A fresh start for Ronda Rousey

Rousey on WWE: 'This is my life now' (4:10)

Ronda Rousey sits down with Ramona Shelburne to discuss the past year of her life and how it mirrors not winning in the Olympics; her lifelong love of wrestling; and why "this is not a smash and grab." (4:10)

PHILADELPHIA -- Long before she was an Olympian or a UFC champion or -- after Sunday night, a WWE regular -- Ronda Rousey had a well-honed prefight ritual.

She'd sleep.

"That was something my mom taught me," Rousey said Sunday afternoon, before her surprise show-stealing appearance at the WWE's Royal Rumble at the Wells Fargo Center. "Judo tournaments last all day, so you have to sleep between matches. It's hard at first, but then it just becomes this adrenaline dump."

As a UFC fighter, these naps became sacred to Rousey. Anyone who'd interrupt wasn't just asked to leave the dressing room, but they were also snarled at, cussed out or thrown out. That's how tense it was before her fights. That's how much pressure she felt, not just to win but also to carry the mantle for women in combat sports, and maybe everywhere.

Winning became relieving, not joyous.

"Thinking back on it now -- every single title fight that I won, I cried myself to sleep that night. Every single one," she said.

There was plenty of noise in Rousey's dressing room Sunday night before she made her appearance at the Royal Rumble. But it had a completely different feel. She was loose and light and happy.

"I'm looking forward to everything," she said. "There's not a single thing today that I'm not looking forward to. And that's weird. ... I even looked forward to sitting on the bus and sitting on my ass right now."

She didn't nap. There was no pressure. No weight on her shoulders. This was just fun, and she was going to enjoy it.

She met with WWE executives, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. She hung out with her longtime agent, Brad Slater -- who also manages WWE superstar and box-office king Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

"People can draw their own conclusions," Slater said of the career trajectories of Rousey and The Rock. "That was a very early part of the conversation. ... But once it started to roll, it was like, 'You're gonna be the first Ronda Rousey. You're not the next Mike Tyson; you're not the next anybody.'"

The only drama came when Colton Toombs -- the son of Rousey's namesake, WWE Hall of Famer "Rowdy" Roddy Piper -- dropped by and presented her with his father's leather jacket.

"Rowdy" Ronda was moved to tears.

"He was just such a good man," Rousey said. "He died the night before I beat [Bethe Correia]. I didn't spend that much time with him, but he was such a huge influence on my life. He really made me realize how big of a responsibility I have because of what he did for me mostly from afar.

"And he was such a great example of how to deal with everything and not taking things personal," Rousey continued. "He's promoting, he's an entertainer, and he always understood that, and he would make himself hated in order to entertain. And he understood that that's what it was for, to make everybody love him. And I had to stir the waters a lot and make other people not like me in order to make it entertaining -- and the way that I didn't take it personally was watching how Rowdy Roddy Piper never took it personally. He took pride in it. And he helped me take pride in what would probably have broken a lot of people."

"I don't think that trying to make as much money as possible every single day is the best thing for my happiness. I want to wrestle, and I want to be part of this company, and I want the people that love this sport to accept me and respect me as being part of the sport. I know that'll take time, but I also know that I'm capable of anything." Ronda Rousey

There are those who will say the two losses at the end of Rousey's UFC career did seem to break her. More than a year after her final UFC fight, she still has a hard time talking about it, much less accepting it. But seeing her smile so brightly on Sunday -- moved to tears by chants from the fans afterward and embracing this new life -- it's clear she has dealt with it in her own way, just not the way many UFC fans wanted.

As she did after losing out on a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, Rousey wallowed and mourned the loss by herself, then pivoted into a new career.

"It sounds ridiculous to a lot of people, right?" Rousey said, explaining why she has a hard time dealing with losses. "They're like, you're an Olympic medalist, you should be happy. But it would be hard to explain that to my 10-year-old self that was so sure she was gonna win the Olympics. Things happen for a reason. I really do believe that. I really do believe that the worst things in life lead to the best things that can happen and think that this journey into this industry is really proving that that belief is real."

After the loss in the Olympics, Rousey spent a few years bartending, doing stunts, working at an animal rehabilitation clinic and sleeping in her car. Then she started doing MMA.

Her resurrection this time around was far less painful.

"I've been doing my own thing, raising some goats, learning some rasslin', learning how to cook, becoming a little bit concerningly involved with 'World of Warcraft'," she said, laughing, and not mentioning she's also gotten married, filmed a movie with Mark Wahlberg, appeared in the ABC show "Battle of the Network Stars" and served as executive producer on a show on Go90 called "Why We Fight."

Yes, Rousey has done plenty in the year since her last UFC fight, but mostly she spent the time thinking about what comes next.

"When you're so used to always doing what you need to do -- this needs to get done, this needs to get done, this other thing needs to get done -- it's almost easier to know what to do because you have things that you have to do," she said.

"And I found myself at a point where I didn't have to do anything, and actually think about what I want to do. It's a real privilege to be able to do that, but I think it's a lot more ... complicated question to ask yourself than people would think: What do I actually enjoy?"

That answer, unequivocally, was wrestling.

"When I first met with Triple H, I told him, 'There are other things I can do with my time that'll make way more money, but I won't enjoy nearly as much,'" she said. "And I don't think that trying to make as much money as possible every single day is the best thing for my happiness. I want to wrestle, and I want to be part of this company, and I want the people that love this sport to accept me and respect me as being part of the sport. I know that'll take time, but I also know that I'm capable of anything."

Rousey says she and the WWE got serious last fall when she held her bachelorette party at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida. She says she's prioritizing wrestling as her primary career now. Movies will be one spoke in the wheel. But the WWE will be her focus. And in a lot of ways, it always has been.

It has been in her blood since she was a child growing up in North Dakota, following WWE events through TV and video games. She had a speech impediment then, so when she asked for a "bullgrin" for her birthday, it took a long time for her family to figure out she meant "Hulk Hogan."

The franchise imprinted deeply on her. The stunts, the narratives, the characters. When she became an MMA fighter, she started pulling material from Piper to market and sell her image and her fights.

"I really tried to make my MMA career as much like wrestling as possible," she said. "In the UFC, what everybody saw was just a more exaggerated version of myself. Because if it was me out there, they would bring a couch out to the ring, put 'World of Warcraft' there, bring me a Skinny Cow [ice cream sandwich] and hang out with a chicken. And no one wants to see that. So I have to be the more animated version of myself. ... The much more 'Rowdy' version of myself.

"It's cool to be in a venue where everything is not taken so literally -- that you can say the things that are on your mind, that you would never say ... like, 'What do you mean, I was just in character!' It's freeing because there's not so much criticism -- because people know it is all for fun, and it is entertainment.

"They're not judging you; they're like, 'You're a great heel!' It seems like a safer place to express myself, in a weird way."

The challenge now will be to amplify that voice as authentically as Rousey did while she was in the UFC.

"I also think there's a little bit of, 'What can the WWE do for Ronda?'" Paul "Triple H" Levesque said. "Ronda is such a vocal personality and she wants to be the one out there saying the things people are afraid to say and to get in front of global issues. So to have a platform globally as big as WWE, the reach we have, it's an amazing opportunity for both sides. And coming at it from an athlete side, with her background, to be able to do this and have fun doing it, it's a perfect mix."

So what does she have to say now? What causes will she champion?

Her appeal as a mixed martial artist was always twofold: She was virtually unbeatable in the Octagon, and she never apologized for her greatness. It felt like a new kind of femininity, one in which accomplishments were to be celebrated, not softened to be more palatable to men. She didn't worry about coming across as cocky. She owned it. And if anyone had a problem, there was always that devastating armbar to shut them up.

Deep down, there is a part of her that understands her legacy in the UFC, even if she's still reluctant to speak about how her time there ended. Rousey persuaded UFC president Dana White to start a women's division in 2012. Today there are three divisions, all with healthy rivalries.

Rousey gets emotional discussing MMA losses

Ronda Rousey doesn't want to talk about her losses to Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes and relates it to how she felt after losing at the Olympics.

"If I was a kid and you told me all this stuff would happen, I wouldn't believe you," she said. "But it makes me really happy to see the women's division thriving on its own. ... When I said I would be satisfied with my work there was when the women's division was thriving and surviving and doing well on its own, and now there's three. I feel like we're there."

While she has stayed away from UFC fights, she has followed a few of the fighters she admires, specifically strawweights Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Rose Namajunas.

"Women's MMA is new. It's like a little baby deer finally standing up and being able to walk on its own," Rousey said. "It just takes a little while. Little deer is gonna walk around for a while; it's the only way it's gonna get stronger and better at walking. I really believe in them. I believe they're in a place where they can keep the sport around and celebrate it for women long after I'm gone. That's what I'm hoping."

Her focus now, though, is on the WWE, and on herself. This next chapter is about enjoying the opportunities she created for herself. About doing what she always wanted to do, not just what she had to do. About sleeping through the night before a fight, not to dump adrenaline and pressure and the weight of the world right before it.