The Cult of Personality: What Muay Thai Needs to Learn from Ronda Rousey

The All-Importance of Storytelling

slack-imgs.comWhen I found out that Ronda Rousey released a memoir last month, I rushed over to the first bookstore I could find.

Too late.

The book had sold out in its first 24 hours. It’s not even that I like MMA. But I’m willing to spend $30 on My Fight/Your Fight because I’m interested in Ronda’s story. She has created an incredibly compelling persona, and it’s a big reason the UFC/MMA fan base is expanding so quickly.

As someone who would like to see Muay Thai fighters actually earn a living from their work, as well as share their knowledge and experience, I think there are many lessons to be taken from Rousey’s example. Whether you love, hate, or don’t care about her, the fact remains that Rousey has built a fan base in a way that would have been unthinkable two years ago.

The Importance of Storytelling

What has made Rousey so popular, in my opinion, is her personal narrative. It has all the ingredients of a good underdog story: someone who begins at a disadvantage, encounters many obstacles on her path, and finally rises to the top through hard work, perseverance and the help of others. It’s simple and makes sense to fighters and non-fighters alike:

Ronda Rousey went through many hardships as a child and young woman, from almost dying at birth, the early loss of her father, and an eating disorder. With the support of her mother, Ronda became a successful Olympic athlete, but soon found she was without a means to earn a living. She turned to MMA as a way to make fighting hers career. After becoming so skilled as to convince the UFC that female fighters were worth investing in, she has since become one of the sport’s best athletes and biggest stars.

The Element of Struggle

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 28:  (R-L) Ronda Rousey punches Miesha Tate in their UFC women's bantamweight championship bout during the UFC 168 event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 28, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)The element of struggle is what makes the story compelling.

We’re led to understand that Rousey’s success wasn’t handed to her. She displayed natural athletic talent, but the most important ingredient was sheer perseverance. And she has real examples to prove her point. It’s not up for debate that as a woman, she was fighting a steep, uphill battle with the UFC.

I think this is the main reason Rousey has become so popular. Her story is deeply human. Anyone can identify with hardship, loss, or finding oneself at odds with the powers that be. She’s also smart not to emphasize technicalities. Speaking the inside language of a sport that isn’t mainstream will only confuse people.

Rousey is not asking us to care about MMA, but rather to care about her and what she represents. This is the most powerful way to gain fans, in sports and anything else. You’re not going to convince someone with no stake in the matter that one sport is superior to another. An interest in technique can develop later, but it’s not going to capture the imagination of someone who doesn’t know how MMA is different from Muay Thai or judo.

11049567_10153387534999382_8219608783145741663_nThe Novelty Factor

The other piece that makes Rousey’s narrative work is the novelty factor.

There’s no one like her – a highly visible, commercially successful woman in the male-dominated world of fight sports – and she uses this to connect to untapped demographics.

My favorite interview with Rousey is actually from when she went on The View. Both hosts and audience looked intimidated, and they had no idea what an arm bar was. But they all fell in love her by the end.

She was open, friendly, and discussed things that everyone in the audience could relate to (e.g., her own history with body image and eating problems). And they were all over the fact that she has been successful in a male-dominated world.

Someone like Rousey adds another dimension to the popular idea of fighting. The audience sees that MMA can be more than the hyper-masculinity or misogyny so frequently associated with fight sports.

Building the Muay Thai Fan Base

The challenge of making Muay Thai economically viable goes beyond naming a few celebrities. But I do think the idea of making the sport more personal is crucial. This applies within the Muay Thai community that already exists, as well as to future fans and practitioners.
The Muay Thai world is incredibly insular. Unless you’re already immersed in it, you wouldn’t know which promotions are making big strides or which gyms produce the best fighters. The majority of people in the US don’t even know what Muay Thai is. If the goal is to make Muay Thai commercially successful, there is a huge education process that needs to happen.

One question to ask is whether the idea of marketing personalities is at odds with the essence of Muay Thai.From my experience, some would say yes. Obviously, the goal is not to seek popularity through shit-talking or other, less savory endeavors. But I don’t think creating a persona conflicts with Muay Thai’s unique brand of humility and respect. On the contrary – it’s integral to the story. How else would a nak muay explain why he chose Muay Thai over jiu-jitsu or MMA? Especially since MMA has entered the popular consciousness much faster than Muay Thai, the argument has to be made that Muay Thai deserves its own space.

ABG (1 of 1)-50Making the Case for Muay Thai

I would love to ask the serious fighters I know:

How would you explain your fighting to someone who doesn’t know what Muay Thai is? Why do you train? How exactly does Muay Thai interact with the other parts of your life?

If this is done in a way that’s compelling, it could mean a huge boom for the sport. This is one area in which I think female fighters, let alone gay or trans fighters, have an advantage. The odds are less in their favor, and they’re inherently empowering for doing what they do. But the male fighters I know, too, have stories that show how fighting involves more than a tough exterior.

As I imagine how Muay Thai would look with a greater public presence, I find it difficult to picture but intriguing nonetheless. A big part of Muay Thai’s appeal, at least to Westerners, seems to be the mystique and romanticism surrounding it. And most fighters’ lives are conditioned by the fact that there is little money in the sport. But if Muay Thai is to grow, it will have to adapt. Change is inevitable – the question is what it will look like, and how to execute a deliberate and thoughtful strategy.

But the potential for growth is absolutely there. If there is a way to make The View’s studio audience look forward to UFC 190, anything is possible.

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Paula Ibieta
Paula Ibieta began training Muay Thai at Sitan Gym Arizona in 2013. Upon moving to Spain for a year, she joined Muay Thai Barcelona and competed in fights sponsored by the Spanish Kickboxing Federation (Federación Española de Kickboxing). She graduated from Harvard College in 2013 with a degree in art history and literature, and currently works and trains at Sitan Gym Arizona.

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