We knew she was money in the Octagon, but Ronda Rousey set her price in Hollywood following an electric in-ring debut for the WWE at last night’s WrestleMania 34 in New Orleans. The former UFC champion earned a submission victory with her partner Kurt Angle over the team of Stephanie McMahon and Triple H, tapping out McMahon with her trademark “armbar” hold and taking the first step into her new role in the entertainment industry.
Rousey famously retired from the UFC in 2016 following back-to-back upset losses to Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes, but the mainstream attention surrounding the UFC’s biggest star led to her popularity stretching beyond the world of sports and into a brief three-movie run in 2014–15. Rousey landed minor roles in major actions films like The Expendables 3 and Furious 7, while making a cameo as herself in Entourage and even hosting Saturday Night Live in 2016 . Though Rousey’s initial big-screen run was largely met with a shrug from critics and a lot of doubt from producers, the decorated combat fighter’s new role on WWE programming gives her the opportunity to polish her acting chops while performing in a familiar, physical setting.
We’ve seen a handful of major motion picture stars emerge from the WWE since pro wrestling’s popularity burst through the stratosphere in the late 90s. The WWE’s action-based script often requires more acting than athleticism and has provided a well-followed stage for stars like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, John Cena, and Dave Bautista to bloom from no-name wrestlers to popular television characters to real-life movie stars over the years.
If Rousey’s plan is to follow in those like Johnson’s footsteps, then Sunday night’s debut places her on the precise path "The Rock" took to becoming one of the world’s highest paid actors—albeit, with a bit of a head start. That route has been on Rousey’s radar since she began receiving offers to act. In a 2014 interview with ESPN, Rousey said that if she was going to become an actor, then she wanted to become the best. “If 'The Rock' can become the world's highest-grossing actor, I can have that same goal,” Rousey said. “I want to be the highest-grossing actor in the world someday.”
Rousey even made her first WWE appearance alongside Johnson two years ago at WrestleMania 32, confronting Triple H and Stephanie McMahon and setting the seeds for her current rivalry with the WWE’s power couple. On Sunday night, Rousey played the part of a furious badass who was looking to prove she belonged among the WWE’s roster, convincingly reacting to every one of McMahon’s schoolyard taunts before the bell rang and then expertly blending her MMA background with a freshly harnessed pro wrestling stunt set to put on a thrilling back-and-forth match with Angle, Triple H, and McMahon. Pro wrestling matches are designed to tell stories through live-action theater, and Rousey successfully did her part in conveying theirs with few hiccups along the way.
Since making her on-screen WWE debut in late January, Rousey has been distracted by the live Monday Night RAW audience. She awkwardly executed small wrestling moves and stumbled through her lines—a dialogue issue that still remains despite her excellent in-ring performance last night. Her trip-ups on RAW didn’t bode well for Rousey’s WWE run and failed to build much confidence in her performance leading up to last night’s match, especially given previous reports that the ex-UFC star’s role in the upcoming film Mile 22 was diminished in order to reduce her acting in place of more action scenes. Going from the UFC to the WWE seems like a simple transition on paper, but acting like you’re fighting and trying to make it look real is a lot different than legitimately throwing punches.
Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, a longtime WWE performer who got his start on reality TV with MTV’s The Real World, has pointed out multiple times that being able to wrestle is only a small part of becoming a successful pro. A lot of it is being able to act. As Mizanin puts it, when it comes to the World Wrestling Entertainment, the “E” is just as important as the “W.” Rousey proved last night that she’s more than capable of being entertaining on screen, bringing the live WrestleMania crowd of 78,133 to their feet following one of the most thrilling in-ring debuts in WWE’s history. If Rousey can work out the kinks on the mic and gradually prove her ability to churn out well-rounded performances beyond fast-action stunts, she’ll likely be in line behind Johnson and other WWE alumni in becoming a major box-office attraction.
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