Now she's finally got a showcase worthy of her talent.
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Rousey and Liz Carmouche will make history Saturday night at Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., when they meet in the first women's bout in UFC history. They're the main event at UFC 157, and Rousey is the star of the latest pay-per-view show put on by MMA's dominant promotion.
It's a scenario that was fairly unimaginable even a year ago in the UFC, which never had a women's division and showed scant interest in that version of the sport. Rousey and her fellow fighters have created believers at every level of MMA in the past few years, culminating in this breakthrough onto its biggest stage.
"I feel like the brighter the lights are, the better I can see," Rousey said.
"These are things that needed to be done for a very long time now, and I didn't think that waiting for somebody else to do it was the wisest thing to do," she added. "I feel like I'm the most capable person, and I should do whatever I can to make it happen."
It's all happening for Rousey, who has already graced magazine covers and national talk shows with a sparkling wit and charm that's in sharp contrast to her savage, joint-dislocating performances in the cage. After winning each of her first six professional MMA fights by painful armbar submissions in the first round, Rousey is a huge favorite to retain the UFC women's bantamweight belt handed to her by UFC President Dana White last year after she defended her title in the now-defunct Strikeforce promotion.
"It's very serendipitous, the way it's all come together," said Rousey, a Southern California native who lives beachside in Venice. "If I could have had everything exactly the way I wanted, this is how I would have written it down. Win all my fights in the first round, then go to the UFC and headline a show, and have it as a pay-per-view and at home. People's dreams don't come true like that. You think so when you're a kid, but then you get older and realize that's not the real world. I guess the real world is pretty cool sometimes, too."
As the anointed face of her sport, Rousey's profile is growing among casual sports fans, even overtaking the stature of Gina Carano, the former fighter who got an acting career when director Steven Soderbergh saw her fighting on CBS. On the heels of the wildly successful debut of women's boxing at the London Olympics, Rousey seems poised to take the so-called combat sports to greater exposure than ever before.
She already won over the most important skeptic of all: White, who initially wanted no part of women's MMA.
"After we met, she told me she had envisioned in her mind that she was going to make it so that I couldn't deny women, that I would have to bring her into the UFC," White said. "We've had some pretty crazy conversations about a lot of things, but she was right. She willed it so that there was no way I was not going to do it."
Rousey specializes in the armbar, a judo technique that bends an opponent's arm in grotesque fashion until she taps out or gets a dislocated elbow. Rousey has an equally spectacular way with words: During promotion for her final Strikeforce fight against Sarah Kaufman last August, Rousey vowed to rip off Kaufman's arm and throw it at her corner. She settled for her sixth straight armbar.
"Everybody calls her a one-trick pony, but she's fought a lot of women that are very good, who all know exactly what she's going to do, and they can't stop her," White said. "She goes right in and gets you down, goes for that arm, and they can't stop her from doing it. She doesn't want her arm raised in a decision. She wants to finish you, and that's what I like."
She's not talking any trash for her UFC debut, though: Rousey has a warm mutual respect with Carmouche, a Marine from San Diego.
Carmouche is the first openly gay fighter in UFC history, yet she's nearly a footnote in the UFC 157 hype compared to Rousey's rising star. Carmouche realizes Rousey is supremely gifted, but eagerly took this historic chance to be in the UFC's first women's fight.
Carmouche thinks she'll contribute to the growth of women's MMA, something she sees every day as an instructor for children.
"When I started the program two years ago, we had one girl that was involved just because her father also participated," Carmouche said. "Now we have multiple girls in the program, so I see it evolving every day."
Early last year, women's MMA resembled a minor-league novelty to White. He saw no depth of talent, no groundswell of support, and no compelling reason to muddle his carefully managed brand with one-sided fights featuring women getting beaten bloody.
Rousey changed his mind with her skill, presence, charisma and marketability. When she steps into the UFC octagon, it will complete a remarkable rise for a bronze medalist at the Beijing Olympics who swiftly picked up MMA before her pro debut in March 2011.
Rousey was a two-time Olympic judoka who won the U.S. team's first medal in the sport, but realized she had little to show for a career in the sport once dominated by her mother, Ann-Maria.
Adrift after growing disenchanted with the American judo establishment, she picked up grappling as a way to combat weight gain from "the Jameson diet" of whiskey shots while working at a bar. Her grappling teammates began encouraging her to try MMA, jokingly at first.
"After a while, I was saying, 'You know what, you're right, I would beat any of those women today,' " Rousey said with a laugh. "They said, 'No, I don't want to see you get punched!' You tell me not to? I'm totally going to do it now. When everybody was telling me, 'No,' I knew I'd found my new thing."