First title defense on deck for Ronda Rousey

These are the days of Ronda Rousey.

She has become a media darling, a sex symbol and a bona fide mixed-martial-arts superstar who's been all over the television screen, magazine covers and, of course, the Internet, with roughly 100,000 Twitter followers and counting along with this vlog and that interview and so much more.

Just about everything she does is news these days in the world of MMA journalism and often times beyond.

Perhaps lost in the aura, ascension to stardom and "it factor" that seemingly surrounds her has been the fact that she's reached the top of women's MMA because she's one helluva fighter with the Strikeforce women's bantamweight title to defend against former champion Sarah Kaufman on Saturday night in San Diego at the Valley View Casino live on Showtime's "Rousey vs. Kaufman" card.

But while many in the media, and likely fans, have made much ado about Rousey's growing notoriety and presence, the Glendale-trained grappler assures that she's got her eyes dead ahead on defending her title belt.

"I enjoyed it a lot more the two months after when I first won the title. But now, I'm much more focused on retaining the title instead of basking in having it," said Rousey (5-0), who will take on Kaufman (15-1) in the five-round, 135-pound bout. "The last few weeks [haven't] been about sitting back and enjoying myself. It's been about preparing myself and working as much as possible on maintaining it."

Training predominantly at Team Hayastan in Hollywood and the Glendale Fighting Club under lead corner man Edmond Tarverdyan, Rousey has shot up the ranks of the women's fighting world and claimed the Strikeforce belt in just under a year and in only her fifth fight, submitting then-champion Miesha Tate in the first round of their Showtime main event on March 3.

While Rousey was predicted to be a star on the verge before her bout with Tate, since winning the championship, she has exploded in popularity and notoriety. She's appeared on "Conan" and hosted "TMZ,"graced the cover of three magazines in one month, including the ESPN The Magazine "The Body" issue, got the Internet buzzing with comments on Kim Kardashian and Michael Phelps, rang the opening bell at the stock market and was the first guest female coach to appear on "The Ultimate Fighter."

It's been a whirlwind, and some have questioned whether it's been too much and a distraction from fighting, but for Rousey, who held down three jobs at the onset of her MMA career less than 18 months ago, it's just part of a day's work.

"Before I was working three jobs and training full-time," Rousey said. "If you think about it, I'm actually doing less work now. It's just I have more work on just the fighting side.

"It's just all about organization and I'm used to having cramped schedules like these."

A former two-time Olympian in judo and a 2008 Olympic Bronze medalist, Rousey, stardom or not, is renowned for her tenacity in the gym and her opponent is just as aware of that as she is Rousey's star status.

"You don't get to be a world champion and a medalist at the Olympics from sitting back and just enjoying things. So, I really believe that Ronda's been training hard," Kaufman said. "And I've been training just as hard. And that's really all that I care about. The fight's going to really show who's been training the most."

And many believe the fight could very well boil down to showcasing what both combatants are best at, which in Rousey's case is judo and submissions, and in Kaufman's case is her striking.

Rousey's 5-0 record was preceded by a 3-0 tour de force in the amateur ranks. All eight bouts saw the same finish, with Rousey's trademark armbar resulting in a first-round win. Only her last bout, against Tate, lasted longer than the first minute. The armbar's clearly a weapon Kaufman is aware of, but one she said she's prepared to combat.

"I don't think that it's unstoppable. It's one technique that could be used from multiple different angles, and Ronda's clearly put a lot of work with the judo into those fast transitions, but it doesn't make me nervous," Kaufman said. "It's something that could happen. It's also something that I'm prepared for. It's an armbar and people can have a mystique behind someone because they've had the same submission over and over and over again.

"It does create kind of an aura of, 'Whoa, she's won every fight by the same thing.' And I did the same thing when I had eight knockouts in a row, and you do have that mystique and someone has to break it and that's what I'm prepared to do."

Incidentally, Kaufman's only loss came when she dropped her title to Marloes Coenen via armbar submission. As for her other 15 bouts, they all ended in victory and largely due to her striking leading the way. In all, she's won 10 bouts via knockout, though one came by way of a slam. She's also won her last three fights since the Coenen setback

To train for Kaufman, Rousey has widened her training net. She's trained with noted Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters Nick and Nate Diaz and has worked with undefeated former women's boxer Lucia Rijker and a slew of decorated sparring partners. It's all in addition to the tutelage of Tarverdyan, who has been happy with the caliber of sparring partners.

"We have a lot of girls that are just as good, even better [than Kaufman]," Tarverdyan said. "I don't know if [Kaufman is] gonna find anyone who can throw like Ronda, if she's gonna find a judo player like her."

Tarverdyan admits there's a fine line between bringing along Rousey's overall striking and game planning for a fight. The latter is taking precedence as it relates to preparing for Kaufman, as Tarverdyan said the focus is more geared toward being able to use her striking and striking defense "to get inside and not get hit and get the takedown and get the submission."

Previously, the best striker Rousey faced was likely Julia Budd, who did land well on a couple of shots, but Rousey took the punches well and still produced a jaw-dropping 39-second victory. Tate came out winging punches against Rousey and landed well at least once, but it was the wrestling game of Tate that was seen as her strength.

While Kaufman's skill set is vastly different from Tate's, this fight is also vastly different in its build-up. Tate and Rousey exchanged in some heated trash talk that hyped the fight and ignited a hostile rivalry.

Kaufman has more or less shied away from too much media and neither has talked all that much in the smack department.

"It's just I don't really have any personal problems with Sarah at all," Rousey said. "She actually seems like a pretty cool chick. And I don't have any problems with her so I feel no need to invent any."

Besides, the ever-confident Rousey doesn't see any need for an extra edge.

"I don't need to get into her head to beat her," Rousey said.

Rousey's climb to the top of the Strikeforce mountain was rapid, seeing her fight all five of her career bouts in less than a year's time, including three times for Strikeforce in a seven-month span. Despite being more than five months removed from her win against Tate, Rousey sees nothing to worry about in terms of a layoff.

"I didn't really want to fight every two months, it's just I was in such a hurry to get everything done. I wanted to be champion as quick as I could," Rousey said. "Now, I have the luxury of being able to take my time in between fights."

And Rousey has made it clear in the days leading up to her defense that there is nothing that's distracted her focus from her training, no challenge more important than her first title defense and no opponent on her mind other than Kaufman.

As is often the case with the fight game, during a recent conference call, Rousey was asked about her next bout and a potential super fight with Cris "Cyborg" Santos. Her reply was simple and emblematic of her approach.

Said Rousey: "A hundred percent of my attention is on Kaufman right now."

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World