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Identity crisis: the rise and fall of Ronda Rousey

Ronda Rousey first professional fighting loss to Holly Holm changed her life. A reason for Rousey’s devastating reaction to her defeat may be found in her journey to the top of the sports’ world.
Ronda Rousey first professional fighting loss to Holly Holm changed her life. A reason for Rousey’s devastating reaction to her defeat may be found in her journey to the top of the sports’ world. AP

Nov. 15, 2015, is the day that Ronda Rousey will never forget. Fifty-nine seconds into the second round of UFC 193’s main event, Holly Holm’s swift kick to the head knocked out Rousey. The loss shocked everyone; Rousey had been untouchable until that moment.

Rousey said she was devastated and embarrassed. She withdrew from the outside world. As an outsider, it appeared that she was suffocating under her collapsed expectations of constant success.During a recent interview with Ellen DeGeneres, Rousey admittedshe contemplated suicide after the loss.

How could a loss take her from the pinnacle of athletic success to suicidal? A reason for Rousey’s devastating reaction to her defeat may be found in her journey to the top of the sports’ world.

Rousey has a long history of athletic success. In the 2008 Olympics, she won the bronze medal in Judo. She was the first woman from the United States to medal in Judo. Transitioning to mixed martial arts in 2010, Rousey quickly dominated opponents and made winning look easy. Less than two years after her first professional fight, Rousey became Strikeforce’s new women’s bantamweight (135 lbs) champion.

Shortly thereafter Rousey jumped to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), becoming the first female fighter to sign with UFC. Rousey enjoyed immediate success. She won five fights in less than three years, most within the first minute of the first round.

Her rapid success caught the attention of the media. Rousey was breaking stereotypes and becoming a positive role model for girls. Hollywood offered her roles in big budget movies such as Fast and the Furious 7 and Entourage. Following in the steps of superstar athletes such as Michael Jordan and Lebron James, Rousey began to become a brand in and of herself.

Rousey developed a very strong athletic identity.

Sociologist Jay Coakley defines identity as a merged sense of who we are and how we are identified in a social world. Watching any pre-defeat Rousey interview will show a confident fighter whose identity was firmly rooted in the ability to dominate any opponent. The more success Rousey had in the octagon, the more everyone else adopted that same undefeatable view of her.

Rousey was seen as the best female athlete of her generation.

But success and popularity came at a price. Each win brought more media intensity. For Rousey, the heightened expectations led to increased pressure to maintain a high level of performance.

Sport psychology research shows that people with strong athletic identities perform better than those with weak athletic identities, often because of their commitment to the sport.

Rousey is committed. Her success can be attributed to the way she organizes her life around training. She has strict regimes for workouts, diet, and sleeping.

There is a dark side to a strong athletic identity. It can cause emotional difficulties, especially when an athlete gets unexpectedly beaten after months of media hype. Everything about who Rousey was - the champion who dominates her opponents - came crashing down with her to the canvas.

Fortunately, Americans love a good comeback story. No doubt, Rousey will fight Holm again. And she will be ready.

But Coakley warns that membership in sports culture is always temporary. It is dependent on what you do today, not what you did in the past.

Holm is now the UFC bantamweight champion, and as the challenger, Rousey must stage a rise-from-the-ashes moment to recapture her former glory. She will do everything possible to overcome her loss.

However, if Rousey does not make the epic comeback we all expect, there are others waiting to jump into the spotlight. Just ask Tiger Woods.

Have a question?

Do you have a question about how to improve your athletic performance? Dr. David Schary invites questions or comments from any athlete, coach, or parent. Email any question or comment to scharyd@winthrop.edu.

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