If Ronda Rousey can pinpoint the exact moment when her healthy flirtation with WWE began to feel like something more, it was her bachelorette party last July.
Rousey, 31, who married UFC heavyweight Travis Browne on Aug. 25 in Hawaii, didn’t have the most traditional final blowoff in mind when she called WWE executive vice president Paul “Triple H” Levesque to plan her trip.
“I called Triple H and said, ‘It’s my bachelorette, can me and the girls — ‘the Four Horsewomen’ — come up and train at the [WWE Performance Center] for like a week, and then we’ll jump in the RV and drive back to L.A. with the Cruise America?'” Last week, Rousey told CBS Sports.
Rousey then traveled to Orlando, Florida, with her fellow Four Horsewomen, best friends, and former MMA training partners Shayna Baszler, Marina Shafir, and Jessamyn Duke.
Even those watching on social media who weren’t privy to larger details could see Rousey’s courtship with WWE. Even though the tournament would not be broadcast until the final days of August, WWE released a video interview with Rousey outside the arena just hours after it occurred.
Those inside Full Sail Live began to leak footage of Rousey taunting WWE’s own Four Horsewomen — Charlotte Flair, Bayley, Sasha Banks, and Becky Lynch — while seated in the front row during Baszler’s matches. If the red-carpet experience wasn’t enough to give Rousey a taste of what it’s like to be a WWE superstar, she later took part in a staged backstage stare-down with Flair, which went viral and fueled speculation.
“It was so different, and we were just so excited to be there for every single second,” Rousey said. “The more I decided to learn about the industry, the more I became infected by the end of the week.”
Rousey will make her in-ring debut nine months later at WrestleMania 34 on Sunday in New Orleans as part of a tag team match with Kurt Angle against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. The plot follows Rousey’s memorable WrestleMania 31 appearance alongside The Rock in 2015, when she was at the pinnacle of her UFC career before a pair of knockout defeats stole her invincibility and passion.
But, speaking with Rousey, it’s difficult to believe she’d be where she is now – from signing a full-time WWE contract to making a surprise appearance at the Royal Rumble in January – if it hadn’t been for that “lost weekend” of pro wrestling indulgence in Orlando last July. And if you’re wondering if Rousey had any ulterior motives in how she went about organizing the trip, the answer came quickly.
“That was my kind of tryout, which I requested in a roundabout way because I was too tired of rejection to request a tryout,” Rousey explained. “I think we were both testing each other out — I was testing [WWE], and they were testing me.”
“It wasn’t like I had an epiphany moment when I decided to join WWE.” We just had a great time all week, and by the time I got to L.A., I was like, ‘Wow, that was so cool.’ What would it be like if we could do that all the time?’ I think it was when it was over and I didn’t want it to be over that I knew I wanted to come back.”
When Rousey returned home, she immediately scheduled secret training sessions with WWE cruiserweight Brian Kendrick at Santino Bros. Wrestling Academy in Los Angeles. Her judo background, which included an Olympic bronze medal in 2008 and “millions of falls,” proved to be a solid foundation for the physical pounding that was to come.
Rousey began sending videos to Levesque detailing her progress as negotiations with WWE progressed.
“From an athletic standpoint, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody pick it up faster than Kurt Angle,” Levesque said on CBS Sports “In This Corner” podcast. “She is a fantastic athlete with razor-sharp focus. She is like a machine when she has a goal in front of her and something she wants to hit. You need to tell her to stop because she will just keep driving. That’s fantastic.”
Rousey hasn’t had much trouble with the physical side of the job, aside from some self-criticism about her spacing, footwork, and timing. The most difficult part has been learning how to overemphasize her moves in WWE with as much impact and brutality as possible, after keeping them as disguised and efficient as possible in judo.
“Now I’m trying to learn how to work with someone rather than against them, to do something great together rather than something great despite each other,” Rousey said.
The most difficult part has been using the microphone and appearing at ease while cutting promos in front of a live audience.
It’s a position WWE has repeatedly put Rousey in on Raw to build the WrestleMania story and preserve the big reveal of her first match. Rousey was prepared for the pressure of performing without a safety net. But having her “learning curve,” as she calls it, so publicly documented and critiqued hasn’t been easy, especially given that most WWE superstars are given time to perfect their craft on much smaller stages.
“One of the most difficult things is that I usually can’t hear myself speak because it’s so loud,” Rousey explained. “It’s not like you’re on a closed movie set where you’re just talking and everyone is like, ‘Everyone is quiet!’ ‘She’s speaking!’ You can concentrate there. It’s quite an experience to be able to speak while you can’t hear what you’re saying, which is a lot more upsetting than you might think. They’re teaching me good timing, such as waiting for people to quiet down before speaking again.”
According to Levesque, Rousey’s comfort will come when she strikes a balance between her personality as an athlete and the persona, she has developed through a burgeoning side career as an actress. He also stated that determining that blend was “probably the most difficult part” of her overall transition.
Her association with WWE Hall of Famer “Rowdy” Roddy Piper has only enhanced Rousey’s early presentation as a pro wrestler. During her early days as an MMA fighter, Rousey approached Piper through their mutual friend, martial arts legend “Judo” Gene Lebell, for permission to use his “Rowdy” moniker. A friendship developed until he died in 2015.
When Rousey arrived at the Royal Rumble, she was wearing the “Rowdy” nickname on her new WWE T-shirt, which was designed after Piper’s. She was also wearing Piper’s black leather jacket, which he received as a surprise backstage gift from his son, Colton Toombs, moments before Rousey entered the arena.
Toombs described meeting Rousey for the first time as “one of the purest moments” he has ever had in an interview with TMZ Sports the next day. It had a strong emotional impact on both of them. Rousey shared with Piper’s family her plans to elevate and expand his legacy and said she could feel his presence during the conversation.
“I couldn’t believe I was being trusted to even try it on or hold it for a short period,” Rousey said. “When I put it on, it reminds me of a judo gi, but one of thejudogis that I’ve worn for years.” It just felt like a hug. That’s the closest I could come to putting on that jacket. It felt like a big hug from Roddy himself.
“I’m just glad that every time I walk out there, I can remind people of what a great man he was and how someone who was supposed to be a bad guy could be such a powerful force for good. I’m overjoyed to be associated with him and am doing everything I can to demonstrate that I deserve it.”
The interesting thing about Rousey’s UFC fighter persona was that, like Piper, she frequently blurred the line between babyface and heel depending on the situation. Some of that was planned, as Rousey has long admitted that pro wrestling influenced her.
“I just have to trust that they will lead me in the right direction so that I can improve as soon as possible,” Rousey said. “If they think it’s by being America’s sweetheart first, I’ll be very happy to surprise everyone [with a heel turn] later.”