It was only this past February that former Olympian judo competitor Ronda Rousey — and the first woman to ever sign with the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) mixed martial arts company — was preparing for her first UFC bout. (She won.) Shortly after, she and fellow fighter Miesha Tate were announced as the first female coaches for Fox Sports’ UFC reality show The Ultimate Fighter.
Now, as the Nov. 30 season finale of The Ultimate Fighter approaches, Rousey tells TIME that, though initial reaction to women in the UFC was mixed, women are now fully embraced by the sport.
“The way that everyone has been approaching the women fighters has changed dramatically. It went from being a joke to the highlight of every card they’re on,” she says. “The past season of The Ultimate Fighter really proved that numerically. The episodes where the women fight do much better than the episodes with the men.” (She’s right: as of October, the women’s fights were drawing 20 percent more viewers than the men’s.) Women are also ensconced in the sport’s audience, with 40 percent of tickets bought by female fans, according to Bloomberg.
But just because Rousey and her competitors have convinced the UFC and many viewers that they’re there for real doesn’t mean that they’re treated the same as their male colleagues.
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One issue that has persisted is the sexualization of female fighters in conversations about the sport. About a month ago, UFC fighter Conor McGregor apologized for a tweet he sent about the sexual things Rousey and Tate might do; UFC president Dana White later said that it was “real dumb.” (The UFC is reportedly working on social-media guidelines for its fighters.) Even mere weeks before the Ultimate Fighter finale, a Fox Sports blog post about whether fans were beginning to root for Tate rather than Rousey was given the headline “Are Ronda’s fans no longer aroused?” That headline was later changed but the original can still be found in online archives, complete with the implication that the reason fans are tuning in may not be just an athletic interest in who wins and who loses.
Rousey, however, says she’s just glad to be written about. “I want everyone to talk as much as possible about everything. As long as they’re talking, I’m happy. The bills get paid. I can feed my dog,” she says. “[When I did the Olympics] every thought I was so darling, but it didn’t do a damn thing for me.” It’s a sentiment that echoes something she told TIME prior to her February bout, that she’s aware that women are judged on looks in any industry so she may as well accept it. She’s happy with the UFC, adding that the organization treats their fighters “light years better than the U.S. Olympic Committee ever did.”
Besides, she’s not reading what’s being written. Ever since she began work on her first film role, in next year’s The Expendables 3, she hasn’t read a single article about herself or checked her Twitter mentions, and she says it’s better that way.
“All I can really do is do what I love for a living. Receiving everyone’s opinion about it is an option, not mandatory, and I’m happier without hearing it. I do have a lot of great and supportive fans out there but there are only so many times you can tell yourself not to think about it,” Rousey says. “My mom has a really great saying. She says, ‘Never read the bottom of the internet.’”
(MORE: Q&A with Ronda Rousey)