Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
Months after her loss to Holly Holm on November 14, 2015, Ronda Rousey sat on the set of The Ellen Degeneres Show and bared her soul to a studio audience: “What am I anymore if I’m not this?”, she asked with tears in her eyes.
By “this,” of course, she meant “a winner.”
The former UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion, who had never lost an MMA career fight prior to her meeting with Holm, had such difficulty parsing this question that she admitted to feeling suicidal in the aftermath of her loss. Even surrounded by the crew of people tasked with caring for her, with loved ones feet away and her spatial awareness knocked to dysfunction by Holm’s lethal strikes, Rousey recalled taking inventory of her personal worth and found herself wanting: “I’m nothing. What do I do anymore? Nobody gives a sh*t about me without this.”
Thankfully, she was wrong—something she eventually accepted with the help of her boyfriend and fellow UFC fighter Travis Browne. Despite her apparent turnaround, though, Rousey’s comments are symptomatic of a larger disease plaguing professional sports—and, really, American culture as a whole: the worship of winning.
Ronda Rousey is, or was, known as a winner. Just ten minutes from her home in Venice Beach, CA, you can find a larger-than-life mural, commissioned by UFC President Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta and painted by Brazilian artists Bicicleta Sem Freio, showing Rousey adorned with gloves and a cape. According to the artists, its purpose is simply to “explore and interpret her power as a fighter and also her awesomeness as a young woman.”
When the mural was unveiled a little more than a month before Rousey’s fight with Holm at UFC 193, I highly doubt anyone expected her to lose. Rousey was not only undefeated—she was an unstoppable force, a household name who, prior to the fight, had won three straight bouts in less than a minute. UFC announcer Joe Rogan once said, “Once in a lifetime doesn’t apply to Ronda Rousey. It’s once ever in human history.”
As such, Rousey fit nicely into the ultra-American attitude that paints so many other aspects of our culture—an attitude that not only over-prioritizes winning, but also assumes winning and merit are synonymous. Rousey was important because she was a legend: “She is almost like a comics hero,” Bicicleta Sem Freio said. She was a once-ever-in-human-history fighter. Unbeatable.
Until she wasn’t.
Rousey’s loss is significant not only in that it casts light on our obsessive compulsion toward winning, but also because for years, Ronda “Rowdy” Rousey had been an outspoken, foul-mouthed contender who inspired other women to similar ambition. She is well-known for coining the phrase “do-nothing-b*tches”—women who, according to her, “try to be pretty and be taken care of by somebody else.” She laughed at the people who criticized her body as being too masculine: “I think it’s femininely badass as f*ck because there’s not a single muscle on my body that isn’t for a purpose. Because I’m not a do-nothing b*tch.”
The feminism Rousey branded was atypical, not eloquent or traditionally feminine. Like Rousey, it was unapologetically blunt. “People can say I am a terrible role model because I swear all the time or that I fight people,” she said. “Look, I don’t want little girls to have the same ambitions as me. I want them to know that it is OK to be ambitious.” It’s a simple creed: Women can be not only ambitious, but also unflinchingly so.
But when Ronda Rousey lost her first career fight, the foundation of her sensationalized image was shaken—and with it, the unapologetic feminism she embodied. The result has been the anomaly of scrutiny we’ve subjected Rousey to. Most stories about November’s fight have not narrated Holm’s win, but rather Rousey’s loss. We haven’t celebrated Holm’s triumph so much as we have gawked at Rousey’s fall from dominance.
Because cultural norms stipulate that women should be more vulnerable than men, perhaps our instinct is to marvel at the loser rather than the winner. The world grew wide-eyed at the woman who cursed like a sailor and fought like a man; perhaps it’s gawking at her now because Rousey’s loss resonates with something we suspect to be true of all women. Maybe, we think, women are intrinsically vulnerable. Even UFC fighters. Even Ronda Rousey.
I suspect this feeling of vulnerability to be true—though it’s not a feminine quality so much as it is a human quality. At our core, we are all weak—a characteristic that Christ has promised to utilize as a vessel for his strength. In the heart of every human being is a frailty that, when exposed, stirs questions like Rousey’s: “Who am I if I’m not this?”—if I’m not strong, a winner, a champion of merit?
Which is why our inability to contextualize merit is so troubling. When we worship winning, we mistake merit’s nature. We imagine that everything comes from either an abundance or lack of personal skill and effort. We neglect influences that exist outside merit. We fail to acknowledge that the difference between winning and losing is often small and sometimes lucky. We undermine the importance of achievement, which cannot always be accurately summed up in terms of wins and losses.
Ronda Rousey seems to understand this, to some degree, in light of her now blemished record. “Maybe just winning all the time isn’t what’s best for everybody,” she told Ellen in a rare admission of fallibility.
But it’s actually her fallibility that gives me hope for Rousey’s future. Ronda Rousey the Unbeatable Legend was important—an inspiring firework blast that broke through the glass ceiling still very much looming over women in sports. Ronda Rousey the Human Being, though—the one who tearfully acknowledges her weakness, who admits to but turns away from self-destructive thoughts, who takes a loss—is a far more honest and hopeful fighter to champion. Her wins may have signaled her own personal dominance, but her defeat signals a universal human vulnerability—one that is meant to equip us for communion with others and with Christ.
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