IJF Media Team / International Judo Federation
Yoshihiro Akiyama, Rick Hawn, Kazuhiro Nakamura, Fedor Emilianenko and Karo Parisyan are just some who successfully made the adjustment from judoka to cage fighter, but the best of the bunch was undoubtedly Ronda (Rowdy) Rousey.
Mixed martial arts, as the name suggests, is a combination of different techniques and disciplines. All of the top competitors in the UFC come from backgrounds in other combat sports.
Brock Lesnar was a star college wrestler who also experienced pro wrestling prior to his MMA stint. Conor McGregor started out as a boxer. Nate Diaz came from a background in jiu jitsu.
Several prominent judokas have also enjoyed significant success when making the transition to MMA. Some have reached the UFC, the top level of mixed martial arts competition, and there’s even a few who’ve turned into elite UFC competitors.
American Judo Hero
Rousey started in judo with her mother when she was just 11 years old. Rousey’s mother AnnMaria De Mars remains the only American woman to win a world judo title. She did so in 1984, long before women’s judo became an official Olympic sport.
Ronda was the youngest competitor, just 17 years old, when Rousey qualified for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Rousey lost in her first match to silver medalist Claudia Heill in the 63 kg bracket. That same year, Rousey won a gold medal at the World Junior Judo Championships in Budapest, Hungary.
Two years later, Rousey became the first American female judoka in almost a decade to win an A-Level tournament. She went 5-0 to claim gold at the Birmingham World Cup in the United Kingdom.
Moving up to the 70 kg weight class, in 2007 Rousey won the silver medal at the World Judo Championships and a gold medal at the Pan American Games.
Testing Her Olympic Mettle
“In judo, you train your whole life, and you have one day to be an Olympic champion, and that’s it,” Rousey told NBC Sports. “Nothing can compare to that pressure.”
At the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games, Rousey would make U.S. Olympic history. She lost in the quarter-finals to Dutch judoka Edith Bosch. In her autobiography, the 5-foot-7 Rousey described Bosch as “a six-foot Dutch chick with an eight-pack. I looked like a hobbit next to her.
“I went back to the warm-up room and sobbed, hot tears running down my face,” Rousey wrote. “I felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest. Then something clicked and I went from devastated to furious.”
Rousey battled her way through the repechage and into the bronze medal bout against Germany’s Annett Boehm. Rousey defeated Boehm by Yuko to win the bronze medal.
“Of all the third-place finishes in my career, the bronze in the Olympics was the only one I took any satisfaction in,” Rousey wrote. “But still, there was a void.”
Rousey became the first American to earn an Olympic medal in women’s judo since its inception as an official Olympic sport in 1992. Nonetheless, it left a bitter taste in her mouth.
“That was my childhood dream,” Rousey said of the desire to win Olympic gold. “I spent my whole life in pursuit of that. I had to give that up, and I had to really come to terms with the fact that wasn’t for me.
“I’ve always really been heartbroken from that in a way, and in a way that I’m still really grateful for because I think if I did win the Olympics, I wouldn’t have this never-ending resource of motivation that I have.”
A UFC Legend
Rousey made her move into MMA in 2010. She won the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight championship in 2012. Later in 2012, she joined the UFC. She was the first female fighter to sign with the promotion.
Rousey was declared the UFC women’s bantamweight champion. She took part in the first-ever women’s UFC bout, defending her world title against Liz Carmouche. Rousey established a record for most UFC title defenses by a woman, successfully retaining her belt on six occasions. She finished with a career record of 12-2 in MMA.
“Every single time I’d go out there to defend my [UFC] title, it was like another chance to redeem myself, but it was never quite an Olympic gold medal,” Rousey said.
Rousey was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2018. Today, she is a WWE wrestler.