It’s tough to know what to expect from Ronda Rousey in WWE, but most observers weren’t expecting much going into last weekend. Yes, she’s an Olympic medalist and past MMA champion with a long history as a wrestling fan and great respect for what the grind of pro wrestling entails. On the other hand, she’s an alarmingly bad actress whose first appearance as a proper WWE performer, at January’s Royal Rumble event, revealed that she was unable even to point at the WrestleMania sign convincingly. There were some caveats, there, which were mainly that Rousey seemed especially happy to be there and was perhaps overwhelmed by the moment. Anyway, the big test for Rousey was always going to come this week, with her storyline contract signing at the Elimination Chamber event and her Monday Night Raw debut the following night.
The initial reaction for Rousey’s entrance was relatively muted, which appeared to rattle her somewhat, but she pushed forward into her storyline. When it was revealed that WWE authority figures Stephanie McMahon and Triple H were actually signing Rousey as revenge for her embarrassing them at WrestleMania three years ago, everything snapped into place. Rousey, who had been demure and humble so far—a demeanor that was, with hindsight, probably her best bit of performance yet—was suddenly and unmistakably the brash and bulletproof Ronda Rousey that became a UFC megastar. More to the point, she slammed Triple H through a table and got slapped by Stephanie (who fled the ring), thus setting up her WrestleMania feud for this year. Rousey wasn’t perfect the next night on Raw, but she was confident and assertive throughout in a way she hadn’t been at the Rumble or Elimination Chamber.
We won’t get a good feel for what Rousey’s WWE career is going to be like long-term at least through WrestleMania, as she’s clearly being prepped for a mixed tag team match in that event with a partner (likely Kurt Angle) against Triple H and Stephanie. How Rousey works with a non-wrestler in a gimmicky match in which she will likely see minimal in-ring action won’t really tell us much about if she’ll hold up bell to bell. That said, it’s also the perfect way to introduce her, as Rousey is divisive enough that she’ll need a good villain to make sure she’s cheered. No female WWE performer is going to be a more effective heel foil than Stephanie McMahon, in part because of how effortlessly irritating she is when doing her real life Chief Brand Officer job, but mostly because she’s great at being evil. Whether it’s narrating a troll-tastic Triple H highlight video, speechifying while cosplaying as Patricia Morrison, or screeching “You OK, baby?” after her beloved hubby is attacked, McMahon has become a genuinely great pro wrestling villain.
Dave Meltzer, in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, reports that the Rousey/McMahon feud is likely to be a long-term thing. Meltzer described it as the promotion using Rousey as McMahon’s foil in order to put Stephanie on the same level of stardom that father achieved as Steve Austin’s rival, but it has the added narrative bonus of keeping Rousey in the proper alignment. Rousey’s storylines will have to be carefully crafted not to make her opponents appear to be on her level. If the former UFC champion dominates, she runs the risk of being rejected by the fans as a celebrity who got special treatment over women who have worked at this for years. Stephanie being the thorn in Rousey’s side is the best way to avoid that, at least creatively speaking.
It’s also a smart financial play. Rousey’s arrival comes as WWE is trying to negotiate a new TV contract in the United States, the United Kingdom, and India. In the U.S., Rousey could very well be both a perceived and actual difference maker. According to Meltzer’s reporting on internal UFC market research, fans who bought the events Rousey headlined generally didn’t buy other cards, and she brings a passionate and heavily female fanbase with her to WWE. For Rousey to bring those new viewers to WWE programming—and potentially more paid subscribers to WWE Network—she’ll need storyline longevity. She won’t have if she keeps bulldozing everyone, and McMahon seems uniquely suited to provide the degree of constant conflict that Rousey will need if she’s really going to launch.
At Tuesday night’s WWE SmackDown tapings, Fox Sports executives (flanked by Colin Cowherd for some reason) were in the front row, which lent a bit of credence to the reports of WWE/Fox negotiations for the U.S. TV contract. Fox held the domestic UFC deal for Rousey’s whole run with the MMA promotion, and they know full well about the audience-generating power she brings. The preliminary fights before Rousey’s pay-per-view events generally had much stronger audiences than other prelim cards, and Rousey fights were rerun all the time on Fox’s UFC shoulder programming. If the UFC leaves Fox, it will also leave a huge hole in the Fox Sports cable programming because so much of the network’s toriginal and rerun content is UFC-related. WWE can fill that void, and they can fill it much more easily with Rousey in their stable.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix