Olympic boxer who trained with Rousey describes her respect for 'a legend'
Shortly after returning home from Rio, where she was just one match away from winning an Olympic boxing medal for the U.S. before narrowly losing in the lightweight quarterfinal, Mikaela Mayer received a curious direct message on Instagram.
It was from Edmond Tarverdyan, Ronda Rousey's coach, asking if she was interested in boxing with the former UFC bantamweight champion as she trained to make her return to the Octagon. A longtime Rousey fan, Mayer jumped at the opportunity.
A few months later, Mayer was cageside at UFC 207 as one of Rousey's guests, taking in the 20,000-seat T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and preparing to watch her sparring partner attempt a historic comeback.
Mayer told us about her history with Rousey, what it was like to train with her and how -- despite her loss to Amanda Nunes that night -- she's had a lasting impact on the sport.
I met Rousey about six years ago. I was heading out to my strength trainer's gym in the San Fernando Valley of California to meet him for lunch and discuss the training plan ahead of us. It was 2010, and my eyes were set on the 2012 Olympic Games in London (which I failed to make), and qualifiers were just a year-and-a-half away. He and I met across the street from his gym for chicken kabobs, and he was with one of the other athletes he had been working with.
She had a muscular build and was in gym clothes with her hair tied up in a bun, so you could tell as she had just finished a workout. My strength coach introduced her to me as Ronda Rousey and explained that she was the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in judo. We shook hands and went about our lunch discussing her Olympic experience, my Olympic aspirations and her plan to cross over into MMA.
I had no idea who Rousey was at the time, and neither did most of the world. I thought nothing about that lunch or that name until a few years later when I saw her face on a fitness-magazine cover in a 7-Eleven. I said, "Oh my god, that's the judo girl I had lunch with. She's really doing it."
Within the next few years, the name Rousey grew to be the biggest name in MMA. Even if you weren't a fan of the sport, you had heard of this girl who was kicking ass and taking names. So you tuned in. As I continued to chase my Olympic dream, I followed her career. When I would do an interview, reporters would often ask who my role models are or who I look up to. Despite being in a different sport, my answer was often Ronda Rousey. I couldn't help but to admire and respect the barriers she broke to create a career for herself -- a career that many could follow, and one that many might have laughed at, once upon a time.
I related to her because I had people around me who thought my dream of making the Olympics was silly. To most, I didn't fit the mold of a boxer, and the Olympics just seemed too grand for a girl who didn't even start boxing until age 17. But just like Rousey, I didn't pay any mind. When UFC president Dana White told her there would never be women in the UFC, she simply did not accept that as an answer.
The things Rousey was doing for her sport are the things I wanted to do for boxing. I wanted to break barriers and prove people wrong. I wanted to have a career doing what I loved, even if it wasn't currently an existing career for women. She was an inspiration to not just girls in the fight world, but girls of all kind, all over the world.
She dominated the sport for a long time, and when she lost to Holly Holm in 2015, it really shook the world. We didn't hear much from her after that. I remember checking her Instagram now and then to see if she started posting again, but there was nothing for the longest time.
As a fighter, I had no room to judge her disappearance. This game is tough on the body, but it's even tougher on the heart, and that's something that fans and critics don't really understand. When you put your life and soul into something and don't get the results you worked so extremely hard for, it's devastating.
Everyone deals with these losses in different ways. The entire world was watching Rousey. She had sacrificed all of her privacy and exposed her life and heart to the world, and I can imagine that that's a lot for someone to carry on their shoulders.
Some like to argue about her character or her lack of "humility," but let's be real, people ... that's what sells! That's why you all wanted to see her fight in the first place. She gave off this type of confidence that we all had no choice but to envy. It was intriguing and it was exciting, and that's the type of personality the UFC needed to launch women's MMA.
Everyone, including me, wondered when and if Rousey was going to come back after losing to Holm. A few months after getting back from the Games this year, before anyone knew if she would make a return, I received a message in my Instagram direct messages. It was from Edmond, Rousey's coach, asking if I would be interested in coming up to their camp to get in some rounds with her (boxing, of course).
I was excited to be helping the champ. I was honored that they sought me out for some work. I have a classic boxing style, good movement, and I work my long straight punches well. I think they figured I would emulate Nunes and would therefore be perfect practice for Rousey going into this fight. They were doing things differently this time around, and I could tell. Tuning out the media, bringing in top-notch sparring partners and honing in on the little things.
Joining their camp for those couple of weeks was a very enjoyable experience for me. Rousey worked extremely hard in the gym -- she is aggressive and strong and made me utilize all my tools. She was in amazing shape and you could tell she was hungry, focused and ready to get her belt back.
I was just as excited as anyone else to see this comeback and grateful that Edmond hustled to get me a couple tickets to the fight. I knew that both Nunes and Rousey were skilled and both had things they did best. This was not a matter of who was the better fighter -- this was going to be about strategy. Rousey had to play into her own strengths for the win, and the same went for Nunes.
Although I was disappointed in the outcome of the fight, I will always be on Team Rousey. She broke down walls to get to where she is, and that demands nothing but the ultimate respect and admiration. She has created opportunity for women all over the world to be able to have a career in this sport -- and not just a "good enough" career, but the opportunity to have a real, lucrative, acknowledged and respected career.
I appreciate this because that's what I strived to do for young women boxers in the United States. I wanted to help pave a way so that a young woman could say, "I want to be a boxer when I grow up" and not be laughed at or told to "just stay in school because there is nothing for you in this sport," as I was told.
Although I haven't made the impact that Rousey has, I hope to have opened some small doors along the way -- and even that wasn't easy. To make the kind of noise that Rousey has made is rare and unique and will forever go down in history books. Ronda Rousey is a courageous woman who has inspired millions. She is a legend.