A few weeks ago, I interviewed my good friend and UFC commentator, Joe Rogan for the second time this year. Typically, we do these massive interviews once a year, but 2015 was huge for MMA, and had a ton of major changes, both good and bad, so we decided to do a recap of sorts. As is our standard, we got on the phone and almost three hours later, we wrapped up a fantastic conversation.
I will be releasing this in several parts over the next two weeks. In this first segment, we revisit one of the biggest fight stories of the year, Ronda Rousey's tumble from the top. We discuss the backlash from fans, her meteoric rise to super stardom, the technical aspects of the fight, Edmond Tarverdyan's questionable cornering, advice for moving forward in the public eye and changes to be made in her training regimen.
Part I: Revisiting Ronda Rousey's first career loss & the aftermath
Backlash after loss
I was shocked, but it does make sense, given the way she behaved sometimes and even her walkout song, I don't give a damn about my reputation. She wears that on her sleeve. Not touching gloves with Holly Holm and yelling at her during the weigh-ins...there's gonna be backlash if you lose. America loves winners, but they also love it when you're a winner and you fall on your face. They just love it.
The Ronda Rousey story in a lot of ways is a classic tale. It's a tale of a legend and a tale of falling into all of the traps that have come before that we've seen from famous celebrities and athletes. Everything except drugs... she fell for the distractions. When you're an athlete, especially a combat sports athlete, that stoic existence, that singular focus on the task, is one of the most under-appreciated aspects of training and becoming a successful fighter.
I think, for sure, Ronda had that earlier in her career when she had nothing else to fall back on, but now, she's just overrun with distractions. She's overrun with accolades, too, and I'm guilty, 100%, of that. I've referred to her in a million different ways. Based on her performances and based on what I had seen from her, she was just this freak athlete that no one had ever seen before. Sports Illustrated called her the most dominant athlete of all time. There were many, many awards that she was receiving, and many great titles that people were bestowing upon her. What she had done inside the Octagon was pretty spectacular.
We hadn't really had a female champion on this level. We had Gina Carano and Cris Cyborg duking it out in Strikeforce, but that was much less popular and well-known, than when Ronda emerged as this gigantic mega-star in the UFC. So, all this confidence and hubris... just so much going on there that the distractions just had to be insane. The media requests, the movies that she's doing; it's not just a few distractions, it's a lot of distractions.
When the walls came tumbling down after Holly Holm showed up in perfect condition with the perfect game plan, just locked and ready to rock, and put it to Ronda, the backlash was understandable. Like I said, people love a winner, but goddamn, they love it when you lose, too. Especially people who aren't doing well in their own life - oh my God, do they love it when you fall flat on your face.
I've taken a lot of heat from internet folks, too. My Twitter exploded because of all the good things I'd said about Ronda, but I stand by those good things. What Ronda had done was nothing short of incredible. What she was able to accomplish inside the Octagon was amazing. What Holly Holm did, though, was amazing-plus.
MMA, in its essence, and I'm fond of saying this, so if you've heard it before, forgive me; I think MMA, at its best, is high level problem-solving with dire health consequences. When you watch a head kick knockout, like what Holly put on Ronda, when she head kicked her that way...that is dire consequences in that she was not able to solve the problem that is Holly Holm. That was Holly's extreme reward for being able to solve the golden puzzle that is Ronda Rousey. That's what we saw in that fight, and I'm a big fan of high-level problem-solving.
When I watch a display like that, I think that it's an incredible thing to see. For whatever reason, it's slightly harder to watch a woman get headkick knocked out than it is for me to watch a guy in the same situation. I don't know why, but there's an extra tinge of shock to it. I'm trying to say this without sounding sexist, because I try not to be, and I don't think I am. It's not a judgement like saying women shouldn't fight, because when they get knocked out, it's more fucked up; that's not what I'm saying at all.
One of my favorite boxing knockouts--I forget the woman Ann Wolfe was fighting (it was Vonda Ward), but it was this big, tall chick, and she hit her with this haymaker right hand...that was one of those knockouts where you just go like Chris Tucker from Friday, ‘DAMNNNN!' It makes you lean your head back like, ‘Holy shit!' When you see one of those, there's just something extra weird about it, when you see a woman get knocked out like that.
I don't know how many guys I've seen get knocked out, I've lost count a long time ago. It's one of the weirdest things about my job, that I've gotten really used to watching people get knocked unconscious. Most people don't get to see people get knocked unconscious on a routine basis, really close up, but I've seen some of the greatest fighters and some of the greatest fights of all time from just a few feet away. It's odd to me that it's slightly different when a woman gets knocked out.
Ronda's meteoric rise
She came on the scene, guns a-blazing. It's not a coincidence that her last two pay-per-views have had a million buys. That's a lot. Gennady Golovkin, who is one of the best boxers on the planet, and one of my personal favorite guys to watch. He's fucking sensational, and an artist...an artist of destruction, but his last fight only got like 145,000 buys. That's atrocious.
We all know that Mighty Mouse is a spectacularly talented mixed martial artist. No one has been able to touch him. What he did inside the Octagon against John Dodson was a work of art. It was a goddamned Rembrandt in motion. I mean, it was just stunning...and nobody gave a fuck.
You look at Ronda Rousey, she beats up Bethe Correia, who although tough, had limited skills. She's a brawler who has limited motion and doesn't have any of the physical attributes that Holly Holm has. She's just kind of tough, tough and strong. That fight, which nobody expected Ronda to lose, got a million pay-per-view buys. That's fucking nuts. That stuff just doesn't happen.
It got to this point where she was not just an athletic phenom, which she certainly was, but she was also this cultural star. She ended up on this new dimension, this female that kicks ass, and is a prominent public figure. We've never had one of those before. There's never been one. People talk about Serena Williams and all these other great female athletes, and there's no doubt that Serena is an incredible athlete, no doubt at all, but no one has been an ass-kicker. Ronda is the first ever female, cultural star ass-kicker, where everybody knows who she is.
Her thing in Brazil, and this is one of the reasons why I was so overwhelmed, you had this feeling that this woman was in this rare place, culturally. She's standing on top of that stage at the weigh-ins, and the Brazilians are cheering her, and booing Bethe Correia. Brazilians are fiercely nationalistic and proud. It's one of the things that makes Brazil incredible. Brazilians love their Brazilian fighters. I'll never forget when Mike Pyle won by knockout in Brazil - he didn't do anything disrespectful, he fought well - and as he's leaving the Octagon, they're chanting out what their equivalent of calling someone a gay slur. The whole crowd! 15,000 people are chanting this thing, and I had to ask the translator, and he said they were basically saying, ‘You're a faggot.' All he did was win!
To have someone like Ronda Rousey show up, and be on that stage and have them cheer her and boo Bethe, that's crazy. No one had ever seen anything like that. Then, to have her win, and by knockout... the whole thing was just overwhelming. Seeing her strut around the Octagon, I had the sense that we were watching something historic. This wasn't just some sports moment. We had reached some rare place, and that's how I felt. It's one of the only times I've almost cried inside the Octagon.
That's a problem I've always had, ever since I was a little kid. If a movie is emotional, I cry. Another time I've almost cried in the Octagon that I've never talked about is when I was talking to Conor McGregor after he beat Chad Mendes. I was bringing up the Irish people, and one of the things that freaked me out about that fight was the amount of love he got from his countrymen. As I'm talking to him about this, they start cheering, and I start welling up. I'm thinking to myself, ‘You are not gonna cry.' [Laughs] I've always been like that. I don't know what it is, but I've just accepted it. It's just me.
What was going on with Ronda was a very special thing, but outside of that, when you look at it technically, which is what we have to look at, and when you surgically and calmly remove your emotions from the equation, and you look at it like a prize fight, then you see that we got some questions answered. When it comes to MMA and high level problem solving, you have to look at what the problems are and what the solutions are.
We found that Ronda wanted to strike and close the distance and get Holly to the ground. She tried that on several occasions. She was completely aggressive, just totally committed to attacking and moving forward, but was getting tagged over and over and over again. She landed a couple of punches, but Holly's movement and ability to counter and avoid the clinch, particularly to shuck off that left arm, was amazing. She was also able to defend the armbar, once the fight did go to the ground, so we got some questions answered there, too.
We also got some questions answered about her ability to pace herself. We'd only seen one fighter make it out of the first round, and that was Miesha. Miesha made it to the third round and put Ronda in a few tough positions, but this was earlier in Ronda's championship run. Maybe she was a bit more conservative then, maybe not as confident then...who knows. In this fight with Holly, she went all in. She went all in, and it didn't work.
By the end of that first round, when she went back to her corner, she was exhausted. For the first time, we saw her legs look wobbly, she was taking big, deep breaths, she wasn't walking smooth and even. She was someone who was in trouble. She had blood coming out of her nose and mouth, and for the first time, she was in real trouble.
When you go back to a corner after a round like that, which was a round that was just fraught with peril and problems, you've got to get some tactical advice and you've got to have a corner person who's going to figure out a way to tell you how to change gears. You've got to have a Plan B. I don't know if she had a Plan B. I don't know if there was ever any consideration that the charge at Holly wouldn't work.
So, as she's charging after her like that, she's getting tagged, and she's getting weaker and weaker, more and more tired, she's committing 100%. She's essentially sprinting for five minutes, and when she gets back to the corner, her corner was telling her, ‘You're doing great.' Okay, that's fucking crazy talk. That's just nonsense. Everything about that is wrong. She's not doing great. You can't tell her she's doing great.
She might have been out of it by then, anyway. When I looked at her in the corner, and the way she came out for the second round, it was entirely possible that she was already stunned and damaged to the point where it didn't matter what anybody said. It's entirely possible. She got nailed with a big elbow in that fight, too. There was a few shots where Holly caught her coming in and just lit her up.
We don't know how stunned she was, only she knows, really, but I suspect she was pretty hurt. Her corner just didn't seem to have any advice. Edmond was just telling her to box and keep her hands up. She needed to switch it up. She needed to have some other options, whether it was to bait Holly into an exchange by moving away and catching her when she commits, whether it was switching from an upper body-based takedown to dropping down for a double - I don't know if she even does that - but if she had done that, I'm sure Holly would have never expected it, because she would have been preparing for Ronda's clinch. I actually talked to Greg Jackson after the fight, and he said one of the things they specifically prepared for, was Ronda clinching that left arm and trying to get a hold of her to throw her to the ground, which is her signature approach.
So, we got a lot of questions answered which lit up the big picture better. Ronda's striking, although very good, and looks amazing when she's hitting the pads, and looks amazing when she's knocking out Alexis Davis or putting it to Bethe Correia, but when you see her fight someone like Holly Holm, you see flaws in her approach, and she got exposed in that sense.
What the loss means for Ronda's career & advice for moving forward
It's a big, fat ‘Who the fuck knows' [laughs]. I think first and foremost, you should always be yourself, but the reaction that you get to being yourself should tell you something about how other people view you, and show you some holes in your game as a human that you might be missing out on. If the public has a very intense reaction to you, some of it might be warranted, some of it might be unwarranted. Some might be people just being assholes and some might be that people are genuinely put off by some of the things you did.
I think it takes a while to learn how to navigate the public life, especially as a competitor. If you're a singer and someone doesn't like your song, whatever. If you're a comedian and someone doesn't think you're funny, whatever. It's not that devastating. But, if you get your fucking ass kicked like she did, you get head kick KO'd, which is probably the most brutal way to go out, like BOOM! Flatlined. That's just embarrassing, it's devastating, and it crushes your morale and self-esteem.
People know that, so when they see this brash person who was invulnerable before, invincible...now they see holes in you. They just want to attack. ‘Fuck you, you're just a person. Fuck you.' It's gonna be humbling and difficult. You're gonna have to rebuild, you know?
As to how this affects her professionally, first of all, the big question, the Number One question, is how does this affect her physically? Like, how is she, physically? We used to think, and this is conventional wisdom, that if you got knocked out, you take some time off and you'll be back.
There's doctors - not dummies like me, not fight commentators - that understand the human body, who are neurologists or neuroscientists, people studying traumatic brain injuries... that's what we witnessed. When Holly Holm head kicked Ronda and knocked her out, we witnessed a traumatic brain injury, make no mistake about it.
I had this conversation with Dana (White), and he was like, ‘Oh, Ronda's fine,' and I'm like, ‘Listen man, you can't say that.' She's not fine. You don't get head kick knocked out and be fine. That's not fine. There's damage for sure. The question is, how much damage? We just don't know.
Andrei Arlovski is still kicking and doing great and he's been knocked out a lot of times. Alistair Overeem, too. You talk to Alistair, and he seems to have full control of his faculties. He's very articulate and doesn't seem to have any problems, despite having been knocked out a bunch of times. Peter Aerts has been knocked out something like 13 times. A neurologist would likely say that you've gotta stop this, but he seems fine. Everybody is different. Certain people can just take more punishment, and certain people get hit once, really hard, and they're fucked up forever.
Look at T.J. Grant. T.J. got a concussion in training, I don't even think he was sparring, I think he was grappling, and he got a concussion. That does happen, it's happened to friends of mine. It's happened to me; you roll into somebody or land really hard on somebody's knee. He didn't even get head kicked, he just collided with someone, and he's never fought since. He was set to fight for the title. He worked so hard for that one opportunity, to be able to step in and fight for the UFC world title. He had earned his chance, trained like a mad man and had excellent performances leading up to it. He showed great technique and versatility, and now T.J. Grant works in a mine.
He's not the only one. Chris Holdsworth hasn't fought in forever because of a concussion. Joseph Valtellini from Glory had to relinquish his title because of concussions. We don't know if she's gonna be okay physically. You've gotta be fucking honest about that. It's a very important part of our sport. It's the part of the sport that makes it special, because the consequences are fucking dire.
So, when someone like Ronda gets knocked out brutally, to just brush that off, ‘No biggie, she'll be back,' whoa! Slow the fuck down! You don't know how durable she's gonna be when she comes back. Holm hit her with everything but the kitchen sink in that first round. What's it gonna be like in the second fight? What if Holm hits her with a shot and her legs buckle? Then we realize, ‘Oh shit, her chin's not there anymore.'
Changes to make
Another question for Ronda, is what changes does she make, because she's gotta make changes. She's gotta make changes in her technical training, as far as expanding her repertoire, expanding her weapons, and her ability to deal with kicks. One of the things we saw in that fight was the oblique kick that Holly was landing. That's a Winkeljohn staple. Wink is a bad motherfucker. I love that guy and I'm so impressed with his coaching. He's such an in-the-shadows, humble guy that's not trying to get attention.
Ronda's got to go to a camp that has the full arsenal. She's got to go to a Firas Zahabi or a Matt Hume, or someone like that, in my opinion. If I was talking to her, that's what I would tell her. I'd say, ‘You can't just train with a judo coach and Edmond holds the pads for you.' Edmond has definitely done some great things for her boxing technique, that can't be denied. Her combinations when she hits the pads are very impressive, but there are other elements that come with striking. It's not just about throwing your hands and having the technique look good.
It's also about how you set up combinations, how you lead an opponent into a setup, anticipating their reaction, and being prepared to counter that reaction, because you're moving two and three steps ahead of them. I don't know if he's capable of doing that. I don't think he ever competed at a very high level, and I don't know how much he knows about other aspects of MMA.
What I see from him, as far as his boxing training, I'm impressed. He's showing her some good combinations and has got her technique sharp, but there's a lot to striking. When you're incorporating kicks and knees and elbows, you've got to have a proven track record as a coach. You've got to have someone who understands very high level competition, and then they have to understand how to incorporate all the techniques of MMA, and then they have to have a deep understanding of the skillset of the person they're coaching. That's a lot to ask.
I think she needs someone who will objectively assess her game as an outsider, not someone like Edmond, who trained her from the beginning with mitts; she needs someone else, as well. She needs someone who is going to be able to look at the big picture of her overall MMA game, and then rebuild. She's gonna need a massive overhaul. When we talk about MMA being high level problem solving, Holly Holm solved the problem. She had all the answers and she got a fucking A+.
Now, Ronda comes away from that fight, and she got an F. She certainly got an A for effort. She came barn-storming after Holly in that first round, but was ultimately unsuccessful at all of her attempts. You can look at the couple punches she landed, but overall, Holly just dominated that fight. That was a stellar performance by Holly Holm.
The other advice to Ronda Rousey is you've got to figure out what you want to do. Do you want to be a gigantic celebrity or do you want to be the best fighter on the planet? Because if you want to be the best fighter on the planet, you have to pursue that only. I think with this movie bullshit, she could pull it off with some of the girls with all these distractions and all this nonsense, but I don't think they allow her the amount of resources--mental, physical, everything...all of the above--that she's going to need at her disposal to be the very best that she can be. You don't want to be good enough, you want to be the best that you can be. I don't think she was the best that she could be. In my eyes, she was not properly prepared for that fight, whether physically or technically.
Part II coming Sunday!