First things first: This is not going to be one of those columns in which the guy who covers a “real” sport looks down on professional wrestling for being “fake.”
Countless pro athletes have dabbled in the rasslin’ game over the years, dating at least as far back as Pro Football Hall of Famer Bronko Nagurski, who had an entire second career as a wrestling star after winning three NFL titles with the Chicago Bears.
When pioneering women’s UFC star Ronda Rousey made her WWE debut Sunday night at the Royal Rumble, she joined a list of combat sports competitors who have dabbled in the mat game that includes everyone from Muhammad Ali to Joe Louis to Mike Tyson to Floyd Mayweather.
These days, the only people who seem to think “real” athletes tarnish their legacy by wrestling are old-school sportswriters who seem to be the last people on earth who don’t grasp you can transition from sports to sports entertainment and back, no different than if any of those athletes took a movie role.
But that’s not to say that the Rousey-to-the-WWE experiment can’t still go wrong, for reasons having nothing to do with the WWE’s sporting authenticity or lack thereof.
Just over two years after her stunning UFC women’s bantamweight title loss to Holly Holm, and just more than a year after her brutal one-sided defeat against Amanda Nunes that as of now stands as her final career MMA fight, the 30-year-old Rousey insists she’s into wrestling for the long haul.
“This is my life now,” Rousey told ESPN on Sunday. “First priority on my timeline for the next several years. This is not a smash-and-grab; this is not a publicity stunt. When I first met with Triple H, I told him, ‘There are other things I can do with my time that’ll make way more money, but I won’t enjoy nearly as much.'”
Rousey’s wrestling fandom is well-documented. Her “Rowdy” nickname came from late wrestling superstar “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, whom she met through trainer and mutual friend “Judo” Gene LeBell. She dubbed her group of friends and training partners in MMA “The Four Horsewomen,” a nod to the famous “Four Horsemen” wrestling clique. One of those women, Shayna Baszler, has taken to wrestling like a duck to water and appears to have a bright future in the WWE.
But wrestling fandom doesn’t necessarily translate into wrestling talent. And there’s little indication yet that Rousey can, you know, act. Rousey was supposed to be a co-lead in a film titled “Mile 22,” but had her role greatly reduced after questions arose about her acting chops. She was also supposed to be the lead in a remake of “Road House,” which was scrapped entirely.
Perhaps WWE is hedging its bets here, too. While Rousey, who has been training in wrestling for several months, was rumored to be a surprise participant in the inaugural women’s Royal Rumble on Sunday night, her appearance in Philadelphia was limited, basically, to showing up at the end of the show and pointing to a sign that read “Wrestlemania,” not exactly something that requires tons of polish.
Then there’s the fact that, well, Ronda doesn’t handle being in a bad spot well and seems allergic to criticism.
The Southern California native was a star in the making in the judo world, and was just 21 when she captured an Olympic bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Games. Rather than build on that accomplishment, she retired. And while you can’t really blame her for not staying with an amateur pursuit during her athletic prime, Rousey has lashed out bitterly over the years at both the Olympic structure in general and USA Judo in particular.
Rousey went from there to mixed martial arts, where she became a trailblazing superstar, very much on the cutting edge of a boom in women sports alongside the likes of the U.S. women’s soccer team.
But success went to her head, and when she lost the title to Holm, rather than admit the game had caught up with her and make the necessary adjustments, she closed ranks ever more tightly and doubled down on her fighting style. That ended in the 48-second disaster of a TKO loss to Nunes.
With all the buzz coming off her Rumble appearance, Rousey will no doubt be given every opportunity to succeed in the WWE, which has a long track record of success. Pre-eminent wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer reports the WWE is attempting to match Rousey with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson against Stephanie McMahon and Paul “Triple H” Levesque at WrestleMania, which will be held on April 8 in New Orleans.
The combination of curiosity from Rousey’s first match and the sheer star power of The Rock would no doubt make for a big one-night hit.
What happens after that? Wrestling is not an easy business. What if Rousey’s ability to build a wrestling character ends up being about the same as her ability to hold the lead in a major film? And if Rousey is serious about becoming a full-time sports entertainer, what happens when Vince McMahon inevitably comes to her and asks her to lose a match? What if McMahon, who has long been known to test just how much his wrestlers are willing to stomach without quitting their jobs, scripts a scene in which Rousey is going to lose via head kick, similar to the Holm fight? Nothing in Rousey’s past suggests she’ll stick with things when the going gets tough.
Maybe Rousey will shine as a wrestler. Maybe this latest career will be the one that lasts. Or maybe her WWE stint will end up like her judo, MMA and acting careers: A flash, followed by a fizzle, followed by moving on to the next thing.
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