The aftermath of Ronda Rousey’s failure and what we can learn from it.
It was the kick to the face heard ’round the world.
Ever since the shocking knockout of then-undefeated mixed martial arts champion Ronda Rousey by Holly Holm last month, Rousey has been humiliated and in hiding. Until now.
This week, the fighter and cultural phenom opened up to ESPN Magazine’s Ramona Shelburne in her first interview since her punishing defeat.
The interview (which you should definitely read in its entirety if you have the time) covers everything from Rousey’s days since the fight to her team’s reactions to the loss, her career leading up to this moment, and her controversial romantic relationship with a boyfriend accused of domestic violence in a previous relationship. But the opening quote from Rousey sums up the conversation’s central and surprising theme:
“I’m just really f—-ing sad.”
That’s right. The brash fighter known for her bravado is openly mourning her crushing defeat.
As a lifelong boxing fan (yes, boxing, MMA’s graying older cousin), I’ve seen quite a few upsets and fallen champions in my day. But I’ve never seen any quite as openly despondent as Rousey in this interview.
“I just feel so embarrassed. How I fought after that is such an embarrassing representation of myself.”
While most athletes who are “good sports” give the obligatory congratulations to their opponent, when champions lose, there is typically still a hint of bravado glimmering beneath the surface. Especially when the losing champion was known for confidence. Swollen-eyed and bloody-lipped, they say things like: “They fought a better fight than me, but it won’t happen again” or “Congratulations to the winner; I hope they enjoy their brief time with my title.”
Not Rousey. At least not here.
Some might see her sudden lack of cockiness as evidence of a well-deserved humbling that was long overdue. The fighter has made her fair share of enemies both inside the ring (she famously refused to touch gloves with Holm before the fight) and outside of it (see the backlash over her transphobic remarks about transgendered fighters).
But it’s impossible to hear Rousey now without thinking of the complicated relationship that women particularly highly successful women often have with failure.
“You can’t succeed without failing first” is the popular adage. But for women, there’s often an addendum: “Failure is the key to your success, but you can’t fail without confirming the sexist naysayers, losing ground, losing respect, losing your position, or opening yourself up to public ridicule.”
Are these results 100% unique to women? Of course not. But the topic of women and failure has been heavily studied, and the research provides an interesting backdrop for Rousey’s post-loss despair.
Research shows that women are generally more afraid to fail and that failure hits them harder than their male counterparts.
That fear can affect women’s long-term trajectory and standing in their fields. Everything from would-be female scientists dropping out of STEM programs to women avoiding entrepreneurship to female journalists pitching fewer stories has been linked, in part, to women’s fear of rejection.
“Every American heroine should brace herself for the backlash. We want superwomen, but when we find them, it freaks us the hell out.” Ramona Shelburne in an interview with Ronda Rousey
There are many theories about why that’s the case. Maybe it’s because, as children, girls are often praised for their innate abilities while boys are praised for their valiant efforts. That can lead boys to grow into men accustomed to risk while girls become women who avoid situations that don’t guarantee perfection.
Or perhaps it’s simply the result of living in a sexist society, where the consequences of failure are much harsher for women. In this regard, their fear is often justified.
But whatever the reason for women’s enhanced sensitivity to failure, experts Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons say of the leading research, “We’ve spilled more ink on whether women believe in themselves and not enough on what happens when women fail.“
So what happens when this thing we fear so much actually occurs?
That question is why Rousey is an interesting case study. It’s rare for us to see wildly successful women known for winning lose in a crushing and public defeat.
In the interview, Shelburne directly calls out the questions about what Rousey’s loss may have “represented” (emphasis added):
Shelburne: “Now we’re left wondering what really ended that night in Australia. The Rousey Myth of Invincibility? The idea that one woman could fly in on a cape and take down male hegemony with an armbar?”
Rousey: “I feel like I’m grieving the death of the person who could’ve done that.”
When Rousey was defeated, the mocking and criticism was unlike any that I’ve seen in recent sports history.
To be fair, most opinionated, strong women who fail in public are familiar with backlash. As Shelburne noted in the profile, “Every American heroine should brace herself for the backlash. We want superwomen, but when we find them, it freaks us the hell out.”
But I, for one, am glad we get to see such an open reaction from Rousey in the ESPN interview because there are two powerful things we can learn from it:
1. It’s OK to be more transparent about the pain of defeat.
While Rousey may have been physically hiding from the paparazzi, she isn’t hiding behind a facade of impenetrability and stoicism that women so often feel the need to project to the world. She is, as the writer observed “being vulnerable when everyone thought she was invincible.”
In other words, she’s revealing herself as human. What would happen if more of us did the same?
What if we stopped saying “It’s OK!” or “I’m fine!”and just admitted “This hurts and has knocked me for a loop. I am still trying to recover.”
Perhaps if we did, it wouldn’t just offer us healthy emotional release, it would give folks a better understanding of how much strength and resolve it takes to get back up.
Which leads to the second lesson that we can learn from Rousey:
2. Fighters always get back in the ring.
The only time Rousey’s confidence shines through is when she’s discussing her imminent return and the potential for a rematch:
“I need to come back. I need to beat this chick. Who knows if I’m going to pop my teeth out or break my jaw or rip my lip open. I have to f—ing do it.”
Later in the interview, when asked the question “So, are you going to fight again?” Rousey answered simply, “What else am I going to f—ing do?”
What else indeed. Rousey is a fighter and a champion. And champions never let defeat truly defeat them. Even with her pain and embarrassment in the present moment, she’s already made a decision to get back in the arena with the confidence that failure is merely a comma not a period in the story of her life.
“I always say you have to be willing to get your heart broken. That’s just what f—ing happens when you try.”
What if all women, if given the opportunity, always chose to do the same?
Ultimately, time will tell whether or not this defeat changes the trajectory of Rousey’s career. Did it mar her legacy? Did it “appropriately” humble her, as many in the public stated (even though arrogance is typically praised in male fighters)? Will it empower her to be better and victorious the next time around? Fight fans will have to wait and see.
In the meantime, her public failure, public grief, and desire for a public reprise can serve as an example to women: We undefeated overachievers can survive the knockouts of life just as well as the boys.
And we, too, can always get back up.
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