GLENDALE, Calif. -- Simply happy to be there, boys and girls, women and men, milled about the sunlit mat like swarming bees.
This was AnnMaria De Mars’ fun kickoff to a two-hour charity-inspired mixed martial arts and judo clinic hosted by her recently famous 26-year-old daughter, UFC champion Ronda Rousey.
Thirty Good Samaritans each ponied up at least $200 to train (or have a loved one do so in their place) with Rousey at her home base in the shadow of downtown Los Angeles at the Glendale Fighting Club. The goal was to raise money to support mental health associated with eating disorders -- something the new UFC star was too familiar with.
All told, including a $5,000 donation from Rousey, the aptly titled “Don’t Throw Up, Throw Down” event raised $11,800 for Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, a Southern California-based organization that provides counseling and substance abuse services for people who can’t afford another option.
De Mars’ instructions for “partner tag” were clear: chase and evade and chase again until everyone was warmed up enough so her daughter could show them how to take a person down and snap an arm.
Late last month against Liz Carmouche, Rousey practiced what she preached and became the most prominent female figure in MMA. This prompted her chronically driven mother to wonder how much good could arise out of such a thing. De Mars wanted a group or person to support, so she asked the champ for her thoughts. Without hesitating, Rousey mentioned that people with eating disorders have the highest mortality associated with mental illness.
“I went home, looked it up, and it is true,” De Mars said.
It wasn’t as if Rousey pulled that fact out of thin air. She lived, suffered and survived it.
Leading up to the historic fight with Carmouche, dramatic pieces of Rousey’s life were highlighted on television, online and in print.
She’s utterly fascinating. The camera loves “Rowdy” Ronda. And like her mother, Rousey is a treasure trove of quotes and anecdotes. That’s one reason why everyone who joined the two-time Olympian, a bronze medalist at the Beijing Games, on Saturday was aware of her father’s tragic suicide, and the anger, passion and perseverance it inspired.
Lesser known, though it will become a significant part of her story, is Rousey’s battle with body issues. Competing on the demanding international judo circuit, Rousey got it in her head that being off weight meant she wasn’t pretty, or she had character flaws, or she was “weak willed, or not disciplined enough.”
Rousey struggled with her weight in two ways. The toll of week-in, week-out cuts (judo weigh-ins take place the morning of competition), was physically draining enough on its own. Worse yet was the mental beating. She traveled around Europe, trying to maintain 63 kilos (139 pounds), and had it in her head that the more she struggled, the weaker she was.
“I didn't think there was actually anything wrong and I didn't reach out to anybody about it,” Rousey said. “It was kind of my private personal battle that I was forced to work out on my own, and people shouldn't.
"Did you ever see the commercial with the chick chained to a scale dragging it along? It was very much like that.”
In 2007, the year Rousey qualified for Beijing, she aimed not to hurt herself anymore.
"No more bingeing or purging,” she promised herself. “None of that anymore. I was going to do it the right way. I grew 4 inches since I started and couldn't make the weight anymore.”
But this only made things more difficult. She said she suffered a heat stroke at a tournament in Belgium, and actually hallucinated, seeing fire. Two weeks after a terrible weight cut at the British Open in London, a tournament she won, Rousey headed to Paris. It was the last time she attempted to make 63 kilos. She recalled the smell of singed hair, that and the fact that she just couldn’t sweat. Paris is the only time Rousey missed weight in her life. She was mortified.
“I was too scared to call anybody,” she said. “I just fell off the face of the earth for a week."
Rousey resurfaced in Austria, broke down and called home. De Mars was “just dying” not knowing what was going on with her daughter and believed Rousey “could have been on the edge of having a real problem.” So on the advice of her mom and her coach, Jimmy Pedro Sr., Rousey skipped the hard cut, moved up 7 kilos, enjoyed a good meal and returned to championship form. She remained at that weight the rest of her days in judo.
For as much as Saturday’s seminar participants might have felt they knew Rousey, they likely weren't aware this was why they were asked to raise money for Didi Hirsch. Certainly 11-year-old Persephone Schrick wasn’t. She hadn’t even known she’d be in Rousey’s presence until her dad, Aaron, surprised her. Wearing a pink rash guard and a perpetual smile, Persephone called herself Rousey’s biggest fan.
"I like that she can always get arm bars in any position,” Persephone beamed. “And that she's the first girl ever to get the belt in the UFC."
Youngsters like Persephone have someone to look up to now in MMA, though Rousey pointed out that the only young girl she intends to be a role model for is her teenage sister, Julia.
“She's the one I'm responsible for,” Rousey said. “If stuff that I'm doing helps other kids out, that's awesome. But I can't really control the way that I'm perceived. I'm not perfect.”
Rousey, of course, is responsible for herself. At the end of the month she’ll take a much-needed week off to recharge, suggesting an island with coconuts and no cell phones is in her future. She wouldn’t say where, exactly, and won’t even tell the UFC or her coaches.
“I feel like this last year was three years’ worth of activity,” she said. "There were just so many experiences shoved in such a short period of time. It seems like this last year has taken forever.”
Take last week, for example.
“I promised I'd do this clinic and I was obligated to go,” she said.
“Yesterday I had food poisoning and I promised I'd be on 'Good Day L.A.' I promised, and it was going to be [broadcast] live. I'm glad I went because Mike Tyson was there, but I threw up in the parking structure on the way out. I was in no position to be anywhere. And I already promised I'd be at some charity basketball thing that night. I had a horrible fever and I drove all the way from Santa Monica to Glendale, and went to the one thing because I promised I'd be there.
“My word's my word. And that was right after I got back from a trip where I was in five cities over six days. I went from L.A. to Vegas to shoot a commercial. To New York City to do 'Fox and Friends.' To Albany to speak to the state assembly about legalizing MMA. To Vegas to do a whole media day and get my MRIs and doctor stuff done just as a checkup after the fight. Then back here. Got food poisoning. Went to 'Good Day L.A.' Went to the basketball auction thing. Slept. Woke up. Did a workout before the clinic. Did the clinic. And now at 3 p.m. I have a call with producers of Jim Rome. And, umm, what time is it?”
It was 3:04.
"F---," she said.
Rousey spent the next 20 minutes on the phone, listening to questions she would have preferred to answer live on air. By the time she wrapped up, the gym was clear of seminar attendees. Persephone Schrick had long gone, presumably giggling all the way home, eager to affix a newly signed poster to her wall, filled with memories of learning a setup to an arm bar from the Queen herself.
De Mars handed Rousey a blended drink from Starbucks and a gluten-free cookie, which were devoured while they discussed Julia, the youngster they're responsible for.
"It's just a question of energy," Rousey said. "Every person you talk to pulls a little energy out of you. Every single interview you do pulls a little energy. Every workout. Anything. It just pulls energy out. So as long as I can maintain energy, I can do everything."