Amongst hardcore professional wrestling fans, Ronda Rousey’s in-ring debut was either highly anticipated or highly loathed, depending on perspective. Purists didn’t love the build to the mixed tag match, didn’t think she could talk, and also didn’t like that she walked straight out of MMA into a prime spot at WrestleMania. They saw visions of a Brock Lesnar-like push, but one deemed undeserved in some circles, where she would be unbeatable and shoved down the audience’s throat, and so they criticized everything they could in the run-up to her first match in New Orleans.
Then something funny happened inside the Superdome.
She crushed it.
Whether she’s ever going to be a good promo is definitely yet to be fully determined, as she’s struggled at times and clearly been protected from having to say too much. Calls are already out there for one of the most talented orators in WWE history, Paul Heyman, to eventually become her advocate the way he has so successfully for Lesnar. It’s not a bad idea, especially once Ronda becomes a heel, but many that wanted to dislike Rousey did so based on the fact she wasn’t polished. She seemed nervous or amateurish with a microphone in her hand, but no one thought about the fact that she SHOULD appear to be those things, as someone who’s never done this before. She isn’t a natural talker. She’s a fighter.
Last night at WrestleMania, Ronda Rousey fought, and in the process, her meticulously and flawlessly booked and scripted segment was the highlight of a card that on paper was arguably the strongest in WWE history, and in execution was on track to live up to that billing, falling short in its second half. Make no mistake, Ronda Rousey delivered an A+ last night in New Orleans.
She had been working inside the WWE Performance Center for months and had been working with Kurt Angle, Triple H, and Stephanie behind the scenes for weeks. This was carefully laid out, with the match building to the hot tag, or the moment Kurt tagged her in for the first time. As soon as she got in, she was a dynamo. Gone was the smiling, hand-slapping Rousey that looks so incredibly out of place compared to the facial expression she stalked to the Octagon with for years. Gone was the awkward Rousey that sometimes didn’t look the part on television over the past six weeks. Gone was the uncomfortable Rousey that couldn’t handle MMA-related media questions.
Here was Rowdy Ronda Rousey, oozing the charisma of a bad ass fighter that wants to rip your head off. Stephanie McMahon, as part time an in-ring competitor as exists anywhere in pro wrestling, usually involved once a year (or less) in anything remotely physical, did all she could to hold up her end. Her final marks were above average, and although it was preposterous to watch her successfully fend off Rousey’s armbar on multiple occasions, we have to remember that UFC and WWE are not the same thing, and the surname “McMahon” means superhuman. Her brother, Shane McMahon, has long kicked out of or survived things no one else on the roster would have been able to, simply because he’s Shane McMahon.
This was a solid wrestling match, but it was a perfect slice of sports entertainment. Only in WWE could this be done in 2018, with virtually every other major wrestling promotion in the world seeking the highest quality in-ring action or the spotfests or the technically sound style. This was WWE entertainment, but it had enough highlights, enough high spots contained within the story, that it all worked. It played the hits, with Rousey chasing a Stephanie that would try to smack her in the face before running for her life. It was excellent. It was the match of the night. It was a joy to watch.
As expected, the skeleton of the mixed tag would be built around the men, with Triple H and Kurt Angle working early, buying time and creating anticipation for the moment Rousey would tag in for the first time. The odds were on a Stephanie tap out, with some believing Triple H would be the one to submit to save McMahon’s loss for a highly publicized and promoted singles match with Rousey down the line. The latter could still happen, though it seems unlikely, but once Ronda stepped through the ropes, she looked at home.
The takeaway from a seven hour WrestleMania show that featured the return of Daniel Bryan, a John Cena-Undertaker dream match (on paper), a rematch from one of the best bouts of 2016 between AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura (that disappointed to some degree last night), and the expected wins of both undefeated Asuka and Vince McMahon’s chosen one, Roman Reigns, was Ronda Rousey. She would be the one written about, and her match would be the one we’d see all day on Monday entertainment television. We knew this going in. It’s why WWE signed Ronda, because of her transcendent star power. She also knew it going in. She’s a star, and whether you were rooting for her to succeed or fail, there was a curiosity surrounding her debut that couldn’t be duplicated.
I hosted a watch party at a local establishment in the Nashville area alongside my Squared Circle Radio co-hosts last night, and when Ronda’s music hit and she came out in Roddy Piper-inspired entrance gear, the entire restaurant went crazy. Women were applauding, children were popping, and the guys were…well, they were ogling, but they were also yelling “Yeah!” But, until she actually wrestled, all we had was the speculation that emerged over the past few weeks of how much of a natural Rousey appeared to be to those who watched her training sessions in Florida. Stories came out that said people were blown away, and had never seen anyone that worked so hard, was as committed, and picked things up as rapidly as she did.
Still, those stories could have been fiction. What else were the reports out of Florida from WWE officials going to be? “She’s terrible. This is going to be an unmitigated disaster.” Obviously that wasn’t going to happen, so it was merely more hype…until it wasn’t.
I wasn’t surprised she was great, but I was surprised she did as much as she did, and virtually all of it worked. It was more likely she’d do three or four spots with Stephanie and work to the finish, but the back HALF of the bout was Ronda-focused, engaged with both her female and male counterpart as the centerpiece. WWE didn’t try to hide her. Instead, they made sure the story of the match was enthralling and pushed her strengths, and in the final evaluation, it quite frankly couldn’t have gone much better.
In one night, it became impossible to dislike the PERFORMANCE and the POTENTIAL, and that’s all we needed to see. Keep in mind how long she’s been doing this, folks. This was her first pro wrestling match. She was in there working with a veritable non-wrestler in Stephanie, and an all-time great ring general in Triple H, but as she begins to work with full-time workers like Sasha Banks or Charlotte Flair, she’ll be able to hone her skills and work on the “little things” that only come with reps and ring time. There will be mistakes and she’ll learn from them, but it certainly appears as if the blemishes should be nothing to fear.
What Rousey was, from moment one, was different. That’s such an important descriptor for Ronda, because what made Lesnar such a stand-out was his uniqueness. Anybody could have done the F5 or dumped dudes on their heads with release German suplexes or kneed guys in the nose, but Brock gave off an aura none of them did.
That’s what Ronda Rousey brings to WWE. She brings a sense of possible invincibility among the women, a level of dominance we’ve never seen before from a female in professional wrestling. Even Asuka, whose 500+ day unbeaten streak came to an end at the hands of Ric Flair’s absurdly talented daughter last night, felt, in contrast to her exceptional NXT run, like a gimmick on the main roster, because she was pulling wins out of her socks rather than destroying the opposition. But watching Rousey last night left the unmistakable impression of a woman that’s going to kick everybody’s ass that she encounters, at least for a while.
If you entered WrestleMania last night hoping for Ronda to fall on her face, boy were you disappointed. Her only real losing battle was fought against her own ring gear, as she couldn’t stop tugging at her black shorts and her top, which incidentally is something a lot of rookies deal with early in their careers. Here, it made more sense, because as she worked to keep things in the proper place, she was on offense, not amidst selling where it would have been an unwritten faux pas, or at least a major annoyance.
With Hall of Famers of the near future and distant future littering a ridiculously overlong show, Ronda Rousey was THE star of the night. She shut a whole lot of haters’ mouths in the process, and in addition to looking the part of a beast in the ring last night, in addition to looking like she was at home, she also looked like something else.
She looked like a fit, driven, focused, special, unique, and yes a verrrrry rowdy…