Has WWE put Ronda Rousey on the wrong path?

When you run down the list of the most prolific athletes the WWE has ever signed to a full-time contract, you’ll find numerous NFL players, Olympic wrestlers, collegiate athletes in a wide variety of sports and weightlifters with world records.

But when it comes to utter dominance at a professional level, perhaps only Brock Lesnar comes close to what Ronda Rousey accomplished before coming to the WWE. When she took the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight championship and carried it into the UFC to become the first women’s champion in that company, it wasn’t a ceremonial move by any means. Rousey walked through the doors of the UFC and became as dominant a champion as any other person who ever stepped into the Octagon.

After winning Olympic bronze in judo, Rousey ran through her three amateur MMA opponents over the course of five months with three first-round submissions via armbar in less than a minute. Five of her first seven fights went exactly the same way, with wins over Miesha Tate and Liz Carmouche taking until the final minute of the first round before Rousey finished them off.

On her way to becoming Strikeforce and then UFC women’s bantamweight champion, she also reached a mainstream audience in ways UFC fighters had never done before. She’s starred in movies, appeared on many magazine covers, including the 2012 ESPN the Magazine body issue, and earned lucrative sponsorships with a variety of mainstream companies.

It’s no wonder, then, that despite two tough losses at the tail end of her UFC career, the WWE would snap Rousey up at the first possible opportunity — particularly because of her long-public affinity for professional wrestling. Once news of her signing became official, the only real question that remained was how the WWE would manage and utilize Rousey, far and away one of the most valuable in-ring assets it has ever had under contract.

In the weeks leading up to WrestleMania 34, Rousey teamed up with Kurt Angle to take on Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, and it was obvious that Rousey still had a lot to learn in the art of the promo. She showed a clear dedication in her wrestling training, both before and after she officially signed, but it seemed there were going to be some growing pains the WWE would have to work around on its way to making Rousey a star in a new world.

Whether it was those lowered expectations or the anticipation for so many of the other matches on the WrestleMania card, a lot of people overlooked the tag team match featuring Rousey, Angle, Triple H and McMahon. That match ultimately shocked even the most optimistic Rousey fans, standing out as one of the best (if not the best) of the entire show.

From there, WWE seemed to get its legs and started to work toward Rousey’s strengths. The night after WrestleMania, Rousey slapped an armbar on an already injured McMahon and got the loudest reaction of the evening. The comparisons aren’t perfect, but Rousey was channeling a lot of the same anti-authority energy that made “Stone Cold” Steve Austin one of the most iconic characters in WWE history.

Rousey’s training partner and friend Natalya was moved over to Raw in the Superstar Shakeup, and that seemed to be as perfect an avenue to slowly integrate Rousey into the greater women’s roster as WWE could have ever hoped for. Helping out her friend could turn into tag matches, followed by Rousey’s initial one-on-one matches and eventually her first personal rivalry when Natalya ultimately turned her back. But after a few weeks on Natalya’s hip, Rousey disappeared from WWE television for a couple of weeks and then, in the most unlikely and unusual of environments, Rousey was suddenly thrust into the Raw women’s title picture.

During a red-carpet event at NBC’s upfronts, Rousey was directly challenged by Raw women’s champion Nia Jax. The exchange was clunky, though Rousey did her best to deflect and pointed to other worthy challengers ahead of her. Eventually the challenge was accepted, and on Monday Night Raw the contract for a championship match for the upcoming Money in the Bank pay-per-view event was accepted.

Both exchanges highlighted the weakest points of this story and why their characters don’t seem like natural rivals on the surface. Neither is at the level of a talker like Alexa Bliss, and even with McMahon directing traffic during the contract signing, it was hard not to listen to both Rousey and Jax and feel like everything involved was overmanufactured.

It’s one of WWE’s greatest problems at this moment with every story it tries to tell. We live in a world where the lines between fiction and reality have never been clearer — supposed rivals pose for photos together on social media, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

That’s not entirely a negative, as it’s often fascinating to learn about the real person behind the character. Knowing individual struggles allows fans to invest further in the human being and the character alike, but when it comes to someone like Rousey, who smiles on camera and off camera until the moment she’s called into action, simply throwing its hand up in the air isn’t the right solution for what WWE hopes to get out of Rousey.

Take, for example, Jax’s challenge of Rousey. Even given the fully manufactured nature of the challenge when the cameras of all sorts of media outlets are around, even if the exact same challenge was issued and played out as it did, airing Rousey, Jax and Charlotte Flair with their arms around each other smiling like crazy didn’t have to be part of the clip that aired for WWE fans around the world to see. Some modicum of animosity between two characters who have each been set up as fan favorites was completely negated by the image of the women portraying those characters immediately “snapping out” of that moment and going back to being buddies.

Whether or not it’s ready, or whether Rousey’s fully ready, the WWE is done with subtlety and slow builds. Unless something dramatically outside of expectations happens June 17 in Chicago, Rousey will walk out of Money in the Bank as the Raw women’s champion after just two televised matches (pending anything in the meantime). It makes a fair bit of business sense, being able to market SummerSlam at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn with posters all over New York City showing Rousey with title in hand.

The strain it puts on the storytelling is a tough hurdle to clear, no doubt, largely because of who’s champion and how far out of left field this match is. That doesn’t mean that the WWE can’t make the best out of the situation and use it to further build up Rousey as a character whom fans can continue to believe in and cheer once she’s champion.

No matter which direction the WWE chooses, whether it’s a clear victory for Rousey or if Natalya or some other winner of the Money in the Bank ladder match gets involved during the championship match or afterward, let’s make one thing clear: Rousey didn’t become a cultural figure and one of the biggest stars in the history of MMA because she had a smile on her face all the time. Rousey’s biggest cheers and support to this point in the WWE came not when she awkwardly pointed to the WrestleMania sign at the Royal Rumble event in Philadelphia, but when she was getting down to business in her match at WrestleMania in New Orleans and her attack on McMahon the next night.

Letting Rousey get down to business and remain serious while the cameras are rolling will allow WWE a lot more leeway for Rousey’s missteps and growing pains by giving fans what they want. In the modern WWE, the “good” guy or girl doesn’t have to be the character who smiles the most, signs the most autographs or high-fives the most fans. They just have to tap into the energy and the essence of what they do best, and what the fans want the most.

The next month will go a long way in defining whether Ronda Rousey could be on the path to becoming the kind of icon the WWE hopes she can be in the long term, or if she falls victim to getting too much, too soon in the eyes of the fans.

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