Love her, hate her, or continue to struggle with a deep ambivalence about her that you can’t completely articulate, you can’t deny that Ronda Rousey is a trailblazer. She was the first female UFC champion, the face that helped bring women’s mixed martial arts to the sport’s biggest stage, and helped to keep it there. With all due respect to the cinematic careers of Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, she was also MMA’s first major crossover star, becoming a genuine pop culture icon and capturing the mainstream public’s imagination with stunning speed and intensity. Even in defeat, she managed to break new ground: she became the subject of the sport’s first viciously major backlash.
In retrospect, this was probably inevitable. Pop culture has strong cannibalistic tendencies, fueled almost equally by the construction and demolition of the pedestals on which it places its stars of the moment. One need only look to last night’s Golden Globes to see how entrenched and obvious the absurd cycle is: the very audiences who helped to build the shiny demigods on parade sat back in glee as Ricky Gervais tore them down with tired bits, so self-satisfied that these famous people were finally getting their ostensible comeuppance, even as they build up the next generation (“That Brie Larson seems so grounded! Just like Jennifer Lawrence used to be!”) as if they won’t eventually be tossed on the sacrificial altar as well. And MMA has always been more rigid and less forgiving than that, with little tolerance for moral relativism or nuance from its heroes, ready to help accelerate anyone’s fall from grace the moment they show the faintest hint of hubris or weakness. This hasn’t been entirely without cause—the sport has seen some of its imperfect best and brightest flame out spectacularly in the past few years—but Jon Jones was already being labeled as uppity when he was stopping robberies, and Rousey was being dismissed as arrogant and classless even as she was helping Cat Zingano off the canvas and saying she deserved a rematch. So even if Rousey had continued to win—hell, even if she’d reigned in her sass mouth—she would have been torn down eventually.
Still, the dramatic nature of her Rousey’s rapid decline after she was knocked out by new bantamweight champ Holly Holm at UFC 193 was unexpected. As was the superlative schadenfreude with which her loss was received by the world. As suddenly and shockingly as she’d paved the way for other women in the sport, she’d also shown them how easily the public can turn on anyone—particularly a woman who never knew her place in what remains a male-dominated sport and industry.
The influence of that hard-earned lesson is starting to creep into the public personas of Rousey’s fellow fighters, who are clearly being very careful in how they talk about the star, and how they talk about themselves. It was noticeable in the measured way that Olympic silver medalist wrestler and mixed martial artist Sara McMann discussed the fighter who knocked her out in the first round at UFC 170. She virulently defended Rousey’s resilience and ability to bounce back from a loss in a recent interview with MMA Fighting.
“As somebody who is an Olympic athlete, who is also an Olympic medalist and a tournament athlete, it’s completely insulting to me,” McMann said of the speculation that Rousey’s knockout loss “broke” her. “It shows that people do not even understand what Ronda has actually done before. She got a bronze medal in the Olympics. That means she lost her Olympic dream, had her entire world crushed knowing she wasn’t going to be an Olympic gold medalist and she rallied the troops and came back and got a bronze. In a matter of hours, she got herself back together. That’s how you get to that level. It was really, really frustrating to me. Don’t think that she’s not resilient and she can’t adapt to those circumstances.”
McCann continued saying the response to Rousey’s loss has been unfair.
“As an athlete, she has earned a certain amount of respect for what she’s already done. Don’t you dare take that away from her. There’s a lot of blood and sweat and tears and surgeries for her to get where she’s gotten. Don’t discredit where credit is due.”
New champ Holly Holm, currently being hailed as the new standard for female fight champions, took a similar tone when discussing the backlash during her recent appearance on The MMA Hour.
“I don’t think anybody deserves that. I do think that she put herself in that position. She even said herself that if people don’t like her style, then she doesn’t care. That’s who she is and she doesn’t claim to be anybody else. I don’t have any animosity towards her. A lot of people feel like maybe I should, but I just don’t waste energy like that,” Holm said, later adding that “I don’t think that some of the negativity she’s received—some of it is not necessary. People get pretty brutal about stuff.”
There’s nothing wrong or remotely inaccurate about what either fighter has said. Rousey wasn’t exactly a paragon of virtue who has never done anything wrong before or after November 15, 2015, but the care with which they’re framing their opinions is intriguing. They must condemn her wrongdoing even as they’re condemning the disproportionate response to it, lest they face the latter themselves. They must be confident, but not too confident, because public vulnerability and ego are almost equally perilous in their positions. They’re aware of how precarious and short the life span of a favored female fighter can be and they’re choosing their words as carefully as they’d plan their strikes or takedowns. Because it’s now clearer than ever than one wrong move can be definitively devastating on both sides of the cage.