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Something To Fight For

Before Ronda Rousey could return to the Octagon, she had to answer a simple question: Why should she?

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 26 / Jan. 2 issue. Subscribe today!

The cabin is about two hours outside of Los Angeles. Directions come in the form of a screenshot -- cell service is spotty up here, so it's best to have a backup.

Ronda Rousey's all bundled up when she answers the front door. She knows what this looks like. She's broken, right? She's been hiding out in a basement since her stunning loss to Holly Holm last November. Shattered in a million pieces. Listening to Adele and hissing in the dark. She smiles. It's fun to feed it sometimes.

"It's like I'm doing the chick version of growing a beard and living in a cave, you know?" Rousey says. "You remember when Batman goes off to this ninja place, then time lapses and you see he's grown this beard? My woman version of growing a beard was letting my highlights grow out and changing my number."

But this isn't some remote cabin at the end of a winding dirt road. This is a small mountain community. Her neighbors know who she is and what she is doing, but they don't bother her here.

On this crisp November morning, Rousey wears a hoodie and Ugg boots for the short walk from the cabin to the detached garage her longtime trainer Edmond Tarverdyan has turned into a dojo. Six days a week, twice a day, Rousey makes this trip to train for her comeback fight against Amanda Nunes on Dec. 30.

Sometimes, as she walks over, she'll stop at a small chicken coop.

"The chickens don't need me to entertain them," she says.

It's a joke. Sort of. Because damn, she really spent way too much energy trying to put on a show last time.

Back then, when she was undefeated, she'd spend hours and hours thinking of all the things she was expected to do to be successful: Sell the fight, build the women's division of the UFC, take photos with fans, pose on the red carpet. Tweet, Facebook, Instagram. Entertain. She'd stew and swirl all night until an alarm clock would sound way too early.

Now she just wakes up whenever the sun bursts into the back bedroom of the cabin.

"That loss saved me from becoming what I hate," she says. "One of those people who live their lives to impress everyone else. Who put up a front for the world to admire. Who make sure every charitable act is posted and shared for their own image gain. Who posture and pose for people they care nothing about except for the opinion they have of them."

This year, this space she's created for herself is for one purpose.

"I'm just getting my life back," she says.


The isolation provided by her remote cabin with its garage-turned-dojo has been good for Rousey. Eric Williams for ESPN

She always used to spend a few weeks up in the mountains during training camp. That was the plan last year before the Holm fight, as she and Tarverdyan scheduled out her typical two-month fight-prep routine.

But then the January 2016 fight was moved up to November 2015 after UFC 193 headliner Robbie Lawler injured his thumb. UFC president Dana White needed someone with enough star power to replace him for what became the largest crowd in attendance at a UFC fight in history, at the 55,000-seat Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia.

The change in schedule meant Rousey and Tarverdyan had just 44 days for camp. It meant no cabin. But Rousey still said yes because saying no felt like admitting she couldn't do it.

"Ronda was basically like, 'What do you need? I got it,' " White says. "'And if anybody else turns something else down, I'll do what they were supposed to do too.' "

"I was just trying to make too many people happy," Rousey says. "But when I try and do favors and make everybody else happy, at the end of the day, they walk away happy and I'm the one who has to deal with the depression. All the pay-per-views in the world, all the money in the world, it means f---ing nothing to me because I lost."

She's had a year to think about all the things that went wrong in that loss. She remembers how weak and dehydrated her body felt from an excruciating weight cut. Afterward, Tarverdyan had doctors analyze her body chemistry with blood and hair samples. Her cortisol levels were off the charts. But all those are symptoms of a simple truth that looks so obvious in retrospect.

She just should've said, "No."

Rousey still cries sometimes as she relives details from the fight. It's painful and embarrassing. But she is the one who kept saying yes to everything. She left herself vulnerable going into the fight, and Holm made her pay. Rousey's got to own that.

It's easy to fall back down that shame spiral, but that's not productive anymore. Now she has to train and feel strong again. To remember why she fights. That was the point of coming up to this cabin. Having a physical boundary is essential for someone who has trouble setting any limits on herself. It's a way of compartmentalizing.

The other night, for instance, she painted a scene of pine trees on top of a snowy mountain. The trees in the center of the mountain cast a long shadow. Maybe twice as long as the height of the trees themselves. It could be seen as an artistic expression of the weight she's been carrying around all year. Long shadows, fallen trees, distorted perspective.

"Nope," she says. "It's paint by numbers. I'm going to paint more trees on the side of the mountain. It won't look that way when I'm done."


video
Rousey fighting on her own terms

Ramona Shelburne describes how Ronda Rousey is approaching her first fight in over a year, a knockout loss to Holly Holm, and how it differs from what she's done in the past.Eric Williams

It's cold in the dojo when she enters. Rousey stretches while a space heater warms the room.

"Keep the door closed," she says as Tarverdyan walks in. "Don't let the heat get out."

Rousey slides her legs up and back on a foam roller, breaking up the stiffness in her hamstrings and quadriceps. Then she grabs a long wooden staff and twirls and twists it through a series of poses that look like an action sequence in a Bruce Lee movie.

This summer she had surgery to get her knee into better shape. She can throw kicks and put weight on her leg when she steps back on it now.

But it's better. Not fixed. "My ACL is gone. My cartilage is gone," she says. "It's been gone. I don't even know when it left."

A year ago, it would have been shocking to hear her talk this way. But she's done pretending like things are fine when they're clearly not.

Tarverdyan comes over to start wrapping her hands. He's done this hundreds of times over the past few years. Each piece of tape and gauze has a message written on it, and after the workout, she'll crumple it into a ball. If they were back at her home gym in LA, she'd toss the ball over the wall of the Octagon cage. A little game to break up the monotony of training camp.

There are hundreds of balls of tape and hand wraps from over the years. Many say, "Retire Undefeated." During this training camp, she's writing a new slogan on her used wraps: "FTA." F--- Them All.

That includes rivals who try to get press for themselves by drawing her into faux fights on social media. Everyone who cheered that she lost. "Fans" who promise they won't tag her location in photos but violate the trust as soon as she's out of sight. "I'm being geotagged like a rhino," she says.

But her mom, a former judoka herself, keeps reminding her that her motivation has got to be more than "FTA."

"F -- everybody is not a good reason to fight," her mother, AnnMaria De Mars, told her. "I think that's stupid and bulls -- ."

De Mars has never been afraid to challenge her daughter. This time, her message to Ronda was simple: "You need something to fight for."


Rousey trains twice a day, six days a week, for her upcoming fight against Amanda Nunes. Eric Williams for ESPN

Tarverdyan shuffles through the box of prints he's brought to hang on the bare walls here. The photos go back to the beginning of their relationship. Back when Rousey drove a beat-up gold Honda Accord with a broken window, sweat-stained seats and packets of green Tabasco sauce that she'd stash from fast food restaurants to add to whatever cheap, bland food she had at home. She basically lived in that car for a while, driving all over LA to seedy bartending gigs she'd find on Craigslist, giving judo lessons for $50 an hour, signing up for Pilates classes at different studios ("because the first class is always free") and praying she wouldn't have to choose between buying dog food or paying a parking ticket.

"Broke girl hustle was real," Rousey jokes.

There's a comfort in going back to those memories now, reminiscing between training sessions or late at night while she eats the skewers of meat that Tarverdyan grills over an open flame. Rousey's first UFC fight was less than four years ago, and back then, she got in the cage to survive. Rousey herself had pushed White to add a women's division to UFC, so if her first fight against Liz Carmouche didn't sell, there wouldn't be a second one. For her, or anyone else.

Tarverdyan comes across a picture of her win over Alexis Davis in July 2014. "Oh my god, that was the moment my knuckle exploded," Rousey says of the injury that needed nine stitches afterward. "The only reason I don't have pictures of it is I was hiding it from my mom."

Next he finds a picture of her doing an armbar on Sarah Kaufman in 2012, before she even joined UFC. It was shortly after that Kaufman fight that she met her jiujitsu coach, Jason Manly. Manly hadn't seen Rousey much the past few years, but he recently joined her camp, and it didn't take long for them to fall into a rhythm.

"She's probably armbarred me 200 times, and no two of them have been the same," Manly says as they begin today's session. "You can't prepare for it because her transitions are always different."

Rousey smiles. "It's also because he doesn't fall for the same s--- twice. He forces me to be creative."

They speak in their own language during training, geeking out over footwork and head positioning like a songwriter would obsess over chords and lyrics. Manly backs her into a corner; Rousey escapes. She's quicker than he remembers. Lighter too. She's been about 140-145 pounds during this camp, nearly 10 pounds under where she was during camp before the Holm fight.

Manly encourages her to throw him; Rousey crouches and uses her leverage to toss him over her hips, even though he outweighs her by a good 30 pounds. At one point the talking stops and the fighting becomes real, bodies become weapons, guided by instinct and mindfulness.

Rousey is working on fighting against the side of the cage, so she pins him in a way that renders his size and strength moot. Eventually he escapes, but she accidentally clips his mouth with her elbow during the struggle.

"Oh s---, sorry," she says. "Sorry, sorry, sorry. Are you OK?"

Manly grabs his jaw. He definitely felt that. "It's OK. That's what I'm here for."

He goes to get a mouthguard out of his bag. "So you'll feel better about it," he says with a smile.

After about an hour, they're both spent. Manly is drenched in sweat. Rousey is stretching again, this time to cool down.

"How do you feel?" he asks her.

"Like a ninja," she says.


Rousey dreams of a house in Idaho or Alaska, full of kids, and a job at an animal sanctuary. Eric Williams for ESPN

Rousey stays and does Pilates for a while before the sweat dries and she gets a chill. This is one of her rituals. After the loss to Holm, Pilates was the first exercise she had the heart for.

"Just me out in the garage, alone and crying, doing Pilates," she jokes. "Good times."

One day her agent, Brad Slater, went over to her house and sat with her, in the dark, and told her Saturday Night Live wanted her to host. "She was still in sweatpants," Slater says. "But she looked up, looked right at me and said, 'I'm down.' "

SNL gave her a goal to focus on and reminded her she didn't need to fight again to have opportunities outside of the cage. Hollywood had already come calling, offering a Road House remake -- which, despite reports to the contrary, Rousey says, is "not going anywhere," just awaiting a rewrite -- and a key role in a Peter Berg movie called Mile 22. She had options.

And so Rousey faced a question: If she didn't need to fight again, why bother?

She doesn't need the money. Her tastes were never extravagant anyway. A fun night for her is staying in with her boyfriend, Travis Browne, and playing World of Warcraft or scrolling through the "Today I Learned" page on Reddit.

"If money is the motivation, then f--- that," she says. "All these Money people... Money [Floyd] Mayweather, Money [Conor] McGregor. I see they're trying to do an angle or whatever. People buy it.

The worship of money in our society is so deep. But just because that's the easiest way to keep people's attention or entertain them doesn't mean that's the right way."

Of course, Rousey is still doing things that make her money. She's fighting again, for one. Early in training camp, she took a day off to do a photo shoot for Pantene, which launched a campaign around her called "Strong Is Beautiful." The other day she decided to sell #FearTheReturn shirts to fans who wanted to support her, with part of the proceeds benefiting an animal rescue organization and a women's shelter.

But she does these things because she wants to.

“I want to be able to walk away with my head held high. I don't want 'good enough' to be my legacy.”

- Ronda Rousey

"I've had no money before, and it wasn't the end of the world," she says. The future she dreams of doesn't require much, either: a house in Idaho or Alaska, full of kids, opening an animal sanctuary. "All I need is me and Travis and our little house in the woods, popping out babies and making snowmen and I'm cool, man. Really, I'm good."

Sure. Maybe.

But life wouldn't be all that great carrying her what-ifs up to Idaho or Alaska. And the baddest woman on the planet stepping away after one loss? That was never going to happen.

"A fighter does not have that quit in them," Tarverdyan says. "That word means you gotta fight through everything."

The truth is, she was embarrassed by the loss, ashamed of it. She knew what people were saying -- Miesha Tate calling her "a broken woman" and wondering "if she'll ever come back the same." Holly Holm's father, Roger Holm, said she was "scared to death." Cris "Cyborg" Justino started mercilessly calling her out on Twitter.

Rousey refuses to give oxygen to any of their taunts. But even after the voices died down and the world moved on, they became a manifestation of her own shame. The hate she hears and feels is really just her wounded pride echoing in her head.

So why risk another embarrassing loss?

"I want to be able to walk away with my head held high," Rousey says. "It's like a painter looking at what he made and knowing it's not done yet. You could get away with it. You could sell that painting and it would sell. But you'll always know it was never as good as it could have been. I don't want 'Good enough' to be my legacy."


Rousey's defeat last year devastated her, but it also "saved me from becoming what I hate," she says. Eric Williams for ESPN

In early November, she taped an episode of Ellen, her first very public appearance in a few months.

It's not as if she hadn't been out in public -- she'd taken a road trip with her friends in September and a trip to Hawaii with Browne in the spring. But those trips were for her. This was stepping back onto the stage and putting herself out there again.

It's a conscious choice to step in front of the camera. To some extent, celebrities are complicit in their public caricatures. Rousey is just trying to do it on her terms now. Exert some measure of control so she doesn't get swept up in the current again.

"It's for a purpose," she says. " [But] I get anxiety after doing stuff like that, even with someone as sweet as Ellen."

As she tells the story, she notices the water in the small pot she's using to cook rice boiling over. "Are you supposed to add this much water?" she asks Tarverdyan. He's indifferent. Either she'll get it right this time or they'll throw the rice out. Again.

She grabs a cup and adds more water. It already looks like mush. She shrugs.

"I get a little nervous. Not like before a fight or anything," she says. "I was more nervous that my heels were way too big and I didn't want to look like I was dragging my feet when I was walking. Then I was nervous that my nipples were showing through my dress. [But] it's for a purpose. Overall I think it adds to my life."

That's the mantra now.

"Hone in on happiness again," she says. That's the reason that, outside of SNL, one of her only appearances this year came on an episode of Drunk History. "It's my favorite show. I was like, 'This year I just need to enjoy my life.' "

Dana White wanted that too. Rousey is one of his best friends, in or outside the UFC. But White also has a business to run with precedents to consider.

In April 2015, the sport made headlines when another of its stars, McGregor, refused to attend a news conference. White responded by pulling him from the UFC 200 card.

Rousey watched it unfold from afar. When she saw McGregor a month later, at a Bud Light commercial taping in Las Vegas, she pulled him aside and offered some advice. "Instead of trying to handle everything at once, while it's coming at you, just trying to reach an agreement beforehand," she told him.

Rousey did the same when she negotiated her terms for UFC 207. She would limit her publicity to a few high-profile interviews with people of her choosing, a day of filming at the gym in Glendale and a staredown with Nunes at UFC 205, a bout that McGregor would headline in New York in November.

Originally, White had wanted Rousey to fight at that event. It was a landmark moment for the sport. New York City! Madison Square Garden! White had been trying to get fights approved there for years. It was the kind of card that demanded a bold-faced headliner.

When White asked, Rousey and Tarverdyan had to consider the request. It was the kind of thing that, before her loss, she never would have passed up. A huge fight ... the company needing her ... White calling her personally. But in the end, Rousey declined, saying she needed more time to make sure she was fully recovered from knee surgery.

"Everybody knows how I feel about Ronda," White says. "She worked harder than anybody for years, and she needed a break. Now that she's coming back, I'm kind of letting her do it on her terms."

Now all that matters to Rousey is doing what gives her the best chance of winning her next fight. So she told White no, and instead McGregor defeated Eddie Alvarez to claim his lightweight championship.

"Conor gave me the chance to rest, he took the weight off my shoulders, and I'm grateful," she says.

"I will never put my body at risk for money and views ever again. What makes me happy is winning and being the best in the world and that's it. F--- all the promotion and energy spent on anything that's not me winning. And anyone who tries to tell me I owe them energy on frivolous s--- during camp out of 'loyalty' or 'friendship' deserves no loyalty from me and is no friend of mine.

"This is not a time for f---ing favors. This is a time for redemption and revenge."


At night she has to use the flashlight on her iPhone to walk out to the dojo. It's even colder than the morning, so she warms up faster by shadowboxing.

Tarverdyan comes in to wrap her hands again. Tonight is about technique and quickness. Footwork, head movement, balance. Manly watches as they run through drills. This is not his area of expertise, so he's trying to learn.

The idea is to step around a square area, throwing a punch with each turn, without rising from a low, wide stance.

Manly tries to copy the movements. It feels totally unnatural.

"Wow, it's like I've never been an athlete," he says. "This is hard."

Rousey demonstrates the footwork again. Manly tries to mimic the motion without losing his balance.

"The first time Ronda did this drill," Tarverdyan tells him, "I wouldn't let her throw more than straight jabs."

Now, though, he's got to let her throw. He puts on a padded vest and his hand mitts so Rousey can tee off on him for a while. It's important for her to hit and get hit again.

He's been letting her go further and further all year. Building confidence back after a loss is a particular challenge. Push too far, too early, and the recoil is swift. Waiting too long leaves room for doubt to creep in.

The trainer becomes something of a jockey, looking for the right moment to let the horse run free.

In August he told her to get in the cage with one of his male Armenian fighters. "She showed a lot of heart and spirit again," Tarverdyan says. "Once she showed that to me, we were good to go."

Last month, he flew in Olympic boxer Mikaela Mayer for a week of sparring. Just boxing -- no judo or grappling or jiujitsu. It looked exactly like their backgrounds suggested: Mayer stayed outside, trying to run up points without getting caught. Rousey tried to get inside, where she's strongest, then had to turn off her instinct to take Mayer down to the ground.

Frustrated as she might have been at times, it was good to practice patience. Holm exploited her instinct to rush in. Nunes would be foolish not to try to do the same.

The Vegas oddsmakers mark Rousey as a slight favorite. No one has been able to defend the belt in the year since Rousey lost it. Holm lost to Miesha Tate, who then lost to Nunes. If Rousey wins the belt back, she says she wants another crack at Holm.

To make things right, or at least try to.


Rousey was adamant about not altering her training schedule after last year's upset. Eric Williams for ESPN

Every so often, Rousey or her trainers put up a new quote on the wood panels above the mats in the dojo, next to the pictures Tarverdyan has hung.

After their training session, Manly takes a few minutes to consider what he wants her to remember.

"I got it," he says. "This is perfect."

He grabs the black felt pen and climbs up on a step stool: "WHEREVER YOU GO IN LIFE, YOUR MIND HAS BEEN THERE FIRST."

Tarverdyan's handwriting is understated and neat. In the corner of the room, he's written, "A certain darkness is needed to see the stars."

Rousey's quotes are shorter, declarative statements in all caps: "FTA" right by the door. "SUCCESS IS THE BEST REVENGE" in the center of the room. "FINISH WHAT YOU STARTED" in another corner.

"She sent me a text the other day," says Rousey's mother, De Mars. "She said, 'I am doing this to show everybody who believed in me, my little sister, my nieces and my nephew, that there's nothing so great that you can't overcome it. You can never fall so far that you can't rise up.' "

Now it's time to get back in the cage.

"All I care about is winning this f---ing fight."

Ramona ShelburneShelburne is a senior writer for ESPN. She spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News.

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