Rousey did what she always had when things got tough: She started training in earnest, this time with an eye toward MMA. Her mother wasn't thrilled, preferring that Ronda go to college, and even Ronda didn't know what hope MMA held for her. Dana White, the MMA kingmaker and president of UFC, the sport's highest circuit, had repeatedly declared that no woman would ever compete in UFC. Still, Rousey persisted until June 2010, when Darin Harvey, a wealthy real estate developer who had become an MMA manager, walked into the Team Hayastan gym and saw her working out. Harvey, a 5'11", 190-pound brown belt, challenged Ronda to a roll. In roughly the time it will take you to read this sentence, he was lying on his back, and minutes after that he was signing his newest client.
Harvey immediately went to work marketing his new fighter. But it seemed every fight he scheduled led to a cancellation. "These chicks would accept the fight, and then they'd Google Ronda and be like, Oh, hell no!" says Rousey's best friend, Wetzel Parker. Harvey, running out of options, offered money to potential opponents. All he could muster for Rousey's first pro fight was the much more experienced Gomes, who already had seven professional bouts under her black belt. "I would rather it was that way than fighting a bunch of schmoes and building a padded record like a boxer," says Rousey. "I was in a rush."
So, too, were MMA executives. After watching Rousey tear through the competition—noting that she was the prettiest and wittiest fighter out there—Strikeforce, a UFC sister organization and the biggest circuit that uses female fighters, signed her to a contract in 2011. The league leapfrogged Rousey over more experienced contemporaries to get her a shot at Tate's bantamweight belt in March 2012. Rousey rewarded Strikeforce with what may have been the most grotesque submission in MMA history, mangling the tendons and ligaments in Tate's arm in front of Showtime cameras. After claiming the world championship, Rousey grabbed the center-cage microphone and said, "Dad, wherever you are, I hope that you see this.... I hope you're proud of me."
It's after dark on a Tuesday evening in late September when Rousey's tattered beige Honda rattles up in front of the Glendale Fighting Club. She can afford to replace the Fonda Ronda Honda, as she calls it, several times over. The Kaufman bout in mid-August, Rousey's first title defense, ranked sixth among MMA fights broadcast on Showtime, attracting 676,000 viewers—on par with the network's Inside the NFL. She declines to divulge the details of her Strikeforce contract, saying only, "I couldn't retire, but I'd be chilling for a while." Still, she prefers a spartan existence, heeding the advice of Mickey in Rocky III: "You can't get civilized."
She breezes into the studio where Edmond Tarverdyan, a champion muay thai boxer and top trainer who once refused even to watch Rousey work out because he didn't take female fighters seriously, displays pictures of her on the walls of his storefront studio. Tonight she'll work with him on her striking, to round out her skills so that the armbar is a match closer and not a crutch.
Rousey doesn't know whom she'll fight next. A face-off with Brazil's Cris (Cyborg) Santos, a 145-pounder, would be the biggest bout in women's MMA history. It seems inevitable but not imminent because Santos is serving a one-year suspension for steroid use and because of the difference in weight classes. After defeating Kaufman, Rousey took the microphone and said, "I need to send out a challenge to Ms. Cyroid.... I'm the champ now. The champ doesn't go to you—you go to the champ. Come down to 135, and let's settle this."
For now Rousey isn't even sure what league she'll be fighting in. Of all of her submissions, her most impressive one might be that of White and his stance against women in UFC. "She turned me around," says White, who last week announced that he's adding a women's division to the sport's top circuit. "She's a real fighter down to the core. Ronda Rousey will be the first UFC women's champion."
Rousey's influence extends beyond UFC, too. A new all-female league, Invicta, has emerged in her wake, and a line of endorsement offers awaits her approval. But the greatest sign of her success is in the corner of the Glendale studio, where 10-year-old Gabriel Torres waits to ask for Ronda's autograph. As she signs his boxing mitts, she leans over to tell him a variation of what she heard so many times: You can win the Olympics. You can be president. You can be anything.