I did something in the ESPN newsroom last night that I don’t often find myself doing due to the unspoken rules of the newsroom – I clapped like an idiot over a sporting event.
Just like baseball, journalism has its own unwritten rules, especially sports departments. You don’t say “We,” as in “We (the Sooners) are going to be really good this year,” you don’t wear team colors, and you don’t show too much emotion over results of events.
There are exceptions – one of my favorites being watching Oklahoma State make it to the Final Four on the back of John Lucas III in the Tulsa World newsroom in 2003, two more coming during my ESPN years — Tim Tebow’s entire 2011 season and American Pharoah’s ride to the Triple Crown this year. In those instances, we all shook off those rules, watching and admiring from our impartial seats. It didn’t matter who you were a fan of – in those moments, you are just a sports fan, watching history being made. We crowded around TV sets and just went with it, tearing down that Fourth Wall for a few moments and living like the regular fans live.
It’s one of the most satisfying, sweetest things – and I don’t even know if there’s a word for that feeling. Joy, I guess – joy and pride, a heady combo that makes some people start fights after feeling it (looking at you, Vancouver.)
I felt it last night. And it felt like the entire world – minus a few negative ninnies – agreed with me.
Watching Ronda Rousey become the greatest at her sport — and let’s face it — the greatest draw the UFC has and the face of the brand, has been a strange and wonderful experience for me. Back in 2011 when I started at ESPN, I had no love for UFC, and certainly none for Ronda Rousey. She seemed like a bully to me then. She seemed like a one-trick, armbar-laden pony.
But after researching her and learning more about her, I realized hers is a skill and talent that is unique, precious, and deep down inside her. She channels a place that we all know – fear, resentment, aggression, extreme sadness, withdrawal from society, poverty and shame. She is the walking embodiment of turning yourself around.
I met Ronda this year at an ESPN Women event in which I sat in a room with her and about 20 other women. It was an open Q&A session moderated by Jemele Hill. All of us – Jemele included – sat in wonder as we listened to Ronda speak. It was like talking to a family member or a close friend. It was like she knew all of us and was honestly, openly talking about her life, her past, her future, her fears, her love life – she’s an open book, really. Now, despite the fact that she gracefully took a picture with me and my friend Elanna at work, she also told me she liked my necklace. She looked me in the eye. She put her arm around me and smiled for the camera. She was wearing a cool dress and house shoes.
She was possibly the most beautiful woman I’d ever laid eyes on. I was in awe – and still kind of am. Her past is similar to many of ours – wild, full of things you probably wish you hadn’t done. But she realizes that you have to turn the page, move on, live your life and roll with the punches… in her case, those punches are deadly, but she can absorb them as well as dish them out. She’s been taking punches her whole life
Ronda was a bartender, drinking too much and partying too hard, and living in her car. Then she unlocked that place in her that wanted more. She has always listened to her mother’s advice, and she kept her father’s suicide in her heart, the grief slowly turning into motivation and strength. She’s tough and vulnerable at the same time.
I think that’s why I clapped like an idiot last night – I knew the 34-second beatdown of Bethe Correia was for her daddy, whose suicide Bethe – knowingly or not – made light of a few months before the fight. Bethe taunted and taunted in the buildup of the fight. Ronda stood firm, never lowering herself to such trash talk. She just gave Bethe that terrifying look that said, “You know what, keep talking. This’ll work itself out.” And it did. In 34 glorious seconds.
The look on Ronda’s face the second she knew she’d won was not evil. It’s pure joy. That same joy you and I feel when our team wins – the same joy you get when you do something you’ve always wanted to do professionally. That same glee you find in yourself when you know you’re really good at something. The intense pleasure of knowing people are proud of you.
Ronda Rousey is as much like you and me as you and your sister. She’s charming, funny, emotional, tough and brilliant. If you don’t believe me, read up on her reading (she’s an avid reader), read her interviews, watch her on YouTube – she carries herself in a well-spoken, introspective, genuine way. She loves animals. She has had bad boyfriends too. She’s the most “real” athlete we have right now. Every ounce of her perfect body is genuine. Every pore on her beautiful face has been filled with blood, sweat and tears. Even after movies, TV shows, countless interviews and junkets, Ronda is Ronda, and always will be.
It’s what makes her climb to the top so fabulous and fun to watch. She is creating fans. More importantly, she is creating a legion of female fans who are so glad to have another female role model who isn’t a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, a Kardashian or someone who’s thought of as beautiful first, athlete second. (Serena, Venus and the entire U.S.Women’s National Soccer Team were getting lonely.)
Between her and Serena, I don’t think I can pick. Both are dominant and both are the best in their fields. Today, I am more on the Ronda bandwagon because of her domination, pure strength and emotional vulnerability – something the sometimes-aloof Serena can seem to lack, though we know she really doesn’t – but that’ll change for me the next time Serena does something awesome. I’ll say this – they are 1 and 1A in terms of top female athletes. They may be 1 and 1a among ALL athletes. They have certainly had to dominate more, and for longer periods of time, to be thought of as such.
But that’s what women are used to doing – having to work just a little bit harder than male counterparts to prove they’re good at what they do. I am in a male-dominated field, so I speak from experience.
I read a tweet today that Ronda Rousey is “almost a household name.” I think she’s closer than that – like she already is, and once more and more people watch the (Illegal) Vine video of her beatdown of Correia, her status will just tenfold. Women and men alike are falling for her, not because she’s beautiful – that’s just a happy coincidence – but because she’s an Everyman with panda buns and boxing gloves. She’s a soldier intent on her goal, and she doesn’t need Hollywood or stardom to do it. She’s doing it IN SPITE of those things. She’s making hay(makers) while sun shines on her.
She’s a role model, pure and simple. And she made me lose my composure in the newsroom last night.
I don’t think anyone judged me too harshly. They were too busy clapping too.