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UFC 170: The Judo Career of Ronda Rousey

BE Grappling Team Member Ananse takes a detailed look at the famed Judo career of UFC Women's Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey.

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A post by BE Community Member and BE Grappling Team Member Ananse

Since we are now coming up on the Rousey - McMann fight and I'm guessing at some point there will be a breakdown of Sarah McMann's wrestling credentials, I figured I'd do one about Ronda's judo credentials and how they stack up in terms of international competitive judo.

First off, I'm going to have to pay very little attention to her domestic achievements because, quite frankly, a US national championship in judo doesn't necessarily count for a whole lot. Less so a US junior national championship.

Here's why that is. The USA has a comparatively tiny population of people practicing judo at any level. American wrestling can boast an active population in the hundreds of thousands, the total American judo population is maybe a tenth of that. Its a really small pool spread out over a really large country. In addition, because judo is both an Olympic sport and a martial art, a lot of practitioners are recreational. Its a sport that people can start as kids and keep up well into their old age. To put things in perspective, the World Veterans championships (formerly the World Masters until the IJF took over that game) has a 75-80 year old bracket. So, while the wrestling numbers are mostly made up of men under 30, judo is a bit more diverse in terms of both gender and age and not everyone is physically capable of being an elite athlete.

Add on to that the fact that a lot of people in the right age brackets to be serious competitors are recreational judoka, people who train maybe 1-3 times a week and may make it into the gym for extra practice. Not exactly Olympic calibre athletes. I fall into this camp too, so I'm not taking anything away from recreational players, just pointing out the realities of the situation. I'm decent, but no one actually competing at the national or world level has anything to fear from me unless they have a truly terrible day and I have a spectacularly extraordinary one.

In short, America has a small number of judo players to begin with, and a tiny proportion of those are actually training like elite athletes. Elite judo has very little support in the USA, meaning they either have jobs or are dependent on sponsors for money to survive while training. Miraculously, even given this, you turn out a small handful of world class competitors pretty regularly, but the field is incredibly thin. Winning a national title itself says very little about how good someone is compared to the rest of the world. In the continental Americas, what really counts are wins at the Pan-Ams, the Miami Grand Prix and the Rio Grand Slam. Otherwise I care about how they do on the IJF circuit, especially in Europe and Asia where the best competition is.

And so with that disclaimer in place, let's talk about the Judo career of Ronda Rousey. Enough people have read stories about her so I don't have to tell you that she came to Judo as a teenager after a childhood as a pretty good competitive swimmer. Her mother, AnnaMaria DeMars, was a multiple time US national champion, a Pan-Am champ and won the 1984 World Championships in Judo on the back of an MBA and two shredded knees. Then she went on to get a masters and a PhD in educational psychology. She also won a national Sambo championship.

[-56kg] AnnMarie Burns (USA) - Natasha Hernandez (VEN) (via

This video is the only one I've been able to find of her competing, but it should give you some insight into why Ronda is so good on the mat.

Basically, she won most of her matches by being a good enough standup grappler to get her opponents on the mat, then immediately winning on the mat by pin or armbar. She has a book on grappling that I plan on picking up this summer, and if you want a feel for what Judo based grappling can look like, I'd recommend it.

So... Ronda started judo and had a mother who was a world class athlete in her own right ans undersood the sport well enough to point her in the right direction and make her learn good judo both on her feet and on the floor. She also got Ronda the right coaches who were willing to teach her really solid fundamentals rather than taking the shortest path to a junior national championship with terrible technique. Among those coaches, Gene LeBell and Gokor Chivichyan. As a junior Ronda had both Karo Parisyan and Manny Gamburyan as training partners. As a senior, she moved up to Wakefield, Mass and worked with Jimmy Pedro Jr, one of the most accomplished American judoka ever, the current national coach and, along with his dad, currently the most successful senior coach in American judo by a mile. Their other contribution to MMA is Rick Hawn, and maybe one day that list will include Kayla Harrison and Travis Stevens (I live in hope).

All of this got Ronda 2 junior national championships, 6 senior national championships, 3 golds, a silver and a bronze at the Pan-Ams and a gold and a bronze at the junior world championships. In 2004, she won her way to the 63kg berth in the USA squad for the Athens games as a 17 year old, but won only one match against Sarah Clark of the UK. She competed for another two years at that weight and then moved up to 70kg. At that weight, she won a silver medal the 2007 world championships and then fought her way to a bronze medal in the Beijing Olympics, her only loss coming to world champion, 2 time world medalist and three time Olympic medalist Edith Bosch of the Netherlands (and that's an abridged version of Bosch's accomplishments). Its worth pointing out that Ronda beat Bosch during her world championship run. The highlights of that championship run are below.

And now, to put Ronda's accomplishments in perspective, I guess I'll have to talk about the nature of women's competitive judo internationally. Women's judo got its first world championship in 1980 in Madison Square Garden in NY, largely as the result of tireless campaigning by Rena (Rusty) Kanokogi, an icon in international judo. If you have a minute, her story is all sorts of compelling. Eight years later it was a demonstration event at the Seoul Olympics and it has been a staple of the Olympics ever since.

So for the last 26 years the women have been fighting in the Olympics with the same number of weight classes as the men, under the same rules with the exact same time periods (well, until the IJF took a minute away from women's judo for no particular reason this year). This means that almost all the countries that care about judo have similar structures for recruiting talent and creating elite athletes for their women that they do for their men. I'd put men's judo at par with men's freestyle wrestling in terms of athletic depth at the world level. Women's judo is probably the most competitive women's combat sport on the planet.

This is a video of the Cuban women's team training to give you an idea of what judo looks like at the world level. That Olympic medal came against women who were, quite frankly, better athletes than any of the women she has fought so far. Sarah McMann is the first woman she has fought who is in the same calibre of athlete that she fought week in, week out on her way to the top of the world. Plus back then Ronda didn't have the same support structure behind her and the women she was facing usually had world class coaches and preparation behind them.

With Ronda, MMA was handed an amazing gift. A truly world class athlete in her prime coming off two Olympic cycles as a legitimate top 5 athlete at her weight class in a hyper-competitive combat sport into MMA with training partners and coaches who are at the forefront of adapting modern competitive judo techniques for MMA.

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