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The beast within the beauty

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When Ronda Rousey was but a little girl – shy and hushed – her dad bestowed upon her words to live by.

Tragically, Ron Rousey was dead when Ronda was just 8 years old. His words, however, lived on.

"He's the one that told me I'd win a gold medal and be the best in the world someday," she remembers. "And when you're 8 years old, your dad's right about everything."

And now, Ronda Rousey is 24 years old and she's become an illustration of beauty, brawn and devastating mixed-martial-arts skill that has many believing she is, indeed, destined to be the best in the world.

"I've seen plenty of great fighters; I've worked with plenty of great fighters," says Edmond Tarverdyan, Rousey's trainer at the Glendale Fighting Club, "but Ronda's something different. She's just different — she's special."

On a sunny afternoon inside the Glendale Fighting Club, Rousey bounces from side to side atop an oversized truck tire. She watches every faint, every jab, every hook, as a pair of boxers go at it in the ring with trainer Tarverdyan looking on.

Not long before, Rousey was in the very same ring, but the girl she was sparring lasted mere seconds. Rousey knocked her down and she couldn't get up. In fact, her opponent's knee buckled to the point that she could barely get out of the ring. That left Rousey as the last woman standing in the Glendale corner gym. But it's nothing new for her and it's certainly not something she's uncomfortable with.

"I can walk into a room full of men and not be the least bit intimidated," she says.

While MMA is arguably the world's fastest growing sport, there are still skeptics aplenty. For the burgeoning sport of women's MMA, there are even more. And in a fighting world that can often be a boys' club, Rousey has had to fight to prove she belongs just as vigorously as she has for victories.

"I'm a girl," she says, "I have to prove myself at every new place I go."

But inside the confines of the Glendale Fighting Club or North Hollywood's Team Hayastan or Van Nuys' SK Golden Boys, while Rousey could never be visually mistaken as one of the boys, her fighting skills and tenacity most assuredly could.

"She's always been a tough girl," says MMA fighter Karen Darabedyan, a longtime friend and training partner of Rousey's. "She's really strong, very technical, she's never an easy fight.

"I think she works as hard, if not more [than any guy]. She's a perfectionist, that's what she has and very few guys have it. She's a go-getter.

"She's a beautiful girl and aside from that she can fight. She's an All-American girl, but it's not just this image — she can really fight. She could beat a lot of guys I think. I think she's gonna go on to really big things – really big things."

Bigger things perhaps, as Rousey has already accomplished very much.

That's why, as she bounces along at the Glendale Fighting Club, she is days ahead from a surge of media exposure in this paper and the next, with radio and podcast interviews, as well.

A former two-time U.S. Olympian in judo and a bronze medalist, she owns an undefeated 5-0 combined mark in amateur and pro MMA bouts in which she's left a battered assortment of opponents and twisted limbs in her wake in stunningly quick fashion, totaling just 2 minutes and 57 seconds of total fight time.

"She's the best girl out there," says Alberto Crane, a third-degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and a former Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran. "She was bred for this.

"She's a star for sure. She was meant to do this."

When Rousey talks, it's easy to listen. In 24 years, she's led an interesting life and it's a story she can tell with confidence and articulation.

It certainly wasn't always that way, though, as she was born with a damaged vocal cord and a subsequent speech impediment that required speech therapy. She also overcame an early bout with shyness.

In many ways, she says, it was largely through the help of her sisters and dad that she was able to communicate. It was also her dad who got her into swimming.

"I was never into team sports," Rousey says. "I don't trust other people with my own pride.

"I don't believe anybody can work as hard as I can."

Alas, though Rousey recollects she was successful with swimming, it wasn't for her when all was said and done.

"I was an OK swimmer," she states, "but I was born to fight."

Ron Rousey had all of Toys 'R Us searching for a toy that didn't exist when his little daughter could barely mumble about the toy she truly wanted. If was eventually figured out to be a Hulk Hogan "Wrestling Buddy" that Ronda would soon, "beat the crap out of," over time. But just where her athletic prowess in the world of judo came from was never hard to understand.

Rousey's mother, AnnMaria De Mars, was the first U.S. athlete — man or woman — to a win a World Judo Championship in 1984. And in 1998, upon De Mars reuniting with some of her old friends in the world of judo in California, Rousey decided to give it a try.

"Six years later, I was in the Olympics," Rousey says. "It was crazy, I just kinda had a knack for it."

In 2004, Rousey skyrocketed in the judo world with surprising gold-medal performances in the Pan-American Championships and World Junior Championships (under 20).

"I went from being unranked to No. 1," she says.

A trip to Athens for the 2004 Summer Olympics followed the ranking.

"The first one was kind of overwhelming," says Rousey, who earned a return trip to the 2008 Beijing games. "[In Beijing], I felt like I'd been there before. … I knew deep down that I'd done what I needed to do."

At 17, she was the youngest judo player in the Olympics and at 21, she took bronze in Beijing, becoming the first American woman to ever medal in the sport.

After that though, Rousey came to a crossroads, realizing the world of judo could do little more for her than she's already accomplished.

In the realm of combat sports, "Judo" Gene LeBell and Gokor Chivichyan are both legends. The likes of Karo Parisyan, Manny Gamburyan and Darabedyan are all former or current competitors at MMA's highest levels of the Ultimate Fighting Championship or World Extreme Cagefighting. Rousey has been trained by or trained with them all.

Hence, after a year or so tending bar and a brief flirtation with joining the coast guard, Rousey decided to give MMA a try.

"Manny and Karo had been in the UFC and they were doing well and I got into the WEC, I think that kind of triggered her to MMA a little bit," Darabedyan says.

Gina Carano also helped out — though the woman who's been called the face of women's MMA, along with being a former "American Gladiator" and future silver screen lead, didn't know it.

"Thank God for Gina Carano," Rousey says. "I have so much respect for her. I'm grateful for what she's done."

Carano, in her time in EliteXC and Strikeforce, showed that women's MMA could appeal to a large audience as she became a star and swelled television ratings. And though Rousey's quick to point out she would, "try and beat her with her own arm if we ever fought," she says it's Carano's success that was a harbinger for her decision to take on MMA.

Through Chivichyan, Rousey found her manager, Darin Harvey, who's also handled the likes of Alberto Crane and Darabedyan to name just a few. With Rousey, Harvey found a star in the making and a difficult task at hand.

"I don't want to toot my own horn, but I think I've done the impossible — nobody wants to fight her," Harvey says. "I've had to beg, borrow and steal. It's been very frustrating for Ronda, it was very frustrating for me. I began to doubt myself."

On Aug. 6, 2010, Rousey made her amateur MMA debut. It was a quick one. She defeated Hayden Munoz by armbar in 22 seconds. Two more amateur fights, two more armbar wins and 81 seconds of total fight time later, Rousey made her professional MMA debut.

It was a debut that almost didn't happen.

Just days before her debut on March 27 in Tarzana at a King of the Cage event, Rousey heard her dog, Mochi, and her roommate's dog fighting. Rousey, who also worked until recently as an animal physical therapist, raced into the adjacent room to break up the canine battle and her roommate's dog bit her in the foot for her troubles. The bite required stitches, stitches that would need to be covered up and stitches that would rip open in an MMA fight. They were also stitches that would force the California Athletic Commission to prevent Rousey from fighting.

So in need of covering up the injury, Rousey did the logical thing — she took off all of her clothes.

At weigh-ins before a fight, often times a fighter who's worried about making said weight will strip down while towels are held up around them.

"I knew they would have to look at me naked to see my foot, so they didn't do that," Rousey says.

While the weigh-ins were an obstacle overcome, a long, drawn-out fight would likely see her stitches come out and a stoppage to follow. So Rousey took out Ediane Gomes, who entered the fight with a veteran 6-1 record, in just 25 seconds with another armbar.

It was a brilliant debut, one she followed up on June 17 with a 49-second dismantling of Charmaine Tweet in Calgary, Alberta. It was a fight and an opponent that proved only to be a speed bump on the way to Strikeforce stardom. Just days before the bout with Tweet was set to go off, Carano was forced out of a fight with Sarah D'Alelio for June 18. The slot was presented to Rousey, but Tweet's manager didn't oblige and threatened to sue Rousey, Harvey and Strikeforce.

"I felt like my dream suddenly came true out of nowhere and then disappeared," Rousey says. "It's really not a good idea to piss somebody off like that before you fight them."

And on a clear, sunny California day, Rousey trains in Glendale and prepares for her shot at glory and a future all around her believe will be as bright and accommodating as her smile outside of the cage she calls home.

"Here's a girl that not only was an Olympic medalist and has a great ground game, but she's a very marketable person," Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker says. "If she proves she can fight over a period of time, she can be very successful."

It seems to be the course Rousey has always been on, as her late father instilled within her the dreams of becoming the best and her mother bestowed upon her the athleticism and competitive mentality to stand out. Now, she finds herself on the doorstep of prominence looking to knock down any future obstacles.

"Ronda's a fighter," Tarverdyan says. "When she takes one, she's ready to give you more back."

It is Tarverdyan who carefully brings along a quickly developing striking game to catch Rousey's already phenomenal grappling and submission skills.

"She picks up things very quickly. …She works out very, very hard, so it makes a trainer want to work with her," Tarverdyan says. "That's the thing I look at most as a trainer."

What trainers, managers, promoters and fans alike are looking for, Rousey seems able to provide, as she's quickly developed an "it factor" that has created subsequent buzz in the MMA world leading into her Strikeforce debut on Showtime Friday night against Sarah D'Alelio.

"She has everything," Tarverdyan says. "Everybody knows that."

Even her timing seems right.

"When I first started out, it was like, 'Wow, the girls got on TV!' It seemed so far off. It's just surreal now," D'Alelio says. "It's bigger than it's ever been."

Though Zuffa, LLC., the parent company of the UFC — which doesn't promote women's MMA — recently purchased Strikeforce, many believe the burgeoning popularity of women's fighting assures its presence in the fighting world's future. And there's no place in North America in which there is a greater spotlight on the featherweight division than Strikeforce.

"The greatest fighter in the history of women's MMA is in the division and that's Cris Cyborg," Coker says. "And Gina Carano is arguably still the face of women's MMA and she's in the division. There's some talent for Ronda to look to and fight if she works her way up.

"As far as female fighting being successful, Strikeforce and Showtime have already shown it can be. We're going to continue supporting it."

Already ranked in the top 10 in the women's featherweight division in most rankings, Rousey has no hesitation in proclaiming her goals for taking Cyborg's title and emerging as best women's MMA fighter "hands down."

"Honestly, I would put her in there right now with anyone, including Cyborg, but is that the smart thing to do? No. She's young, let her hone her skills," Harvey says. "Basically, if you beat either [Cyborg or Carano], you're a superstar. And on top of that, she's a beautiful young woman, she's articulate. She's the complete package.

"I've said this before, she looks everything like a beautiful, feminine female and she fights like a man."

So it seems as if Rousey's lifelong quest to be the best in the world is continuing and gaining speed and notoriety along the way. And while those same words she heard from her dad long ago ring true to this day, that little girl has clearly grown up, with all the hours and days of judo and mixed martial arts having come together to produce a beast within a beauty that may very well be the next big star in the fighting world.

"It really gave me confidence," Rousey says of fighting. "I'm much different than I used to be. Outside, I'm still a little quiet. I'm much more cool and confident in the gym and I'm much more of a cold-blooded bitch when I fight."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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