Ronda Rousey returns to where her growing legend began

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NBA superstar LeBron James says he's intimidated by Ronda Rousey. National champion quarterback Cardale Jones of Ohio State, while flirting with the UFC women's bantamweight champion on Twitter, said he's afraid of her.

UFC president Dana White says Rousey would "rag doll" Floyd Mayweather Jr., the world's best boxer. UFC interim featherweight champion Conor McGregor says Rousey would need all of a second to dump him on his head.

Ronda Rousey reacts after defeating Cat Zingano in February. (USA TODAY Sports)
Ronda Rousey reacts after defeating Cat Zingano in February. (USA TODAY Sports)

The legend grows seemingly by the minute, but it perhaps began in the very spot where she'll defend her championship Saturday against outspoken, and unbeaten, challenger Bethe Correia in the main event of UFC 190.

Rousey was 20 when she competed in the 2007 Judo World Championships in Rio de Janeiro. She'd only recently moved up to the 70-kilogram (154-pound) division, where in the semifinals she was set to meet Edith Bosch.

Bosch is 6 feet tall, and at the time of the match with Rousey had won a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and followed that with a gold at the 2005 World Championships in Cairo.

"I swear, she's like 7 feet tall, and I just looked like a Hobbit next to her," said the 5-6 Rousey, who in addition to being much smaller than Bosch was fighting after coming off knee surgery a couple of months earlier.

Bosch threw Rousey early in the bout using a judo technique known as a waki-gatame, which is illegal. And sure enough, Rousey dislocated her left elbow upon landing.

The rules prohibited her from calling a doctor onto the mat, so she simply used her right hand to grab her left elbow and do her best to pop it back in.

And despite the excruciating pain she felt, she hung in and had a chance to win as the seconds were ticking off the clock.

It wasn't going to be easy, though.

"The fight was going on and I could barely use my one hand and I was behind and there were like 20 seconds left," Rousey said. "In the last 20 seconds, I was praying to God. I was saying, ‘This is my last chance. This is really my last chance.' "

And so, when the referee restarted the match with 20 seconds to go, Rousey knew she'd reached now-or-never time. She immediately spun into action.

"I went at her and in that last exchange, I threw her with one hand, the arm that I had dislocated and popped back in, one hand, I threw her over my head in front of God and everyone," Rousey said. "I ended up winning the fight at the very last second."

Bethe Correia of Brazil enters the arena before her bantamweight bout vs. Shayna Baszler during UFC 177. (Getty)
Bethe Correia of Brazil enters the arena before her bantamweight bout vs. Shayna Baszler during UFC 177. (Getty)

It's her way of expressing her belief that she won't be intimidated by the crowd, even if it is heavily in favor of Correia, a native Brazilian.

Many fighters have been intimidated by the crowd in Brazil, which routinely chants, "You're going to die" to fighters competing against Brazilians, as Rousey will on Saturday.

Rousey, though, may not have to worry. The UFC held public workouts on a beach Wednesday near HSBC Arena, and a large throng turned out. Rousey received a raucous ovation, which she admitted that she privately had hoped for but wasn't fully expecting.

"I wouldn't have been mad if everybody came out here and they booed me," said Rousey, who likes to say she's been booed in more than 30 countries. "But I have to admit, it really warmed my heart a lot to get such a warm reception from people who I respect so much.

"I would understand if I walked out on Saturday and everyone boos me at the top of their lungs. I would still be happy that they would care that much. But I mean, it just really warms my heart, the kind of reception that I've gotten here. I just try my best to deserve it."

She's become the top star in a male-dominated sport by the force of her personality. While her toughness and her frequently acerbic tongue have gotten her much recognition, she's proven to be a very shrewd businesswoman.

Her agent, Brad Slater of William Morris Endeavor, raves about her instincts. He said she has great patience, which he said paid off lavishly as he was fielding offers for her from videogame companies.

"Whenever someone starts to become a name, whether in sports or entertainment, they start getting deals thrown at them right out of the gate," Slater said. "Sometimes, those deals aren't commensurate with where you think people are at in terms of the money they should command. Now, let me just make a figure up for a second. Let's say they offer $50,000 just for the sake of making a deal, which you hear about all the time.

"So you make the deal and you're tied up for two years, even though you know that during those two years, your stock is going to rise and you're still getting paid $50,000 when you're worth exponentially more than that. But Ronda was very cognizant of that and she recognized her time was going to come, even though everybody was asking, 'Where are all the endorsements?' "

Ronda Rousey attends the premiere of Lionsgate Films' The Expendables 3. (Getty)
Ronda Rousey attends the premiere of Lionsgate Films' The Expendables 3. (Getty)

Slater said Rousey had numerous offers from videogame companies, most of which she declined. She recently accepted one, though he said he's not at liberty to identify it now.

"But I can tell you, this offer is more than 100 times those offers she was originally getting," Slater said. "She's commanding real, real deals now for real, real dollars, and if she was tied up two years ago just for the sake of taking something, she wouldn't be anywhere near there."

In addition to her fighting, which White says is the hub of everything else, she also acts and has become a model.

And though Rousey appeared in a bikini on the cover of Maxim as well as in a multi-photo spread in the 2015 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, she still has people criticizing her appearance as not being feminine enough.

She addressed the issue in her typically blunt style during one of the UFC's recent episodes of "Embedded."

"People say my body looks masculine, or something like that," Rousey said on the episode. "I'm like, 'Listen, just because my body was developed for a purpose other than [expletive] millionaires doesn't mean it's masculine.' I think it's femininely bad-ass as [expletive] because there isn't a single muscle on my body that isn't for a purpose."

The purpose, it seems, is primarily for wreaking havoc in the cage. She's 11-0 and never been even challenged in any of her fights. She's won her last two bouts in a combined 30 seconds and has been out of the first round only once in 11 fights.

She's not concerned, though, that fans will get bored of her dominance. She recognizes that she's going to be favored individually in every fight she takes, but she takes a much broader view.

Her goal is to retire undefeated and that, she says, is a far greater obstacle than simply beating a given woman on a given night.

She's aware, for instance, that former undisputed heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson lost twice as a massive favorite. He was knocked out by Buster Douglas as a 42-1 favorite and by Evander Holyfield as a 25-1 favorite.

"That's what gives me a goal," Rousey said. "[Going undefeated] is a space that has yet to be achieved [in MMA]. There have been really dominant and legendary fighters who have come and gone, but it's been a real rarity for someone to come along and be that dominant and retire undefeated. And so it's become more than about the individual goals now.

"Now it's become about the legacy as a whole. I want to be the one to do that. Yeah, I might be favored to win these individual fights, but I'm a huge underdog in trying to achieve this goal. That's how I keep myself hungry. And all the time I'm in the gym, I know that I'm still the one who is at a disadvantage because I'm trying to achieve something that's never really been done before."

And it may never be, given the unpredictable nature of MMA and the many ways one can win a fight.

If it's done, however, don't be shocked if Ronda Jean Rousey is the one who does it.

And if she does, she has a plan:

She'll allow White to wrap the belt around her waist one final time. She'll pose briefly with it before removing it, handing it back to him and walking out of the cage, out of MMA and onto another venture in her life.

A successful one, no doubt.