Why Ronda Rousey's return to the Octagon is brave
In November, espnW's weekly essay series will focus on giving.
I've been thinking a lot about losing lately, about its inevitability, and how it hurts just as bad every time. Sometimes it teaches you something, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you fail despite doing everything right.
If that big fail happens when you're at the top of your game, it can be a gift, as Ronda Rousey will demonstrate next month when she enters the Octagon for the first time in more than a year.
Her return is brave, and I tell myself this a lot: Going back to the spot where you failed and trying again is brave.
The last time Rousey was in the ring, after winning and hanging onto the UFC women's bantamweight belt over the course of six fights, Holly Holm destroyed her with a knockout kick to the head.
There were, it seems, two reactions to that loss; those of us who thought Rousey was invincible, and then were shocked and disappointed to discover that she wasn't.
We like our superheroes to always win. Rousey made winning look easy: fights won in 34 seconds, or 14 seconds, often by arm bar.
Then there were the people who emerged to say why they could've predicted Rousey's loss, why she'd been unprepared, or distracted by celebrity and media interviews, and that she was too arrogant for her own good.
The former Olympic judo medalist never struck me as arrogant. More like driven. This is a woman who started judo at 11, and whose own mother, a judoka who once won gold at the World Judo championship, used to wake her up by trying to execute an arm bar.
Compared to her mom, Rousey thought of herself as laid-back. Of her upbringing, she said, "The rule was you could pick anything you wanted to do in the world, but you just had to be the best in the world at it."
She did and she tried. She worried her body was too masculine. She binged and purged to maintain her weight class. After she took the bronze in judo in the 2008 Olympics, she struggled with depression, drank, bartended, and at points lived out of her car.
When she found MMA, she wanted those wins badly, and along the way, she transformed women's MMA.
"Whenever people talk about how cocky and arrogant I am, it blows me away, because I worked so hard to develop self-confidence," she told the New Yorker in 2014.
Rousey at the top of her game is something to behold. She glares. She struts. She cries after a win. She is an out-there character in a no-holds-barred sport, her quotes provocative, pithy and playful. Every one of my muscles is here for a purpose, she once said. And if she talked smack before fights, it was partly a manifestation of all that will, not to mention a means of making sure she'd prove herself right in the ring.
"I'm willing to die in here," she said in 2014, during blustery pre-game fight interviews.
There's an interview Rousey did with UFC analyst Joe Rogan last year, before the Holm fight, where she talks about seeing herself a bit like actor Heath Ledger's Joker, a villain the audience can't help but root for. Protagonists react, while antagonists make things happen, she says.
Rousey is that rare public female figure who is quite open about the fact that she does not care about being liked. After she wouldn't touch gloves with Holm before her fight -- when she lost, Lady Gaga posted an Instagram of her being pummeled with the caption, "That's what you get for not touching gloves!" -- those of us that loved Rousey's swagger felt the familiar sting at a woman getting her comeuppance. We wondered when the sports world -- heck, when the rest of the world -- would be ready for a female antihero.
In the months since that fight, Rousey has talked about how it felt to lose. After she got clipped by Holm, she said, "I wasn't really there anymore," using language she'd once used triumphantly to describe her effect on another opponent. The master of her own body, who trains by climbing trees, who describes herself as a ninja when she's feeling good, didn't even feel like she was inside it. And everybody was watching.
Afterward, she told Ellen DeGeneres she felt suicidal. "I was like, 'What am I anymore if I'm not this?'" She said this with tears running down her face, knotting her hands together in her lap. "I'm thinking what my actual purpose is, and maybe just winning all the time isn't what's best," she added. "Maybe I just had to be the example of picking myself up off the floor for everyone. Maybe that's what I'm meant for."
I've been thinking a lot about winning lately -- about what it gives you, and what it deprives you of. How we get virtue and victory mixed up sometimes, and wind up valuing the wrong thing. The truth is, most of us don't win all the time; heck, most of us don't win half the time. Most of us know that feeling of losing better than we know the feeling of winning.
Next month's bout might be one of Rousey's last. I want her to win again. "I'm a courageous person because I'm a scared person," Rousey said years ago.
I believe her.