Photos courtesy of Electronic Arts
It's fitting that Ronda Rousey is one of the cover athletes for EA Sports' upcoming UFC 2 video game. We are, after all, at the dawn of Ronda Rousey version 2.0.
Version 1.0 was, of course, the relentless, remorseless killing machine in the Octagon, whose quick wins were as guaranteed as press-conference profanity from Dana White. Though she gained mainstream notoriety as a telegenic athletic who always spoke her mind, her calling card remained her invincibility inside the Octagon.
But her stunning defeat at UFC 193 last November sent her into the absolute depths of existential doubt, as she told Ellen DeGeneres earlier this week. If I'm no longer invincible, she wondered, what am I?
To answer that question, one can simply observe the multimedia blitz Rousey has been on so far in 2016. In addition to showing up on Ellen she has, among other things, hosted Saturday Night Live, donned body-paint for the cover of Sports Illustrated and prepared for her upcoming movie projects, including a remake of Road House.
This is Ronda Rousey version 2.0: a full-blown crossover star who can still—we think, we hope—be a fearsome MMA competitor. She certainly looks the part during the latest stop on her comeback tour, a visit to Electronic Arts' headquarters just east of Vancouver. She's there for her turn inside the gaming company's motion-capture studio, which will give her UFC 2 character all of her idiosyncratic body movements.
Sitting in the lobby just outside the mo-cap studio is an old, out-of-order arcade version of Street Fighter II. Then the door opens, and we see the studio—a sprawling, warehouse-like space with dozens of cameras affixed to metal scaffolding, 20 feet in the air.
I first get sight of Rousey as she's pacing back and forth, awaiting instructions from the animation director, while wearing a skin-tight grey bodysuit and helmet covered in tiny spheres (called "markers") to capture her motion. She looks—and I feel safe using the word only because she'd later use the word herself—ridiculous.
But in this bizarre space, in front of a crowd of perhaps 50 onlookers, she dutifully goes through the motions of her walkout, her pre-fight routine, and a series of full-strength strikes and high knees, all for the benefit of the motion-capture cameras. Between each series of motions, she assumes a Messianic T-pose to recalibrate the equipment. When it comes to recording a post-fight celebration pose, Rousey's judoka roots start shining through.
"Honestly, in judo we were always told not to celebrate," she tells the crew. "I don't even like getting my hand raised."
Moments later, she's grinning from ear to ear, as she locks the director in a cross arm bar (for the game, supposedly) and jokingly screams at him to go limp.
Could these outbursts have been orchestrated moments, meant to convey a certain portrait of the fighter? Unlikely; her long-standing DGAF attitude lends plenty of authenticity to everything she says and does.
As I sit down for a one-on-one chat after the studio session, she—as if to prove my point—unleashes a ferocious yawn, and humbly requests a grande iced coffee with soy and sweetened ("not unsweetened, and sweetened"). One of the three people joining us in the small interview room rushes off to retrieve it.
"Long day?" I ask.
"Long life," she says, with a tired smile.
By way of an icebreaker, I ask which outfit was stranger to wear: the motion-capture suit or the body paint for SI? She doesn't hesitate.
"The body paint," she says, "because nobody had to color in my asshole to put (the bodysuit) on."
Laughs all around. This is 30 seconds after we've met.
Such candor isn't usually associated with athletes chosen to serve as the face of movies, or sports organizations, or video games—especially female ones. But Rousey's no-holds-barred shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of respect for what her public position means.
She's intensely proud of being the first woman to star as cover athlete for a major video game franchise (she shares the UFC 2 cover with Conor McGregor), particularly after her own disappointing experiences as a gaming enthusiast growing up.
"I was really into RPG games, getting into the character and being emotionally attached to them," she says. "There were never any good female leads in any kind of games that I played. It was always guys.
"Zelda [as in, The Legend of] got to be Sheik for a little bit but you couldn't play as her, and she was not really that helpful."
Rousey, who says most of her female friends are also avid gamers, is especially glad to have unlocked this achievement based strictly on merit.
"This cover really shows not just a shift in the gaming community but also culturally, in general," she says.
While Rousey has undoubtedly been a trailblazer for women's MMA, her precise placement within the wider cultural shift towards gender parity has been difficult to pinpoint. In some circles, she's lauded for being an ostensible feminist icon; in others, she's celebrated for supposedly being the exact opposite.
One flashpoint came last year, when her term of non-endearment for a certain type of woman—"do-nothing bitches", or DNBs, as she calls them—spilled into the public lexicon and caused some controversy.
But it did prove popular enough for Rousey to sell DNB-themed clothing, which, she's quick to note, helps raise funds for a California-based organization called Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services.
"(Didi Hirsch) works with women with body dysmorphia, eating disorders, people who are suicidal or depressed," she says. "It gives them free treatment. We raise a whole lot of money for them."
The phrase even got the attention of Hollywood heavyweight Tina Fey, who's working with comedy writer Paula Pell to produce an upcoming Do-Nothing Bitches movie, which will star Rousey.
"They're in the works of writing it. I'm really excited about seeing what they come up with," says Rousey. "They gave me a general guideline of what it's going to be about, and I think it's going to be hilarious, and a good cultural narrative as well."
But if 2015 was the year of DNB for Rousey, it appears 2016 will be the year of FTA, a term she recently moved to trademark. Fuck Them All.
"Who's the 'them'?" I ask.
A pause. Then, quietly: "Everyone".
Another pause. "Everyone outside my group of people."
Then a hearty laugh.
Under constant pressure to serve as the symbolic representative of both her sport and her gender, it's perhaps understandable if Rousey's looking for a bit of inward retreat—particularly after a fight that had her fundamentally reevaluating everything about her life and career.
But between the video-game cover, multiple movie projects in the pipeline (and the countless promotional appearances that go with them) and a widespread belief that she'll be in line for a championship fight against either Holly Holm or Miesha Tate sometime this year, the public will likely be seeing more of Rousey's face than ever before.
That is, if her filming schedule will allow for it. Delays in the filming of Road House have called into question whether Rousey will even be able to step back into the Octagon in 2016. But while some may take a jaded view of current career trajectory, she insists that becoming queen of all media wasn't something she'd ever planned.
"These are things I just thought would be cool, in general. I didn't think I would feasibly end up doing them," she says. "It just all kinda fell together organically, and that's how things seem to work out, on their own."
Her glut of creative endeavors comes amidst an even more fascinating drama unfolding around her, the presidential election. Most high-profile athletes recoil from dipping their toes in the waters of political analysis; not Rousey, who's made clear that she supports Bernie Sanders.
"I think he's really shown how little you really need corporate sponsors to run a successful campaign, and I hope a lot of people take his example and follow it," she says. "I don't want my President to enter office owing a lot of people—besides the people you're supposed to be serving—a lot of favors."
It's unsurprising that Rousey sees appeal in not being beholden to others. She never, during our chat, turns to check with anyone before answering a question. She's upbeat and charming, but doesn't stoop to soothing my ego when a stupid joke falls flat. She may be the public face of numerous entities worth untold millions of dollars, but hers is a human face, with all that entails.
The version of herself soaked up by those mo-cap cameras will live eternally in the virtual space, with maximal hit points and a propensity for nothing more than crushing the bones of opponents.
But in the flesh-and-blood world, Ronda Rousey version 2.0 is ready to showcase herself in ways that no one (herself included) could likely have ever imagined.
Not everyone will approve.
But they can probably guess how any version of Rousey might respond.