Ronda Rousey: Best in the World

As her fame grows, UFC's "Rowdy" star remains defiant: "There are better actresses out there," she says. "But there are no better fighters"

Ronda Rousey before her 14-second win over Cat Zingano at UFC 184. Credit: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty

Ronda Rousey isn't tired. She doesn't have time to be.

Even amid an unrelenting schedule that includes appearances on The Tonight Show and The View, not to mention a tête-à-tête with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo regarding sanctioned recognition of Mixed Martial Arts in the Empire State ("I walked out of that room feeling like he was in our corner," she assures), the 28-year-old UFC Women's Bantamweight Champion seems eternally at ease. As she explains while en route from ESPN HQ in Bristol, Connecticut to her NYC hotel – where she'll rest up before stopping by Good Morning America – that ability to remain relaxed and rise above has become fundamental to being Ronda Rousey.

"I know how to put my nose to the dirt and just work when the work needs to get done," she says.

She didn't always have such heady concerns, or as busy a schedule. Just a few years earlier, her legacy was secondary to that of her mother's, former World Judo Champion AnnMaria De Mars. Not that Ronda was any slouch, having taken home a bronze medal in judo competition at the 2008 Summer Olympics and set MMA abuzz with her transition into the hybrid sport in 2010. But global fame, the kind that transcended her mother's and arguably even female-fighter predecessors including Laila Ali and Gina Carano, truly descended on Rousey after she signed on with UFC in 2012 – just as more eyes were turning towards the company's product and MMA as a whole.

And since the moment she retained the aforementioned Women's Championship (which she brought over from rival promotion Strikeforce after its absorption by UFC) via her signature armbar submission against Liz Carmouche in February 2013, Rousey has been thrust into dual roles as elite athlete and ambassador for ass-kicking women the world over. She doesn't cower from her reputation or responsibility in either capacity, and that's precisely what's distinguished her as the consensus face of MMA.

"I'm glad I could fill both those roles," she insists. "There are a lot of things I'd like to see changed, and I'm glad that I could actually do something about it. I've been unemployed before, so I'm never unhappy about having a little too much work."

Naturally, heavy is the head that wears the crown. Rousey's coronation came with its share of detractors, notably past and future adversaries such as Sarah Kaufman and Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino, who've openly dismissed her success as being more marketing-driven than merited. But two-plus years into her UFC title run, Rousey no longer feels compelled to apologize for having the total package of talent, attractiveness and charisma (which has also led her to the cover of ESPN the Magazine and Maxim, in addition to movie roles in Furious 7, The Expendables 3 and Entourage and the imminent publication of her memoir), because her in-ring reign speaks for itself.

"I'm first and foremost a fighter," she says defiantly. "No one would give a damn about how I look if I wasn't. When I was bartending, you know what my looks got me? Tips. You know how many magazine covers I was on? Zero. There are prettier models out there, there are better actresses out there, but there are no better fighters out there."

Not surprisingly, the only attribute of Rousey's more reputed than her lethal armbar is her legendary gift for talking shit. After it was announced last month that the champ would defend her gold against Brazilian badass Bethe Correia (pronounced Betch Co-hey-ya) at UFC 190 on August 1, Rousey invoked Jay Z when she quipped on The View that, "I got 99 problems but a Bethe ain't one."

It was an almost too-perfect nugget of trash, but its author takes audible offense at the suggestion that anyone else scripts her punch lines.

"I don't have a writer, OK?" she laughs. "This isn't WWE. I make my own material on the spot. As soon as I heard her name, I was like, 'Wait, hold on a second. It's really Bethe? Oh my God, promotion for this fight is gonna be so fun.' What if I was fighting a girl named Bethe that I actually liked and I couldn't do anything with it? I can't stand this chick. I'm gonna have a ball with that name."

Gentle slight notwithstanding, Rousey is actually an avowed WWE and pro-wrestling fan (her nickname, "Rowdy" Ronda, is homage to grappling great Roddy Piper). In fact, she recently set the Internet ablaze with an unannounced appearance alongside the Rock at WrestleMania, where she simultaneously shilled Furious 7 and whetted appetites for a possible clash with WWE villainess Stephanie McMahon. Heading into the event, her only wish was that Bray Wyatt would topple the Undertaker. That didn't come to pass, but Wyatt's ways with a microphone ("I try to take whatever he does that's applicable in my situation," she admits) and sports entertainment's prevailing theatricality remain influential on Rousey's persona.

"What draws people into WWE are the storylines," she says, likening it to her philosophy about stirring interest for a UFC pay-per-view. "Building that storyline into the fights is really important, because it makes the shit personal to people who are watching. If we're both sitting on a couch, and I like one person that's fighting and you like another person that's fighting, we're gonna start debating it, and whoever wins that fight solves the argument, so now we're personally invested."

Just don't ask Rousey to hang out and watch footage of those fights after the fact. For one, it's a bit too surreal – "It's almost like playing a video game," she says. "[If] I want my chin to go lower, I'll tuck my chin as I'm watching the video." She also doesn't view what she does as blood sport, contrary to what all that verbal sparring might suggest. A win is a win, and there's no denying that, but Rousey's come to feel a kinship with her fellow female fighters, who are all struggling for acceptance inside the Octagon and out of it. After dispatching of opponent Cat Zingano in 14 seconds back in February, Rousey was left to compartmentalize mixed emotions.

"She'd been through so much personally in her life, I really did empathize with her a lot," Rousey says, likely referencing the untimely death of Zingano's husband as well as her own father's suicide. "I know she's in there to try and take away everything I worked for my entire life, but I understand what it's like to go through hard times and deal with loss. That was the only time I really felt that."

Unbelievable as it may seem, there probably will come a day when Rousey tastes defeat inside the Octagon, be it at Correia's hands or someone else's. But part of why she's been so impossible to topple in her MMA career is her ability to cast out doubt and put aside vulnerability until she's tasted victory. It's what separates winners from losers in the strictest sense, and why Rousey's become so fearsome in her environment.

"I don't waste my time thinking about things that aren't gonna happen," is her response to how she'd handle being KO'd or forced to submit. "I've already coped with the largest losses I could possibly have. I've lost the finals of the World Championships, I've lost the Olympics twice. I know exactly what that feels like, and I'd rather die than go back there again."

It's a fate others can suffer until Rousey retires – or segues full-time into non-combative entertainment. But until then, she gets to wake up the morning after each fight and, as she happily states, "Have nothing to do that day, and be like, 'Oh yeah, I'm the best in the world. Let's get some breakfast.'"