UFC champion Ronda Rousey is, pound for pound, the best fighter in the world—male or female. Her record is 12–0, and every few months a chiseled contender dashes in for a shot at glory, or at least headlines.
The foolish ones spend the lead-up to the main event yapping about how she is beatable. The wise pray for divine intervention (A leg cramp? A power outage?), then collect their paychecks in defeat with a shrug of the shoulders—if they’re still able to move them. A jab to the face, a knee to the liver and her signature arm bar move to end it: Rousey once won a fight in 14 seconds flat. And when she retires, years from now, she will go out as one of the greatest athletes in any sport.
But Rousey’s utter dominance of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is not why she’s been cast in Furious 7, Entourage and the upcoming remake of Road House, in which she will reimagine Patrick Swayze’s iconic role. It’s not why Ellen DeGeneres invites her onto her talk show for a girls’ gabfest, or why her memoir, My Fight/Your Fight, has become a national best seller. Millions of people who are put off by blood sports find themselves strangely captivated by her. “It’s about more than just fighting,” she says. Indeed.
Rousey, 28, is beloved because she’s the ultimate underdog—her toughness, heart and epic backstory have turned her into a symbol of strength. After a traumatic birth that deprived her of oxygen and caused brain damage, she suffered from a speech impediment so severe that she could not form a coherent sentence until she was 6. But she fought through that hell, and perhaps because of it her words are now as sharp as her jabs. “Even if they don’t know it, everyone has the instinct to survive,” she says.
That kind of grit comes from her mother, AnnMaria De Mars, a world judo champion turned psychology professor. (Her father committed suicide when she was 8; she fought and survived that loss, too.)
As an adult, she’s gone to the Olympics twice, winning a bronze in judo in Beijing in 2008. She’s also skewered critics who say her figure is too manly by pointing out that every muscle in her body has a purpose, none of which involves attracting a guy. This attitude has earned her legions of fans, including one named Beyoncé, who played an audio clip of Rousey riffing on the virtues of female independence at a sold-out concert in Philadelphia in September. Rousey says, “That she would use my words is the highest compliment I could possibly be paid by somebody I respect.”
At one point, Rousey was so broke that she slept in her car. She now lives in Venice, Calif. and is most likely (there are no official numbers) the highest-paid fighter in her sport, with endorsements from fast food chains, shoe companies and more. “I want my name to be mentioned along with Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali,” she says. “And I don’t want the word woman to be in front of champion.”
Comedian Chelsea Peretti considers herself a Rousey superfan. “Ronda fearlessly speaks her mind,” she says. “I can see how her physical strength is powered by mental strength.” Peretti, 37, is known for her role on Brooklyn Nine-Nine—and for her no-holds-barred sense of humor. “We both dislike being typified by our gender,” she says. “Plus, we’re both beautiful blondes! Just kidding—I’m not blonde.” The duo talked about what it means to be a strong woman in 2015.