It became obvious that Ronda Rousey was a mainstream superstar at UFC 190, when the then-UFC women’s bantamweight champion knocked out Bethe Correia in the first round of a title defense in Rio de Janeiro.
Stars from every walk of life – athletes and musicians, actors and comedians, and so many more – tweeted to her or about her that night.
She was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the world’s most dominant athlete, which was hard to argue against since she’d won her previous three fights in a combined total of 64 seconds.
Rousey was as dominant outside the cage as she was in it. She was far and away the UFC’s biggest star. She had a New York Times best-selling book. She was appearing in major movies. She had already been in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and at the time of UFC 193, plans were in the works for her to be on the cover of the another upcoming issue.
Her surprise appearance at WrestleMania 31 on March 31, 2015, nearly broke the internet. Demi Lovato wrote a song that included a line about Rousey. Millions bought her pay-per-views and tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, talked about it on social media.
When she entered the cage on Nov. 15, 2015, to defend her belt against Holly Holm, it seemed a foregone conclusion to many that she’d win. The question was how long it would take.
Holm was a striker, and even going into the fight, that was acknowledged as the weakest link in Rousey’s game. But to most experts, it wasn’t expected to be anything more than a blip, as Rousey was heavily favored to do to Holm what she’d done to Correia (34-second knockout); Cat Zingano (14-second submission); Alexis Davis (16-second knockout); and Sarah McMann (1:06 knockout).
But in five minutes, 59 seconds of fight time, the UFC was forever changed.
Holm pummeled Rousey, exposing her striking weaknesses for all the world to see. A former boxing world champion, Holm was expertly prepared for Rousey’s clinch game and grappling by coaches Mike Winkeljohn and Greg Jackson.
Rousey couldn’t get past Holm’s strikes to get into the clinch, where she could maneuver to get her arm bar, which was the dominant move in her arsenal.
The arm bar had set up everything for Rousey in her previous 12 fights. Even when she won fights by knockout, it was because of what concern about her arm bar had done to her opponents.
But when Holm figured how to neutralize the arm bar, Rousey was exposed, left with no offense, a porous striking defense and no answers.
She was overwhelmed and knocked out with a vicious head kick at 59 seconds of the second round.
The UFC hasn’t been the same since.
Oh, Conor McGregor, who was already a major star at that point, knocked out Jose Aldo a month later to not only become the featherweight champion, but to claim Rousey’s throne as the sport’s most iconic figure.
With Rousey and McGregor, the UFC had a tandem of superstars who could garner unprecedented media attention, sell extraordinary numbers of pay-per-views and boost the value of the company.
Nine months after Rousey lost to Holm, when it was still unclear whether she’d fight again, the UFC was sold for $4 billion in what at the time was the biggest sale price for a sports property in history. The sale of Formula One subsequently passed it, but it remains a mindbogglingly high price for a property Dana White and partners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta purchased off the scrap heap for $2 million in 2001.
It’s neither fair nor accurate to tap Rousey as solely responsible for that jaw-dropping $4 billion price tag, but she played an inordinately large role in it.
She was 28 at the time of her loss, and there was reason to think she could fight for several more years.
Rousey, though, went underground after her loss to Holm. When she returned to her home in Los Angeles from Australia, she wore large sunglasses with a hood on her head and pulled a pillow to her face to avoid the suddenly unwanted paparazzi who showed to document her return.