Ronda Rousey had reached such heights prior to her UFC 193 defeat that nothing could have prepared her for the fall which followed.
The second scene of the third act of Shakespeare’s Twelfth night provides a poignant line. Destitute and abandoned by his friends, Sir Andrew Aguecheek utters the words: “I was adored once too”. More than 400 years after Shakespeare penned those words, Ronda Rousey would issue the same quote in the fallout from her defeat to Holly Holm in Melbourne, Australia.
Rousey recently opened up about her mental and emotional struggles following UFC 193. During an interview on The Ellen Show the former women’s bantamweight champion admitted that she considered ending her own life in the aftermath of the fight. Rousey, who until her defeat to Holm had been the only UFC women’s bantamweight champion ever, questioned her own life’s worth:
“What am I anymore if I’m not this?”
The physical brutality of Rousey’s fall from the top was evident for anyone to see. The several broken teeth and concussion inflicted by Holly Holm left Rousey with a 180 day medical suspension. As Rousey lay prostrate on the Melbourne canvas the bells chimed; “the queen is dead, long live the queen”.
Rousey’s honesty and candidness isn’t surprising. What sets her apart from many other talented athletes in the UFC is her ability to be articulate with the media. But Rousey’s comments in the wake of her defeat cast light on a major problem within the UFC franchise.
The burden heaped upon athletes such as Rousey and featherweight champion Conor McGregor goes far beyond the incessant media obligations. The UFC has fought hard over the past decade to corner the MMA market. CEO Lorenzo Fertitta and president Dana White have created an MMA monopoly. While they do not control the whole of the market, the UFC’s market power satisfies the conditions for a monopoly in the US antitrust laws. Monopoly does not have to be a binary evaluation; it is the degree of market control that matters. This gives mixed martial artists few places, other than the UFC, to ply their trade.
One thing the UFC has done better than any other MMA franchise is promote their athletes as superstars. Rousey’s appearances in The Expendables 3, Furious 7 and Entourage, demonstrate her marketability outside of the octagon. UFC’s Embedded series have followed Rousey in the build up to her title fights. These candid vlog series have accentuated Rousey’s Dr Jekyll warmth and openness in interviews, as well as her Mr. Hyde ruthlessness and determination in dispatching opponents.
The lines between person, persona and athlete are constantly blurred by the promotion’s propaganda locomotive. Ronda Rousey’s guise as “Rowdy Ronda Rousey the Arm Collector” became her identity and even she believed it.
“What am I anymore if I’m not this?”
Former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar recently issued a blunt response to Rousey’s tearful display, in which he claimed that the 29-year-old should have learned how to lose a long time ago.
“One thing she should have learned a long time ago is that you have to learn how to lose before you can actually win… you have to be able to get back on the horse…one fight isn’t going to make or break her career” (via ESPN).
Rousey, however, has already lost on the biggest stage. Speaking before her fight with Holm on the Embedded series, Rousey stated that she was not afraid of losing.
“I know what [a loss] feels like. I have endured the worst losses possible. I lost in the final of the World Championships. My dream as a kid was to win the Olympics and I failed twice. Nobody knows what it feels like more than I do” (via UFC)
Rousey’s issues are not symptomatic of an athlete who has never faced a crisis of confidence or never learned how to lose. They are indicative of how she has been glorified and raised to deity by White and Feritta. The UFC executive saw in Rousey their cash cow. Rousey was rolled out repeatedly to promote the UFC and with great success.
This brings us back to the poignant Instagram post.
For Rousey the pain did not come from the loss of her belt, but from the loss of her imposed identity and the adoration she became accustomed to.
In some ways this level of pressure verges on emotional exploitation.
The company brass would have undoubtedly told Rousey that she was their number one, and her position as the highest paid athlete in the UFC reinforced this perception. As Rousey digested the defeat in her dressing room this position had already crumbled in her mind. Her doubt wasn’t in her athletic ability, it was in the words of the UFC top brass. Her life and emotional well being had become intertwined in her personality as “Rowdy Ronda”. Nothing had prepared her mentally for a time when she would no longer be the most prized fighter in the UFC.
The void left by Rousey has undoubtedly been filled by Conor McGregor. He is now the undisputed number one name in the UFC. While McGregor appears to be equipped with bulletproof confidence it is impossible to know how he conducts himself in private. Should McGregor lose at UFC196 next month, how will his emotional response differ to that of Rousey? McGregor would still remain the featherweight champion but his mystique and persona as “The Notorious” would be irreparably damaged.
The UFC’s popularity is not due to the exploitation of athletes. The promotion has simply manufactured a better MMA product than its competitors. Its position as the apex of the MMA industry though, has given way to complex.
Fighters in the UFC know that if their personas are disproved and eradicated through defeats, such as the one suffered by Rousey, then their time at the top is limited. Rousey will undoubtedly return to the UFC and is certain to get another crack at the bantamweight belt. She just won’t be the same Ronda Rousey we knew on November 14th 2015.