On Sunday, the old Ronda Rousey, the woman the MMA world came to know so well, was back.
It wasn’t so much her performance Sunday in a tag team match at “WrestleMania 34” in New Orleans as she partnered with Kurt Angle to defeat Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, though wrestling fans seemed to love it.
No, it was more that she seemed like the Rousey who had rocketed to fame during a dominant run in MMA.
Since she unexpectedly lost to Holly Holm at UFC 193 on Nov. 14, 2015, in Melbourne, Australia, Rousey’s public countenance has mostly been to scowl, hide her face or somehow seem angry at the world.
Being a celebrity is no easy task, and it has to wear on even the most patient souls. Rousey, though, far too often came off as bitter, ungrateful and a sore loser. She returned to Los Angeles from Melbourne with nothing to be ashamed of, given how hard she’d competed even when it was clear she was being outclassed on that night.
Many others would have been out long before she was, but she kept pushing the pace trying to win against Holm until the now-famous head kick ended the match.
Rousey became a recluse, coming off the plane with her hood up, large sunglasses on and a pillow shoved in her face. It was as if she couldn’t accept a loss, even though she competes in a sport where it’s pretty much inevitable that one will lose. There are so many ways to win – and lose – in MMA that it happens to everyone.
When it was her turn, she couldn’t seem to accept it. And time didn’t heal those wounds. When she returned to fight Amanda Nunes 13 months later at UFC 207, she did so on the condition she didn’t need to speak to the media, as if the media had somehow done her wrong.
Of course there was some negativity, but Rousey always had the best of it and had received largely glowing media attention. Even after the Holm loss, when she agreed to go to the Marine Corps ball with a Marine who had asked her out online, the coverage was flattering toward her.
When Rousey drove an RV to South Dakota to support protesters at the Dakota Pipeline, the media coverage was flattering.
She clearly didn’t see it that way, though. Something was bothering her. She was snarky and not at all pleasant doing a series of interviews at ESPN to promote her appearance in “WrestleMania.”
But Sunday, she performed on the big stage like she’d so often performed in the Octagon. She rose to the moment and was the star she’d been in the UFC. She smiled, the crowd roared and she was far better than anyone could have expected in her debut.
She’ll do for the WWE what she had done for the UFC from 2013 through 2016 – was it that brief? – when she became the face of MMA and the biggest star in the sport.
She was not only a great and dominant fighter who had a streak of three matches in 2014 and 2015 in which she needed a combined 64 seconds to defeat Alexis Davis (16 seconds), Cat Zingano (14 seconds) and Bethe Correia (34 seconds), but she was a terrific interview who gave thoughtful and well-phrased answers to questions.
Her fame as a fighter led to extraordinary opportunities outside the ring. She appeared in several major films, wrote a New York Times best-selling book about her life and became a regular on major talk shows. “Good Morning America” cared enough about her that the UFC broke the news of one of her fights on it.
Perhaps doing all of that was too much, and it wore on her. She’s only human and the demands on her time were extraordinary.
Whatever, she wasn’t the same person publicly after losing to Holm as she had been prior.
Until Sunday, when it seemed like the old Rousey had returned. After the bout, she spoke to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, and she finally seemed at peace with her defeats in the UFC.
“I thought I would never say this, but I’m so happy I lost those [final UFC] fights because it led me here,” Rousey told Shelburne.
She doesn’t owe anyone a thing, of course. No one is forced to do interviews. Her stance toward the media, and ergo her fans, was difficult to grasp given how accessible she was during the good times, only to change 180 degrees with one defeat.
If landing in the WWE and fulfilling a long-time dream of becoming a professional wrestler has made her happy and at peace, it’s great for her.
Sunday was then like a transition. She’d never addressed her losses and assiduously avoided talking about the UFC after she’d been beaten. It was like she filmed a cliffhanger movie and then refused to show the denouement.
But whatever weights were on her shoulders were lifted after she looked happy and in her element at “WrestleMania” on Sunday.
With that match and her words afterward, it’s as if her MMA career is finally allowed to be committed to history. She’ll be remembered as a trailblazer, a pioneer and, yes, one of the greatest and most popular fighters of all-time.
She has moved on. MMA has moved on. Stars such as Amanda Nunes, Rose Namajunas, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Valentina Shevchenko and Julianna Pena have emerged in her absence.
The challenge for any celebrity is to withstand the test of time. Rousey was a huge hit in her WWE debut.
With the pressure of feeling she needed to carry the women’s division in MMA finally removed from her back, she can now go about trying to help the women in WWE the way she did her ex-peers in the UFC.
And MMA fans can enjoy her matches without ever having to wonder if, or when, she’s coming back.
Ronda Rousey is a full-time wrestler now, and finally, MMA fans can embrace her in the WWE with no qualms.
The next stage of the Rousey Legend has begun, and it’s sure to be as entertaining as the first.
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