She smiled, sported a leather jacket that once belonged to wrestling idol Roddy Piper, and pointed to the giant Wrestlemania sign hanging in the rafters of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. And without saying a word, “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey became the most talked-about figure in the WWE Universe.
One night after a critically acclaimed NXT Takeover show and just moments following an historic 30-women Royal Rumble, Rousey stepped into a brand new world, making the official transition from MMA to professional wrestling.
Her long-awaited debut in WWE was hardly a surprise, although the timing of it was. Initially expected to be a part of the show, Rousey had shot down rumors the previous week, saying that she would be in Colombia filming a movie. Part of her story was true. She was in South America filming the action thriller “Mile 22” with Mark Wahlberg. But WWE CEO Vince McMahon secretly chartered a private plane, flew Rousey back to the States, and secluded her until it was time for her to make her grand entrance at the conclusion of Sunday night’s show.
Once the queen of UFC, the trailblazing women’s bantamweight champion has found a new sport and a new audience. She’s also found a profitable new revenue stream after signing a full-time contract with McMahon’s wrestling juggernaut.
Once described as “the most dangerous woman on the planet,” Rousey was one of the best-paid athletes in any sport. A global sex symbol whose endorsements ran into millions and who won starring roles in Hollywood blockbusters, Rousey was sitting on top of the world.
But that was before two consecutive devastating defeats at the hands of Holly Holm and Amanda Nunez — the only setbacks of her career. A broken figure dealing with a damaged psyche, she has spent the last two years licking her wounds and pondering her next move. It looks like she’s found it.
Rousey’s declared passion for pro wrestling seems sincere. Her best friend, Shayna Baszler, is a WWE prospect who could be called up to the main roster soon. Rousey made a high-profile appearance with The Rock several years ago at Wrestlemania 31, and a strong connection was forged with the company, particularly Paul “Triple H” Levesque, who has courted her ever since.
WWE’s newest signee claims she has always been a fan of pro wrestling, pointing to her association with the legendary Roddy Piper, who gave Rousey his blessing to take on the “Rowdy” nickname. She wept when Piper’s son, Colton, presented her with his late father’s jacket.
Rousey said following her Rumble appearance that she’s never been that “over-stimulated” in her life. Wrestling is not something she had to do, it’s what she wants to do. And she swears it’s not about the money; it’s about her passion for pro wrestling.
“This is my life now. First priority on my timeline for the next several years. This is not a smash-and-grab; this is not a publicity stunt,” Rousey told ESPN of her decision to join WWE. “When I first met with Triple H, I told him, ‘There are other things I can do with my time that’ll make way more money, but I won’t enjoy nearly as much.’”
She echoed similar sentiments on the WWE website.
“This has been a dream of mine since before I could talk and was trying to say Hulk Hogan,” she said. “This has been a dream of mine since I started MMA and I asked Rowdy Roddy Piper if I could have his name. This has been a dream of mine since me and all my girlfriends, all we would do every night is sit around and watch wrestling together.”
While she’s saying all the right things, her connection to the wrestling business may run deeper than many realize. She considered Piper, who passed away in 2015 at the age of 61, an influence in her career and an example of how to handle public scrutiny.
“He was such a great example of how to deal with everything and not taking things personal,” the 31-year-old Rousey told ESPN. “He’s promoting, he’s an entertainer, and he always understood that, and he would make himself hated in order to entertain. And he understood that that’s what it was for, to make everybody love him. And I had to stir the waters a lot and make other people not like me in order to make it entertaining — and the way that I didn’t take it personally was watching how Rowdy Roddy Piper never took it personally. He took pride in it. And he helped me take pride in what would probably have broken a lot of people.”
ESPN producer Ben Houser believes that type of appreciation and respect shown to Piper will help build an audience in WWE.
“Her fandom and retro vibe with the font on her merchandise as well as Piper’s jacket will add a layer to her character that hardcore fans will love. It is certainly strategic. It is also smart. She will elevate WWE women’s wrestling.”
The ex-Olympic judo medalist has been training at WWE’s Performance Center for months, learning the nuances of the profession, traveling there on weekends while filming in Atlanta.
The only sure thing at this point is that Ronda Rousey will be at Wrestlemania 34 in New Orleans on April 8. Her role at the mat extravaganza remains a source of conjecture, but it’s most likely that she will participate in a tag-team “dream match,” possibly with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (with whom she shares an agent) as a partner, against the WWE power couple of Triple H and Stephanie McMahon.
Johnson’s participation, though, is far from a lock. The 45-year-old sports entertainer-turned-Hollywood star hasn’t wrestled a competitive match since he headlined against John Cena at the 2013 Wrestlemania. And movie studios have been reluctant to release him wrestling while he’s working for them due to insurance issues and the fact any injuries could delay release dates.
Other Rousey speculation centers around a possible match with Smackdown women’s champ Charlotte Flair.
It’s also expected at some point she will introduce the “Four Horsewomen” (Rousey, Baszler, Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir) in a program with WWE’s version of Flair, Becky Lynch, Bayley and Sasha Banks, a scenario hinted at during last year’s Mae Young Classic.
But first, Rousey must adapt to a new environment, a new way of doing things. Unlike combat sports, it’s not all about winning, and skill on the microphone is almost as important as skill in the ring.
And Rousey needs to enter this new world with a cocky swagger and killer instinct, not unlike the traits she exhibited with great success in UFC. Although it’s refreshing to hear that she’s happy to be in WWE, perhaps bookers would be well-advised to give her more of a double-tough Brock Lesnar edge, even if it means letting a mouthpiece do her bidding. After all, she didn’t earn a reputation in UFC by being the girl next door.
Rousey, whose physical prowess and dominance in the ring propelled her into the broader world of pop culture, helped her fellow female fighters gain a foothold in mixed martial arts. She carried the mantle for women in combat sports as well as serving as an iconic symbol for female empowerment.
UFC president Dana White pegged Rousey’s potential impact on the MMA world shortly after she talked him into starting a women’s division in 2012. He told sportscaster Jim Rome: “She’s a real fighter and she’s very talented. She has the credentials, the pedigree, everything. And she has the it factor. I think she’s going to be a big superstar.”
Rousey, who became UFC’s first female champion in 2012 and made six defenses of the women’s bantamweight belt, hasn’t exactly ruled out a possible UFC return in the future.
But that’s not likely to happen. Says White: “She won’t fight again. I love that woman. We have an amazing relationship. What she’s done for the sport and for this company, created millions of female fans around the world. Ronda can do whatever the hell she wants to do.”
For Rousey, who once declared, “There’s no way to recover after tarnishing an undefeated record,” it’s an opportunity to capture some of that past glory.
What kind of impact will UFC’s first mainstream superstar have on the WWE Universe? I posed that question on social media, and the response, as expected, was overwhelming and wide-ranging. The mixed bag consisted of a number of valid points that indicated Rousey could be yet another polarizing figure on the WWE landscape.
Howard Brody of Las Vegas sees the Rousey acquisition as a massive coup for WWE.
“I think Ronda will help redefine the women’s division and encourage more female athletes to join the ranks. I see her more of a female Kurt Angle during the long haul than a female Brock Lesnar. Since she is a lifelong wrestling fan, this is pretty much a dream come true for her. Those tears during her post appearance interview were real as she’s not that great of an actress. This can only be good for wrestling.”
“I think (and hope) she’s here to stay,” wrote TJ Jaxson of Goose Creek. “Vince will figure out how to make her last. Her UFC career is completely over. She had a Mike Tyson-esque mystique in seeming unbeatable. In WWE, she really can be unbeatable.”
Jim Early of Charleston thinks Rousey’s contract might have an effect on other talent who could be fired in order to pay for her pricey contract.
Not so, says Robbie Gregg of Goose Creek. “If Lesnar is making 12 million and not many people have been let go because of that fat contract, then I don’t think that will happen with Ronda.”
Gregg also likes her chances of making it in WWE.
“I think it will do good because she’s got a name and is marketable. People will watch Mania and may turn into fans. She respects the biz so I’m cool with her personally.”
“Short-term name recognition will only extend to ‘long-term positive’ if she connects with pro wrestling fans or can get it done in the ring. The danger of a Ronda Rousey WWE run is that, although she was the inspiration for the women’s (WWE) movement, she’s ironically not the first MMA-style fighter on the women’s roster,” wrote Steven Williams of Aurora, Ill. “As such, she has to either ooze charisma, wrestle her hindside off, or out-MMA the Devilles and others of the division to be more than a big name collecting a check.”
Chuck Green of Goose Creek thought the timing of Rousey’s debut could have been better. The media sensation’s buzzworthy arrival overshadowed Asuka’s win in the first-ever WWE women’s Royal Rumble match, along with some surprises and impressive performances from women already on the main roster.
“People are entirely missing the point,” says Green. “It’s the timing and the fact that it took away from the historical significance of the women’s Rumble.”
Third-generation grappler Nattie Neidhart, who took part in some of Rousey’s wrestling training, thinks Rousey will make a smooth transition to the wrestling game.
“I think (Ronda) is going to be an excellent fit in WWE,” Neidhart told TV Insider. “She has a great attitude. She wants to be part of this company. She wants to get to know the girls. She has a tremendous respect for the history of our company. I think she definitely brings attention to the company in a lot of ways.
“I’ll tell you one thing, because I am in the women’s locker room. There is nothing but respect towards Ronda, no matter how anyone felt (about) how they debuted her. I think we are all excited about having her there, because there are so many possibilities of what we can do with her. We are all wondering if she is going to be on Raw or Smackdown. I really want to work with her, because I know we would tear it up.”
Several other top stars of the women’s division, though, took umbrage on social media after Rousey’s appearance at the Rumble. Some felt that waltzing into one of the biggest shows of the year and demanding a shot at the biggest one might not have been the best move for a rookie. Some have complained that it made the rest of the women’s division seem unimportant.
“Cool she’s here … I guess 30 women making history can just be forgotten,” tweeted Nia Jax, who earlier had told The Mirror of London, “I don’t know if she has ever faced anybody like some of our girls, who are extremely athletic and have insane talent, so I think it would kind of be an awakening for her as well.”
“Wonder what all the 30 other women candid thoughts were too?” posted Nikki Bella.
“I have nothing nice to say so I can’t say anything at all,” Sasha Banks tweeted. “I have nothing to say about it.”
Pete Griffin of Spring Hill, Tenn., contends their “controversial” comments are all part of the storyline.
“As often we complain about how modern wrestlers don’t follow ‘kayfabe’ or know what it is, I think it’s obvious they are using social media to their advantage and getting attention on a potential storyline of the ‘spoiled newcomer’ vs. the established girls. These girls are not stupid and they realize that their recognition will go up with Ronda Rousey being associated with them.”
Furthermore, he writes, the WWE women realize their stock goes up as well via their connection to a mega-star. She’ll bring media attention to all.
“Not saying that they aren’t rolling their eyes at some aspects of the deal, but they realize that WWE is trying to accomplish what Cyndi Lauper did for Hogan/Piper, what Tyson did for Stone Cold/DX, and hopefully what Ronda will do for whichever women WWE allows the opportunity to be a household name.”
“I doubt Vince would turn down signing a big star and getting all the press because Nia Jax might have her feelings hurt,” wrote Robert DeSantis of Wilmington, N.C.
“Everyone will be stepping up their game, though, to compete, and maybe that will actually be good for business. The women are hot right now and not just because of their looks,” Heidi Wooten of Hanahan posted.
Brandon Lyles of Spartanburg believes the sky is the limit for Rousey, but suggests further training at NXT before she steps onto the main roster.
“She can go as far as she wants in the business. Her drive and determination will be the key. She is a big name, but I’d like to see her work on her craft in NXT. That would tell me a lot about her passion for this.”
Ann Casey, a top women’s star during the ‘60s and ‘70s, also would like to see Rousey do a little more training.
“Miss Rousey may know how to box … but has she trained to ‘work’ as a woman wrestler? I would say she is still a greenhorn in our biz.”
Still the biggest “woman draw” on the planet, her mere presence on the roster will help others up their game, says Joe Dobrowski of Greenbelt, Md.
“I hope she is used smartly where she can rub someone up and coming and put her appeal on someone that could need and use that attention. Obviously she has major, huge matches with Asuka and Charlotte that are worthy of actual main-event level money and box office. I hope WWE doesn’t overly saturate her or tip off long overarching deals like with Brock and how Roman is going to be made to beat him. How Ronda is used and to use that rub that makes her magical and appeal is critical.”
If Rousey can put Charlotte, Asuka or even an Ember Moon down the road to that next level of relevance, then she’s paid for herself, adds Dobrowski.
“All I hope for is she works hard and busts it, which I expect she will. She’s (Gene) LeBell trained and has a pedigree already. I don’t want to see her wins or losses wasted. I hope it’s done right and not gratuitously.”
Roy Lucier of Folsom, Calif., agrees and says Rousey’s presence will pay dividends.
“I’m gonna say it’ll be an impact similar to when Mike Tyson was with the company in 1998. They’re going to get a lot of mainstream publicity for almost everything she does, good and bad, which of course the good stuff is going to help the company big time. Raw appearances will see higher ratings and house shows she’s advertised for (she signed a full time contract, she has to do house shows) will see a perk in attendance as well. A win-win all around.”
“There’s a lot of ways to market Ronda Rousey. I think her love of the wrestling business and the sizzle that comes with it for WWE is something she’s very interested in,” said Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross. “I don’t think it’s a payday issue as much as it’s a new adventure.”
“I don’t think that trying to make as much money as possible every single day is the best thing for my happiness,” Rousey told ESPN. “I want to wrestle, and I want to be part of this company, and I want the people that love this sport to accept me and respect me as being part of the sport. I know that’ll take time, but I also know that I’m capable of anything.”
Ultimately, she says, it was an offer she couldn’t refuse.
“I always wanted to do it but I never thought it was in the cards for me,” she said. “And now that I realize I really do have this opportunity, I feel like my 6-year-old self would totally kick my ass if I didn’t take it.”