LOS ANGELES (AP) — Ronda Rousey spent a year as a bartender after she turned 21, partying every night and wondering what to do with her Olympic bronze medal in judo.
When she first saw mixed martial arts on television, her friends warned her away. This complicated new cage-fighting sport was too violent, too primitive, too unregulated.
“That just made me really want to try it,” Rousey said with a laugh.
Six years later, Rousey is nothing less than the face of the UFC, the young sport’s dominant promotional company. She has never lost a fight, reigning as the bantamweight champion ever since the UFC finally began promoting women’s bouts two years ago.
Rousey has become an actor, a model, a celebrity endorser and one of the world’s most prominent female athletes during her meteoric rise, but she realizes she hasn’t done it alone. Women’s MMA is surging in prominence with Rousey at the forefront, and the sport gets its biggest showcase yet this weekend when two women’s fights will headline a UFC card under the Hollywood spotlight.
“The women are a force in this sport,” Rousey said. “They don’t need anybody’s help to sell the sport. They sell themselves to the fans, and the thing about women’s MMA is that it brings new fans into the sport as well. They don’t just bring the traditional fans. When the women are featured in MMA, a lot of people tune in who wouldn’t pay any attention to us otherwise. We’re an attraction.”
Rousey defends her belt against fellow unbeaten star Cat Zingano in the main event of the pay-per-view UFC 184 on Saturday night from Staples Center in Los Angeles. Even more significantly, the penultimate fight on the card showcases the MMA debut of Holly Holm, a champion boxer expected to be Rousey’s next big rival, against veteran Raquel Pennington.
Rousey has headlined UFC cards before, but her fights have always been supported by big-name men’s bouts. Women are carrying a UFC pay-per-view show for the first time, and the fighters are thrilled by the latest milestone.
“I feel like women’s MMA is at a point now, you almost can’t ignore it, and I think that it’s great,” Holm said. “I think that’s what the athletes deserve. They work just as hard and train just as hard as the men. These women have skill. It’s not just a catfight out there. The more that people watch it, the more people are even getting into it because they start to really see what these girls have.”
Just four years after UFC President Dana White insisted his company would never promote women’s MMA, the UFC has more than 50 female fighters under contract in two divisions. The all-women Invicta FC promotion also is thriving under a close relationship with the UFC, and its show in Los Angeles on Friday night showcased Cris “Cyborg” Justino, generally considered the world’s best fighter after Rousey.
Rousey’s star power and charisma changed White’s mind about women’s MMA in 2012, but a series of compelling fights has propelled it forward. While Rousey has finished every opponent she has faced, the 135-pound women in her division have built a reputation for action-packed, competitive bouts.
“You can have a fight card full of male fights, but yet when that woman fight comes on, I mean, that’s what people watch,” Zingano said. “They’re super excited by it. I think that UFC was smart with the choice that they’re making, and all of us girls are going to go out there and do what we do and prove why we’re out there.”
Zingano’s story also is extraordinary: She overcame a debilitating knee injury and the suicide of her estranged husband last year to return to the sport. Zingano first took up Brazilian jiu-jitsu seven years ago to get back into shape after the birth of her son, Braden, and turned it into a career.
Holm toiled away in the low-rent world of women’s boxing for years with minimal financial rewards and recognition. Her switch to MMA has revitalized her as an athlete.
“It is amazing to see how much more attention and how much more following and support there is with women’s MMA,” Holm said.
UFC 184 is a showcase for Rousey, who has used her formidable judo skills to stunning effect in almost every bout.
Rousey, who appeared in the latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, has parts in the new “Entourage” film and the seventh installment of the “Fast and Furious” series. She is determined to land even bigger Hollywood roles while still competing twice a year in the UFC, and she is confident the women’s sport will continue to grow in her wake.
“It’s going great for us, but I definitely can’t be satisfied for myself or for the sport,” Rousey said. “There are much higher peaks we can aspire to.”