If Ronda Rousey can pinpoint the exact moment where her healthy flirtation with WWE began to feel like something more, the former UFC champion traces back to her bachelorette party last July.
Rousey, 31, who wed UFC heavyweight Travis Browne on Aug. 25 in Hawaii, certainly didn't have the most traditional final blowoff in mind before marriage when she picked up the phone to call WWE executive vice president Paul "Triple H" Levesque to plan her trip.
"I hit Triple H up and was like, 'It's my bachelorette, can me and the girls -- 'the Four Horsewomen' -- come up and train at the [WWE Performance Center] for like a week, and then we'll jump in the RV and drive with the Cruise America back to L.A?'" Rousey told CBS Sports last week.
Rousey went on to join her fellow Four Horsewomen -- best friends and former mixed martial arts training partners Shayna Baszler, Marina Shafir and Jessamyn Duke -- for a memorable trip to Orlando, Florida. It was a weekend made more fun by Baszler, an aspiring independent wrestler who had yet to sign with NXT, appearing in the Mae Young Classic tournament tapings on July 13-14 for the WWE Network at nearby Full Sail University.
The courting between Rousey and WWE was apparent to even those watching on social media who weren't privy to larger details. Even though the tournament wouldn't be broadcast until the finals days of August,outside the arena just hours after it happened.
Those watching inside Full Sail Live began to leak footage of Rousey, seated in the front row during Baszler's matches, taunting WWE's own Four Horsewomen -- Charlotte Flair, Bayley, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch. If the red carpet experience wasn't enough to give Rousey a simulation of what being a WWE superstar might feel like, she laterthat went viral and further speculation.
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"It was so different and we were just so excited to be in there for every single second we were there," Rousey said. "The more that I decided to learn about the industry, the more I was completely bitten by the bug by the end of the week."
Nine months later, Rousey will make her in-ring debut atas part of a tag team match with Kurt Angle against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. The storyline is an extension from Rousey's memorable WrestleMania 31 appearance in 2015 opposite The Rock, which came at the peak of her UFC stardom before a pair of knockout defeats stole her invincibility and passion.
But talking to Rousey, it's hard to believe she would even be at this point -- from signing a full-time WWE contract to making a surprise appearance at the Royal Rumble in January -- had it not been for that "lost weekend" of pro wrestling indulgence last July in Orlando. And if you're wondering whether Rousey had any ulterior motives in how she went about arranging the trip, the answer quickly became clear.
"That was my kind of tryout that I asked for in a roundabout way because I was too weary of rejection to ask for a tryout," Rousey said. "I think we were trying each other out -- I was trying [WWE] out and they were trying me out.
"It wasn't like I had an epiphany moment [about signing with WWE]. We just had a really good time all week, and by the time I pulled up to L.A., I was just like, 'Wow, that was so cool. Imagine what it would be like if we could do that all the time?' I think when it was over and I didn't want it to be over, that's when I knew that I wanted to be back."
Upon getting home, Rousey instantly set up secret training sessions with WWE cruiserweight Brian Kendrick at Santino Bros. Wrestling Academy in Los Angeles. Her background in judo, including a 2008 Olympic bronze medal and the "millions of falls" she had absorbed, proved to be a strong foundation for the physical pounding that would follow.
As negotiations with WWE soon followed, Rousey began sending videos to Levesque detailing her progress.
"I will say that from the athletic standpoint, I don't know that I've ever seen anybody pick it up faster other than Kurt Angle," Levesque. "She is an amazing athlete with laser focus. When there is a goal in front of her and something she wants to hit, she is like a machine. You really have to tell her stop because she will just keep going because she's driven. And that's awesome."
Outside of some self-critiques about her spacing, footwork and timing, Rousey hasn't had much of an issue with the physical side of the job. If anything, the tricky part has been transitioning from keeping her moves as disguised and efficient as possible in judo to learning how to overemphasize them in WWE with as much impact and brutality as possible.
"Now, I'm trying to learn how to work with somebody instead of against them, to do something great together instead of doing something great in spite of each other," Rousey said.
The hardest part has clearly been utilizing the microphone and appearing comfortable while cutting promos in front of a live crowd. It's a position WWE has consistently thrust Rousey into on Raw in order to build the WrestleMania story and preserve the grand reveal of her first match.
The pressure of performing without a safety net is something Rousey expected. But having her "learning curve," as she puts it, so publicly documented and critiqued hasn't been easy, especially since most WWE superstars are given time to perfect their craft on much more private stages.
"I think one of the most difficult things is that I usually can't hear myself talk because it's so loud," Rousey said. "It's not like a closed movie set where you are just speaking, where it's like, 'Everyone be quiet! She's talking!' There you can focus. So it's quite an experience to be able to speak while you can't hear the words coming out of your mouth, which is a lot more offsetting than you would think it is. They are teaching me good timing, which is letting people quiet down before I talk again."
From Levesque's perspective, Rousey's comfortability will come once she finds the balance between her personality as an athlete and the persona she has developed through a burgeoning side career as an actress. He also described figuring out that blend to be "probably the most difficult part" of her overall transition.
Something that has only enhanced Rousey's early presentation as a pro wrestler has been her association with WWE Hall of Famer "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. During her fledgling days as a mixed martial artist, Rousey reached out to Piper through their mutual friend, martial arts legend "Judo" Gene Lebell, for permission to use his "Rowdy" nickname. A friendship evolved until his 2015 death.
When Rousey showed up at the Royal Rumble, she had the "Rowdy" nickname on her new WWE T-shirt in the same design Piper once used for his. She was also wearing Piper's own black leather jacket, given to her as a surprise gift backstage by his son, Colton Toombs, moments before Rousey entered the arena.
During an interview he gave with TMZ Sports the next day, Toombs described meeting Rousey for the first time as "one of the most purest moments" he has ever had. It had an emotional and powerful effect on both of them. Rousey, who tearfully shared with Piper's family her plans to elevate his legacy and bring it to new heights, said she could feel his presence during the conversation.
"I couldn't even believe that I was being entrusted to even try it on or hold it for a small amount of time," Rousey said. "When I put it on, it reminds me of a judo gi in a way, but one of my judo gis that I have worn for years. It just fit and felt like a hug. That's like the closest thing I could describe to getting that jacket on. It felt like a big hug from Roddy himself.
"I'm just happy that every time I walk out there, I can remind people of how great of a man he was and how somebody who was supposedly a bad guy can be such a great force of good. I'm so happy to even be associated with him and am doing everything I can to show that I deserve it."
The cool thing about Rousey's persona as a UFC fighter was that, like Piper, she often blurred the line between babyface and heel depending upon the situation. Some of that was planned, as Rousey has long admitted pro wrestling was her influence. But because her love for Piper is so deep, she's hoping for a chance at being a bad girl in WWE to fully honor him.
"I just have to trust that they will lead me in the right way to help me improve as quickly as possible," Rousey said. "If they think it's by being America's sweetheart first than I will be very happy to catch everyone by surprise [with a heel turn] later."
One person who has enjoyed instant success as a strong heel is Rousey's close friend Baszler, who challenges Ember Moon for the NXT women's championship on Saturday at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans.
Rousey remembers first becoming a fan of Baszler, 37, a women's MMA pioneer who had her first pro fight in 2003, "back when the only fights women could get were in a circle of cars in a parking lot." She credits the natural charisma of Baszler for making her pro wrestling transition so fluid.
Considering Rousey had a front-row seat (many times literally) in seeing Baszler make the same career change she would undergo just a few years later, it's clear that Baszler's journey provided Rousey with a certain level of confidence to try it for herself.
"I think [Baszler] was always meant for pro wrestling," Rousey said. "I think that's what drew me to her in MMA, because she always had that pro wrestling style about her. She didn't take things personally and knew she was an entertainer. As the way everything has panned out, it makes you believe in fate more and more. You watch Shayna out there and you can tell she was meant to do this. Everything else that has happened until now has been leading her there."
It's makes you wonder whether Rousey is thinking the same thing about herself.