How Female Fighters Have Become Mainstream Sports Stars

Ronda Rousey’s popularity with both male and female fans has brought her from the cage to the stage.

By Hady Mawajdeh December 15, 2015 2:44 pm

Holly Holm. Cat Zingano. Misha Tate. Ronda Rousey.

You’ve probably heard that last name, even if, like me, you’re not a fan of fighting sports. Something might be happening in the zeitgeist that maybe it’s time to get caught up on – especially when they’re calling some of these mixed martial arts fighters representatives of a new era in professional sports.

ESPN senior writer Ramona Shelburne recently got an exclusive one-on-one with Ronda Rousey for a candid ESPN Magazine feature story.

Shelburne says this year is the year for women in sports, including Serena Williams on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Rousey’s rising popularity.

“You have a lot of strong female characters and leads that have been breaking through in our society,” she says.

Rousey has “redefined” what it means to be a female athlete, according to Shelburne, in part because of her decidedly non-mainstream sport – fighting in a cage. Shelburne says Rousey’s blunt approach and swagger have brought fans to her, making her different from other female athletes.

“You don’t often see women who talk like her,” Shelburne says. “I think it’s sort of revolutionary. In a way, that’s why so many women from so many walks of life connected to her in a way that is frankly quite surprising for the sport that she’s in.”

Initially Shelburne thought men may have become fans of Rousey because they were attracted to her or had a kind of “dominatrix” idea of her. But in her reporting she found that Rousey’s appeal cuts across gender lines in part because of her personality and fighting ability, rather than just her appearance.

“She comes across as very strong and fierce but without being needy,” Shelburne says. “Who would have predicted that?”

Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.