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Three-year-old Ronda Rousey stood in the middle of a Toys"R"Us in Riverside, Calif., looking up at her father, Ron, through blue eyes like his, and tried to tell him what she wanted for her birthday. Because of a speech impediment, all that spilled out was a string of scrambled syllables. So Ronda led her dad around the store, past Barbies and plastic princesses and glittery baubles, until she saw a two-foot-tall Hulk Hogan doll. When the Rouseys arrived home, Ronda body-slammed the Hulk Hogan Wrestling Buddy the way she'd seen the boys in the commercials do it. Not long after, she tore Hogan's stuffed arm from his stuffed body.
Ronda's mother, AnnMaria, stitched the arm back on. Ronda kept ripping it off. Then AnnMaria used an old trick from her judo days: dental floss. AnnMaria, the first American—man or woman—to win a world judo championship, in 1984, had used floss to sew the seams of her gi. Today, as she thinks back on her daughter's dismembering the Hulk, AnnMaria says, "Maybe that was a precursor."
Ronda, now 25, has treated each of her six professional mixed-martial-arts opponents the way she treated that Hulk Hogan doll, twisting and stretching their arms and even separating them from their sockets with her trademark armbar. The move, applied when both fighters are on the ground, is to Rousey what the cutter is to Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera: a means of attack that the opposition knows is coming but is helpless to stop. Rousey hyperextends her opponent's elbow or shoulder by applying a few pounds of pressure, and because Rousey has all the leverage, the opponent can't roll out. When you do the armbar right, Rousey says, "you feel all the cartilage and the tendons and bones coming off.... It's gross."
Rousey dismissed her first pro opponent, Ediene Gomes, in 25 seconds, the same amount of time she needed for her third challenger, Sarah D'Alelio. Rousey's six pro bouts have totaled seven minutes and 39 seconds; none have gone past the first round, and all ended in armbars. Wrestling specialist Miesha Tate, from whom Rousey won the bantamweight (135 pounds) belt in March, endured 4:27 before suffering a dislocated elbow. The result of Rousey's armbar sounded like "Velcro ripping apart," Tate wrote in an e-mail. Sarah Kaufman, Rousey's latest victim, lasted 54 seconds. In the 19 months since her professional debut, Rousey's armbar has made her one of MMA's most dominant and recognized figures—male or female.
Outside the cage, meanwhile, Rousey's trash-talking has made her one of the sport's most quoted fighters. She's verbally smacked down everyone from Kim Kardashian ("I don't want some girl whose entire fame is based on a sex video to be selling Skechers to my 13-year-old little sister") to Michael Phelps, who she claims demanded a private room at a Team USA Olympic party in Beijing ("Hello, we're your teammates. We're not a bunch of groupies") to opponents such as Kaufman ("If I get her in an armbar, I'm gonna try to rip it off and throw it at her corner"). The girl who couldn't speak now can't stop talking, and her words and actions are remaking the MMA landscape.
RONDA JEAN ROUSEY entered the world fighting. She was born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, which cut off oxygen to her brain and damaged some sections that govern speech. When Ronda was three, AnnMaria and Ron moved the family—including Ronda's older sisters, Maria and Jennifer—from California to Minot, N.D. AnnMaria, a Ph.D. in educational psychology, had taken a teaching job at Minot State, where the school's renowned speech-therapy department treated Ronda for free.
Ron, an Army veteran, retired from a management position at General Dynamics in California to move but quickly grew bored in Minot. He took a job as director of research and development at Sioux Manufacturing, 120 miles east in Devils Lake. Ron remained there during the week and rejoined his family on weekends. Because her sisters were hindering her speech development by translating for her, Ronda went to live with her father during the week.
Ron couldn't have been happier when Ronda moved in. He taught Ronnie, as he called her, to shoot a gun and hunt quail as they rode in his pickup with their German short-haired pointer. Ron would rise before dawn on weekends to take Ronnie to swim meets, where she regularly won races as a member of a Junior Olympic swim program. "You're going to win the Olympics," he'd tell her. "You're going to be president. You can do anything."
In 1991, Ron broke his back in a sledding accident and also discovered that he had a rare blood disorder, Bernard-Soulier syndrome, which would hinder his healing and send him back to the hospital frequently over the next four years. In '95, not wanting his daughters to remember him in a hospital bed hooked up to machines, Ron drove to a pond where he and Ronnie used to search for rocks and ran a hose from the exhaust pipe to the passenger compartment of his truck. A few days later eight-year-old Ronda sat with her sisters in front of a coffin with a U.S. flag placed on top.
After Ron's death Ronda stopped swimming. "That was more a me-and-him thing," she says. Plus, AnnMaria's resources of both time and money were growing short. To supplement the family income, AnnMaria took on additional teaching jobs and wrote grants for others. She also began teaching judo, and she took the girls along for the classes. Ronda remembers the first time she saw her mom grab a student and execute an armbar.