I RARELY stay up past midnight. But on November 14th, armed with popcorn and mint tea, I stayed awake until 2:30 a.m. to watch UFC star “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey — arguably the most dominant athlete in sport — defend her bantamweight world title against Holly “the Preacher’s Daughter” Holm.
I was not alone. More than 56,000 fans turned out live at Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium, with ticket sales of more than $9 million, smashing previous UFC records. Hundreds of thousands of fans around the world dished out $80 for payper- view. The post-show debrief on Fox Sports drew record audiences.
“Rowdy,” an Olympic judo athlete who won a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, had been until then undefeated at the UFC. Her previous three fights had lasted sixty-odd seconds combined. Holm, the underdog, is a former world boxing and kick boxing champion. The fight itself lasted only two rounds and ended with Holm delivering a swift roundhouse to the neck, knocking Rousey out cold.
Pundits called it the biggest upset in UFC history. I call the spectacle a watershed moment for women in sports specifically, and women in leadership generally. And as much as I admire Holm’s athleticism, calm under pressure and humility, the import of the occasion rested mostly on the (muscular) shoulders of her brilliant, divisive opponent.
Ronda was — and perhaps still is — UFC’s biggest star. While the World Economic Forum estimates pay equity will not be a reality for 118 years, Rousey was the highest paid athlete — male or female — in the UFC in 2015. In January 2011, UFC president Dana White claimed women would “never” fight in UFC. Five years later, Rousey’s success prompted him to eat his words when four women fighters — Rousey, Holm, Canadian straweight fighter Valerie “Trouble” Letourneau and Poland’s Joanna Jedrzejczyk headlined UFC 193, the league’s biggest sporting event ever.
Rousey’s UFC fights are bloody, brutal and usually difficult to watch. She has a troubling tendency to be unsportsmanlike, occasionally trash talking her opponents and sometimes refusing to touch gloves before she fights. And yet, Rousey offers three powerful lessons to women who envision themselves at the top.
Rowdy Lesson 1: You don’t have to be liked
One of the biggest derailers for a budding woman leader is the need to be liked. In the days before women were able to earn money or own property, likability was a form of insurance and that social legacy is still enshrined today. For many women, the pressure to always be “nice” and “liked” keeps them from putting forth controversial ideas, addressing troublesome issues directly, or handling conflict head-on. Ronda Rousey — hated in some circles — proves that a woman can be powerful, successful and unlikeable.
Rowdy Lesson 2: Unwavering self-confidence is an asset
It’s hard to talk about women and leadership without talking about self-confidence. Women still struggle mightily against our own self-doubt. Not so for Ronda Rousey. When asked if she thought she could take former heavyweight world boxing champion Mike Tyson, Rousey said she could then added, “You can’t underestimate how important confidence is if you want to be the best in the world.” While some may argue that over-confidence brought about Rousey’s downfall, her unwavering self-confidence was a much-needed inspiration to legions of women around the world.
Rowdy Lesson 3: Welcome the pressure
As UFC’s biggest star with a 12-match winning streak to boot, Rousey carried huge expectations. She wore the weight openly, saying she lived “scared and certain.” In savouring her crown and celebrating her own greatness, she deepened the potential humiliation of a loss. She did it anyway. Her KO on November 14th was humiliating, and Twitter lit up with her detractors’ scorn. It was a highly visible risk she took.
In loss and humiliation, as in victory and triumph, Rousey bravely role models what it really looks like to be a woman on top. We can all celebrate and learn from the fallen warrior queen.