Ronda Rousey made her WWE debut over the weekend at the Royal Rumble, the culmination of a years-long flirtation that began in earnest at the height of the former MMA champion’s popularity.
In the 34 months since Rousey teased a feud with Stephanie McMahon — appearing alongside mega-star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and WWE fixture Triple H, immediately positioning at the federation’s apex — she suffered a pair of devastating losses that effectively ended her fighting career. She also appeared in the Entourage movie.
Circumstances ushering Ronda Rousey into professional wrestling certainly differ compared to 2015, when she was among the hottest stars in sports — not just MMA, but sports. Her stature cooled off considerably since, but her presence in WWE still has remarkable potential.
I first had this thought after reading a news blurb from Friend Of The Site Joseph Nardone at FanBuzz. Several WWE wrestlers tweeted annoyance at the almost tunnel-vision coverage of Rousey’s debut, which overshadowed the groundbreaking, first-ever all-women’s Rumble match.
Knee-jerk reaction: It’s a work.
Ronda Rousey isn’t the first crossover athlete to wrestle in WWE. The first truly high-profile athlete I remember making the jump was Lawrence Taylor, who headlined WrestleMania XI in 1995 against Bam Bam Bigelow. LT’s spot in the main event relegated the WWF Championship match between Kevin Nash and Shawn Michaels lower on the card, but Nash said in a recent interview he was unfazed.
There’s quite a bit from Nash’s thoughts on Lawrence Taylor that apply to Ronda Rousey. LT was a game-changer for football, a prototype for the athletic, linebacker-defensive end hybrid. Though the twilight of her career took a quick and unfortunate turn, Rousey was a game-changer for MMA.
My first exposure to Ronda Rousey came via her March 2012 Strikeforce bout with Miesha Tate. A good friend of mine who covers MMA recommended I tune into Showtime to watch this unreal talent; an up-and-comer from California with Olympic credentials and a nasty submission game. However, I think I was most firmly sold on his pitch that Rousey patterned her presence outside of the cage after “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, a point germane to the former MMA champion’s latest career turn.
Aside from spawning the unforgettable headline image, that show also immediately sold me Ronda Rousey. Her dominance of Tate was a master class, which she topped five months later in San Diego.
The same friend who turned me onto Rousey needed a freelancer to cover the Strikeforce card for his outlet, and tabbed me. I was cageside for her 54-second deconstruction of Sarah Kaufman, and the lede for my Yahoo! Sports feature read: “If Ronda Rousey’s armbar is not yet regarded as the most devastating single move in all of sports, it probably should be.”
Rousey rode a wave of buzz from Strikeforce into UFC, ostensibly launching the top MMA league’s women’s division. And she’s the foundation for its success.
UFC would have ventured into promoting women’s fights if there had been no Ronda Rousey, but the brand would not have been successful. MMA had other dominant fighters — some better than Rousey, as her final two fights demonstrated — but she had the right combination of athletic prowess and charisma to build buzz that transcended the niche MMA hardcore fan base.
To wit, two of UFC’s eight most-viewed pay-per-views and 3 of 15 featured Rousey in the main event. Her appeal landed her starring roles in big-budget studio movies. For a window of a year or two, she truly was one of the most prominent athletes in the world — with emphasis on was.
Despite her name value, mainstream appeal and debut that included a sincere homage to the aforementioned Roddy Piper, Ronda Rousey is a heel. Period, full-stop, there is no other way to go.
While former UFC Heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar appeared in WWE in 2012 and was immediately thrust into the main event — on a part-time schedule that spared him the company’s grueling road schedule and, apparently, precludes him from steroid testing — Lesnar made his name in professional wrestling.
Fan or not, Ronda Rousey came up through a different avenue and seemingly moves to the front of the line ahead of established talent. It’s especially intriguing in the women’s division, which existed for much longer than UFC’s, but only WWE only began presenting women’s wrestling in a serious tone consistently in the last few years — coinciding with the rising popularity of women’s MMA.
Professional wrestling’s women have had to work relentlessly to overcome institutional hurdles, and to lose that spotlight to an outsider renders Rousey the default heel.
Obviously, I don’t know if that’s the plan. I would be surprised if it is; I have not thought highly of Vince McMahon’s judgement lately, and wrestling promoters have a track record of pushing crossover athletes as faces. WWE tried it initially with Floyd Mayweather Jr. ahead of WrestleMania XXIV, a few months shy of TNA pulling the scumbag carny move of hiring Adam “Pacman” Jones on the heels of his NFL suspension. Both promotions changed course amid fan backlash, an unlikely scenario in this case given Rousey’s natural likability.
However, the real intrigue is in showcasing her as a ruthless heel — like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.