In 2004 was the East Bay Judo Institute Shido, I had brought my video camera along to record my friends Dave Camarillo and Jose Bencosme. They put on a show, as expected, even fighting each other in the finals (for the record Jose won, though Dave claimed the mat was slippery :)
One girl caught my eye in the competition was a young Rhonda Rousey, 17 at the time, she tore through her division with a vengeance, finishing her opponents with an arm bars vicious to impress this "Jiu Jitsu Snob". I regret not shooting video of her that day, but I sat in the stands impressed.
A little later that year Dave and I went to Las Vegas for the US Senior Nationals of Judo. The weekend starred off memorably for me in a bad way because someone broke into my car the night before, and while Dave got eliminated in the early rounds (the rules of Judo at the time allowed for very minimal groundwork and were not favorable to Dave's brand of Newaza), two events left a lasting impression in my mind. First was Chuck Jefferson choking Jimmy Pedro unconscious in the finals of their division, where elation quickly turned to concern because Jimmy took awhile to recover on the mat. And secondly was watching Rhonda Rousey in the finals of her division. Making it that far in this tournament at that young of an age was not common according to my judo friends, and while Rhonda put up a terrific fight, she lost to her veteran opponent. Again, to me, she was extremely impressive.
After the matches and medal ceremonies, walking with Dave Williams filming for his television show, in a lonely spot in the convention center we could hear sobbing. It was Rhonda Rousey alone, crying her eyes out, her silver medal on the floor besides her. "I lost, " she cried. "I'm a loser, I'm a loser."
Dave Williams displayed his softer side right there (insider's note: yes he has one) and gave her a big hug and words of encouragement. She was no loser, of course, but had a lot to be proud of and a very bright future ahead of her. I told her how impressed I was by her, and I like to think we perked her up even a little at that point, but was a little unsure as we left her. Still, I was impressed by not only her skill, but her drive which was rarefied in ANY combat athlete I've ever encountered.
Rhonda's star has certainly risen over the years, from bronze medalist in judo to one of the most talked about talents in MMA, leading to a watershed moment tomorrow when she along with Liz Carmouche headlines UFC 157 in a big step for women's MMA.
Exactly who will walk out the victor and what this bout will intimately mean for Women's MMA remains to unfold, but watching Rhonda over the years I can never quite forget the young, vulnerable but driven woman I encountered at the convention center all those years ago. Whatever happens, it's clear in my mind that Rhonda is indeed a winner.