Why the Olympics paved Sara McMann's road to a UFC 170 title opportunity
(This story appears in today’s edition of USA TODAY.)
A decade removed from her experience as an Olympian, UFC women’s bantamweight contender Sara McMann has a perspective on the Games that most people can’t comprehend from the safety of their living rooms.
That’s not to say her experience was a bad one — she won a silver medal in freestyle wrestling in the Summer Olympics in Athens in 2004. While she enjoyed it, McMann chuckled, “I didn’t enjoy it the way you enjoy a roller-coaster ride.”
“Let’s just say that if you enjoy working really hard at something, it’s a great thing,” McMann said to USA TODAY Sports. “But if you like giggling and having fun and things that are easy, going to the Olympics probably isn’t for you.”
It turned out to be beneficial in many ways for McMann (7-0 MMA, 1-0 UFC), who has parlayed a decorated career as an amateur wrestler into an unbeaten record as a professional MMA fighter. On Feb. 22, she challenges fellow Olympian Ronda Rousey (8-0, 2-0) for her UFC women’s bantamweight title at UFC 170 in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET, pay-per-view).
It’s undoubtedly the biggest fight of McMann’s MMA career, one that vaults her from the relative anonymity of the prelims to the pressure cooker of the main event, all in less than three years since her pro debut.
For a lot of fighters, it might be too much, too soon. But McMann says that’s where Olympic experience comes in handy.
“It’s not so much that it helps me to have done it, but it revealed to me who I am and what I do under pressure,” McMann says. “I don’t think that just having gone through it helps that much. … But really it proved to me that no matter what kind of pressure I’m under, what the media situation is, once I get out there and start competing, my body does what I trained it to do. That’s something that’s more valuable to me than anything, as far as athletics go.”
She may need that ability against Rousey, who took home a bronze medal in judo in the 2008 Summer Games. The UFC women’s bantamweight champ has morphed into one of the sport’s biggest stars and brings a spotlight that inevitably envelops new opponents, whether they’re ready for it or not.
Part of that is due to Rousey’s peculiar brand of star power. Fight fans seem to either love her or hate her. She’s the irascible, in-your-face, unapologetic antihero of women’s MMA, which means McMann becomes the next best hope for fans who tune in hoping to see Rousey end up with her first beatdown.
That might get her a few more cheers than normal on fight night, McMann says, but her experience in the Olympics taught her something else about what the will of the fans counts for once the competition is underway.
“When it comes to sports, you can absolutely hate someone or absolutely love them, and it doesn’t change their capabilities one bit,” McMann says.
And Rousey’s capabilities, like McMann’s, have already proven to be world class.
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