Ronda Rousey: ‘I never wanted to talk about concussion. It felt like a weakness’ (2024)

‘I worry about it because we already have Alzheimer’s and dementia in our family, and those family members did not get whacked on the head a whole bunch,” Ronda Rousey says as she considers a future shrouded by the consequences of concussion and a past where she broke so many barriers for women before a shattering fall.

At her peak, in 2015, Rousey was described by Sports Illustrated as “the world’s most dominant athlete”. She had changed a brutal sport to become the face of the UFC, the billion-dollar juggernaut which drives the popularity of MixedMartial Arts.

Apart from being the first woman signed by the deeply conservative UFC in 2012, Rousey had built a formidable 15-0 record in which her bouts lasted an average 34 seconds. But her ferocity was built on a hidden vulnerability. Rousey had suffered so many concussions in judo that she knew her brain could not withstand multiple more blows to the head. It was vital that she brought her fights in the UFC to a violent conclusion before she absorbed much punishment.

Rousey can now share her secret and is moving and amusing company as she reflects on the consequences of so many concussions. “Every time I forget my keys or lose my phone, I’m like: ‘I’m DYING! It’s OVER!” she says as she shouts out those words with comic flair.

She has just turned 37 and Rousey is thoughtful again. “Part of me has declined and I have moments where I’ll be singing my daughter a lullaby and I’ll get a word wrong. I’ll be like: ‘Oh my God! This is it [the onset of dementia]!’ On the drive home this morning, after dropping off my daughter for her first day of pre-school, I was passing corners I’d passed hundreds of times and, for a moment, I was like ‘Where am I?’ And then it’s a case of ‘Oh yeah’.”

Ronda Rousey: ‘I never wanted to talk about concussion. It felt like a weakness’ (1)

We all have moments of brain-fade but, for Rousey, it carries a tangled undertow. Her new book, written with her sister Maria Burns Ortiz, is often gripping and, at its best, offers a raw personal history of concussion. She began judo at the age of 11 and, driven by the aim of winning an Olympic gold medal, Rousey tried to evade the fact “I’d been compounding concussion after concussion for so many years”.

She shrugs when I ask how many concussions she might have had in a calendar year as a young woman. “It’s hard to say because I wouldn’t rest when I had a concussion. I would continue to train and keep re-aggravating it. So instead of having symptoms for a few days, I would have them for weeks or even months. Most of the year I would be having concussion symptoms. There are grades of severity but my worst was being thrown on the back of my head at the Pan-American [Judo] Championships in Argentina. I completely blacked out till the nextmorning.”

Rousey’s concerns were ignored. “I’d be treated like I was complaining about a headache. People would say: ‘Your head hurts? Suck it up. What if your head hurts during the Olympics?’ That’s how I was taught to deal with it from a very young age. It became a way of life.”

Her mother, AnnMaria [Burns], had become the first American to win the world judo championships in 1984. She then lost her husband, and Ronda her father, after Ron Rousey took his life. Ronda was eight years old. Amid such adversity, AnnMaria began coaching Ronda and helped her win a gold medal at the 2004 World Junior Judo Championships and bronze at the 2008 Olympic Games.

When Ronda was a girl, there was little scientific knowledge about concussion in the public domain. “My mother just didn’t understand concussion,” she says. “Nobody did because research only started coming out towards the end of my judo career. I was afraid of it and tried to suppress it. I’d had so many more concussions than anybody else in a 10-year judo career and so when I started doing MMA I didn’t want anyone to know. They already had enough reasons to try and stop me going into MMA and then the UFC. I didn’t want to give them any more about concussion and I was lucky to have the skills to win most fights really quick.” Rousey is suitably scathing about the ignorant machismo that haunts MMA and boxing: “People talk about your ‘chin’ with such reverence. It’s thrown around like it’s a personality trait or a sign of your willpower to absorb blows. That’s another reason why I never wanted to talk about concussion. It felt like it was a personal weakness and not a neurological degeneration I’ve been experiencing since I was a child.”

Ronda Rousey: ‘I never wanted to talk about concussion. It felt like a weakness’ (2)

She pushes her glasses higher up on the bridge of her nose. “It sucks because you see what happened to a lot of these fighters. Muhammad Ali is one of my heroes and he had the greatest chin. But look what happened. I am not judging anyone as I would also accept living my life in a wheelchair if that was the price I had to pay to achieve all I did. I respect Ali for being willing to live that life because that’s something I tried to do as well.

“I hope I don’t end up that way but you never know. It might be decades later when you understand you’ve taken one hit too many. When you have kids and family, it’s much harder to gamble on yourfuture. I went from being the most eligible bachelorette on earth to instant family, and it completely changes your priorities.”

Rousey experienced a whirlpool of fame which she has now gladly exchanged for a serene life on a regenerative farm she runs with her husband Travis Browne, the former UFC fighter, who has two teenage boys. The couple have two young children of their own and, surrounded by family and animals, Rousey has found a way to heal herself after the catastrophic end to her UFC domination.

The most powerful pages in Rousey’s book document the aftermath of her crushing first defeat when the former boxer Holly Holm knocked her out in front of the UFC’s then largest-ever crowd of 56,000 fans in Melbourne, and more than a million people who had paid to watch the broadcast in November 2015. Holm’s first punch concussed Rousey. It also split the champion’s lower lip wide open.

At the end of the round, Rousey bit off a small chunk of distended flesh, “ripping my teeth into my own lip like you would an apple”, and spat it out. She still feels the missing part of her inside lip today and remembers the desolation of her locker room after being knocked out in the second round.

Ronda Rousey: ‘I never wanted to talk about concussion. It felt like a weakness’ (3)

Rousey “sat alone on the cold, grey concrete floor” and “tears ran down my cheeks”. She was barefoot, silent and shivering. “I could taste the blood in my mouth, my tongue against a gaping hole of flesh and muscle where my inside bottom lip had once been.”

She could hear people outside revelling in her devastating defeat. “It was the worst moment of my life. It was the most intense pain, misery, embarrassment and shame I had ever felt. I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to swallow a bottle of painkillers, close my eyes, and end it.”

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Only one man could talk properly to her. Travis found the words as, while she sobbed in his arms, he reminded her: “You are so much more than a fighter.”

Rousey had been venerated for so long and pressured into fighting for the UFC so often. But after that defeat and another early stoppage loss to Amanda Nunes in December 2016, Rousey was ridiculed relentlessly in a defining example of social media’s desire to destroy a famous figure as they stumble. She finally found a way out of such distress. It helped that Rousey knew she had to protect her brain and no longer risk being punched or kicked in the head. She also tells me how, with patience and humour, Travis showed her how to live normally again.

Ronda Rousey: ‘I never wanted to talk about concussion. It felt like a weakness’ (4)

“He was one of the very few people who saw me as more than just Ronda Rousey, the UFC champion. Here’s a perfect way to sum up Travis. When we first got together I told him that there was no way I was ever going to cook for a man. So for a year he cooked every single meal we had together because he loved me. Then one day I said: ‘I can make really nice pancakes. I want to make you some pancakes.’”

Rousey laughs in delight. “So I started making pancakes and then more and more meals. I wanted to show I loved him by cooking for him, as he had done for me. And then he did this really smart thing. He changed the voice on the GPS so that it had an Australian accent. Itwas because he didn’t want me tohave any bad association with mydefeat in Melbourne. To this day we still hear an Australian voice onour GPS.”

In California they have “our regenerative ranch where we started with one seed and we now have hundreds of acres of grassland”. “We’re figuring out how to use our animals and natural processes to bring this ecosystem to its fullest potential. We now have herds of antelope coming through and roe deer and migrating geese. We’ve taken this land that was so neglected and abused and made it a real refuge for all the wildlife in the area as well as raising our animals humanely so they can exhibit all their natural behaviours.

“We could have taken the money we made from fighting and put it into property and just been landlords. But I don’t want to leave our kids a pile of money that’s on fire because the world is burning. Regenerative agriculture is one of the most scalable solutions to combat climate change. I really believe in it.”

Rousey worked for a while as a wrestler in the WWE and she quickly discovered that, even in that circus, women were treated badly. But she is proud of how she changed combat sport and made women fighters integral to the business of the UFC. “I tried to win as quickly as possible, taking zero damage and I’m really proud of what I was able to accomplish – especially with my limitations.”

Ronda Rousey: ‘I never wanted to talk about concussion. It felt like a weakness’ (5)

She has also found peace even if she cannot be certain of the future health of her brain. “I need to enjoy the moment and be happy where I’m at,” Rousey says after an hour of sombre reflection and riotous laughter. “I don’t want my body to be perfect when it’s buried in the ground.

“I have no regrets and if I get to a point where you can just park me in front of the ocean and all I can do is sit and watch the whales, I should be happy with that. I would do it all again, but I wish I could do it with a little more science and knowledge in mind.”

Ronda Rousey: ‘I never wanted to talk about concussion. It felt like a weakness’ (2024)

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