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Ronda Rousey is ferocious in the cage, and in gender politics

Ronda Rousey (left) fights Alexis Davis (right) during a bantamweight fight in Las Vegas in 2014. Stephen R. Sylvanie/Reuters

Ronda Rousey is ferocious in the cage, and in gender politics

Ronda Rousey is probably the world’s best loved and best known martial artist. She’s so good that she recently out polled Serena Williams as 2015’s top women’s athlete.

Her success isn’t just about a ferocious capacity to arm bar opponents into submission; she’s pretty good at doing the same thing to the gender politics. But it’s a tough fight, as yesterday’s press conference for Rousey’s upcoming Melbourne bout proved.

The press conference involved Rousey (aided by the martial arts promotion company Ultimate Fighting Championship) audaciously marching into Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium and planting a cage between its footy posts.

Hundreds of fans cheered this amuse-bouche for November’s UFC 193 bout, where “Rowdy Ronda” will defend her bantamweight title and undefeated record against Holly Holm. There’s a fighting chance that spectators paying A$459 to attend will spend more time listening to her speak than watching her in action.

Much of that talk will concern the importance of not being a “do-nothing bitch” in a sexist world. Rousey’s message is heard because she is the consummate modern athlete; the star who knows how to leverage the interlocking media strategies that produce sporting events.

UFC supremo Dana White observed that not long ago, the idea that a female fighter could sell 70,000 seats would have seemed absurd. He hasn’t changed that – Ronda Rousey has. Perhaps it’s all of this acclaim that prompted one of the assembled journalists to ask a bemused Holm what it was like to be “the person who has to kill Bambi”.

Bambi?

Sure, Rousey’s story reads like a movie; but only if you can imagine a cross between The Karate Kid (1984) and Misery (1990). It would sound mawkish if you made it up. A near-death birth. Unable to speak until a garbled “Hulk Hogan” was blurted out, aged three. Crippling childhood loss. Intense New England training camps scarred by hunger and isolation. All before leaving high school. And it goes on.

Rousey poses for a photo at the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, yesterday. Julian Smith/AAP

But an athlete who has gone from homelessness to global stardom scarcely evokes a baby deer on ice. Rousey is sure-footed at whatever she does. It isn’t just about her willingness to fight with broken bones; it’s also about her deft celebrity game. It’s not a stretch to say that Rousey is the UFC’s David Beckham; the figure who will propel the competition from media sport to global lifestyle brand.

White acknowledges that. He was quite clear on the strategic role of UFC 193. Aussies are great because we’re tough and like a good fight, yada yada … But Melbourne is mostly a great market, ripe for a “horizontally-diversified” leisure industry that even includes its own gym chain.

The Beckham analogy is apt. When Manchester United restyled itself as a global brand, he was the much needed face on the t-shirt. Rousey plays the same role. The UFC fighter loved by people who don’t love UFC. She’s a skilled celebrity who relates her extraordinary talent and experiences to our more humdrum troubles by telling us everything.

Rousey (left) takes a selfie photo for a fans after yesterday’s Melbourne media conference. Julian Smith/AAP

And in this, sexism figures prominently. Rousey knows her body is a challenge to the usual order of things in media culture. Hence the “do-nothing bitch” philosophy that has launched its own apparel range. On a post on the UFC videolog Rousey says:

Listen, just because my body was developed for a purpose other than fucking millionaires doesn’t mean it’s masculine. I think it’s femininely badass as fuck because there’s not a single muscle on my body that isn’t for a purpose, because I’m not a do-nothing bitch.

But let me ask you this: have you ever seen a David Beckham presser where journalists addressed the first three questions to someone else? Because that’s what happened yesterday. Rousey, Holm and under card fighters Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Valerie Letourneau listened as Dana White was interrogated.

When attention finally turned to Rousey, the pressing question was how she felt about appearing in entourage and being name-checked by Beyoncé.

Things got especially heated when another reporter asked about poor pay in women’s soccer. The question was drowned out by boos from the crowd. Restoring order, Rousey pragmatically commented that all she can do about it is be good enough to sell 70,000 tickets for one fight. And she does that by being a fighter, before anything else. She insists on being introduced as champion, not women’s champion.

Dramatically, the press conference was as interesting as the fight may be. We discovered that Holly Holm won’t be Rousey’s only opponent on November 18.

Don’t worry. She’s up for the battle.