NEWS
11/16/2011 06:38 EST | Updated 01/16/2012 05:12 EST

From Beijing podium to cage-fighting: Ronda (Rowdy) Rousey enjoys the journey

At 17, Ronda (Rowdy) Rousey was the youngest judo competitor at the Athens Olympics. Four years later, she won a bronze medal in Beijing.

Rousey was a bona fide judo star. But the young American walked away from the sport to take up mixed martial arts.

"Everyone thinks I'm crazy. That's nothing new," said Rousey.

So far, so good, however.

The 24-year-old California fighter is 3-0 in MMA, winning all three bouts in a combined time of 99 seconds.

"I think some people are starting now to come around," she added with a laugh.

Rousey's next MMA test is Friday in Las Vegas when she takes on Julia (The Jewel) Budd (2-1) of Port Moody, B.C., at a Strikeforce event.

At an age where many are still trying to figure out what to do with their lives, Rousey has already rocketed to the top of one sport and is now looking to storm another.

And despite the hard work and discipline required by an elite athlete, the five-foot-seven 145-pounder seems to be having no shortage of fun along the way. She tells her story with frequent chuckles, relishing certain memories and emotions.

She has no regrets about her switch.

"I love training and MMA, much more than judo. I get to live and train at home (in Venice, Calif.). All my coaches and teammates, they're amazing. It's really a joy for me to come in and train.

"When I'm actually told to take a break, I don't know what else to do with myself. Whereas in judo, I would just count the days until I had time off."

Rousey had her first judo tournament on her 11th birthday, following in the footsteps of her mother AnnMaria, who in 1984 became the first American to win a world judo championship.

AnnMaria initially thought judo might not be a good choice for her daughter, believing there would be too much pressure given her pedigree. But a couple of her former teammates convinced her that Ronda, who had been focusing on swimming, should be allowed to compete in judo if she wanted to.

"A few years later, I was on my first Olympic team," Ronda noted.

AnnMaria was also skeptical about her daughter becoming a cage-fighter.

"Mostly because she just didn't want to see her daughter get punched in the face," Ronda explained. "MMA's a graphic sport. It's less dangerous than like boxing or football but visually it's kind of jarring for a mother to see.

"Understandably she was hesitant to support me at first but after she saw how serious and disciplined I was about it, she's been behind me 100 per cent."

Ronda has defied expectations plenty of times before.

Making the U.S. Olympic team for Athens was ahead of even her own expectations. She had named her cat Beijing.

Getting to Athens seem even more distant given Rousey tore her anterior cruciate ligament in 2003. She returned to action that August, competing at the senior level for the first time and by October was ranked No. 1 in her weight class in the U.S.

The next spring she won the Pan American championship and was named to the Olympic team in June.

"It was actually kind of crazy, it was such a short period of time. I didn't even expect to make the team so I felt like I had nothing to lose. I just went out and fought."

Her experience in Athens was "amazing," but she says she appreciated Beijing far more.

"I was so new to competing internationally that I didn't really have a reference to compare the Olympics to. After I competed in the four years after that and went back to another Games, I got to really see how special the Olympics were compared to any other kind of competition."

In Athens, she won her first fight against a future European champion. Rousey lost her second fight in what she still thinks was "a bad call."

The woman who beat her, Austrian Claudia Heill, went on to win the silver medal. Heill died in March at 29, falling out of a sixth-floor apartment in Vienna in what the Austrian judo federation called a suicide.

"Even though I felt like that fight was unfair, she was always such a nice person to me. And so was her coach," Rousey recalled.

"I really don't have any regrets about those Games. I used to kind of feel bad about it but after I heard about her dying, it seemed like such a stupid thing to be angry about."

In 2008, she lost her quarter-final to a former world champion but came back to win bronze via the repechage.

"When I lost in the quarter-finals I was so angry I was absolutely positive I was going to come out with a medal," Rousey said.

"It's funny, some people — I call them front-runners — if they lose they're done for the day. If I lose, I get even more motivated. That bronze medal is actually much more satisfying than I ever thought it would be."

Rousey's not living in the past, however, She's not even sure where the medal is.

"Actually I don't know. I thought it was in my trunk but it's somewhere."

Despite her success, the grind of judo training, which took her from California to Wakefield, Mass., Chicago, New York and Montreal, took its toll.

But she says she did enjoy her time in Montreal.

"I absolutely loved it — it was one of my favourite time periods actually when I was training. The only thing that kind of sucked was I didn't have a car and I was very dependent on public transportation. Waiting in a blizzard at a bus stop to go to a gym was not that cool."

Rousey had planned to take a year off after Beijing and says she "was counting the days" before the break.

"I was already kind of falling out of love with the sport. I need that time to kind of step away and re-evaluate my life."

She spent a year "being normal," living at home, pulling down shifts as a bartender.

"I tried coming back to judo again and became even more sure it wasn't for me any more."

She narrowed her career choices to being a rescue swimmer for the Coast Guard or MMA fighter.

"Since joining the Coast Guard is such a commitment, I decided to try MMA first."

Rousey says she got serious about MMA in June 2010. Her first pro fight, a 25-second submission win over Ediane Gomes, was in March.

She's enjoying the wide array of challenges that mixed martial arts affords. It's a sport with an unlimited learning curve.

"Doing judo for so long, it's not like I knew everything but after a while you're just pretty much learning how to do the things you already know better and more efficiently. Whereas MMA I get to learn entirely new concepts and styles every day. It's definitely much more interesting and stimulating as a fighter."

She sees her judo background, which came with a lot of mat work, as a fine grappling base for MMA. She also sees her judo throws as a big advantage in MMA.

"You don't telegraph a takedown the way wrestlers do. They have to shoot from away or change levels. Whereas a lot of judo techniques come from a clinch where you don't telegraph what you're going to do so much."

She says the armbar, which she has used in all of her wins, is actually her mother's move.

"Being that it is my mom's specialty, it's kind of been drilled into my head ever since I was a little kid ... to the point that I don't even think about it. It just kind of comes naturally."

"I tell people it's kind of like doing algebra. If you understand the concept of algebra, it's easy to solve any kind of equation. You don't have to practise doing one equation over and over and over again so you get good at solving that (one equation)."

Rousey has won by submission but warns against underestimating her other skills in the cage.

"I love striking, that's actually my favourite part of training but I think that the fact that I haven't had to show it that much means that I've been doing a very good job at it. You have to learn how to strike effectively to be able to grapple effectively.

"It's just like you have to learn jiu-jitsu to be able to defend jiu-jitsu. You have to learn striking to be able to avoid it, or else you're just going to get bashed in the face every time you have to come in close."

Rousey buckles down in training, but says she is up for a good time when the time is right.

"I do have fun. My friends understand when a fight gets close I'm much grumpier and I can't go out and party. They understand. They're there to support me in anything I do.

"We always make a lot of plans for the week after my fight. We try to cram all the fun in in that one week.

"But they're my friends for a reason. They're my friends because they understand my lifestyle."

And MMA training has another unexpected benefit for Rousey.

"Yes, I have abs," she says enthusiastically. "It's awesome."