Ronda Rousey is about to kill me.
The world's fiercest female mixed-martial-arts fighter, a 5-ft. 6-in., 135-lb. battering ram with the shoulders of a linebacker and the face of a Hollywood starlet, isn't kicking my butt in the cage, though she could easily do that. No, she is flooring her BMW on a jam-packed L.A. interstate, and I'm sitting in the backseat cowering. She's running a bit late for a training session on this January morning and spots an opening in the right lane--otherwise known as the no-passing lane. She's doing 95 m.p.h. as she bends around a wall, kissing it. If any traffic veers into the right lane without seeing her, which isn't hard when someone's flying by at about 100 m.p.h., or if she loses control, which isn't hard when someone's flying by at about 100 m.p.h., Rousey, her friend and sparring partner Marina Shafir (who is riding shotgun) and I will be roadkill.
Rousey, 26, is one of the most marketable female athletes in the country right now. Maybe it hasn't occurred to her as we arrive for her practice--intact and on time--that a high-speed car wreck a few weeks before her biggest potential payday isn't a smart career move. But if you choose to pound heads and break arms for a living, a reckless streak probably helps. "It's worth it to me to get into a fight and risk getting my knee ripped out or hit in the head and getting a hematoma," Rousey says. "I'm not alive to not get in trouble. I'm alive to enjoy my life."
Rousey's heedless spirit is making history. On Feb. 23 she and her opponent, Liz Carmouche, will become the first women to fight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship--the major leagues of mixed martial arts (MMA), the popular combat sport that combines elements of judo, karate, jiujitsu, boxing, taekwondo, wrestling and bar brawl. (Carmouche is an Iraq-war vet and the first openly gay fighter in the UFC.) The fight comes not long after the debut of women's boxing in the Olympics. "Participation in combat sports in particular helps break down stereotypes that hold women back," says Nancy Hogshead-Maker, senior director of advocacy at the Women's Sports Foundation.
For years, UFC commissioner Dana White swore that women would never fight in his events. "I don't want to see two women beatin' on each other," he told me back in 2007. "I don't like it." Back then, no-name promoters staged women's fights in bars and dingy casinos. Now Rousey-Carmouche gets top billing in the UFC 157 lineup, ahead of four main-card men's fights, at the 14,000-seat Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. And Rousey is the reason for this main-event treatment. "This girl don't play," says White. "She's the real deal, man."
White knows the undefeated Rousey is a potential growth chip for his UFC brand, which has gone from freak show to first tier among blood sports. According to MMA Business magazine, in 2012 the UFC generated nearly 6 million pay-per-view buys, at $45 for standard def and $55 for high def; its latest Fox prime-time fight, in late January, was the evening's top-rated network program in the key 18-to-34 demographic.