It was a knockout that was heard around the world - boxer Holly Holm’s roundhouse kick took down undefeated Women’s Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey in round two of their UFC 193 title fight in Melbourne, Australia. Rousey has in the past two years become so much more than a female fighting champion, she has risen to the status of cultural icon around the world. This is thanks in large part to her seemingly undefeatable status in the ring, where she is famous for taking down top level opponents in bouts that last less than thirty seconds. What has followed along with her stunning career in the ring has been a series of movie deals, high profile interviews, endorsements, and books.
Rousey has been literally everywhere over the last year. She’s on the red carpet with movie stars and touching gloves with presidential candidates on social media. She jokes on the couch with Jimmy Fallon, trains the children of high profile movie stars like Dwayne Johnson and graces the cover of countless magazine. Her icon status is nearly impossible to ignore, and one fascinating piece of the puzzle is that she has been nearly universally loved and adored. When boxer Floyd Mayweather spoke negatively of her on the red carpet at the ESPY awards last summer, social media exploded in her defense. A generation of little girls has taken Rousey on as their champion, stepping for the first time into martial arts in an effort to capture a bit of the confidence and beauty that they see in her. People want to fight like Rousey, not only in the ring but in life. Rousey has become a touchstone of inspiration.
The Rise of Women in Fighting
UFC President and visionary Dana White is a skilled promotional expert, who fostered and promoted her growth not only as a fighter but also as a centerpiece to the rise of the UFC in the wider cultural understanding. It’s important to understand that up until the point that Rousey broke into the ring, women competing in the UFC was unthinkable. In January of 2011, White famously said in a press conference that he would never allow women compete in the UFC. His reasoning was that women fighters weren’t as skilled as their male counterparts, that there weren’t enough elite women’s fighters to justify there being a championship in the high profile competition that he was grooming the UFC to be, and that women’s fights simply weren’t as compelling to watch. That all changed just twenty three months later when he signed Ronda Rousey, already an Beijing Olympic champion in Judo and a Strikeforce champion in professional mixed martial arts, to be the first woman in the UFC. The reason? He said saw something more in her - the same fighting spirit and focus that he saw in male fighters.
Dominating in mixed martial arts involves a level of violence that is not customarily associated with women. in this sport nearly everything goes, with all styles of martial arts being on the table, from boxing to karate to jiu jitsu.There is a great deal of regulation and safety involved however, which has only gotten more pronounced in recent years. Fights are stopped before serious injury occurs. This is true in men’s fights and in women’s fights. When Ronda Rousey went down from a roundhouse kick to the side of the head, she was only knocked unconscious for a moment and did not suffer a concussion.
In mixed martial arts fights like those put on by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), fights are broken down into rounds. The fights customarily end when the rounds are completed and the fight goes to decision, at which point judges look on to determine which fighter was dominate in the most rounds. What most people tune in for aren’t the fights that go to decision, but rather the fights that are decided by submission, which is the other option. Submission occurs when a fighter “taps out” due to pain or exhaustion, or is rendered unconscious (even momentarily), or when a fighter is deemed to be physically unable to continue. This is a big part of Rousey’s appeal - all of her UFC fights have been decided by submission, including the loss ot Holm. Fighting in this style means fighting an opponent, but it more pointedly involves fighting fear (Stenius, 2015).
Understanding gender in mixed martial arts is central to understanding the significance of Rousey’s loss to Holly Holm. Though there is a sense that fighting is largely a physical or perhaps mental endeavor, emotional regulation is a big part of the perception and success of martial artists (Vaccaro, Schrock, & McCabe, 2011). Part of what Rousey has brought for women in martial arts is an ability to translate the emotional fire that is part of what makes men appealing in combat sports into a modality that’s accessible and acceptable for women. Rousey is famous for her “trash talk” in the lead up to fights. That promotional part of the equation cannot be underestimated in the search for meaning in her loss. Rousey has thus far been able to talk herself up but then to match that talk in the ring.
Her self confidence is equally stunning to her fighting prowess, and it’s something that can be seen in the ring and outside of it. During her match with Bethe Correia in Brazil at UFC 190 in August, Rousey was able to propel her sense of self forward against Correia, who had escalated the emotional energy in the lead up to the fight with verbal attacks on Rousey’s late father, in such a way that Correia was visibly shaken before the fight even began. That kind of emotional capital is what makes fighters great and what had been missing from women’s fighting until Rousey came onto the scene. In addition, Rousey has thus far been able to preserve her femininity while still being a brutal force in the ring.
For men in mixed martial arts, there is a freedom to succumb to the lower self and to immerse themselves in the adrenaline of the fight both emotionally and physically. For women in mixed martial arts, that freedom is hemmed in by social constructs of womanhood (Azoulay, 2006). Ronda Rousey has managed to strike an effortless balance between being a woman in the street and a tiger in the ring.
Undefeated vs. Undefeatable
In understanding why Rousey’s loss has been such an incredible touchstone, it’s essential to explore the notion of undefeated versus undefeatable. Though Ronda Rousey had lost matches prior to her professional career in mixed martial arts, as she honed her craft more and more intently her matches dwindled down to nothing more than a few seconds.
Attribution theory is a powerful means of making something of the loss that Rousey suffered at the hands of Holly Holm. The central question in attribution theory is this: who is to blame when we lose? At the moment Rousey is staying tight lipped about her loss, though she has already vowed to return to the octagon to avenge her defeat. Martial arts fighters are known for their internal locus of control, holding themselves accountable for the entirety of their victories and their losses and Rousey is likely to be no different. The difference here is that for most fighters, most athletes in general, the understanding of their victory is perceived by them and by their fans as unstable (Hagger & Chatzisarantis, 2005). We and they expect to lose sometimes. Rousey was fundamentally different as an athlete because her victory seemed to be stable, both in her eyes and in the eyes of her fans. Somehow she had become a fighter whose dominance was perceived to be eternal. By that same token, her loss seems to be eternal.
The question about what happened in this fight quickly devolves into one of “whose fault is it that she lost?” (Rowold, 2006). The people that Rousey surrounded herself with have quickly come under fire for one reason or another. In particular her coach Edmond Tarverdyan has been highly scrutinized for his actions leading up to and during the fight. Rousey’s prospects moving forward depend largely on whether or not she bought into her own mythos, or if she is able to have an adaptable and balanced understanding of attribution that will allow her to dig in and re-hone her championship skills with the support of the right team (Massey, Meyer, & Naylor, 2013).
Society is at once fully prepared to boost its heroes up beyond the point of human ability and to just as quickly take them down and discard them. In the weeks since her defeat, other fighters who were seeming nemeses have come forward to her defense. Boxing champion Floyd Mayweather has spread the word that he’s willing to train Rousey for her rematch, helping her to hone her boxing skills against Holm’s prowess. Despite the blow of the loss to Holly Holm and whatever the outcome of any possible rematch, Rousey has made an indelible impact on society’s understanding of what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a fighter.
Azoulay L. (2006) The body as a vehicle for empowerment: Women and martial arts. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Massey, W., Meyer, B., & Naylor, A. (2013). Toward a grounded theory of self-regulation in mixed martial arts.Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14(1), 12-20.
Rowold, J. (2006). Transformational and transactional leadership in martial arts. Journal of Applied Sport
Psychology, 18(4), 312-325.
Stenius, M. T. (2015). Attacking the body in mixed martial arts: Perspectives, opinions and perceptions of the full contact combat sport of ultimate fighting. Journal of Arts and Humanities, 4(2), 77.
Vaccaro, C. A., Schrock, D. P., & McCabe, J. M. (2011). Managing emotional manhood: Fighting and fostering fear in mixed martial arts. Social Psychology Quarterly, 74(4), 414-437.