I'm at a rooftop bar in Santa Monica that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Standing in front of me is Dr. AnnMaria De Mars. I ask her a question you ask most women you meet at a bar: “When's the last time you got into a physical fight?” “Today,” she replies, with no hesitation, belly laughing like a maniac. As a pedagogic example of her ability to inflict pain, she delivers two clenched fists into my chest and knocks me back into a nearby couch. “He spit on my baby,” she says. “So that's what I did.”
Last month, when I spent the day with De Mars, a deranged homeless man unsuspectedly spit on her oldest daughter, Maria Burns Ortiz, not too far from the art deco statue of St. Monica. “It was a reflex. I protect my kids.”
De Mars is 58 years old. At 26, she retired from the sport of judo as both a pioneer and deserving of the nickname “Armbar Annie,” because, according to her, she broke six different opponents' arms in her last year of competition in 1984. She's also the mother of former UFC Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey, the first female fighter signed to the UFC. “I tell my kids to be first because nobody else will ever be the first,” De Mars says, proudly. These days, she and eldest daughter Maria run an educational video game startup called 7 Generation Games, which makes them iconoclasts in a male-dominated industry. “We're women succeeding in an industry where we're being cut out,” she says.
When I ask her about the gamergate controversy, where male and female gamers engaged in a cultural war relating to sexism in gaming, where the hashtag #GamerGate was used to bully and threaten female gamers (among other things), she cuts me off:
“I’m a woman that runs a gaming company, OK?” she says. “If you come try to break into my house, I will stab you and step on your heart.”
An early adopter, De Mars studied computer coding in the mid-'70s, before it was in vogue as a career move. When I ask her if any men in the tech industry have ever treated her unfairly because of her gender, she chuckles and leans forward: “Now, look, does it look like it would bother me to kick your ass in a heartbeat?” After all, who would fuck with a real-life action hero?
She then tells me the story about her first job, as a data analyst at Honeywell, which began after she received her MBA at the University of Minnesota in 1980. “One day I felt a hand go up my leg,” she says. “So I grabbed him and slammed his ass into the wall.”
De Mars' fight for respect in the world of gaming is now the subject of a reality TV show that's currently in development. Putting it all together is Hollywood stuntman and producer Pete Antico, who's taken bumps for everyone from Sylvester Stallone to Robert De Niro. At the moment he's gripping a video camera and floating around a long, off-white conference room table where on my left is a pugnacious De Mars, the first American to win gold at the World Judo Championships, in 1984, when her teammates also nicknamed her “The Animal” after the feral creature from The Muppet Show.
She's also the first woman to be president of the U.S. Judo Association, as well as a street-smart sensei with a Ph.D. in educational psychology, an accomplished statistician who's worked with USC, a published author and quite possibly the least self-conscious grandma on the planet.
“Your lack of fear sets you apart,” says Antico, with a New York accent, who's brought a crew with him to film a day in De Mars' life. At the moment, she's wearing a loose black T-shirt that displays the ripped arms she built on her way to becoming a sixth-degree black belt. The television show, she hopes, will generate interest (and funding) for 7 Generation Games, which focuses on developing educational adventure games that combine math puzzles with Native American history; the Ojibwe migration story is featured in three of their five games (think of it as the Native American “Oregon Trail”).
Since launching in 2013, 7 Generation Games has secured grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the goal of improving the math and history scores for kids on Native American reservations and in rural areas. For De Mars, this isn't simply another business move. She's deeply invested in improving the future for schoolchildren who've been left behind, which goes back to her work on the Spirit Lake Reservation of North Dakota in 1990, when she helped write federal grants to support educational and vocational training programs. De Mars' has no genetic connection to the 3 percent of Americans who now identify as Native American.
Forty-four schools and various Native American reservations between Southern California and North Dakota are using games such as Fish Lake and Spirit Lake, which are modeled after mid-'90s point-and-click PC games. She says her games, which anyone can purchase and play, are in the early phases of development but seem to be delivering results: “Our studies showed that kids who played the games improved their math scores by 30 percent.”
De Mars' obsession with numbers and science is contrasted by her faith.
“I'm a Catholic,” she says, bluntly. “And if you have a problem with that, you can kiss my ass.” She's a survivor who turned her abusive childhood into a vicious competitive streak she carries with her into the dojo as well as the boardroom. “I’m gonna make this [7 Generation Games] succeed,” she says. “Even if I have to kill somebody, and it won’t even bother me if I do.”
De Mars' street cred goes back to her troubled childhood. During one of her many stints in juvenile hall, she remembers being handcuffed to a bed, spread-eagle. She was 14. “I didn't do what they told me to do,” she says. “I took swings at people and knocked a few of them down.” She had left her hometown. “I needed to get the fuck out of there.” She was around 13, living in the town of Alton, Illinois, when she began hitchhiking across the country with a fake ID she made at a local library.
She was escaping her father, who was in the Air Force and whom she won't discuss in very much detail.
In 1995, De Mars' second husband, Ron Rousey, took his own life after a long battle with Bernard-Soulier syndrome, which prevented the healing of a broken back he suffered during a sledding accident. She was 36, left alone with three young daughters to raise, including an 8-year-old future world champion named Ronda. Her story is one of transforming motherly survival instincts into a thirst for conquest. For now, De Mars refuses to write a memoir about her improbable takedown of life: “People have told me to write one,” she says. “But I've read books where someone is going over being raped or abused, and I don't want to go over that again. I don't enjoy thinking about being handcuffed to a bed.”
De Mars' daughter Maria helped write Ronda's autobiography, My Fight/Your Fight. She's the primmer daughter, as well as the CEO and lead game developer of 7 Generation Games. “She puts on the corporate suit better than I do,” De Mars says without the slightest bit of snark. De Mars holds the the title of president. “Did you know Maria went to the White House three times last year?”
As a former sports journalist and student of public relations, Maria, who's laser-sharp, is well aware of the potential of blowback from her mother's legendary lack of filter. “You can have all the freedom of speech you want,” Maria says. “But then you have to take the consequences for what you say.”
De Mars is particularly unfiltered when discussing Ronda's controversial MMA coach Edmond Tarverdyan (whom many blame for Ronda's back-to-back losses). She goes right in for the takedown, like the aggressive judo style she's taught over the years: “He'd better fucking look over his shoulder for the rest of his life.” De Mars has vocalized her feelings about Ronda's trainer in the past.
De Mars' intense, heavy-lidded eyes can become deceptively childlike when she's ebullient about something, which is rare, since De Mars is almost never impressed, except when she talks about her kids, like Julia De Mars, 19, a soccer standout and actress who's already drawing the attention of talent agencies such as WME.
“Extraordinary in my family is expected,” De Mars says. “And Ronda even knows that someday she will be known as Julia's big sister.”
De Mars' motherly bravado can be intoxicating. It's the byproduct of a fearless disposition fighters tend to have on demand. “I know that when I walk into a meeting, I can beat up every person in the room.” She's keenly aware, like any well-trained Judoko, that she could uchi mata any yuppie through a conference table, then stretch them into a high-pitched whimper. An uchi mata, for the layman, is Japanese for one of the throws a Judoko uses to ground her opponent on the mat. It's one of Ronda's signature moves, one that De Mars drilled into her over the years to the point of brainwashed automation. When Ronda would hurt her knee during judo practice, De Mars would make her run laps, limping in tears. When Ronda had the flu or mono, De Mars would make her compete in tournaments. When she'd cry after a loss, or complain about her injured foot, De Mars would tell her to get over it. “Pfff, she cries about everything,” De Mars says, cheekily. “But she wanted to be the best in the world. And I knew how to make that happen.”
On my last visit with De Mars, in the lobby of another hotel in Santa Monica, we saw a young blond girl, about 6 years old, pacing around in a freshly laundered judo uniform and flip-flops. She looked like a prepubescent Ronda Rousey, who would ditch school during her sophomore year of high school and hang out on the Third Street Promenade. De Mars gently smiled at the girl. It was a brief moment of tenderness exhibited by “The Animal,” who's been described by her daughters, as detailed in Ronda's autobiography, as someone who hammers you with a never-say-die attitude combined with brutal ruthlessness. It's an intensity she counterbalances with a home-cooked smile. Think Martha Kent, had she been a cagey pugilist who codes video games rather than a farmer's wife. De Mars is well aware of the perception versus the reality of who she is, and what she's fighting to accomplish.
“Honestly, look at me. I look like someone who should be cleaning Mark Zuckerberg's house.” To underestimate a fighter like Dr. De Mars, or her four gifted daughters, would be a mistake. “When people think about Silicon Valley, they don't think about a Latino grandmother.” It can also be an opening for her to exploit, like in a tournament, where she flips you over her back and locks you in an arm bar that reconfigures both the bones in your arm and those in your noggin.