Inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) women's bantamweight champion, Ronda Rousey, takes on Olympic wrestling silver medalist, Sara McMann, this Saturday night (Feb. 22, 2014) at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In just three short years, Rousey has irreversibly changed the mixed martial arts (MMA) world. Thanks to her good looks and aggressive style of fighting, "Rowdy" caught the eye of UFC head honcho Dana White. Not long after, the UFC had a new division to play with.
Though she was forced to leave the first round for the first time in her career, Rousey had little trouble dispatching her rival Miesha Tate last December. Between St. Pierre's retirement and Anderson Silva's debilitating injury, the UFC is lacking stars, requiring Rousey to rush back into the spotlight. Facing a fellow Olympian with similar credentials to her own, can Rousey continue her armbar streak?
Let's take a closer look.
In her last fight with Miesha Tate, Rousey spent more time striking then she had in her entire career previously. While she did show some improvements, she's still fairly raw on the feet.
The biggest improvement to Rousey's striking that she displayed against Tate was her ability to close the distance with punches. Before that fight, Rousey would flash some jabs and merely charge forward, often leading with her face. It usually resulted in her eating a few unnecessary shots and was rather predictable.
Rousey has clearly focused on improving this part of her game, a smart decision considering her clinch-centric attack. In the first 20 seconds of her bout with Tate, Rousey used a right hand lead and slipped a punch directly into the clinch. A classic Fedor Emelianenko technique, this was a much safer way to force the fight where she wanted it.
The "Rowdy" one also showed off a few new and improved strikes. Her right straight has become her best punch by far, and she repeatedly used it to get inside of Tate's looping shots. She also mixed in kicks for the first time, including a nice front kick.
The last aspect of her game that Rousey showed improvement toward was her clinch striking. Before her last fight, Rousey did nothing except endlessly chain takedowns inside the clinch. Now, she used hard, short elbows, frequent small punches, and strong knees to the thigh to allow opportunities to open up. Rousey can still force takedowns if she needs to, but it's easier and more damaging to wait for her opponent to make the mistake.
For all her offensive improvements, Rousey's defense is still pretty awful. Tate's stand up is not the least bit technical; she basically just bites down on her mouth piece, steps forward, and slings punches as hard as she can. Despite this, Rousey was repeatedly nailed by wide hooks, especially when Tate forced her to move backward. Working on angling off and moving her head should be priorities for Rousey, who's just showing her inexperience.
Overall, Rousey has shown clear progression, but it's still a work in progress.
Rousey is undoubtedly the most aggressive clinch grappler in the UFC, and backs up her aggression with Olympic-level technique. Rousey is proficient with a vast number of throws, allowing her to perplex her opponent long enough until one lands.
Rousey's most common way to drag her opponents to the mat is to grip them and attack with a variety of chained clinch takedowns. Rousey seamlessly transitions between inside and outside trips, hip tosses, Russian arm drags, and ankle picks. If the initially attempt doesn't succeed, Rousey usually hits the follow up as her opponent tries to recover her balance.
Many of the times Rousey gets a takedown, it's because her opponent makes it easy by moving too aggressively. Either by rushing forward in an attempt to land a big punch or hastily retreating away from the clinch, her opponent loses her base in anticipation of the throw, and Rousey just chooses the best throw to compliment her foe's momentum. "Cupcake" showed this in both of their fights, getting thrown through the air when she charged forward but doing much better when the grappling slowed down.
Momentum is an important part of landing a takedown, especially in judo. If her opponent remains composed, meaning she doesn't panic and let up an easy takedown, then Rousey's job has become much more difficult. However, it's also an opportunity for her to show just how technical her throws and transitions are.
For example, let's look at how Rousey took Julia Budd to the mat in her fourth professional fight. As was the usual for her earlier fights, Rousey ate a few hard hard punches before latching onto a clinch. With an underhook and head control, Rousey attempted an inside trip with her lead leg on both of Budd's legs. "The Jewel" resisted, so Ronda switched to a hip toss. Desperate to remain standing, Budd tried to pull away from the throw. Having forced her opponent to pull a certain direction, Rousey went with her momentum, quickly switching back to an inside trip and bringing the fight to the mat.
A major improvement Rousey has showed in her last couple fights is her ground striking. Not unlike her clinch work, the former Olympian used to solely focus on grappling rather than doing damage. Then, she showed that she can mix the two, using constant strikes to pepper Tate's face and force her to move. Rousey did enough damage from the mount to convince Tate to turn her back, a transition that nearly ended in an armbar.
In her last bout, Rousey extensively proved that her takedown defense is quite impressive. Every time Tate launched forward into a takedown, Rousey grabbed a headlock and threw her with a spin. Tate's own takedown prowess was used against her; the strength of her shot only made it easier for Rousey to flow with the move and reverse it.
It just wouldn't be a Ronda Rousey breakdown without a considerable section on her armbars. In addition to her Judo background, Rousey has been working with the Cesar Gracie gym, which hosts excellent submission fighters like Jake Shields and the Diaz brothers as well as Gracie himself.
Rousey is not just a physical grappler with excellent technique, but she's intelligent with her attacks. Most of her takedowns land her in side control, a position ripe with opportunities for armbars. More specifically, she lands in the Judo sit out position, which gives her access to her regular armbar as well as the scarf hold one, which she attempted against Liz Carmouche.
If Rousey does not decide to attack her opponent's arm immediately from the position she lands in, she'll force her way to mount. From the mount, she'll land a flurry of quick shots. This forces her opponent to either give up her back or block the punches with her forearms. Raising forearms against Rousey is a death trap, as she'll wrap up an arm to take home with her.
These setups are hardly accidents. Rousey rarely works from outside of maybe three positions, and when she does, her only objective is to get to those positions. Once there, she has a lifetime of experience specifically for that position, while her opponent only has her most recent training camp.
The winner of that battle should be quite obvious.
Between side control, mount, and back mount, Rousey is likely most dangerous from her opponent's back. What's interesting about Rousey's back attack is that she doesn't settle into the position and then work like most grapplers. Instead, she jumps into the arm while her opponent is still transitioning. This type of aggression is abnormal and shocking to fighters who haven't experienced it. Once she has a grip on the arm, Rousey will grab a leg and roll her opponent so that she's back in top position, her preferred position to work.
Breaking the grip is a complicated, multi-positional skill that can be done in a number of ways. When it comes to the armbar, many grapplers grab around the bicep and lean back hard, hoping to untangle their foes' hands with pure force. While this works well if the defending fighter has yet to really get a tight grip, it's a waste of time, energy, and position.
Like all parts of her armbar game, Rousey's approach is technical and quick. Instead of pulling through the elbow, which is fairly easy to defend even with a strength disadvantage, she wraps her arms around the wrist. The wrist is much weaker than the elbow joint, meaning it's easier to break the grip from there. What's more, the wrist can get twisted on its own and cause pain, a further incentive to release the grip.
Rather than pulling straight back, she leans to her side, which really allows her to extend her hips and create even more leverage. The most important part is her grip. Rousey threads her outside arm through her opponents and locks it in a rear naked choke grip, before yanking to the side, which really cranks the wrist and utterly destroys the grip when done right.
In order to use this grip, it's important that the attack fighter controls her opponent long enough to set it up. Rousey controls her opponent by squeezing her thighs together, gripping her opponent's arm by the tricep/shoulder joint. To increase the pressure, she crosses her ankles.
Whether or not a grappler should cross her ankles with an armbar is a matter of preference and causes much debate in the jiu-jitsu community. The benefit is the increased squeeze, but it limits the control of an opponent's lower body and ability to roll up. Rousey sometimes makes up for this by grabbing a leg and holding it while attempting the armbar, but she has a second solution as well.
For whatever reason, most of Rousey's opponent's try to use a rear naked choke grip to defend against the armbar. This is a strong grip, but it fits into Rousey's lean away grip break too easily. However, if they can roll up and land in top position, that grip is usually a pretty safe position.
Not against Rousey.
After testing to see if she can break the grip via force, she'll reach under her opponents opposite leg and spin outside their legs. From there, her opponents cannot stack her up, and she likes to grab their leg and sweep them back to the top position armbar before attempting a finish.
This rotation allows her the freedom to focus on controlling her opponent's arm instead of worrying about them rolling up. Kaufman tried rolling up on Rousey multiple times and was reversed for her troubles each time. Well, except for the final time, when her grip had weakened from repeated transitions to the point where Rousey could break it with a quick jerk.
In her last fight with Tate, we finally got to see Rousey attack with two non-armbar submissions. She managed to trap Tate in a triangle but could not finish it, since Tate managed to sneak her other arm partially in. However, Tate's other arm didn't stop Rousey from roughing up Tate's mug with elbows and punches from her back.
Additionally, Rousey attempted an inverted triangle in the second round. She actually had a solid position and set up the move well, but it's a notoriously difficult move to finish, and Tate's arm position was less than ideal. Still, that's a pretty uncommon submission to attempt and is evidence that Rousey has more than just an incredible arm attack.
Finally, the only noticeable flaw in her grappling doesn't really come from any offensive or defensive submission technique, but from her judo. Rousey loves the headlock position, both standing and on the mat. Due to the lack of a gi in MMA, there is a lot less friction. This allows Rousey's opponent a greater opportunity to escape out the back door and take Rousey's back, which is an exceptionally dangerous position. Though she showed excellent back defense against Tate and Carmouche, it's a risky part of her style that's unlikely to change.
Best chance for success
On the ground, Rousey has an absolutely massive advantage. What makes this fight interesting and unique to many fight fans is that there is a chance the two Olympian's takedowns will cancel out, forcing a stand up contest.
While neither woman has a clear advantage on the feet, Rousey does not want to throw away such a dominant edge.
In order to take McMann down, Rousey needs to use her striking to set up the throws. For example, her right hand lead to clinch landed her directly in back control, a very dominant position in the clinch. Normally, a wrestler of McMann's caliber would never give away such a position easily. If Rousey can start her takedown attempts for advantageous positions like this, her chances of finishing them raise much higher.
Finally, Rousey may be able to time one of McMann's bursts of punches with a trip. If McMann misjudges the distance and lunges too far, Rousey can use that momentum against her and turn it into a trip. Striking is obviously a very different realm than wrestling, so if Rousey can attack McMann's inexperience in that area rather than her strong suit, she'll have plenty of success.
Can Rousey continue her reign as the UFC's starlet, or will McMann upset the young Olympian?