Sara McMann (right) will carry a perfect 7-0 record into the Octagon. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
When Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s bantamweight titleholder Ronda Rousey steps into the Octagon to defend her title at UFC 170 on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Sara McMann will be standing across the cage. Although the two fighters share many similarities, undefeated records and Olympic medals chief among them, their personalities could not be more different.
Rousey slapped down her Olympic bronze medal in judo and demanded an immediate shot at then-Strikeforce champion Miesha Tate back in 2012, polarizing fans by skipping in line ahead of top contender Sarah Kaufmann. McMann, however, has taken the opposite approach.
“The way I see it is, I will earn and work my way up to say I’m worthy of a title, but those other girls had been doing this for 10 years,” she said. “They most certainly deserved the nod before I did. It doesn’t matter what sport I’d been doing before or if I beat them. I will have plenty of time to prove [myself], so there’s not really any rush for me.”
Her ways are nothing new for Trent Goodale, McMann’s significant other and the head wrestling coach at Limestone College in Gaffney, S.C.
“I think that is the wrestling mentality,” he said. “It’s looking at it as a tournament where you have to win in the quarterfinals before you get to the semifinals. You have to beat everybody in the process to get the chance at that tournament title. Sara doesn’t want to jump [ahead of] people. She wants to fight everybody on the way up and she wants to deserve it, and if there’s anyone that deserves it before her, she wants them to get the fight.”
Although McMann has anticipated a showdown with Rousey for some three years, many critics believe Alexis Davis was more deserving. Davis has racked up four consecutive wins, including a pair of decisions over Rosi Sexton and Liz Carmouche since arriving in the UFC.
“I don’t care. I really don’t because anyone can say anything,” McMann said. “Really what they’re saying is, ‘I’m a fan of Alexis.’ That’s all they're saying. I like Alexis, and I think she’s a very good fighter, but Ronda made quick work of a girl that beat her. So if you look at it as if it were a tournament, Alexis would’ve been knocked out of the finals and then Ronda would’ve beat Sarah Kaufmann pretty quickly, so I don’t say it’s [more] deserving.”
The UFC’s decision to seize the moment and have two Olympians face off in the cage while the 2014 Winter Olympics were on the world stage did not surprise McMann.
“Just because of the fact that I choose to be fair doesn’t mean the UFC works fair,” she said. “It’s a business. It’s sports entertainment, so they don’t follow the same rules of a pure sport. They don’t have to; and so if Alexis [was] a huge pay-per-view draw, then I think they would’ve chosen her over me, but the reality is that there have never been two Olympians that have faced off in the cage. It’s a way huger draw, and it’s just the way that the world works. We all knew what we were getting into when we first started MMA.”
McMann has been training at Revolution MMA and Limestone College under Goodale, Jimmy Fowler and Cody Freeland. She also visited Marcelo Garcia’s academy as part of her training camp, all while working with women with backgrounds in judo and wrestling.
“Really, a lot of them are my same partners because this really isn’t any different from the training that I’ve done for years,” McMann said. “[Ronda] was the number one person since around 2012; she fought Miesha [Tate] and she was the number one girl in Strikeforce, so in my mind everybody should’ve had their sights set on that and been training for this for a long time.”
McMann started wrestling in high school at the age of 14, long before the Women’s College Wrestling Organization was founded in 2008. She went on to spend time in men’s college wrestling rooms at the University of Minnesota-Morris, Lock Haven University the University of Iowa and Limestone College.
“From the moment I started, I was a girl in a guy’s room,” McMann said. “My high school coach at McDowell High School was Tim Hutchins and he was the son of a preacher and a military man, and this man loved Dan Gable more than any other coach. Dan Gable was quite possibly the most effective wrestler when it came to training; he trained for seven hours a day seven days a week to win the Olympics. Our training was fashioned after the Iowa wrestlers. That’s who we looked up to, so we had three-hour practices because we had to learn technique and then we went live and then we had conditioning, which you really can only do that with very young kids whose bodies can handle that.
“Sometimes we didn’t win on being the most technical wrestlers; we won because we were just tougher and more conditioned and we kept coming,” she added, “so that’s how it was kind of set from the beginning.”
McMann captured a silver medal in freestyle wrestling at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, becoming the first American woman ever to do so. She is also a three-time medalist at the FILA Wrestling World Championships, having won silver in 2003 and bronze in 2005 and 2007. Even so, she remains a relative unknown to many MMA fans.
“I’m the most unrecognized well-known athlete,” McMann said. “The world at large does not know me, and I’m OK with that.”
Finish Reading » McMann regularly trains twice a day, with a focus on technical detail and an emphasis on the importance of preparing fully, not just for those currently populating MMA but also for the next wave of well-rounded fighters entering the sport.