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Technique Talk: Rhadi Ferguson and understanding Ronda Rousey's dominance

Dr. Rhadi Ferguson

As her star power continues to rise and dominance over the women's bantamweight division expands, theories are beginning to arise as to why UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey is seemingly so untouchable. Some have suggested it's the thinness of the division in which she competes. Others believe it's because Rousey is a technical marvel. The truth is there's quite a bit to understanding the type of untouchability Rousey enjoys, which is where Dr. Rhadi Ferguson's perspective and personal history with the champion becomes valuable.

Ferguson is many things - judo black belt, four-time judo national champion, jiu-jitsu black belt, athlete coach, Strikeforce veteran - but perhaps most especially, he was a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic judo team alongside a teenage Rousey. He has seen Rousey's ability and monitored her skill development first hand, giving him a unique perspective on why she's so talented and what the general climate she's competing in tells us about the greater context.

In this interview, Dr. Ferguson unpacks Rousey's dominance by tracing her personal athletic history, explains why her particular style of judo and judo generally lends itself to success in mixed martial arts, how she rates as a submission grappler among the world's best, whether more judoka women could also revolutionize the game and more.

Full audio and partial transcript below.


Let's start with your experience with Ronda. What was your experience with her on the team? What was the general impression you had of Ronda when you were on the Olympic team with her?

The chronological timeline is kind of longitudinal. On the Olympic team, Ronda was 16 years old. She was very young. I remember meeting Ronda's mom and speaking with her before I actually met with Ronda because she was just so young.

I was first introduced to Ronda at 14, 15 years old. I have never seen somebody that young just demolish...demolish adult women, ok? It was spectacular, the way that she would handle people on the mat and handle people in terms of newaza and the matwork, submissions. I walked up to her and I told her that she was my newaza hero. I've never seen anybody like that.

During the time we were on the Olympic team, Ronda was very quiet, very shy, very reserved. I kinda felt bad for her. I remember staying back in the dormitory facility for a little while, a couple of hours, one afternoon or evening because everybody left. Everybody left because she couldn't go out. She couldn't go out, she couldn't drink, she couldn't party, she couldn't do any of that. I kinda felt bad for her. I think her first Olympic experience, I think it sucked. Outside of competing and walking around the track and doing the opening ceremonies, at 16 years old it's kinda tough when everybody on the team was 8 to 10 years her senior, at the minimum.

From a judo perspective, what is remarkable about Ronda Rousey's judo? If you had to explain what's special about her, what would you say?

I had another client that was training alongside Ronda. And he said, 'I don't get it'. I said, 'What don't you get?' He said, 'I don't how she's winning like that.' I said, 'Let me tell you something'. I said, 'If you don't get it, you're missing something.' He said, 'She's not more technically advanced than I am.' I said, 'No, she's not, but you're missing what it is. Go back.' His job was to study Ronda at practice.

He came back like three or four days later. He says, 'I got it.' I said, 'What is it?' He says, 'She actually thinks and believes she's supposed to win.' I said, 'Exactly!'

When you hear Ronda Rousey talk about beating Cain Velasquez and all that stuff and lining up against heavyweights, understand that I'm telling you that I don't believe it can happen. But in her mind, she believes that shit. That's not any marketing. She believes it. I believe that all elite athletes or everybody who exists at the right of the bell curve in some form or capacity in terms of expertise, they're a little bit off in some form or fashion. Ronda Rousey is that good because she does not believe that anybody is ever supposed to beat her.

I remember after the Olympics Ronda's mom called me because Ronda was coming in town in Florida and she had a tournament down there. She wanted her to stay by my home and take her to the weigh ins and take her to the tournament, etc. We had a training session where we were rolling around on the mat with just newaza. I was a black belt at the time in jiu-jitsu. Ronda began to cry. I said, 'What are you crying about? ' She said, 'I can't do anything.' I said, 'Ronda, I'm 100kg male.' She said, 'Yeah, but I don't feel like you're supposed to beat me.'

I had known her for a while, but it got to the point where I got a little upset because I was like, 'Well, hell, what is she saying about me? Is she disrespecting me and my expertise?' And no, she's not. She does not believe that she's supposed to lose.

I've coached a lot of athletes. I've been on the mat with a lot of athletes. I've seen people pack it up and I've seen people pack it in. I've seen people act like they're going hard and still pack it in. I have never - and I mean never - seen Ronda pack it in, ever. I've watched her cry, I've watched her break down. She will cry almost every practice, but she will not stop, buddy.

That pace at which she fights, she's willing to fight that pace for 25 minutes. Look back at the Miesha [Tate] fight: she does not stop. She's different. Most people in MMA, we don't get those people at the right of the bell curve like that. We don't. You're talking about the right of the bell curve, there's Olympians in that.

You had mentioned to me previously she earned an Olympic bronze medal, which is a major achievement, but you believe if she had stayed in judo, she's be a gold medal contender.

Yes, I believe she could have gold medaled, but the gold medal is, there's happenstance and chance that's included in winning a gold medal. You have to study performance and you have to study competition and you have to know your stats, you have to know the things that go on in terms of luck and chance and draws that go on with Olympic competition, and survivor bias and things of that nature.

Sometimes winning the gold medal is just luck. A lot of people don't really believe what I'm getting ready to say is true. The gold medalists, they didn't work any harder than the fifth place person. A lot of people say, 'That person got a gold medal because they worked harder.' No, that doesn't mean that. There's somebody who probably worked harder than the gold medalist, who got seventh place because that shit happens.

There was no reason for Ronda to go back through another Olympic cycle because monetarily it wasn't going to provide her with the recompense that making a switch over to mixed martial arts would. At the time of her trajectory, when she was getting ready to be at her peak - which is right now, 28 - now she's doing MMA instead of doing judo.

Unlike Daniel Cormier. Daniel Cormier went through his maximum capacity in his sport and then when he could no longer function at that high level in the sport, moved over into mixed martial arts.

You think Ronda is athletically peaking.

Oh my gosh, yes, she's 28!

Reasonably speaking,how many skills can she build at this point? At this athletic stage in her life, how many real skills can she actually add to her MMA arsenal?

Not many. And I will say that because you prefaced it by saying 'real' skills. Real skill development, expertise, is a ten-year thing. So, what most people are seeing when they look at Ronda, they're looking at the deliberate practice and the hours and hours that have been spent in deep practice doing judo.

From that deep practice of that particular sport, there are more tentacles of connectivity to the other martial arts. If I put all the martial arts on a board and draw them as circles, they're going to create a Venn diagram where there's going to be some crossover for all of them.

Case in point. Judo has striking in it. Most people just are not aware of the striking, but the striking - or the atemi waza in judo - is akin to the grip fighting that we do in judo and the way that we move our hands with it. The movement patterns are the same. That has the same crossover in the Japanese version of Shotokan karate, in terms of the atemi waza. When it came time for Ronda to learn boxing skills, the understanding of what we call maai - or distance or space in judo - she understands timing, space, hand placement, how far she needs to be in order to close, how far she needs to be so the person cannot close, how to cut the angles. That part that she already understands, that's a transference of knowledge into a different realm of expertise, which is boxing, but the practice has been so deep on the judo side that it looks like she's picking up those 'skills' faster when it's nothing but a transference of expertise into a different domain.

If someone asked you why Rousey was so dominant in the women's bantamweight division, from a technical perspective, how would you answer that question?

I answered it right now. She has practiced more. I don't give a damn what skill it is. If you take every skill - take the running, the boxing, the striking, the grappling - take all of it and put it in a bucket. And you put her bucket on a scale and Miesh Tate's bucket on a scale, Miesha Tate's bucket is not going to measure up to Ronda's bucket. She's done more hours of practice. Those young women in there, they all have a puncher's chance and that is it. That is it.

You think being the lifelong athlete is the difference here.

That's it. It's no different than some journalist coming out of school and trying to write and do what you do professionally. It's not the same.

I was talking to a young lady that was at the Olympic Training Center with me, Ashley Sword-Buster. She said, 'Who in the hell is Miesha Tate? I've never seen Miesha Tate on the circuit. What are they talking about, her expertise in wrestling? She's not an expert in wrestling for shit.' That's no disrespect to Miesha Tate, but come on.

I lived at the Olympic Training Center with world-class women wrestlers at the time and the world-class greco-roman, freestyle men wrestlers. Miesha Tate is of no comparison to Ronda Rousey. It's not even close.

But athletically, Sara McMann is, isn't she?

Athletically, Sara McMann was supposed to be, but you and I know that she wasn't and here's why. The pool of athletes of athletes on the women's side in judo is a lot more developed than that pool of athletes that was developed on the women's side in wrestling because wrestling was a newer sport. Judo had been around for a while. If I took a physiological profile of the female athletes in judo, they're going to be at a higher level than the female athletes in wrestling because the sport has been around for a longer period of time.

In the 2000, Sandra Bacher was on the United States Olympic team. I believe she got fifth at the Olympics and she was a world champion in wrestling. Most of the judo players on the women's side did wrestling in the beginning when that sport was starting at the height of its movement and many of the judo players that did not make the Olympic team or the national team in judo at that particular time went over to wrestling to in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000.

This is what a lot of people don't know. Even some of the United States medalists from the Olympics and world championships, a lot of them are former judo athletes, like Clarissa Chun.

How does the men's side in wrestling compare to the men's side in judo?

Comparable, it's the same. Internationally, it's the same. The physiological profile changes per judo, greco and freestyle based upon the requirements. I remember reading some of the research that the trunk strength of a greco-roman wrestler was, at the time, greater than that the of judo player or freestyle wrestler because it was more all upper body. That's going to change again with judo because when you take the leg grabs out, you basically turn judo into greco-roman wrestling inside with a gi.

When you look at the VO2 max scores, when you look at the strength scores, when you look at the beep test, raw data scores, elite-level wrestling and elite-level judo, the same.

How come on the men's side of MMA you've had really accomplished judoka - Makoto Takimoto, Jon Olav Einemo, Hidehiko Yoshida, Naoya Ogawa - and they've had some success in MMA, but nothing like Rousey. Is it because the women's MMA game is underdeveloped?

I wouldn't choose that to be the singular variable. I would say that is one variable. I would say the other variable is the men's side is developed, the women's side is developed, you have a better athletic pool coming in. You have your Mark Coleman's that come out of wrestling and when they come in, they're just better athletes. They're on the right of the bell curve in terms of athletic development, in terms of physiological gifts. Then there is those particular athletes that are coming into that sport after their career is done. It's very difficult to build up that same kind of fire and emotional heightening that you get when you're training for the Olympics. It's just difficult. It's almost impossible.

And remember, they're coming over to that sport after they've reached their peak. It's like Daniel Cormier. I thought Daniel Cormier had a great opportunity to beat Jon Jones as soon as he got in MMA, but the longer the time went by and the more Jones started developing and the more Cormier is on his decline, he has a tough time. Even Cormier is going to have a tougher time as time goes on because he's getting older.

Kayla Harrison is just too big, there's no a lot of women who could compete in her weight class in MMA. If more judoka women - A-class, international competitors came over - would that revolutionize the women's game?

I think taking the sample of one already makes that statement true. We have one already and she's revolutionized the sport. I believe if you bring in another one, yes, that individual would revolutionize the sport, too.

Kayla Harrison is an Olympic gold medalist. Kayla Harrison is very good at judo. Kayla Harrison did not compete under the same rules that Ronda Rousey fought under. So, if you take a judo player now and put them in MMA, they don't have the same defense skills for the double legs, single leg takedowns, firemen's carries, that those had during my particular era.

Ronda Rousey knows how to defend the double leg. As a matter of fact, that was one of the things that stopped her from winning the world championships, double legs and single legs. The game was different. I would like to say that the level of athlete on the judo side can come over and make that type of impact, but the way that the rules have changed in judo, they made a huge technical development gap, which would be difficult if today's judo player lined up today's wrestler.

The double leg rule was made so that you cannot grab the legs any more in judo. The Olympic judo rules, even though they should not, they kinda of govern the direction of what's taught at the local and grassroots levels. All those people that were teaching the kata guruma or the firemen's carries and the single legs and double legs, they just stopped teaching that so their kids can go compete. If you grab the legs in judo now, it's an automatic disqualification.

Now when you go through these Olympic cycles, you're talking 12 years - the kid of who was 12 is now 24 - he has a black belt, he has no understanding of how to do a double leg or how to stop it.

Let's talk about Ronda Rousey's game. What was her style of play? What was she good at? When she got on the mats, what was she known for?

She's known for her tenacious grip fighting, her supreme understanding of distance. She's known for her flexibility, her ability to get into small places and pull off throws that a lot of people can't pull off. She's known for being a superb escape artist. I've never seen Ronda submitted, ever. Just tenacious.

She is a superb grip fighter. She is a great strategist and tactician. Remember, at the elite levels, it's not about who has a better technique. It's not about that anymore. Technique becomes negligible at that level because everybody at a high level has good technique. It's your ability to shut the other person's game down and to implement your particular strategy through the utilization of tactics.

Ronda is a supreme thinker inside of the cage. She can process the information faster. Everybody is looking for this huge technical thing. Well, there is a technical gap because she knows judo and she's studied judo longer. But her ability to see things faster and to process them faster, it's way beyond what the other women in MMA at the 135-pound weight class has ever seen. They can't process it that fast.

That's why she likes to compete at such a fast rate? She likes to make these decisions on the fly?

Exactly. Her making the match fast is better for her. For her, she understands how to organize the chaos a lot better. Somebody would have to slow Ronda down and nobody slows anybody down at 135. It's not possible.

When talking newaza, she has a background where it made that a point of emphasis. Even among judoka, though, is she unique for her newaza?

She's unique in that sense. Her finishing rate on the ground was higher than other persons. She was definitely known for finishing on the mat, for sure, as was one of her former instructors, Jimmy Pedro.

There are a lot of styles of judo, but one of the main styles that has come out of the camp of Jimmy Pedro is a grip and grind style. You grip and you grind, you grip and you grind because it's going to be difficult to throw everybody at the elite level. That's why you look at world-class matches in wrestling and judo and they look boring in the finals of the Olympics if you don't know exactly what you're looking for because it's very difficult to take down or throw world-class people.

You have to grip to stay in good position and you have to grind them down on the ground and finish. Ronda was, without a doubt, one of the best in the world at it.

Head-to-head in terms of submission grappling, how would you rate her alongside someone like Mackenzie Dern? Is it a comparable level of skill?

Better. Ronda's better. She's had more hours of practice at it. The de la Riva guard is nothing new for people who focus on newaza in terms of judo. That stuff has been around for a while.

You can't name drop because that stuff's not good when people are training, but she's been on the mat with several world champs and world medalists and bro, it's not the same. It's like Flavio Canto on the men's side. Flavio Canto, his matwork is so good. I've been in training sessions with Flavio in Brazil with Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champs.

Unfortunately, the viewpoint that people have of judo is based upon what they see in dojos in the United States, but the Unites States is not one of the top judo programs in the world. Our wrestling program is one of the top in the world, so you end up judging judo vs. wrestling per what you see in the United States.

But, I'll tell you right now, I could walk in almost any world-class facility, strap on some gloves and I could press my way and make it through practice. You could not pay me money to step on the mat in France and do a training camp. You couldn't pay me any money to step on the mat in Budapest, Hungary and do a training camp. No, sir. I will not because I know what's going to happen. I know I'll be in the hospital.

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