As a young girl, Ronda Rousey loved her Hulk Hogan wrestling buddy toy. The 25-year-old mixed martial artist and current Strikeforce bantamweight champion enjoyed playing with the stuffed doll so much that it became hazardous to the toy.
"I ripped the arm off of it several times," said Rousey, who has successfully made the transition from judo, where she won a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics, to MMA. "I remember his arm was sewn on over and over and over."
Rousey's opponents in the ring don't have the luxury of having their arms immediately repaired after she dismantles them via her signature armbar submission.
At 5-foot-6, 135 pounds, Rousey has not lost an MMA match and has eight straight armbar submission finishes, dating to three amateur fights in 2010 and '11. She secured her Strikeforce bantamweight title in March by beating beat Miesha Tate via armbar submission at the 4:27 mark of the first round. (To her credit, Tate lasted longer than all of Rousey's previous opponents.)
Rousey will defend her title against former division champion Sarah Kaufman on Saturday in San Diego (10 p.m. ET/PT, Showtime). Rousey vs. Kaufman headlines a nine-fight card that features three women's bouts.
Given that Rousey was on the cover of ESPN the Magazine's Body Issue and discussed pre-bout sex when she appeared on "Conan," it's hard to believe she struggled with shyness, insecurity and delayed speech growing up. Rousey suffered from damaged vocal cords after the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck during birth. She also lost her father at age 8 when he took his life after complications from a sledding accident.
After his death, Rousey's mother, Dr. AnnMaria De Mars, moved the family from North Dakota to Los Angeles and started coaching judo. Rousey had competed in swimming but hoped to find a new sport because swimming was something she had shared with her late father. When she was 11, she asked her mom to let her try judo.
De Mars, who in 1984 became the first U.S. athlete (male or female) to a win a judo world championship, worried about high expectations for her daughter in the sport because of her own track record of success. She ultimately agreed to Rousey's request, deciding judo might be a good way for her daughter to improve her social skills.
"Ronda had a lot of problems when she was little learning to talk and she was shy around other kids. She was just having a really hard time," said De Mars, who has a Ph.D. and runs a small company that provides online education in statistics, mathematics and disability issues. "I thought, I'll take her to judo because you have to have a partner. She'd have to go with another kid so at least it would help for her to get into a social setting."
Rousey proved to be a gifted judoka.
"I tried out and just had an amazing time," she said. "I just picked it up right away, and six years later I was on my first Olympic team."
Rousey's rapid ascent in the judo world led her to train with the renowned Pedro family, which resulted in her first Olympic berth in 2004. At age 17, Rousey was the youngest judo competitor in the Olympics. Four years later, she became the first United States woman to medal in the sport when she won bronze in Beijing.
"It felt like I was reaching the end point of a very important part of my life, like everything I'd worked for was paying off in that one moment," Rousey said. "To do something for your country like that and to be the first American woman to win a medal in judo since it became a full-fledged sport in 1992, I just felt incredibly proud of myself and fulfilled because I felt so much doubt and insecurity for so long in my career thinking that it might never pay off."
After returning home, Rousey wanted to take a break from judo and try being "normal;" she got a job as a bartender. Then, she attempted a judo comeback with a Japanese team, but her knee acted up (she had suffered a torn meniscus in 2007). Miserable and homesick, she returned to Los Angeles, broke and without a clear next step.
Rousey considered going back to school or joining the Coast Guard, but instead connected with Hayastan MMA in Hollywood. Rousey met with Gokor Chivichyan, a Hayastan coach who had been a teammate of her mother's.
"I knew them since I was a little kid. I did judo with them but they were the first guys to really do MMA," Rousey said of Chivichyan and Manny Gamburyan, a veteran UFC fighter. "I started going over there and thinking, 'What are my options?' I could be a rescuer for the Coast Guard, but I wasn't really willing to be moved around again and I really wanted to be home in Los Angeles. I thought I'd try this MMA thing out and if it doesn't work out, I'll join the Coast Guard."
The Coast Guard's loss proved to be MMA's gain, as Rousey adapted easily to the multisport discipline. Through Chivichyan, Rousey met her manager, Darin Harvey, and through Harvey, Rousey began training full time with her coaches, Leo Frincu and Edmond Tarverdyan. Frincu, Rousey's strength and conditioning coach and a wrestling world champion in 1994, recalls the first time he worked with Rousey.
"I called Darrin and said, 'Listen, this is a future world champion right here,'" Frincu said. "I have an eye for champions, more emotionally than physically. I throw a lot of things at them. She reacted completely different -- like I wanted her to react. Very emotionless, straight down to business. She was different from everybody I'd trained. I said, 'This is it. We have something here.'"
Rousey's mother, however, needed to be convinced. As someone who had focused on academics after her athletic success, De Mars hoped her daughter would go back to school.
"Me and Darrin sat down with her mother and she was very skeptical about what we were trying to do," Frincu said. "I said give us one year, and if after one year we didn't see any prospects for making a career out of it, then [Ronda] can go back to school or whatever she wants. We kind of made a deal and that's how we convinced her."
Less than a year later, in August 2010, Rousey made her amateur MMA debut. She turned pro in 2011 and made her Strikeforce debut in August. She's evolved from a judoka with potential to a legitimate force.
"There's a lot of judoka who get in the cage and they fail because they don't know how to use their judo," said Tarverdyan, Rousey's striking coach. "Ronda knows how to move. In her judo she always had to work on the mat and she had to win by pinning these girls down and submitting them. It works perfect for MMA. They can't stop her when she goes on the ground -- it's just simple. And she is going to take them on the ground because these girls don't know how to box; they don't know how to move."
Since her Strikeforce debut, Rousey, nicknamed "Rowdy," has developed a reputation for brash talk and exuberant confidence. Despite winning the bantamweight title in March, Rousey had her breakout moment when she appeared on the cover of ESPN the Magazine's Body Issue in July. Rousey is nearly naked, with her hands wrapped in pink tape and a tattoo of the Olympic rings visible above her left thigh.
For Rousey, putting her body on display represented an important step in her journey of growth and empowerment.
"I had a lot of self-image issues when I was younger because I was in a weight-division sport, so I felt like if I wasn't exactly on weight, I was fat or heavy or ugly," Rousey said. "I had all these issues in my head. I put all that shame I had about my body behind me and this was a healing thing for myself as well. I thought, 'You know what? I'm happy with myself and it's OK.' And I think doing the cover for ESPN the Body is really just a testament -- something I can hold and say I've overcome this."
As MMA has grown in popularity and Rousey's profile within the sport has risen, there's been talk she could be the first woman to compete in UFC.
"She's a Strikeforce fighter," UFC president Dana White told reporters at the UFC 150 postfight news conference Aug. 11 in Denver (Zuffa, LLC, the parent company of the UFC, owns Strikeforce). "The question was, 'If there was one girl that you could see fighting in the UFC in the next 10 years, who would it be?' Well, hypothetically speaking if that ever happened, it would be Ronda Rousey, probably.
"She's gotta win this weekend, though. Win this weekend first, and see what happens from there."