Sara McMann: Bout with Ronda Rousey 'just feels like the perfect timing'

USA TODAY Sports

Now that the rivalry with Miesha Tate is settled (for the time being, anyway), what's the next step for UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey? Is it more time off? Is she heading back to Hollywood? How soon does she plan on returning to the cage?

As UFC President Dana White announced on Saturday at the UFC 168 post-fight presser, Rousey would not only be returning to action, but in near record turnaround. The Olympic bronze judoka is set to face 2004 Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling, Sara McMann, at UFC 170 on Feb. 22nd.

It's a bit of a curious fight for Rousey. Sure, the fight makes sense of paper. Olympian vs. Olympian is an easy sales angle and McMann is believed by some to have the physical tools and skills to give Rousey trouble.

On the other hand, McMann is still developing as a prospect with only one UFC bout under her belt. She may be a great fighter, but isn't the choice something of a surprise?

To hear McMann tell it, as she did on Monday's MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani, even she was a bit shocked she got the call.

"Actually, I kind was," McMann said. "Truthfully, I don't know how it works. I never knew when I was going to get the shot. I'm just trying to be patient and keep getting better every day, so when it did come along, I was the best possible fighter I could be. It definitely was surprising, but I wanted it for quite a while and to be the world champion was my original goal when I started. So, it was a welcome surprise."

Most importantly to McMann, a lifelong athlete who thrives on competition, she didn't get this bout because someone else dropped out or because controversy whisked her into this position. She believes she was in the right place at the right time, which makes the entire thing much more appealing.

"My significant other and I both felt like this couldn't have come at a better time. It feels very right to us. That's what makes us very excited about it because if it had come off some kind of controversy or like, different fights have a different feel to them, some with a more negative perception. This one just feels like the perfect timing."

McMann says she isn't surprised Rousey is returning so soon. Like wrestlers, judokas compete on a regular schedule. The idea of getting three months to train for one event doesn't exist. A short turnaround by MMA standards is a long one in judo or wrestling.

Still, her UFC resume is thin. She handily defeated Sheila Gaff in April at UFC 159, but later turned down a bout with Sarah Kaufman in August, citing undisclosed personal reasons. McMann still isn't ready to discuss what happened then, but says it's all behind her. If anything, she believes the wind is at her back.

"Better than a clear mind," she says of her current state. "It's not only not negative, it's very positive."

McMann states she's in the right position to focus solely on her task at hand. With that in mind, what did she think of Rousey and her UFC 168 performance?

"I thought both girls fought very well," McMann claims. "They seemed like they were very prepared for each other and the different things that were going to happen. I think Ronda having the stronger background in her throws was really, even if it had gone to a decision, I think she'd have won off takedowns and control alone. I don't think there was a clear, standout on the striking aspect of it, but in the grappling she did very well controlling her."

McMann knows her wrestling could be her biggest strength or weakness when facing Rousey's judo, but the Olympic wrestler believes she won't get trapped using hers as some others have trying to wrestle with Rousey

"Truthfully, we've had a lot of girls who grew up doing wrestling and judo. There's a lot of girls who've had that crossover and they bring that to the wrestling mat. I think that's as close as we can see in how wrestling and judo will mix and apply. Before this fight, I already knew that [using wrestling poorly can backfire] happens. I've seen lots of good grapplers get launched by judo people trying to shoot double legs. That was something I've known for a long time.

"I just think unless you've really gone with someone in judo and felt their hips, you don't realize some of the things you do is actually loading yourself onto their hips, which makes the throw even better."

McMann is reluctant to say much about what her strategy might be for the biggest fight of her life, but noted it's not about controlling Rousey with wrestling or achieving one position that's going to get her the win. She wants to control everywhere.

"[Rousey] looked pretty comfortable on her feet. In my mind, there's not one specific area that I want to win that I think is going to make a huge difference. I need to win in every area to beat the champion. If it goes to decision, it's very hard to beat the champion, so you have to definitely dominate in every area. That's how I feel."

While many have clamored for McMann to be the next to face Rousey, others believe the chance should go to Alexis Davis. She's fought more in the UFC and some claim her jiu-jitsu expertise could give her an edge in stopping Rousey's armbar.

McMann believes that's not going to work.

"In BJJ, while they still start on their feet and they do incorporate some takedowns, traditionally they start on the ground. I think if Ronda's in a position where she's the one enforcing the takedown, she gets to choose the better position. It doesn't matter how good you are at BJJ, some positions are extremely dominant like side control and mount or taking someone's back. When you control the takedown, you control a lot more, putting yourself in very dominant positions.

"It would have to be a BJJ girl who's very versed in takedowns and throws," McMann believes.

When it comes to training, it also turns out McMann knew this bout was likely to come a month ago, giving her time to get prepared before the public even knew about it. Yet, she's quick to note that's not how she views her training. That is, she didn't start training to face Rousey a month ago. This isn't some cheap head start. Instead, she views her path to the title as one that started long, long ago.

"Ariel, I've been training for this fight for a lot longer than just a month," she said. "I'm the kind of person that believes if you want to win a world championship like the one in wrestling, you don't start when you make the world team. You start the day after the world championships previously. You start looking at who are your people you need to prepare for and you start building that muscle memory. It's been a long time.

"That's the only way you're ready," McMann continues. "You can't get a call and just prepare for someone very high level with just two months of training. I don't recognize it."

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