Gallery: UFC women's champion Ronda Rousey and challenger Liz Carmouche

Upon first glance, "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey blends right in with the bevy of beautiful young women one often sees in Southern California.

The blond hair. The blue eyes. The white, toothy smile.

Closer inspection reveals cauliflower ears, the type one might see on a collegiate wrestler. They're also the kind that make life hell for a girl trying to fit in during high school, yet are now worn as a badge of honor.

The physique also stands out. At 5 feet 7 and 135 pounds, Rousey is a rock.

But the same arms that late-night talk show host Conan O'Brien admired on his show last summer aren't too different from the ones that earned her the mocking moniker of "Miss Man" at Santa Monica High.

And finally, it is what is around the waist that today defines the 26-year-old Venice resident:

The first and only women's champion in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Sports history will be made today when Rousey steps into the Octagon to defend her bantamweight belt in the Ultimate Fighting Championship's first-ever women's fight when she faces Liz Carmouche (7-2) in the five-round main event at UFC 157 at the Honda Center in Anaheim.


Advertisement

"It's kind of like a dream come true, really," Rousey (6-0) said of her meteoric rise in mixed martial arts. "I mean, when I first started doing this ... I didn't want to be just the best in the world. I wanted to be the best in the world on the biggest stage in the world."

And here she is. On billboards throughout the Southland. In the pages of Time magazine. With her own segment on HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel."

But what Rousey is not is some gimmick. At a time when the sport of MMA continues to rise in popularity, UFC President Dana White has taken the leap and invested in women's MMA.

And his sole female champion is just the one to spearhead the movement.

"It takes a certain type of person, not just personality, but a certain type of fighter, to get people interested and get people excited about women's fighting, period," White said. "Or women's sports in general.

"Whether it's women's basketball or women's soccer, women's whatever it is, it takes a certain type of person to appeal to everyone to make them come and watch. And I think she's got it."

UFC fighter Ronda Rousey works with coach Edmond Tarverdyan during an open workout at the UFC Gym in Torrance, CA Wednesday, February 20, 2013. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)

Gallery: UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey during an open workout

'She's mean, she's nasty'

Rousey didn't always have it though. There was a short span when she lived out of her car. When she finally had a small place to call home, she struggled to pay the bills.

And when money is so tight that Top Ramen is your daily meal, yet your pride won't let you accept help, sacrifices are made.

HOW TO WATCH

What: UFC 157

When: Saturday

Where: Honda Center, Anaheim

Main Event: UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey (6-0) vs. Liz Carmouche (7-2) in first women's fight in UFC history

Prelims: On Facebook at 3:30 p.m. and on FX at 5 p.m.

Main Card: On pay-per-view at 7 p.m.

"There was a point where our hot water got cut off, so I had to just put it in cold water and let it sit forever so the noodles would get soft," Rousey said with a chuckle. "It was bad. It was bad for a while."

Darin Harvey had the chance to train with Rousey and recognized her potential right away. With a successful career in commercial real estate development, Harvey saw the opportunity to build something even bigger.

As her manager, he mapped out a career trajectory for Rousey while also pitching in with cart-busting Costco runs so his fighter had better nutrition and could afford a better lifestyle.

To Harvey, this success wasn't only the vision. From a spiritual perspective, he said it's almost like it was meant to happen.

"I believe all of us came together for a very specific reason. This is bigger than sports. This is bigger than women's sports. This is bigger than MMA or women's MMA. This is about women's empowerment," said Harvey, president of Fight Tribe Management. "This is about Ronda moving on to do greater things than fighting. Making a difference in young girl's lives, making a difference in young men's lives. This is a story of inspiration."

Not hurting the story is Rousey's unblemished record as an MMA fighter with a penchant for ending fights in quick, violent fashion.

After becoming the first American to win an Olympic medal in judo while at the 2008 Beijing Games, the bronze medalist eventually began her MMA career with three amateur fights. None lasted more than a minute.

When she turned pro, her first fight was less than two years ago on a King of the Cage card at Braemar Country Club in Tarzana. Despite nine stitches in her foot because of a pit-bull bite - a hazard at one of three jobs she had at the time in order to get by and train every day - Rousey needed just 26 seconds to beat her opponent.

In all, six pro fights, six first-round victories. Only one has lasted more than a minute, when she defeated Miesha Tate in 4 minutes, 27 seconds almost a year ago to win the Strikeforce women's bantamweight title.

"The difference between her and any other female fighter I've ever met - yeah, she's cute and she's out there and interacting - well, when she goes in and fights, she's mean, she's nasty and she likes to finish people," White said. "And that's what I like in a fighter, whether you're a man or a woman."

Other than the first-round finishes, the other common component to Rousey's victories is the way she wins: the armbar.

By yanking her opponent's arm out and away from the body, Rousey holds their wrist against her chest and, with her legs leveraged against their torso, leans back so their elbow hyperextends between her legs.

Most submit by tapping out because of the excruciating pain. Others, like Tate, don't and learn the hard way, suffering a gruesome elbow injury.

UFC fighter Ronda Rousey during an open workout at the UFC Gym in Torrance, CA Wednesday, February 20, 2013. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)

Gallery: Strikeforce Women's Champion Ronda Rousey beats Sarah Kaufman

A heart-wrenching story

As easy as Rousey makes it seem in the cage, life was never that simple.

She was born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck and nearly died. As a result, Rousey struggled to learn. She didn't talk other than gibberish for her first six years.

But the future champion had no bigger champion than her father. "Ronnie's going to be fine," Ron Rousey would say. "You watch. Ronnie's a sleeper."

And sure enough, Ronda became quite the youth swimmer, rising before dawn with her dad to drive to workouts far from their Jamestown, N.D., home.

But when she was 8, a sledding accident broke her father's back. A rare blood disorder further complicated his recovery. A rod was inserted, only to cause his spine to begin to crumble.

Doctors were blunt. Within two years, he would become a paraplegic, then a quadriplegic, then die.

Rather than burden his family emotionally and financially, Ron Rousey connected a hose to an exhaust pipe, fed it back into his vehicle and killed himself.

It's a story Rousey first began telling to the media when she became an Olympian. Its frequency grew as did her popularity in MMA.

UFC fighter Ronda Rousey during an open workout at the UFC Gym in Torrance, CA Wednesday, February 20, 2013. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)

And it all seemed to reach a crescendo when Rousey recalled it during the heart-wrenching finale of an episode of "UFC Primetime" that aired earlier this month on FUEL TV.

With the camera tight on her face, Rousey sobbed as she explained why recounting the tragedy was so painful.

"I know people love to ask me about it all the time because, doesn't it make a great story?" she said, tears rolling down her cheeks and disgust filling her voice. "I feel terrible talking about it. I feel like I'm prostituting his memory for my own career gain."

And with that interview, Rousey has sworn to never discuss her father's death again.

"I just knew I didn't want to get to a point where I start to desensitize the whole story and I just didn't want to get to a point where I was so dehumanized where people could just walk to me and be like, `Hey, how you doing? You want to tell me how your dad died again?"' she said last week.

"It's just not decent. It's not the right way to treat somebody, so if I was gonna say it one last time, I was gonna say it the best way that I could and that's why it came across like that."

After the family moved to Southern California, Ronda began to take interest in her mom's sport of choice. After all, as Ann Maria Rousey DeMars tells it, when there are photos in the hallway of your mother in 1984 becoming the first American to win a World Judo Championship, how hard can it be?

Or as Ronda remembers it: "Yeah, well you'd be pretty good at judo too if your mom jumped on your bed every morning and attacked you with armbars."

So when Ronda was 12, the mat work with Mom began, as did the repetitions and throws that come with judo.

"Not only did she have training, but it was continuous, so it was both quality and quantity," said Ann Maria, who through her network of judo friends was able to get Ronda the best training.

By the time she was 17, Rousey was the youngest judo competitor at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Four years later, she would make judo history much like her mother with a first for any American, male or female, by winning the bronze medal.

But with all the workouts came the burnout. Rousey walked away from judo and took a year off.

She bartended. She worked several jobs. Times were tough. But she lived her life.

It was when she returned to the gym in 2010 that some of her male training partners started planting the seeds for her to start an MMA career.

About two years ago, Rousey decided it was time to turn pro.

"That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard!" was Ann Maria's reaction. She was working at USC and hoping education, not cage fighting, was in her daughter's future.

All Rousey asked for was a year. Let me try it for one year and let's see how we do, she told her mother. And as Rousey points out, she made her pro debut March 23, 2011. She defeated Tate for the title March 3, 2012. The rest is sports history.

"It kind of feels good," Rousey said with a glowing smile. "I don't know if my mom ever said, `I was wrong and you were right.' But I like to think the look on her face says it a little bit."

Beyond the shiny championship belt, good looks and set of abs, however, might be Rousey's most devastating asset.

Her mind.

"She's an athlete, yes, and everybody knows she's an Olympic medalist. It's how she trains, it's how she prepares and how she focuses," striking coach Edmond Tarverdyan said. "It's her character. She has that attitude of a fighter. She has that heart of a fighter. She has that intellect of a fighter. You can't have one and be special. You have to tie all three together."

Finally, under the brightest lights and on the biggest stage, Rousey is ready to show Liz Carmouche and anyone watching that she is the best in the world.

"I've always luckily been the kind of fighter, the more pressure there is, the more that I fight above myself," Rousey said. "My best performances are always in my biggest tests and I don't really expect this to be any different.

"It's a bigger deal to me. I want it more than her and that's why I'm gonna win."


brian.martin@dailynews.com, @TheBMartin
UFC fighter Ronda Rousey works with coach Edmond Tarverdyan during an open workout at the UFC Gym in Torrance, CA Wednesday, February 20, 2013. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)