Sometime after 10 p.m., on the night of April 26, 2014, in a cage at Baltimore Arena, undefeated Brazilian bantamweight Bethe Correia raised four fingers on her right hand. Then, with a toothy grin, she put one of them down. Somewhere else in the cage, Jessamyn Duke was recovering from a serious three-round beating. But Correia wasn't thinking about Duke, whose defeat snagged Correia her eighth win. She was calling out Ronda Rousey, Duke's friend, roommate, one-time coach and fellow Horsewoman.
And so the path to UFC 190, to be held Saturday in Correia's home country, began.
The narrative has been a strange mix of Beowulfian boast and the kind of "destroy-everyone-you-love" strategy most often seen in movies starring Liam Neeson. And it goes to the heart of what binds members of the fighting community to each other.
By now, the legend of the Four Horsewomen of MMA -- Rousey, Duke, Shayna Baszler and UFC newcomer Marina Shafir -- has been well-circulated. The fan-chosen moniker, based on the famed '80s pro wrestling heel team the Four Horsemen, has its origins in the 18th season of "The Ultimate Fighter," the UFC's reality show.
Rousey, who as TUF coach faced off against Miesha Tate, took Duke and Baszler onto her team and under her wing after Duke gave her a "110 percent for you, coach" speech, and Baszler bonded with her over zombie apocalypse strategy (not to mention their veteran statuses in the MMA world).
Duke and Baszler had been on one card together already, at Invicta, and also knew each other through mutual friends. They quickly made the decision to stick together for the duration of the show and found in Rousey not so much a coach as a peer.
"Ronda didn't put herself in the role of coach," says Duke. "She was our training partner, she was in the rotation, she came in on all the team practices and her coaches she brought in were training us."
Yet Rousey wasn't the only coach among the Horsewomen. Shafir, who had yet to make her UFC debut, joined as an assistant coach and shoulder to lean on -- a role she'd continue to play as the friendship among the four women deepened.
"Marina was this awesome moral support," says Duke, "the friend that you needed there to talk to when sh-- got horrible."
And it did get horrible. After Duke lost to Raquel Pennington during the TUF elimination round, Rousey was there not just with kind words, but with a deeply personal lesson.
"After I lost my fight, Ronda told me, 'Everyone thinks I have this perfect, undefeated record, but they don't see all the failures it took to get to this point,'" says Duke. "She talked about losing when [it] absolutely counted the most," referring to Rousey's failure to capture the gold medal in judo at the 2008 Olympics.
Fighting is agony and ecstasy, and the bonds formed between fighters -- fired by violence -- run deep. Fighters who train together do their best to punish the bodies of their partners, to make them better. Those who meet in the cage for the first time find their own connection. It's rage and joy at once.
"Fighting is an extremely intimate act," says Rousey. "It's just intimate on the other side of the spectrum. When you're fighting someone, that's the person you have the most in common with in the room. The same thing is the most important thing to you both."
For Rousey, Shafir, Baszler and Duke, the bonds formed in the cage would bleed into their burgeoning friendship, and vice-versa. A month or so after the four finished filming in the summer of 2013, Duke and Baszler had UFC premieres to look forward to. Duke reached out to Rousey about training in California, and Rousey not only offered her gym, but her and Shafir's home as well. Baszler, recovering from an ankle injury, would join a few months later from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Neither would end up leaving.
The foursome began spending nearly all of their time together, training at Rousey's gym in Glendale, California, then grabbing acai bowls after. They'd spent nights in front the TV, with WWE both on the screen and recreated on the much-battered living room floor, or gathered around Baszler as she read aloud from that paragon of high literature, Reddit. Whoever had an upcoming fight got priority treatment from the others: meals prepared, sleeping time respected, gym schedules worked around. And training itself became a team sport.
"When I tie up in a rotation with someone else," says Baszler "I feel like if Ronda's watching me, she'll watch me and be proud of me. If I see Jess rolling with someone, automatically I'm backing her."
They backed each other outside the gym as well. Shafir has recently admitted to struggling with depression and found solace in her housemates, even as she asked them to respect her space.
"The way I heal the best is just to let me be," she says. "They all understood that. There was a moment when I was going through everything where I was able to just be open about it, but then I kind of internalized because that's just how I heal."
Baszler and Duke would eventually move out when Rousey purchased a smaller property for Shafir and herself. But the four friends remained close, and they still tend to rotate on and off each others' couches.
Outside California, however, rancor was building. Correia fought her second Horsewoman, Baszler, at UFC 177 in August 2014, soundly defeating her in the second round. One more fight, one more finger down, and Correia was now on the war path for Rousey, who was just as eager to meet her. In fact, she demanded a fight with Correia, and soon.
In the lead-up to 190, both sides have exchanged pointed verbal jabs. In March, on the Brazilian TV show "Sensei", Correia said, "I think it's time to show Ronda is not all that people think she is. I know she's been winning, but she shows a lot of holes in her game." She also accused Rousey of lacking MMA skills.
For her part, Rousey's determined to "discipline" Correia, not only for her disrespect of the Horsewomen, but for making a remark that Rousey took as an insult against her late father (Correia would later apologize).
Rousey invoked her father at the UFC 190 news conference in May: "My dad had a great saying when someone needed to be shown what's up. He'd say 'This person needs to have a come-to-Jesus meeting.' And Bethe is going to have her own come-to-Jesus meeting in Brazil."
But regardless of what Correia's fingers are doing at the end of the fight in Rio, one thing's for certain: There will be three very loyal Horsewomen behind Rousey, ready to bring the apocalypse, if needed.