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Rousey finds new calling in MMA

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Rousey finds new calling in MMA
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Ronda Rousey won bronze in judo for the USA at the Beijing Olympics

When Ronda Rousey was 8 years old, her father, who was dying of a rare blood disorder, wrote her a note. He told her someday, she would be the best in the world at something.

It's doubtful he was thinking about his daughter becoming the world's best MMA fighter, since the sport barely existed in 1995. But Rousey is well on her way to fulfilling his prophesy.

She has stepped into the cage for five fights over the last year, giving blink-of-the-eye-performances that have lasted, in total, less than three minutes.

Friday night, she takes her act to Las Vegas. Rousey (2-0 as a pro after going 3-0 as an amateur) makes her nationally televised fighting debut against Sarah D'Alelio (4-1) on the Strikeforce Challengers event at The Pearl at the Palms Hotel. The event will air live on Showtime.

Rousey has won all of her fights with armbars, and the longest has gone 57 seconds.

"I always intend to win as quickly as possible," she said. "I expect that anything can happen. When they do end quickly I'm happy. If it does go longer, that's not a bad thing because I need more time in the cage. Any way this fight goes, I'll be happy as long as I end up winning."

Rousey, who didn't start seriously training in the sport until last summer, is anything but the typical female rookie fighter. For one, she has been a world-class athlete since her teenage years.

She was an Olympian in judo at 17, the same age she won the sport's junior world championships. Four years later, in 2008, Rousey became the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in the sport, taking the bronze at 154 pounds. (Women didn't begin to earn Olympic medals in judo until 1992.)

Rousey intended on competing in at least two more Olympics after her Beijing experience, until a realization hit her: What she was great at was not what she liked doing.

"I intended to come back for 2012, and then again four years later, because I always intended to go until I was 30," she said. "But even leading into 2008, I didn't enjoy the competition and the training lifestyle. When I was done, I took a year off. After I took the year off, I realized how much happier I was than when I was doing judo. But it's hard to quit something you're so skilled at."

Judo had become an all-encompassing way of life for Rousey. Her mother, AnnMaria De Mars, was the first American to capture a judo world championship, in 1984.

Rousey developed a single-minded determination that made her train harder and longer than her competitors, starting at age 11. She became a world-class competitor in six years.

She traveled around the country for coaching and training, leaving her home in Southern California. By the end, she felt like a robot being put through the paces.

"Doing one sport for so long, I didn't learn things that were new anymore," Rousey said. "I learned things I already knew. Training was monotonic. In my relationship with my coaches, I had no say.

"In MMA, I had to learn several new sports, and it's an exciting project. I have to have several coaches and a manager, but we work together and I feel more involved in building my own career instead of taking orders, as was the tradition in judo."

When Rousey returned to judo after her year away from the sport, she knew immediately it was time to move on.

"I tried judo again, and decided I was certain it wasn't for me any longer," she said. "I entertained becoming a rescue swimmer for the Coast Guard or trying MMA. They [the Coast Guard] took me on tour and offered me to go straight to boot camp, and I thought that would be very cool.

"But you don't have any say where you live. I love Southern California. One of the things I didn't like about judo was having to live in places I didn't want to be. MMA offered me the freedom to choose, so I decided to try MMA first, and it's been a very good choice."

In many ways, it was a natural choice. One of Rousey's judo coaches from childhood was the famed "Judo" Gene LeBell, a colorful character who was a judo national champion in the '50s, and then had long careers as a pro wrestler and a stunt man in Hollywood.

LeBell had his own experience in MMA before there really was any such thing, doing a mixed match against a boxer in the early '60s. LeBell had been around the MMA scene from the start, and was even the referee in the infamous Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki mixed match in 1976.

Rousey regularly trained in judo alongside MMA fighters LeBell was coaching, including recent UFC featherweight title contender Manny Gamburyan and former "Ultimate Fighter" cast members Roman Mitichyan and Sako Chivitchian.

It only made sense her training teammates would push the sport on her, particularly after the success of the Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos vs. Gina Carano fight two years ago.

"The Olympics are every four years, so you put four years of work into one day, plus you're representing your country so there is a lot of pressure," Rousey said. "Here, you're fighting every two months and the only person you have to worry about is yourself. You also know your opponent. Judo, you don't know your [tournament] draw until the day you fight. Then you fight all day long. … It's more much mentally grueling."

If Rousey has her way, she'll be challenging for the Strikeforce featherweight title in a year. She has studied tapes of Santos, generally considered the toughest woman in the sport.

"I think she's a big, strong girl with a little athleticism," Rousey said. "We haven't seen real Olympic-level athletes transition over. I think when Cyborg runs into someone who is just as strong as she is, she'll have some trouble. Hopefully, I'll be that person."

The career transition from judo to MMA has given Rousey an emotional boost.

"I definitely train harder than I used to, definitely more motivated,"she said. "I wasn't in the other sports. They had to drag me through training before. This is a brand-new competitive career. I have a brand-new attitude and am looking forward to the next chapter in my life with this nationally televised fight."

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