Even in a phone interview laced with laughter and occasionally stalled by spotty cell service, Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey made it clear that she will not be stopped.
Speaking at a clip of 100 words a minute, the 27-year-old Californian rifled through heaps of opinions, insights and one-liners without ever sounding as though my-way-is-the-only-way. Nicknamed “Rowdy” after the microphone-grabbing pro wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Rousey said, “Well, they don’t call me ‘Congenial’ because of the way I fight. Rowdy is one of my greatest heroes of all time. It wasn’t just how he wrestled — he captivated people. You couldn’t take your eyes off him.”
Rousey, the first American to medal at the Olympics in judo, has her own share of fandom. UFC is said to have more fans than Major League Baseball — 300 million-plus, according to the global marketing research company Repucom. Rousey scores a 72.23 in its Breakthrough category rankings, “which measure the extent to which consumers pay attention to a celebrity when they see him/her in the media.” As 33rd out of 3,127 celebrities in the U.S., she beat Serena Williams, who finished at 1,914, but trailed Sandra Bullock, Ariana Grande and others, such as Tom Hanks.
Rousey is now layering up her career with a Buffalo David Bitton modeling gig and acting roles in “The Expendables 3,” “Fast & Furious 7” and “Entourage.” Her appeal varies by country. In China for the “Expendables 3” premiere, she was mobbed for selfies by fans of the flick, and in Brazil, she was hounded for photos by UFC followers.
Recognizable as she is, Rousey remains relatively down-to-earth: Her version of a splurge boils down to a dirty hemp chai with an extra shot of espresso, every few months, the rare day off from exercising. Asked what surprised her about Monday’s WWD shoot at her suitcase-strewn, half-moved-in Venice Beach, Calif., home, she said without sarcasm, “I didn’t know my house could look so glamorous.”
Here, Rousey talks about her Buffalo David Bitton holiday ads, the hazards of being a stuntwoman, learning the ropes from Sylvester Stallone, her antidiet lifestyle, the mind games required for mixed martial arts and the universal appeal of a good old-fashioned schoolyard brawl.
WWD: You are closing in on a major activewear and sneaker endorsement deal. In the meantime, how did the Buffalo David Bitton deal come together?
Ronda Rousey: I purposefully have been holding out a long time on the apparel side of sponsorship. It was worth giving up lots of money that had been offered to me in order to pick exactly the right sponsor at the right time. Buffalo Pro was the perfect thing because they never had a woman, and there had never been any MMA athlete who had a sponsored fashion deal at all. So, I was excited to jump all over it. I got so many cool clothes. I was looking around and said to my roommate the other day, “Jesus Christ, why haven’t I gotten a fashion sponsorship sooner?”
WWD: How long do you usually work out?
R.R.: If I am training only once a day, I will train for three hours straight. It has a lot to do with my coach because he knows I will keep training until I drop. It’s until I get cut off — I would keep going forever if they let me. Overtraining is my biggest problem. I always have to have someone watching me so that I make sure I stop.
WWD: How did you first get into martial arts?
R.R.: My mother was the first American to win the world championships in judo, back in 1984. She did that working as an engineer, a single mother and getting her Ph.D. She’s the most amazing person I have ever met. When we moved back to California, she visited teammates who had opened clubs of their own. I tagged along and tried out. From the first day I tried it, I loved it, and six years later, I was on my first Olympic team.
WWD: What do most people misunderstand about what you do?
R.R.: People have a very hard time seeing the art of it. It’s called “martial arts” because that really is what it is. It’s not just brawling and throwing your hands. There’s a sweet science and a beauty to it that you really have to be close to and immersed in to see. On the outside, it just looks like violence and gore, but, on the inside, you see two people competing against each other in the most honest of settings. When every single layer is pulled back in a fight, that is the time when you are your truest self and you really learn the most about yourself, mentally and physically. It’s all about trying to outsmart the other person. It’s not really about being stronger or faster.
WWD: What’s the end game?
R.R.: When I fight, I think, “How can I funnel this person into doing what I want them to do?” I have to convince them to do something, but I have to make them think it’s a good idea. You have to get inside that person’s head and be like, “OK, I want this person to step to the left. So, what can I do to convince this person the best thing they can do is to step to the left for me?” It’s more of a mental chess game than it is about a physical fight.
WWD: Is that outlook helpful in life and business?
R.R.: Definitely. All sports are a metaphor for life, especially MMA more than anything else. It’s not like baseball, football or soccer, where the objective is to make so many points. In martial arts, the objective is always the philosophy and the discipline. Where I come from is judo, where the principals are maximum efficiency, minimum effort and mutual welfare and benefit. In judo, you’re supposed to try every single movement where it’s the most efficient. If you do a throw perfectly, it should take no effort from you. That’s what I’ve really learned in my life — being efficient in everything I do. And you always need that other person, and you’re only as good as the person you train with. So, every single time you throw someone eight times, you need to take eight falls yourself for the other person. That’s another principal that I have always applied to my life. I can’t expect things to be all about me all the time. I give as much as I expect to get.
WWD: Any weight-control advice for models?
R.R.: Every single time I do a shoot, I try to do it at a weight I can maintain. With the ESPN Body issue, I got a little bit lighter because ESPN tries to capture the human body at its highest potential. With anything else — like Maxim or the car magazine shoot I did in Brazil that is about femininity and not athleticism‚ I purposefully try to go in a little bit heavier, at a weight I can chill at and not have to cut down to. I want to be looking how I would on any given Wednesday. It’s important to have proper role models and to have proper sexual role models. Growing up, I would see all these chicks in magazines who looked nothing like me at all, and I thought there was something wrong with me. In middle school and high school, the boys I had crushes on were pawing at girls in magazines or just talking about girls who looked nothing like me. I love all the Dove commercials that are about the empowerment of women.
WWD: What’s your own directive?
R.R.: Influencing, culturally, the way we think about the standard for a woman’s body. Whenever I do a shoot, I go as I really look and do not try to give this artificial idea of what I actually look like. That’s the way I’m going to live and die. I’m going to the airport right now in sweats, no makeup, and if TMZ is there, whatever, I don’t care. They will see me as I look. If they say, “OMG, Paris Hilton just rolled through here, and it looked like it took her two hours [to get ready], I’m going to say, “Yeah, I ain’t got time for that so you can take pictures of me when I look frumpy on a heavier day or a lighter day.” The human body is meant to go through seasons. I don’t think I need to look like an exact supermodel all the time. There are days when I need to be in my peak athletic form, and there are days where I’m just chilling and it doesn’t matter. I like to go to photo shoots looking comfortable wherever possible because people should live their lives while being comfortable and not think “I have to feel this way in order to look that way.” Feel happy, look exactly yourself and live the way you want to look.
WWD: Why is MMA so popular?
R.R.: It’s one of the few sports that no one has to explain anything to you. If you don’t know anything about football and you sit down to watch a game, you would have no idea what the hell is going on. If you sit down to watch a fight and no one explained anything to you, you would know that someone just got knocked out. It’s not a game we were taught or someone invented. Dana White said fighting was the first sport. On a schoolyard with people playing soccer, baseball, jumping rope or whatever, if a fight broke out, everyone would stop what they were doing and go watch the fight. It’s an innately human thing we all have inside of us. Because we all, I think, would want to know how we would do if we were in a situation where we were forced to fight.
WWD: How did you get you into acting?
R.R.: I first started picking up odd stunt jobs to pay the bills, when I was trying to come up in MMA. Just because of judo, I could fall anywhere — I could fall on the concrete and be fine. I’m a professional faller. So, yeah, I started taking some falls for money and thought maybe after MMA I’d be a stuntperson.
WWD: What have been the more difficult stunts?
R.R.: When people found out I do my own stunts, they started thinking, “What’s the craziest things we can think of?” Trying to throw someone over my head while wearing six-inch heels was the most dangerous stunt. I also had, like, Dior glasses on my face and a short red minidress and had to do a full fight scene. I don’t think that had ever been done before, and I found out why because my heel broke. I was looking for this bottle to slam in this guy’s face, and I took a step and my heel broke. But it turned out looking very cool, and that’s what it’s all about.
WWD: How was working with Sylvester Stallone?
R.R.: Awesome. He really mentored me. He made me feel like I was doing a good job all the time, which I really appreciated. I was pretty self-conscious because it was my first movie. I am much better at improvising than remembering lines. We would get on the set, and he would change the whole scene and all the lines in the middle of it, and then he would change it again.
WWD: Did you share workout tips?
R.R.: His main workout tip was to bring this really heavy metal pole to set so he would look all cool when he was shooting. No, it was to be lifting something heavy all day. He was really good at it. Incidental exercise, as my mom likes to call it. All the other guys started bringing heavy stuff on set to add a little “cojones” when they got on screen. I would say, “You know what? You guys go ahead and try to look buff. I am trying to look a little svelte over here.”
WWD: Were you concerned that modeling and acting would take away from your athleticism?
R.R.: It’s impossible for people to not take me seriously as an athlete because I’m the best in the world. That gives me a lot of leeway to do whatever I want outside of it. That’s the great thing about fighting in sports: It is so definite. You are the undisputed champion of the world. No one can take that away from you, regardless of how many movies or model shoots you do.
WWD: What’s your weakness? That’s probably not a question you like.
R.R.: [Laughter. Long pause.] Hmm…Boots, jeans and jackets — I have too many. I think no matter how fat or ugly you feel, you’ll always look good in jeans, boots and a jacket. I finally got a house, and now all of my jeans are stacked up in one section. I told my roommate and best friend, “There is no way anybody else on the earth should have this much denim.” I have a little bit of a jeans problem. That’s the funny part — “Jean” is my middle name. And it’s spelled like “jeans.” I probably have 50 or 60 pairs. I don’t want to say that, though, because I don’t want people to stop sending me jeans.
WWD: How has your style changed?
R.R.: I never would have guessed I would have been into fashion. When I was younger, I wore really baggy clothes to really try to hide my body. I never put any effort into what I was wearing because I felt self-conscious about letting people know I was really trying. If I really tried and they didn’t like what I was wearing, then it would hurt more. My way of protecting myself was to not try and to act like I didn’t care. When I got older, I realized fashion was for everyone else to see, but it was also a way to express myself and what I was feeling that day. I started to realize if I dress better, I feel better.