As soon as Ronda Rousey was on the mat, her many haters were already celebrating her loss. While Holly Holm ran around the ring in victory, Twitter said Rousey had always been just hype. They expressed relief that they could "stop caring" about her. "Oh good," said Glenn Stout, who edits the annual Best American Sportswriting anthology, "now we don't have to pay attention to Ronda Rousey anymore."
But the loss of her undefeated record (and the sheen that came with it) only made her more interesting. And as everyone pours out their end-of-the-year retrospectives, it's worth remembering: Ronda Rousey was the athlete of the year. Sure, there were far more interesting stories—DraftKings and FanDuel face the legal gauntlet; Serena nearly completes the Grand Slam; Jordan Spieth nearly sweeps the Majors; Warriors start off 24-0. But Rousey, in my book, was the single most compelling individual in any sport this year, male or female.
Losing is only the most recent thing Rousey did, so it's freshest in our minds. What else did she do this year? Oh, beat two undefeated fighters in a matter of seconds—first Cat Zingano (who was 9-0) in 14 seconds in February, then Bethe Correia (also 9-0) in 34 seconds in August. Outside the ring, Rousey appeared in Furious 7 and the Entourage movie. She graced the covers of Sports Illustrated, Men's Fitness, Self, and even boxing mag The Ring. (Oscar De La Hoya, who owns the publication, told me, "It was surprisingly controversial. Purists didn't like it." He added that Rousey impresses him, fascinates him, and that boxing is "wide open whenever she does want to explore it." Nonetheless, a commenter on Rousey's Instagram photo of the cover wrote, "You are not boxer… Holly Holm the real boxer. Joke pose.")
Of course, being on magazine covers and in movies doesn't have much to do with excelling in a sport. And if you are one of the (apparently many) people who felt Rousey was only a star because she was undefeated, you'd feel justified in moving on. Glenn Stout, for his part, clarified his tweet to me thusly: "My point was there are so few women competing at UFC… all that can be said with certainty is she's just one of the best from a very, very small field. Hard to judge her true skill level."
That may be fair, and I'm not interested in debating her actual fighting talent, and I'm not well equipped to do so. But what Rousey accomplished in 2015 was bigger than her MMA record. She powered the UFC to what sources say was its most lucrative year ever. From a business perspective, she was her entire sport's MVP. (It's why we at Fortune put her on this year's 40 Under 40 list—for her sports business and marketing power, not her celebrity cachet.)
UFC 193, the Rousey-Holm fight, "broke every record we've ever had, from the venue, to merchandise, to commercial pay-per-view, everything," UFC president Dana White told a radio host in the days after the fight. He added that the Pay-Per-View numbers were "astronomical," and this is in the era of cord cutting, where PPV orders are now harder to come by. Her rematch against Holm will likely be the UFC's biggest event ever.
Rousey's popularity, hype or not, has been an adrenaline shot for the sport, which has been around more than 20 years but arguably hadn't achieved mainstream popularity until this year or last. My parents, both over 60, have never watched an MMA event; they both know that Ronda Rousey is a UFC fighter.
Sure, perhaps the UFC could have had a banner year without Rousey. It has other stars, like Conor McGregor, who is also charismatic and fiercely competitive, and just scored one of the most jaw-dropping knockouts in history. But Rousey inspires people—women and men—like no other fighter. And she does it on her own terms. For her sport, and for any sport, this intangible fact matters a great deal.
The 42-second video clip in which Rousey discusses her aversion to being a "do-nothing bitch" has been viewed more than 3 million times. Her delivery is stunning—the rant isn't made as an inspirational speech, but spoken nonchalantly. She didn't know it would become a rallying cry. Then Beyoncé played it onstage at the Made in America music festival before she began her set. Then Rousey threw the phrase onto t-shirts and sold 50,000 of them in less than a week. She gave all the proceeds to Didi Hirsch Mental Services. (She has advocated against body shaming, having suffered it herself, and made that her central cause.)
Many critics feel that there are better ways to deliver an inspiring message to young women than telling them what not to be—and through a slogan that uses the word "bitch." Others hate her simply because they feel the media has hyped her and put her on a pedestal. (I don't think it's necessary or constructive to link to or embed any of the critical tweets here, but if you think it's a straw-man argument or doubt that she has vociferous haters, just search "rousey hype" or "rousey loser" on Twitter.) And the cynical, often vicious invective she inspires so often lacks any sort of reasonable basis; some people simply hate her.
That's something that happens to champions and famous women, and so it's not terribly surprising. But it is certainly unfair. Many of the tweets I've seen directed at Rousey remind me a lot of an interaction I caught in November that had nothing to do with sports. The writer and essayist Roxane Gay, who is herself the target of a lot of bigoted hatred (which she generally re-tweets) posted a photo of a pot roast she made. She was proud of it; it "took many hours," she said. A chef in New York, Joe Dobias, felt the need to reply and correct her (a pot roast takes, "hours to cook. Not hours to make") and criticize ("not sure where mushrooms go in pot roast"). When Gay remarked (correctly) that Dobias had "mansplained" her meal, he defended himself by saying his wife is his partner, apparently proving that he couldn't possibly have been acting like a sexist, holier-than-thou asshole. Then he added that Gay's pot roast "looked like shit."
The criticism of Rousey is not always gendered. It comes from men and women alike. But it does strike me as equally ridiculous to Dobias' commentary.
There is similar poison aimed by some sports fans at Serena Williams. The fact that Maria Sharapova makes significantly more than Williams in endorsement money each year became one of the hot topics of debate at this year's U.S. Open, when ESPN's Darren Rovell tweeted that people "feel like Serena… deserves more endorsement $ than Maria. Doesn't work that way."
Lot of people feel like Serena by virtue of success deserves more endorsement $ than Maria. Doesn't work that way.
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell)August 30, 2015
His first tweet, widely hated though it was, was not wrong. It doesn't work that way—that's a fact. Sharapova makes a lot more off the court, even though Williams is unquestionably the best. Where Rovell went wrong, and provoked additional ire even from his own colleagues, was when he added that any suggestion of racism is "idiotic" in the context of Williams because the endorsement market, in other sports, "pays big $ to tons of black athletes."
Racism talk is idiotic when it comes to Serena. It's the same marketplace that pays big $ to tons of black athletes.
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell)August 30, 2015
Does the discrepancy between Williams and Sharapova have something to do with racism? Absolutely. ("Hint: yes," tweeted ESPN.com writer Kate Fagan.) But it also has to do with brands being somewhat scared to align with Williams, who is not cautious and guarded, not rehearsed, not a readymade, on-message poster-girl for sponsors. She is unapologetic. She sometimes offends and provokes. Many people don't like that.
Rousey is the same way. She isn't out to please or worried about trying to behave. That's why she's the perfect spokesperson to make mixed martial arts a rival to boxing.
And in an era of brashness on social media, Rousey's approach works. Health Magazine, for one, called her "exactly the type of role model we need." The UFC needed Rousey, and it will continue to need her.
Rousey was, understandably, crushed by the loss to Holm. She got fucking destroyed, and she knows it, and she was embarrassed—so much so that she told ESPN that if she loses to her again, she'll be "done." Dana White has already set a rematch for July. But even if they fight again and Rousey does lose, don't expect her to be truly gone forever from UFC promotions and events.
By way of example, look at Dwayne Johnson, Rousey's close friend. WWE is still, to this day, benefiting from the global popularity of The Rock. He's moved on to Hollywood, but returns every so often for WWE events. He embraces his pre-Hollywood beginnings in the sport. He successfully made the rare, difficult transition from the ring to the screen, and from wrestler to leading man. He has made himself permanent, omnipresent, inevitable, and bigger than any one sport.
And this past year, in March, when The Rock made a surprise appearance at WrestleMania 31, he brought along a special guest that made the crowd erupt: Ronda Rousey.