As Sara McMann stood in the center of the Invicta cage this past Saturday night waiting to hear what the judges would have to say about the future of her undefeated record, she had no idea which way it might go. This was a problem she hadn’t dealt with in her former life as a wrestler. All the way through college and then at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, where she won a silver medal, she’d had the advantage of being able to look at a scoreboard and know who was winning. But in MMA she’d seen enough baffling decisions to know that you could never be sure where the judges would come down after three rounds of fighting.
"I really wasn’t sure," she told MMA Fighting in a phone interview this week. "I still have a hard time with striking, gauging exactly how they score it. I thought I was doing well, but when I’m feeling it it’s hard to know how they’re interpreting it."
How they interpreted it was in her favor. Between her aggressive flurries and her takedowns, all three judges thought McMann had done enough to beat Shayna Baszler in the Invicta FC 2 main event, improving her record to a perfect 6-0 and putting her in a position to fight for the organization’s first bantamweight title. But to hear the former Olympian tell it, it’s the route she took to get here -- one punctuated with both tragedy and triumph -- that matters more than the destination.
Back in 2010 McMann was still 0-0 in her MMA career, but she had a Strikeforce contract in hand and was all set to sign. At the time, the organization was widely considered to be the top destination for female fighters, so it only made sense that McMann would join the Strikeforce ranks and begin working her way toward a title.
"We had the deal all set up and [manager Monte Cox] called me and said, ‘Don’t sign that contract,’" McMann said. She couldn’t understand it. Strikeforce was the place to be, and Cox had been telling her all along that she belonged there.
"The thing was, it was for four fights over five years," McMann said. They might be looking at an excruciatingly slow climb, and maybe one that a 30-year-old fighter couldn’t afford to lock herself into, even if McMann could understand the reasoning behind it.
"Essentially, on their side they didn’t want me to have two fights and be fighting for the title. That doesn’t help them and doesn’t help women’s fighting. It doesn’t look good, and it doesn’t help me if I’m inexperienced and don’t have much cage time."
So fine, McMann turned down the Strikeforce offer and headed off to the smaller shows to get some experience. Four fights in five years? Try four fights in her first four months as a professional. After a decision win over Hitomi Akano in a ProElite event in January, she was 5-0 and clearly ready for tougher challenges. Invicta offered her just such an opportunity via the nine-year MMA vet Baszler. The fact that she got this chance on the main event of an all-female fight card, and after a gradual career progression, served to convince McMann that she’d made the right choice when she walked away from the Strikeforce deal.
"For me, it’s a lot more about the journey than the end result," said McMann. "If I went and was fighting for the title after two fights, that wouldn’t be as meaningful for me. I’ve already gone through a full career in wrestling, and the reason I really deeply cared about it was because of how much time and heartache and everything else I had invested in it. That’s what makes it special. That’s what makes it feel so unbelievable."
When McMann looks back on her wrestling career now, ‘heartache’ still feels like the most appropriate word to describe much of it. She took it up in ninth grade, mostly because she wanted to do some kind of sport and wrestling was the one she knew best, thanks to her older brother’s involvement in it. Plus, she’d heard of other women who wrestled at other schools. That was definitely a thing that happened. It just didn’t happen at her school.
"There were no other girls. Fifteen of my seventeen years wrestling, I spent wrestling with guys," McMann said.
It taught her some important lessons. Lessons like, when you know you’re going to give up strength and speed advantages to your opponent, you can’t afford to also concede an edge in technique or conditioning. To even stand a chance against male opponents, you have to be better, tougher, and grittier, which McMann was. She had to be, both on and off the mats. After losing her brother to a violent murder early on in her college years, she suffered another loss right after the 2004 Olympics, when her fiance, Steven Blackford, was killed in a car accident.
McMann responded to both tragedies by seeking solace in training. Those years spent wrestling, from high school all the way up through the Olympics, are ones she looks back on now the way you look upon a difficult trip that you’re glad you took, but are also glad you don’t have to take again.
"It’s not like a prison sentence, but it’s almost more like a rite of passage," she explained. "For me, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. For as long as I could, I enjoyed pushing myself as far as I could. And don’t get me wrong, the days where I knew we were having those black flag practices that were extremely hard, I went into practice nervous -- really, truly nervous -- because I knew how hard it was going to be. But those were the best times of my life. Battling with my teammates, I wouldn’t change any of that for the world."
Wrestling for your country and fighting for yourself are two very different things, however. The pressure that comes with the Olympics is overwhelming for some athletes, though McMann found early on that she had a gift for "completely shutting that out" until after the match. But as a professional fighter, it’s about more than just wins and losses. It’s also about entertainment, about fan buzz, and about ensuring that, for one reason or another, people are willing to pay to see you hit and be hit.
Female MMA fighters got a chance to see that in action when Ronda Rousey -- herself a former Olympian with only four professional fights to her credit -- talked her way into a Strikeforce title fight this past March. A brutal first-round victory via armbar justified her place in the main event, but it was the hype she generated with pre-fight sound bytes that helped sell it. If McMann could take a page out of Rousey’s playbook, people told her, she could advance her MMA career in a hurry.
If she wanted to, she could do it. She's certainly capable of it. McMann’s not only the mother of a three-year-old daughter and a former Olympian, but also an articulate, cerebral fighter with a Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. She could set her sights on self-promotion and make waves in interviews, but she doesn’t.
Instead, the things you hear her say are how much she likes fellow fighters like Baszler, how nice it is that they can be training partners now that they’re done fighting each other, how much she owes to the female fighters who came before her. In other words, nothing that’s going to generate a forum post or an angry comment war when the quote appears in internet articles.
It might not be the best career move for a female fighter struggling for attention, but there’s more on McMann’s mind than fame and money, she said. When people tell her to use her interviews to stir the pot and manufacture a little controversy, she's forced to admit, "that's just not me."
"I think, personally, just having the life experiences I’ve had, I know that at any moment it can all be gone. Then all the world and my daughter will be left with of me are the things I represented while I was here. I look at this as my legacy, what I leave for my daughter and my family."
So far she’s got a silver medal and unblemished MMA record to show for her efforts. And she’s not done yet.