Ronda Rousey will make her official in-ring debut at WrestleMania 34, in the biggest test to determine whether the former UFC women’s champion can resonate with WWE fans.
It’s an interesting quandary. Winning fans over in WWE isn’t as simple as you might think. It takes more than simply being an amazing athlete with a universally recognized name. Rousey’s arrival comes at a time where there’s more talent in the women’s division than WWE has ever had, but she also carries a name far bigger than anyone currently on the roster. This means that in order for Rousey to develop into a fully fledged WWE superstar with a long career and title potential, she needs to be pushed into the limelight and given the chance to participate in major stories, but not shoved down fans’ throats. More importantly, she must not be asked to do too much too early, while she’s still learning how to be a professional wrestler.
What match is Rousey in at Wrestlemania?
WWE is easing Rousey into competition with a mixed tag-team match. This means there will be two male wrestlers and two female wrestlers, and WWE’s internal rules mean that it will always be man vs. man and woman vs. woman in the ring. The match is currently booked as Kurt Angle and Ronda Rousey vs. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, and it could even be the main event at WrestleMania.
The story line is typical WWE fare of the up-and-coming superstar being held down by oppressive bosses. It’s a continuation of Rousey’s work at WrestleMania 31, when she joined The Rock in the ring and put McMahon in an arm bar.
Essentially, Rousey is being cast as a new Stone Cold Steve Austin, with Stephanie in the Vince McMahon role. The concept evokes the late-90s “Attitude Era” in a way that feels relevant in 2018. Austin vs. McMahon was far and away WWE’s most-popular story line, and helped fuel an entire era of success for the company. Thus far, Rousey has shown the chops to take on the mantle and make the premise work.
Which of Rousey’s UFC skills will work in WWE?
Rousey’s judo background is where she can succeed quickly in the ring. Judo-style throws aren’t common in WWE, but submission skills are — and these can be easily tweaked to appear effective on camera without functionally causing damage. It’s for this reason we saw Rousey put Stephanie McMahon in an arm bar during her first WWE appearance.
Striking will take time and practice. Even professional wrestlers struggle with making strikes seem convincing, so learning to pull her punches will require more work. Finally there are elements like running against the ropes, developing a broad moveset and taking bumps (falling safely) that Rousey has no doubt practiced already, but take far more work to be proficient.
What can we expect from the match?
The mixed-tag format will take a lot of the pressure off Rousey to perform in the ring. Angle and Triple H will likely do the majority of lifting in the traditional sense, which will allow Rousey and McMahon more time for brawling and storytelling.
While Rousey hasn’t had a lot of time training as a WWE superstar, she’ll have enough moves under her belt to get a pop. Similarly, McMahon isn’t a traditionally trained wrestler either — but she’s participated in matches, too, most notably being in the main event of SummerSlam 2014 against Brie Bella. Both Rousey and McMahon will be on relatively equal footing, experience wise, but McMahon is a master at making the crowd hate her and will serve as the perfect foil to the up-and-coming superstar.
Is it going to work?
Maybe. I know a non-answer sounds like a cop out, but WWE writing is consistently inconsistent. Rousey is going to be a polarizing performer who attracts new eyes to WWE, but who also garners a little bit of resentment from long-time fans who fear women who have paid their dues and worked their way up the card will be pushed back down because of Rousey’s star quality.
It all comes back to that quandary I mentioned earlier. WWE needs to push Rousey quickly to keep attention, especially at Wrestlemania — but history has shown us that fans react very poorly if they feel like they have no agency in a superstar’s ascension. It took Roman Reigns years to claw his way back from an ill-timed WrestleMania push, where fans felt like they were being force-fed a superstar — and that’s the risk here, too.
Part of this is going to be giving Rousey the freedom to be her. In the UFC she showed a natural charisma and propensity to happily talk trash, and thus far in WWE her biggest stumbling block has been coping with delivering lines written for her. If the logic of the match and its aftermath makes sense then this experiment will have succeeded. If it’s not handled correctly, this could be one of the biggest disappointments we’re talking about on Monday morning.