also had never seen an episode of "Sons of Anarchy." She frantically streamed episodes from Netflix in an attempt to catch up in case White asked her about it, but she ran out of time just half a season in.
In the end, none of it mattered. The moment she'd dreamed of came unexpectedly: a reversal of opinion from the most powerful man in the sport.
The entire group celebrated over Chinese food, hit the premiere and then came a final surprise. The after party was in Malibu, at Gladstone's, another one of the bars that Rousey delivered drinks at back when headlining a UFC card felt like little more than a pipe dream.
"So now I'm there with my new boss, Dana White, and my old bosses are having to wait on me," she laughed. "It was justice all around."
The night was truly historic. White, always aware of the magnitude of a moment, knew it deserved more than just a phone call and contract emailed to a manager.
"I thought it would be a cool part of the story," White said.
"He delivered that [expletive] in style," Rousey said.
On Saturday, Rousey, the fighter that almost single-handedly forced the UFC to open itself up to women's fighting, promises to deliver back in similar fashion.
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- Martial Arts
- Sports & Recreation
- Ronda Rousey
- Dana White