Last week, WWE recorded the opening rounds of their inaugural Mae Young Classic—an all-women’s tournament that will air on WWE Network next month—in Winter Park, Fla. The shows, which featured a mix of talent from the WWE developmental system and the independent and international scenes, were well-received by those who attended. Even the less-experienced wrestlers, who were trained from scratch by WWE, were said to have had good showings, and overall, it seems like there is more excitement for this than there was for last year’s Cruiserweight Classic men’s tournament.
None of this is what got headlines coming out of the tapings. Instead, it was that Ronda Rousey was at ringside with her friends Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir to support her buddy and former MMA teammate, Shayna Baszler. Soon enough, bigger news came out: The women, who dubbed themselves the Four Horsewomen years ago, were arguing at ringside with WWE’s Bayley, Charlotte Flair, and Becky Lynch, who, along with Sasha Banks, have proclaimed themselves the Four Horsewomen of NXT, WWE’s developmental promotion. All of this was very theatrical, with the rival Horsewomen conspicuously positioned on opposite sides of the aisle leading to the ring.
Bayley, it should be noted, had been advertised for the night’s Raw live event, only to be pulled so she could appear for the Horsewomen vs. Horsewomen confrontation. Before long, Rovert, an anonymous Twitter rabble-rouser with a penchant for breaking wrestling news, tweeted that this is building to Rousey vs. Flair.
If nothing else, this definitely looks like the beginning of something big.
As New Year’s Eve began last year, if you were looking at Deadspin, you saw the wire photo gallery that made Rousey’s 48-second loss to Amanda Nunes look like the nastiest beatdown in UFC history. In real time, it was definitely up there, but Rousey’s lack of proper boxing footwork and head movement, which had proven to be her downfall in her previous loss, made it so that the photos, for once, were actually much more brutal than the videos. Rousey not trying to move with the force of the punches at all meant that every time she got hit by Nunes, the most powerful puncher in the division, every ounce of flesh on her skull rippled for at least a frame. Most UFC fights don’t result in a ton of images where the loser looks like the guy in the leather chair from the 1990s Maxell audio cassette commercials. This was different, and has resonated in a way even the most brutal losses usually don’t.
Talk of Rousey’s movie deals had disappeared after her first knockout loss. A remake of Road House, her own biopic, and whatever else was lined up all seemingly went out the window after she ceased being the baddest woman on the planet. She did a few public appearances and media engagements after her first loss and almost none after the second, and all these came with the mandate that she never be asked about fighting, even if she was working a UFC video-game event. Her lone television appearance since the second loss was just a few weeks ago on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where she not only didn’t mention fighting, but seemingly contorted herself to avoid mentioning her fiancée, UFC heavyweight Travis Browne, by name or occupation.
It seems that just about everyone, including Ronda Rousey, is done with her being UFC fighter Ronda Rousey. That doesn’t mean she’s just going away. Maybe Hollywood doesn’t think she can convince moviegoers that she’s the ultimate badass anymore, but if she wants to try doing so in pro wrestling, she probably can. She’s a massive fan of the genre, and there’s already a direct precedent for the move, one that’s worked about as well as anyone could have hoped.
When Brock Lesnar returned to WWE in 2012, coming off a two-fight losing streak in the UFC in which he was dominated and finished within a round both times, he was not the same Brock Lesnar who left in 2004. Instead, he was very clearly presented as the UFC version of Brock Lesnar, wearing MMA gear emblazoned with his sponsors’ logos and working a completely different style. The original WWE Brock Lesnar was one of the most mobile super-heavyweights in the history of the business, whose calling card was using his uncanny athleticism and freakish strength in an explicitly performative way. In his first match back, one of the most memorable in the modern era of WWE, he calmly shot a double-leg takedown on John Cena as soon as the opening bell rang and sliced him open with elbows to the forehead. While Cena won, Brock looked completely different from and more “real” than anyone on the roster, and only lost on a fluke because he threw himself at Cena, who punched the flying beast in the face with a chain-wrapped fist after having been thoroughly mauled.
While there have been some missteps along the way, Lesnar, with his limited schedule and unique physicality that often seems to cross the line between realistic performance and reality, has restored his aura. Within the context of pro wrestling, he comes off as the baddest heavyweight on the planet, even though fans know that in real life he’s far from it at this point of his career.
Lesnar often gives the distinct impression that he doesn’t even like pro wrestling, instead seeing it purely as means to the end that is millions of dollars he never spends. If he can do it, why can’t Rousey, who has the type of wide-eyed enjoyment of pro wrestling you may remember from your own childhood?
“To say she was a huge wrestling fan would be an understatement,” Absolutely Intense Wrestling promoter John Thorne said, “especially after I found out the circumstances of how she even wound up at an AIW event during one of her self-imposed exiles.” Rousey drove from Los Angeles to Cleveland last September to watch Baszler win the AIW women’s title, spending the bulk of the show backstage. “Here is arguably the biggest female athlete/celebrity in the world,” said Thorne, “and she shows up in a Roderick Strong shirt ready to watch the show and see her friend wrestle for the AIW women’s championship and show her support.”
After Baszler won the title, Rousey followed Duke through the curtain to celebrate. It was one thing to show up, but here a worldwide celebrity who had become allergic to the public for 10 months was in front of the crowd and loving every second of it.
“Her appearing was totally her call and an impromptu thing that I had no idea was going to happen,” said Thorne. “I think it had a lot to do with the AIW locker room being so welcoming to her and showing her so much respect. It’s probably difficult being in her position after losing, especially that first loss when a lot of fans in MMA turned on her, so I can understand why she doesn’t like making a lot of appearances in public.”
Afterwards, Thorne said, he thanked Rousey, all while assuring her that she didn’t need to make the public appearance. “She told me she knew she didn’t, and she appreciated I didn’t have any expectation of her once she arrived—we just treated her like a regular normal person. She went and appeared in front of the crowd because she wanted to celebrate with her friend who was chasing her dream, and to let her know how proud she was.”
Rousey’s wrestling fandom isn’t all about Baszler, either. When “Rowdy” Roddy Piper died suddenly in 2015, Rousey made sure to dedicate her next UFC win to him and thank him for giving her his blessing to use his famous alliterative nickname. Before her MMA losses, she was one of the celebrities who managed to get tickets to the monthly Pro Wrestling Guerilla shows in the Los Angeles area, which don’t comp anyone and routinely sell out within minutes. If pro wrestling came up during interviews, she’d chat about it enthusiastically, making clear that she was more than just a casual observer. Hell, she’s even had mock pro-wrestling matches with Baszler in their gym’s boxing ring. It’s safe to say that she’s a fan.
WWE brass, especially Paul “Triple H” Levesque and wife Stephanie McMahon, adore Rousey and have not been shy about their desire to work with her again after her one-off non-wrestling appearance at WrestleMania over two years ago. Levesque, who had defeated Sting in the latter’s WWE debut earlier in the show, readily flew through the air for one of Rousey’s judo throws. She has already befriended a lot of the women in the company, so it’s not as if they would have an issue making her look dominant, either. If there’s an opportunity for Ronda Rousey to be Ronda Rousey again, this is it. And everyone can make plenty of money in the process.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.