I’m not sure how Ronda Rousey’s move to the WWE will go, or if she will be able to recapture—or even redefine—the kind of glory that landed her on Ellen’s couch. What I do know is that Rousey left the UFC in such a huff that it verged on dispiriting and petulant. After transcending the sport of mixed martial arts as not only the first female champion in UFC history but as an iconic symbol for female empowerment, Rousey didn’t handle losing against Holly Holm at UFC 193 very well. She turned a little Howard Hughes there for a while, not doing media, staying out of the spotlight (except for pre-scripted appearances on SNL and Ellen), not (seemingly) handling anything too well. Basically, a broken figure trying to put herself back together.
When she returned 13 months later to face Amanda Nunes at UFC 207, it was on the condition that she’d be required to do no media beforehand. She didn’t want to talk about the loss to Holm. That kind of entitlement didn’t sit well with everybody—fans, media, even other fighters. Dana White insisted that she was merely “psychotically competitive”—that was one thing. But sustained power-sulking for a full year was quite another. After Nunes knocked her out in 48 seconds, Rousey—somewhat more predictably this time—disappeared once again, with one terse comment to the media. For a champion that came in at UFC 157 as the Trojan horse for women’s MMA, she went out like a match being pinched by wet fingers.
Still, even if UFC fans saw a side of Rousey that turned them off toward the end, the greater public remembers the glowering, judo-throwing, arm-barring, Tyson-like figure who destroyed women in mere seconds. That Rousey is the one being reimagined in the WWE, where narratives can more neatly align to attitudes and intentions. If Rousey couldn’t accept the chaos of the script being flipped on her in cagefighting, the new script is … actually a script. After she came out at the Royal Rumble on Sunday and news broke that she signed on with the WWE as a full-time pro wrestler, it was pretty evident we were seeing the vital extract of the Rousey brand—the badass who not only storms out to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation,” but completely embodies it.
Can it work? These fact-to-fiction transitions in entertainment are always weird, but for Rousey—a wrestling fanatic who got her “Rowdy” nickname from “Rowdy” Roddy Piper—you get the sense she knows exactly what she’s getting into.
Just three months before her last fight in the UFC, at an Absolute Intense Wrestling (AIW) event in Cleveland days before UFC 203, Rousey’s longtime friend and fellow MMA fighter-turned-wrestling-queen Shayna Baszler (now a WWE performer as well, wrestling in NXT) was getting set to headline against Heidi Lovelace at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School. Rousey was in town because her then-boyfriend (now husband) Travis Browne was fighting at UFC 203 against Fabricio Werdum. It turned out to be an interesting weekend in Cleveland, because it was one of parallel universes. Dan Severn, a cult hero from the early no-holds-barred UFCs, kicked off the AIW event. Also appearing on the card was Matt Riddle, a Spicoli-like figure who’d found his way to pro wrestling from the UFC after getting busted for using pot (several times).
Meanwhile, debuting two nights later at UFC 203 was none other than CM Punk, the WWE star who was transitioning from the choreographed ring to the literal cage. Plenty of MMA fighters are drawn to the spectacle of pro wrestling—many who wouldn’t even admit it in public were drawn to the octagon precisely because of Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin—while some pro wrestlers fetishize doing the damn thing for real.
Though he ended up losing, Riddle fared far better in the squared circle than CM Punk did in the octagon. Riddle—whose meta-gimmick is that of being an MMA fighter—took a cheap shot from Louis Lyndon, a knee to the groin while the referee was preoccupied. The people booed, but they loved it. The “King of Bros” Riddle, the pro wrestler, was the exaggerated version of his fighting self, and it translated perfectly.
CM Punk got choked out by a gimmickless Mickey Gall just 2:14 into the first round. His transition wasn’t nearly as smooth. You never know with these things, but the real things are slightly more predictable.
Rousey was in attendance for both. The 250 or so people that turned out to see Baszler take the AIW title from Lovelace stuck around after the main event. Why? Because everyone knew Rousey was back there to support her friend. Sensing this, even in her post-Holm Wuthering Heights moment, Rousey came out and took a bow to thunderous applause. She really seemed to love it. The collective imagination is still very much intact when it comes to Rousey, and wrestling is the one place she can go to feed that imagination in a semi-controlled environment.
It will be strange, though, because Rousey is a very serious person who got on just fine when the world viewed her as she viewed herself—that is, as a winner. When she was on top of the world, she played the role of cultural icon like no other fighter in UFC history. Nobody soaked up the word “pioneer” quite like Rousey, and nobody enjoyed the Mike Tyson comparisons more. But can she accept her total career arc—the wins and the losses—as part of her new WWE banter and narrative? Can Stephanie McMahon, for instance, hit below the belt a little bit and prod her about the losses to Holm or Nunes? Is that stuff off-limits? Or are we still dealing in safe words?
These intersections of reality and unreality made Brock Lesnar a PPV king when he ventured from the WWE into the UFC. It was the careful management of curiosity—allowing the WWE persona to play over the proceedings in a real fight—that helped make him a massive draw. (Well, that and his ability to bulldoze heavyweights, but he was drawing big numbers from the start.) It was hard to tell the difference between the man and the behemoth character, what was fact and what was fiction.
In Rousey’s case, everything that happened in the UFC should be part of the story, as reinvention should not have to contend with a lack of resolve. There are a million ways to work it, to blur the lines between what’s real and what isn’t, if Rousey is only willing to keep the book open.
To this point she hasn’t been. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne found that out in a recent interview, when she asked Rousey and—after a dramatic few moments in which she fought her emotions—Rousey said she didn’t want to talk about it. The sore-loser attitude that alienated her fans persists, even as she makes the transition from Ronda Rousey the arm-barring UFC pioneer to “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey, the WWE’s latest intrigue. But can the WWE just ignore all of that?
At some point things need to be addressed, even if it’s to create a heel. Rousey will need to separate the self-serious competitor from the big-picture performer. She was great when she showed up in aid of the Rock at WrestleMania 31 in 2015 and tossed McMahon and Triple H around. That was eight months before Holm broke her sheen of invincibility, and nudged her—in a roundabout way—toward making the WWE her more permanent home. It might be wise for the WWE to pick up where things left off from that night in Santa Clara—pair her with the Rock in a tag match against McMahon and Triple H, and let the magnitude of her star power settle into its new role. Allow people to remember just what a star she is. MMA fans will be tuned in for that, even if they don’t care about pro wrestling; MMA fans will want to see her off, because she never said goodbye.
What remains to be seen is if her star power from the height of her career will transfer. For all those holding their breath in Philadelphia to see if she’d come in as no. 30 in the Royal Rumble, it’s easy to think it will. But when she comes out and doesn’t do much other than point—three times—up at the WrestleMania sign hanging in the rafters, you wonder how all this will go. You wonder if she might be best with an “advocate,” like Lesnar’s own Paul Heyman, doing all the talking. Somebody to build her up and allow her to get back to all mean-mugging and death stares, to shooting the kind of beautiful hate through the camera that we can’t help but recognize an original flame.
One thing we do know is that Rousey is an obsessed competitor, and she has been since she began dreaming of winning Olympic gold in judo as a little girl. Her new gig isn’t to complete, but to perform well. And now performing is the competition. It’s been an open secret that she’s been training since July to get there. If she feels she is winning at the new gig—that people see her as a success, and the WWE loves its new star—that swagger is likely to return. Rousey loves success just as much as despises losing. With the right priming, as Dave Meltzer says, she could become the female Goldberg.
And that, no matter which form of entertainment you’re dealing in, is a hell of a lot better than damaged goods.