Ronda Rousey Rewrites the Script
Ronda Rousey was co-featured on a fight card at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, July 7. But it wasn’t what the combat sports world once envisioned it would be. Instead, the woman who was honored at the 2015 ESPY Awards as “Best Fighter” of the year wrestled a former plus-model named Nia Jax on the WWE LIVE SummerSlam Heatwave Tour.
Three years ago, Rousey was the UFC 135-pound women’s champion. She’d been featured in mainstream publications ranging from Time Magazine to The New Yorker. Movie-goers had seen her in Entourage and The Expendables 3. Sports Illustrated, which featured Rousey in its annual swimsuit issue, called her the most dominant athlete in the world. She had an almost biological symbiosis with the spotlight and knew what to do when it was shining on her. Almost singlehandedly, she forced UFC to acknowledge and promote women’s MMA
Then came the fall. It turned out that Rousey, who won two gold medals in judo at the Junior World Championships, two gold medals at the Pan Am Games, a silver medal at the World Championships, and a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, couldn’t take a punch. She was knocked out by Holly Holm in the second round of their fight in Melbourne in November 2015. Thirteen months later, it took Amanda Nunez 48 seconds to accomplish the same end.
Cover-girl looks don’t help once the bell rings.
Rousey, now 31 years old, has since found greener pastures, or at least safer waters. Earlier this year, she joined WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) as an active combatant. The number of shows she will participate in this year has yet to be determined, as is the case with all WWE superstars. Suffice it to say for the moment that WWE won’t be putting Ronda on the road for a dozen shows each month. She’ll be reserved for spectaculars.
The scene at Madison Square Garden on July 7 was typical of big WWE events. There was a crowd of roughly 15,000, most of whom were in their seats when the first match began at 7:30 PM. Jeans were the most common attire. There wasn’t a tie in sight. It was a young crowd. Many in attendance were parents with grade-school-age children in tow. At 6-feet-11-inches tall, New York Knicks center Enes Kanter was the most visible celebrity in the audience. The action was magnified by four large video screens that hang from the rafters and also by another large screen that WWE erected at one end of the arena. Loud music blared between fights.
There were nine bouts including multiple tag-team and championship encounters with very little downtime in between. All of the matches pitted heroes against villains (“babyfaces” versus “heels” in WWE parlance).
Fans go to WWE events knowing that they’ll get what they want. It’s understood that there will be back-and-forth action in every bout. No tag-team match ends until each of the grapplers has seen at least some combat. And most important for those in attendance on Saturday night, it was expected that The Undertaker would score a dramatic match-ending pin. More on that later in this article.
The matches are scripted but not danger-free. The stunts require flexibilty, agility, acrobatic skill, and strength. If the timing is wrong, particularly with a body-slam or leap from a turnbuckle, someone can get hurt.
Many of the male combatants had body-builder physiques, although some looked as though they’ve been drinking a lot of beer lately.
There’s a high level of audience participation at WWE events. Fans count punches aloud as they land, urge fighters to employ various strategies, and wave cell phones on cue in a suddenly-darkened arena. On occasion, they chant in unison, “This is awesome.”
Rousey faced off against Jax in the eighth match of the evening.
Traditionally, professional wrestling was an end-of-the-line destination for former boxers who were no longer competitive in a boxing ring and were having trouble making ends meet.
In 1956, Joe Louis went on tour as a professional wrestler. The script for his matches was predictable. Louis was pitted against a villainous opponent who would engage in dirty tactics until rendered unconscious by The Brown Bomber’s famed right hand. However, his wrestling career came to an abrupt end soon after it began when a 320-pound opponent named Rocky Lee timed a leap poorly and landed on Louis’s chest, breaking two of his ribs and bruising the muscles around his heart.
Thereafter, Louis refereed occasional wrestling matches until 1972 when poor health intervened. That mirrored the journey Jack Dempsey traveled, beginning in 1931 when he refereed a wrestling match between Jim O’Dowd (good guy) and Billy Edwards (villain). Edward had the timerity to punch Dempsey, and The Manassa Mauler promptly knocked the heel unconscious. Dempsey continued to referee wrestling matches into his seventh decade when Walter “Killer” Kowalski accidentally kicked him in the stomach and sent him (for real) to the hospital.
Muhammad Ali was a “special guest referee” when Hulk Hogan and Mr. T battled Paul Orndorff and Rowdy Roddy Piper in WrestleMania I at Madison Square Garden in 1985. Ali also squared off against Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in Tokyo in 1976. But that confrontation was unscripted and stultifying boring as Inoki crabwalked around the ring on his butt for fifteen long rounds. Chuck Wepner was thrown out of the ring by Andre the Giant in an undercard bout that night.
More recently, Mike Tyson appeared as a “special outside enforcer” at WrestleMania XIV in 1998 and as a participant in a tag-team match on WWE Monday Night Raw in 2010. Floyd Mayweather was in the ring against Big Show at Wrestlemania 24 in 2008.
But those were all parttime ventures by boxers, and most of them were in non-combat roles. Rousey is now both a combatant and a regular on the WWE circuit. In that regard, her role model is Brock Lesnar, who won an NCAA heavyweight wrestling championship while at the University of Minnesota, was featured in the main event on five UFC pay-per-view telecasts, and has wrestled on and off for WWE for the past sixteen years.
One of the keys to a wrestler’s success is the skill level of the partner and opponents that he or she performs with. In Rousey’s first WWE outing (Wrestlemania 34 in New Orleans on April 8 of this year), she was paired with veteran Kurt Angle. Together, they defeated the tag-team duo of Triple H (known outside the ring as Paul Michael Levesque) and Stephanie McMahon when Rousey applied her famed arm-bar to McMahon.
Angle, McMahon, and Levesque are pros who go about their business exceedingly well. That said; Rousey surprised – and is continuing to surprise – a lot of people at WWE with how good she is.
A lot of hard work is involved in implementing a WWE script. Rousey is a natural. She has charisma. She has prodigious athletic gifts. And she plays to the crowd well. Having been featured on film in The Expendables 3, she’s very much at home in live theater.
“Are you nervous?” Ellen DeGeneres asked Rousey shortly before her WWE debut.
“I’m nervous but not like Olympic nervous,” Ronda answered. “The worst thing that can happen is that I’ll look stupid.”
As for Rousey vs. Nia Jax at “the world’s most famous arena” . . . Jax (whose real name is Savelina Fanene) is a 34-year-old native of Australia who WWE lists as being 6-feet-2-inches tall and weighing 272 pounds. Wikipedia says she’s two inches shorter and 32 pounds lighter. Jax has been on the WWE circuit since 2015 and has engaged in various feuds as both a hero and villain.
Rousey is 5-feet-7-inches tall. When she fought on UFC cards, she weighed 135 pounds for a few hours before each weigh-in. She now weighs closer to 150.
I don’t follow WWE storylines on a regular basis. But it appears as though Rousey challenged Jax for the WWE Raw Women’s championship in Chicago on June 17 and was on the verge of dethroning Nia with her famed armbar. Then the villainous Alexa Bliss entered the ring.
Bliss (a/k/a Alexis Kaufman) is 28 years old and hails from Columbus, Ohio. She’s at the opposite end of the size spectrum from Jax and is listed as being 5-feet-1-inch tall, 101 pounds. Alexa is the snarky blonde everyone in high school hated. She also reportedly has a deaf pet pig named Larry-Steve.
Bliss attacked Rousey from behind with a briefcase, thereby depriving Ronda of a championship victory over Jax. And to make matters worse, literally minutes later, the evil Ms. Bliss fought the now-impaired Jax in a bout that ended with the evildoer claiming the throne. Then, not content to simply wear the crown, Bliss taunted Rousey at a WWE show the following night. Ronda became so enraged that she punched Bliss in the stomach and threw her though a table, assaulted Kurt Angle (who doubles as WWE RAW’s “general manager”), and attacked four referees who raced into the ring to restore order. This earned Rousey a 30-day suspension, placing her July 7 WWE appearance at Madison Square Garden in jeopardy. However, a loophole in the suspension allowed Ronda vs. Nia to proceed as planned.
Thus it was that Ronda Rousey and Nia Jax did battle in a ring pitched on the hallowed ground where Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier for the first time. As Rousey-Jax unfolded, WWE aficionados realized that the script was virtually identical to online accounts of the previous night’s encounter between them at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
On each occasion, Alexa Bliss and Alexa’s sidekick (the not-quite-as-evil Mickie James) were guest referees. Rousey and Jax engaged in heated combat. But each time that Ronda was on the verge of a pin, Bliss and James conspired to deny her the victory. In one instance, James “slow counted.” In another, Mickie claimed she had hurt her shoulder (or was it her wrist?) and hadn’t been able to slap the matt for the final count. Eventually, Rousey and Jax grew disgusted with both referees and knocked them out, after which they returned to fighting each other. Then a third referee (who was honorable) charged into the ring to supervise the rest of the match, which ended when Ronda submitted Nia with an arm bar.
By this time, the crowd at Madison Square Garden was in a proverbial frenzy. And the thunderous roars grew louder when 53-year-old Mark William Calaway (known to wrestling fans as “The Undertaker”) strode to the ring for the final bout of the evening.
“The Undertaker,” has moved back and forth between being a hero and a villain and is regarded as one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time. He began his combat career in 1984 and has been with WWE since 1990. He has held seventeen different championships and is a seven-time WWE Champion, six-time WWE Tag-Team Champion, and one-time WWE Hardcore Champion. He has compiled a 24-and-2 record in Wrestlemania events (losing only to Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns). His victims have included Jimmy Snuka, King Kong Bundy, Diesel, Triple H, Rick Flair, Big Show, and Kane. At Wrestlemania 34 on April 8, 2018 (the same night that Rousey and Kurt Angle, defeated Triple H and Stephanie McMahon), The Undertaker pinned John Cena after a mere 2 minutes 46 seconds of battle.
This was The Undertaker’s first live performance at Madison Square Garden in eight years. Fans were treated to a tag-team affair that joined him with Braun Strowman and Roman Reigns against Kevin Owens, Baron Corbin, and Elias. It ended with The Undertaker scoring a crowd-pleasing pin against Owens.
And everyone went home happy.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His most recent book – There Will Always Be Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.