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Who needs a superhero on a screen when we have Ronda Rousey in real life?
The athlete-model-actress, who celebrates her 29th birthday today, was already a super-star among the mixed martial arts set when she was offered a role in Furious 7 back in 2013 and joined reality series The Ultimate Fighter (final result: victory). But it took another year or so for the tastemakers to really get with the program and make Rousey the crossover celebrity we didn't even know we were waiting for.
It may have been her success in the UFC ring—and, yes, her pretty face—that opened the door, but it's been her candor, humor, seeming fearlessness and overall magnetism that's keeping her in the building.
And she couldn't have joined the party too soon, because Rousey has provided a refreshing counterpunch to the toxic, judgmental social media culture that manages to wedge its way into seemingly every conversation about powerful women.
Not to mention, poll the office of media types who cover her or ask PR staffers who've worked with her, and all have nothing but the nicest things to say (and that's saying a lot).
"I like to be part of the change I want to see in the world," Rousey told E! News back in November. "Not being afraid of criticism is actually a big advantage. I feel like I tried to be agreeable and failed—it failed me. And so I just did not give a s--t and ended up succeeding a lot more because of it...Now I have all these people saying the most terrible things you can think of about me, but I could comfortably retire right now if I wanted to. It just put into perspective how little other people's opinions are actually worth."
To put it mildly.
During that interview—which took place about a month before she suffered her first-ever UFC loss—she accidentally espoused some prescient wisdom when she said, "On paper, this actually looks like a terrible fight for me. But I'm going to show everybody why what you see on paper isn't what you're going to see in person. She's going to have a lot of changed stats the day that I beat her."
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A "1" may have replaced the "0" in her loss column after UFC 193, but in hindsight Rousey really did prove that what you see on paper—which in her case turned out to be a defeat—isn't what you're going to get in person. She needed time to recover physically and mentally from the punishing bout against Holly Holm, but the star officially returned to the spotlight Jan. 23 as host of Saturday Night Live, humbly acknowledging her loss and giving every indication that she still had that fighting spirit.
But you don't even have to watch MMA to respect and appreciate the type of person "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey is: a tough, resilient woman with a killer work ethic who promotes a healthy body image, has been open about past trauma, and shows that power and vulnerability can coexist in one fierce package.
"I need to come back. I need to beat this chick," Rousey told ESPN The Magazine in December, reflecting on her haunting loss to Holm while still in a relatively reclusive state for her. "Who knows if I'm going to pop my teeth out or break my jaw or rip my lip open. I have to f--king do it."
About that mouth of hers...
While all sports have their critics, professional fighting has more than its fair share of detractors who decry everything from the violence (pro MMA is actually banned in New York) to the trash-talking—and Rousey has been known throughout her career for talking her share of trash.
"I don't think any girl can grasp what I'm trying to do," she told MMAjunkie.com in 2012 about her penchant for going after her opponents in pre-fight interviews.
"It's not personal to me at all," she explained. "I'm sure it's personal to Miesha [Tate, whom she'd go on to beat]. I really think they should be grateful to me because they've gotten more press, more interviews, more exposure than they ever have before in their entire careers. I don't want to pat myself on the back too much, but a lot of it is the result of me purposefully trying to get on everybody's nerves. So they take it personally, but I don't. I've had so many girl fighters come up to me and tell me they appreciate me and thank me."
Even Holm said about Rousey, after her victory, "I have a lot of respect for her. I wouldn't be here and had this opportunity if it wasn't for what she has done. There are a lot of female fighters before her who paved the way, and all of that has built up to this. But she was definitely the biggest to really make a splash."
And while everything said at the weigh-in, in the ring, etc. makes headlines nowadays, was Rousey actually saying shocking things or did her comments draw extra attention because she's a woman?
To those who accuse the whole enterprise of being misogynist, because it entails women hitting and kicking each other (as men have done to each other for sport for centuries), Rousey said on Good Morning America last year: "There are so many ridiculous arguments that MMA is somehow anti-woman. Fighting is not a man's thing, it is a human thing. To say that it is anti-woman is an anti-feminist statement."
The uproar over women doing their thing in the ring does somehow imply that women can't handle hand-to-hand combat the way men can. Too many feelings, perhaps!
But what happens in the ring is business. It's everything outside of it that's life.
"People can say I am a terrible role model because I swear all the time or that I fight people," Rousey told ESPN in 2013. "Look, I don't want little girls to have the same ambitions as me. I want them to know that it is OK to be ambitious… I want them to know that it is OK to say whatever it is that is on their mind."
But while Rousey has talked about growing up in a family with powerful women who weren't afraid to speak her minds, she hasn't always had the level of confidence and determination that now not only propels her in the ring but also prompted her to pose nude for the cover of ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue in 2012, a major beyond-the-ring breakout moment for her.
ESPN The Magazine
"When I was struggling with anorexia, I felt so weak and powerless, and feel so strong after recovery," she opened up in a Reddit AMA last August. "How does it feel to conquer something so daunting? I feel like it makes you invincible!"
"I grew up thinking that because my body type was uncommon [i.e., athletic], it was a bad thing," Rousey also told Cosmopolitan.com last year. "Now that I'm older, I've really begun to realize that I'm really proud that my body has developed for a purpose and not just to be looked at." She added, "It took a lot of time to develop a healthier relationship with food and with my weight."
And at 5-foot-7, Rousey's fighting weight of 135 pounds is not ideal in her eyes. Instead, at 135 "I felt like I was much too small for a magazine that is supposed to be celebrating the epitome of a woman. At 150 pounds, I feel like I'm at my healthiest and my strongest and my most beautiful."
Rousey also took a stand when she called out Floyd Mayweather Jr. on the 2015 ESPYs red carpet after topping him in the race for Best Fighter of the Year, referring to his history of domestic abuse (he served jail time), when she looked at the camera and said, "I wonder how Floyd feels being beat by a woman for once."
Even what could be considered a controversial bullet point on her CV—her admission in her 2015 memoir My Fight/Your Fight that she roughed up an ex-boyfriend after she found out he had been taking nude pictures of her without her knowledge—is actually rather go-girl awe-inspiring. We're not condoning getting violent, of course, but how many movie heroines have we cheered who put the hurt on a jerk after he treated her badly? Except Rousey was able to do it in real life (and she stated publicly afterward that it was an act of self-defense) because she's that friggin' strong!
She's now with MMA fighter Travis Browne ("There's no dating. We're together," Browne says) and, while she's expressed the desire to maintain more of a shield around her private life lately, Rousey has talked about finding a level of support from him that she's never experienced from a partner before.
"At the end of the day, I can't curl up with people's opinions," she also told ESPN The Magazine in her post-loss interview. "Even when everyone thinks the world of me, I still go to bed anxious and freaking out because I'm afraid of everything. The only time I've gotten a reprieve from that [feeling] in my life is since I've been with him."
Rousey has also admitted to being "the biggest crier," especially during the week leading up to a fight and she's devoted to her beloved dog, Mochi.
Good grief, she's so...normal! And yet obviously not.
Interestingly, seemingly every ferocious bump in the road that Rousey has hit since becoming internationally famous has only served to endear her more to her supporters—because who can't relate to struggling with body image, or being betrayed, or hitting a wall at work, or not knowing what to do, all while feeling pressured to appear as if you've got it all under control?
Next up, Rousey's going to have to decide when she wants to get back in the UFC game, having postponed her already anticipated comeback because of all the other stuff she has coming up: her second consecutive appearance in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue; a remake of Road House featuring her in the skintight-jeans-wearing Patrick Swayze role; and Do Nothing Bitches, a big-screen comedy she's co-starring in with Tina Fey.
Asked if she will, indeed, fight again, she told ESPN, "Of course? What else am I going to f--king do?"
Ronda Rousey may have actual superpowers, but she never let's us forget that she's human. And we just can't get enough of that.