Ronda Rousey was the first American woman to medal in the Olympics in judo.
She was the first women to be signed by the UFC.
She was the first to headline a UFC pay-per-view. She was the first to win a championship match. She was the first to sell out a major arena. She was the first woman in any combat sport to draw a $1 million live gate and nearly quadrupled the largest pay-per-view number for any kind of sporting event headlined by a woman. That was all on the same night.
She was the first woman to headline a combat sports event in front of 50,000 fans. She was the first to headline a 1 million pay-per-view buy show, and did so twice with no real undercard support.
She was the first MMA fighter to win an ESPY award, winning Best Female Athlete in both 2014 and 2015, and was the first MMA fighter to break the boxing stronghold on the Best Fighter award in voting among sports fans.
She won her first seven fights by armbar, all in less than 57 seconds.
She still has the fastest submission — 14 seconds against Cat Zingano — in modern UFC history. She has the third-fastest knockout — 16 seconds against Alexis Davis — in UFC title fight history.
Her six title defenses is still a women’s UFC record. In her 12 pro and three amateur wins, every single one was via stoppage. Only one of those opponents got out of the first round and only three lasted more than 66 seconds. They included wins over major organization champions Julia Budd, Sarah Kaufman, and two over Miesha Tate.
For all those reasons, Rousey had to be the first woman inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.
Her induction, announced Saturday, will take place on July 5 at The Pearl at the Palms Hotel in Las Vegas. Rousey will be appearing live at the ceremony.
She also, at 31, becomes the youngest person ever inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.
She will be this year’s modern era inductee, meaning someone whose career started after 1999. She will join television producer Bruce Connal, who suddenly passed away in March, and the person who originated the idea of the UFC and brought it to life, Art Davie, as contributors. Also to be inducted will be Matt Serra as a pioneer era fighter and the Nov. 19, 2011, fight with Dan Henderson vs. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua as the full list of inductees.
While Rousey’s amazing run of success, as well as her career collapse, are most remembered today, those are really not the main reasons she was a must for the Hall of Fame, nor are they the most important part of her legacy in not just MMA, but sports in general.
With the possible exception of Royce Gracie, no single fighter will be looked back on as having not just changed UFC and the sport as a whole, but mainstream public perceptions.
Rousey started training for MMA in 2010, partially due to her most notable weakness, an inability to handle defeat, that reared its head in judo. She won a bronze medalist in the 2008 Olympics at the age of 21, competing against women who were almost all older and far more experienced in the sport. She would have been expected to peak in 2012, where she could have won a gold medal. Instead, she never competed again in the sport.
At the time, not only had there never been a women’s fight in the UFC, but owners Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta had insisted whenever asked, which was often, that there never would be.
Even though Gina Carano had been a tremendous television drawing card, and women had been successful in other organizations, the perception in UFC — and with the public at large — was that fighting, especially MMA fighting, was not something for women. It was considered too brutal and too barbaric for the general public, even though some of the fan base accepted an underground movement of women’s fights, and Carano gave it a brief mainstream boost.
White attended the March 3, 2012, Strikeforce fight with Rousey vs. Tate, where Rousey won the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight title, and there was no denying the excitement level the entire weekend, from the talk to the heated rivalry to the electric atmosphere start-to-finish of the fight itself. It didn’t take a marketing genius to know there was something there.
Rousey had the “it” factor in spades, and she was beating everyone in her path in the first round. She had the look, the charisma, walked the walk and talked the talk. Plus, for a media that may have pushed back against the idea of female cagefighter, and with her looks, she may have been treated as a cute novelty marketing gimmick and nothing more. But her Olympic medal gave her an undeniable sports credibility that prevented that,
It was after that fight that it was clear women in the UFC were inevitable, with Rousey as the person the entire womens’ division would be marketed around.
But it wasn’t without constant push back.
Rousey was announced in December 2012 as the first female fighter signed by UFC, and also announced as bantamweight champion, carrying over her championship from Strikeforce, which the UFC had purchased.
Carrying over championships in Zuffa companies that merged into UFC had already been done with Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz as men’s featherweight and bantamweight champions when those divisions were moved from WEC to UFC. Still, the company was criticized for doing the exact same thing with Rousey, the champion at Strikeforce, the leading company in the U.S. using women fighters.
Her first fight was scheduled as not only a main event, but a main event on a pay-per-view show. There was no doubt the first women’s fight would get a lot of attention. Carano and Rousey had both already proven they could draw television viewers. But pay-per-view was a different animal. No major U.S. promotion in history had ever headlined a major pay-per-view show with women, not boxing, kickboxing, MMA or even pro wrestling.
The idea was you may get people to watch for free as a novelty on television, but they aren’t going to pay big money to see them in a serious fight.
White was criticized from all sides. Those who thought women in the UFC was something the fan base didn’t want were negative. Those who applauded the decision felt they needed to start out on television and questioned a women’s fight as a pay-per-view main event. Some claimed it was an insult that established male superstars Dan Henderson and Lyoto Machida would be followed by women, predicting the women to be booed out of the building or that the crowd would walk out in protest after the “real main event.”
And at first, leading into the Feb. 23, 2012, show at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., they didn’t appear wrong.
Ticket sales were weak when the show was first announced. But Rousey’s opponent Liz Carmouche (the irony is Carmouche was not the UFC’s choice for the fight, that was Cris “Cyborg” Santos, who turned down the opportunity because she wanted the same contract as Rousey) and the UFC went on a media blitz.
By the time fight night arrived, the show was sold out, and more than 450,000 people purchased the pay-per-view, a number that stunned everyone in that business. Instead of the live crowd shunning the women, it was clear that was what they came to see. Henderson and Machida got little reaction in a dull fight. Rousey and Carmouche were put in a position where they had to save the show.
As would be the case for the rest of her career, Rousey came out to a rock star level reaction like only the biggest names in UFC history ever received.
Then it was knocked as a first-time fluke that would never happen again. But Rousey’s numbers continued to grow. Her fame increased to where a cagefighter in what would be thought of years earlier as the most unfeminine of sports was the most popular female athlete in the country.
By 2015, her hype got out of control. She was called by Sports Illustrated as the most dominant athlete, male or female, in all of sports. While her record up to that time would make that hard to argue, the reality was that women’s MMA was a new sport and the depth of competitors was hardly the level of women in sports like tennis, volleyball, basketball or many others sports, let alone that of men in the major sports.
ESPN that year had a fan poll for the greatest female athlete of all-time. Rousey won.
With hindsight, that will not be her legacy. She was neither the most dominant athlete in the world, nor the greatest female athlete of her time, let alone all-time.
But she was UFC’s first legitimate superstar, a great athlete and great fighter for her era, but one that didn’t stand the test of time and was unable to rebound after her first loss.
But she still set very legitimate records, and as far as importance and influence to the sport goes, if anything, her role is underplayed.
There may not be women in the UFC if she hadn’t come along. And even if there would have been, there would likely be fewer and used in a more limited basis, because of the perception that they wouldn’t draw in money positions. And without her, there is no guarantee any of them would have drawn in those positions.
Indeed, women’s MMA easily could have been like the Christy Martin era of boxing a generation earlier, where it existed, got some publicity for a few years, and quickly faded.
Instead of women being viewed with a low marketing ceiling and just an attraction on undercards in sports like boxing and kickboxing, promoters, notorious for trying to copy what works, instead were looking for women as potential stars.
With the UFC, she brought a unique fan base into the sport, as a large percentage of the audience that purchased Rousey pay-per-view shows were people who had never purchased a UFC event previously. The sport’s acceptance among women, and men’s acceptance of women as legitimate athletic fighters changed completely.
Even in pro wrestling, the new world Rousey resides in, she was, by far, the most influential female performer long before she ever signed a WWE contract.
Prior to Rousey proving women could be headliners, women pro wrestlers were chosen largely for looks. They were called divas, not athletes, performed mostly in skimpy costumes and they were scolded in training if they attempted to perform the moves men did. They were put on television to do titillating ring entrance and then put in very short matches, and were never pushed as major stars.
While some were athletic, that was not what they were there for. They were undercard attractions and nothing more, because everyone knew they could never be true headliners.
Rousey’s success in the UFC made the WWE’s portrayal of women seem sexist and dated, and there have been massive changes in the product in the past few years, including eliminating the marketing term divas.
Rousey’s unusual number of people who badly wanted her to fail had to live in frustration for years, but finally were able to vindicate themselves with her poor performances in her two biggest fights, the losses to Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes.
That led to her move to the WWE, which was another lightning rod for negative Nancys, who felt her losses killed her marketability to wrestling fans, that she was a faded star that nobody cared about any longer. The idea is that being rushed into the spotlight, she would fail much faster in the unique WWE performance world.
Instead, she stole the show on WWE’s biggest stage, WrestleMania, in her debut match. The fans that were supposed to boo her ended up cheering her as loudly as anyone on the show, and the general feeling was that not only was her match the best match on the show, but she made one of the most impressive debuts in WWE’s history.