You might not know it, but Sara McMann is sort of a big deal

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

We are so used to hypemongering in the fight game that we notice immediately when we’re being undersold. That’s why people keep mumbling variations of this question: If Ronda Rousey is, as Dana White says, the UFC’s biggest star right now, why does UFC 170 seem to be nothing more than a passing shadow on the wall?

Not that people don’t care that she fights Sara McMann on Saturday night, it’s just that…it feels like people should be made to care more. Right smack dab in the middle of the 2014 Winter Olympics, here is McMann and Rousey -- two past Olympic medalists, both inspirational figures -- getting set to fight for the UFC’s women’s bantamweight title.

This feels like a big deal. Or, you know, at least a bigger deal than the general run of "big deals" that are best dressed in quotes.


Yet the title fight is creeping up on tip-toe as just another among others (and still others), as if the mastery of disciplines -- Rousey’s judo/armbars versus McMann’s wrestling/cold industrialism -- doesn’t embrace the very spirit of why we mix the martial arts in the first place. As if there’s not vast intrigue as to who has hybridized best the other realms of cage fighting, the boxing, the jiu-jitsu, etc. There has been more talk about last-minute fill-in Patrick Cummins, who doesn't even have a Wikipedia page heading into his fight with Daniel Cormier, than McMann and Rousey colliding.

Why is that?

It could be that McMann just doesn’t foster the kind of hatred that Miesha Tate did for Rousey, or that Rousey has already begun turning her gaze west towards Hollywood, or that she fought only two months ago and everyone -- perhaps even Ronda herself -- is a little Rousey’d out.

But realistically it’s more likely that McMann doesn’t do well with spotlights, something that’s a problematic in a sport that needs salespeople in four-ounce gloves at the top.

Not that the temptation shouldn’t be there from the promotional standpoint, because the 33-year old McMann is, without exaggeration, the very embodiment of human perseverance. Her back-story has so many triumphant-turned-tragic elements, and her present is so shrouded in on-going motivations of the same order, that her Olympic silver medal in wrestling only serves to reflect just how far she’s come.

"I understand that it’s something that the UFC or other promotions want to promote, or even people who care about me say this is a great thing, it’s good to share that, and it helps inspire other people," McMann says. "But I’m not remotely interested in being inspiring. I would rather just have to handle my business myself. It’s nice that since I have to do it, people write messages like I’ve been through some really hard stuff and knowing the things you’ve been through, it helps.

"I definitely do want to help, there’s a part of me that’s a mental health counselor aspect that’s happy with that. But I also… I don’t know… when other people do it, they’re like, ‘look at me and look at how tough I am.’ And I’d rather not be tough. I would rather that things had gone a lot better and a lot different, and have my brother here than be, look how tough you are. I have tons of character. I don’t need any more."

You can pick and choose which part of her biography, past and present, she is talking about. If you don’t know by now, McMann lost her brother, Jason, in 1999 when she was at college at Lock Haven University. He went missing for three months before he was found murdered. He was just 21 years old. The killer, Fabian Desmond Smart, who played free safety on the Lock Haven football team, was convicted five years later in 2004.

That same year, after taking home a silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens -- fueled by her brother’s memory -- McMann was driving east from the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, when she lost control of her Jeep Cherokee. Her boyfriend at the time, Steven Blackford, who was a three-time All-American wrestler at Arizona State, was ejected from the car on Interstate 76 near the town of Brush.

"She comes back with the silver medal, and then that happens," her manager Monte Cox says. "She loses control of the Jeep, it rolls and he dies, and she’s in the hospital with a broken arm."

From the attention she received as the country’s foremost female wrestler, to having that accident on her conscience and her brother’s murder, she’s had her share of headlines, long before segueing into MMA, into ProElite, Strikeforce (where she was linked to a fight with Liz Carmouche before the whole thing collapsed) and Invicta, and finally into the penultimate spot in the UFC. She’s split time evenly between the good, the bad and the ugly.

"She’s on Sports Illustrated, this girl is really well known in wrestling, the No. 1 female wrestler for like for 12 years, seven straight national championships -- she’s the face of the Olympic team," Cox says. "Then that happens."

And right now her story continues to unfold in extraordinary ways, but McMann would rather not let the personal details of her life stream into a week of fight game hype. She insists that perspiration trumps inspiration in her case. She is a quiet contender, built more on character than charisma.

What she will say is that beating Ronda Rousey and winning that bantamweight belt would mean a lot, particularly given the road she’s traveled.

Back when McMann lost to Kaori Icho of Japan in the Olympics, she stood on the podium in Athens moments later crying with disappointment. Second place felt like a failure to her. Through the next decade she’s gone through her own internal peaks and valleys as she transitioned into MMA. She entered a long-term relationship with Trent Goodale, the wrestling coach at Limestone College in South Carolina, and became a mom. She has long since grown proud of that silver medal. It’s become a point of pride.

But taking second place against Rousey is just a polite way of saying last place. Maybe that’s why McMann, who plowed right through Sheila Gaff via TKO in her only other UFC appearance at UFC 159, is burning with quiet blue-flame intensity as she heads into this next chance.

"I just like to really keep to myself," she says. "I didn’t realize it. I never consciously sought it out in wrestling. But, wrestling just kind of naturally protects you that way. As you get closer to all your big tournaments everybody we just doesn’t think about it. And then we go to another country and we train there for a couple of weeks so we’re in a lot more solitude before we get ready for one of our bigger competitions. The only people we’re surround by are our other competitors with the same goals. So you’re not even surrounded by people who speak your language."

Other than staying relatively private in a very public setting, and having gone through so many travails en-route, the most glaring thing missing in UFC 170’s quiet approach is this: Sara McMann has a legitimate chance of beating the pioneer for women’s MMA in the UFC. She has the ability to drop the curtain on the UFC’s biggest star. That seems sellable, too, that little tidbit.

And if that happens, UFC 170, the card that barely registered a blip beforehand, will become a clatter of pots and pans.

*

One person who is willing to bet on that is Cox himself, who loves wagering money on his clients -- particularly the underdogs. "If I can get 5-to-1, I’ll bet $10,000 on Sara," he says. He made a nice little truckload of money betting on his longtime client and friend Robbie Lawler over Rory MacDonald, too. Lawler was a big underdog, just fodder for MacDonald on his way to the welterweight title. Cox cashed in.

Besides, Cox is on the inside with the people who’ve trained with McMann, since he helped orchestrate it all.

Back when he was managing Eddie Alvarez, the Bellator champion called him after a session and asked what the hell that was all about. "He was like, ‘what the f--- was that? Who in the f--- is going to be able to beat that?’"

Rick Hawn, who took part of the 2004 Olympics in judo, trained with McMann to throw the challenger around. That was not as easy as he thought it might be, according to Cox. In fact, she put up a nihilistic front on the matter, and shut him down. In short, if people think Rousey is going to ragdoll McMann like she did Tate (and everyone else), those closest to McMann are half chuckling under their breath.

The problem? Well, it’s also the solution -- that old wrestler’s mentality.

"Wrestlers at that level are hard to deal with, and when I first brought Sara on I asked her, ‘how much are you willing to listen?’ She said, ‘I know wrestling, but I don’t know jiu-jitsu or boxing, so I’ll listen 67 percent of the time.’ And I was like, that’s all I needed," Cox said.

McMann’s coaches want her to outbox Rousey, which is of course everybody’s game-plan heading in. Difference is that McMann is built like a T-90, and can take Rousey down. And she knows it. But maybe she doesn’t fully understand the hazards in doing such a thing. "Wrestlers get a little cocky, they’re like, I’m not going to get swept,’" Cox says. "But this is not an ordinary woman that Sara’s facing. This girl is 170 pounds when she’s walking around."

'It’s not too much too soon because I’ve been competing for 19 years, so that really wasn’t a problem at all. "I wanted to be the fighter that I think a titleholder should be. I wanted to keep the title. I didn’t want to be someone that was good at wrestling and not as good at the other things -- I wanted to be a true mixed martial artist.' - Sara McMann


On the chorus of too much too soon for McMann, who has one fight in the UFC and only seven overall, her camp reminds everyone that Rousey has only eight. Cox says when he saw McMann beat Shayna Baszler at Invicta FC 2 at her own game, he knew she was ready. He also adds that McMann agreed to fight Rousey back in Shark Fights back a few years ago, but Rousey’s camp turned it down. "Of course they did, because why would you fight that fight for no money?"

Realistically, McMann has plenty of reasons to jump in headfirst, because that’s what she’s been doing her whole life.

"It’s not too much too soon because I’ve been competing for 19 years, so that really wasn’t a problem at all," McMann says. "I wanted to be the fighter that I think a titleholder should be. I wanted to keep the title. I didn’t want to be someone that was good at wrestling and not as good at the other things -- I wanted to be a true mixed martial artist. That’s just one of my goals in MMA.

"So [Monte] said, perfect, at each level we’ll just step up in competition. As you do better, we’ll get better and better competition. And that’s kind of how it works out anyway. Commissions wouldn’t allow me to fight anybody really good right off the back since I was 0-0. I had to fight people who were more similar to my background."

If Cox had his way, he would have liked one more fight in the UFC before fighting Rousey, but circumstances change…Cat Zingano blew out her knee and won’t be ready…Tate came and went without much of a fuss…UFC 170 needed a headliner, and McMann, waiting in the wings, just happened to be next.

"When we moved over to Strikeforce I said, here’s what we want -- I want a four-fight deal, the first two fights we fight somebody else," Cox says. "We build up. The third fight we fight Ronda, but not before because you guys have two Olympians, you have a chance to make a big fight.

"But what do they do? They didn’t build her worth a sh--. They didn’t even bring Sara to shows. I told Sean [Shelby], you didn’t even bring her to the last one at UFC 169. This girl’s an Olympian, with a story."

It does feel like the ball has been dropped. In the dreaded casual sense, it feels as though an anonymous fighter is taking on Ronda Rousey, that we’re dealing in "Rousey’s next victim" rather than "the berserker Sara McMann, who grinds people down like a pestle and blows the particles off the canvas when she’s done."

In a sport that boils down to buzz building, people notice when they’re not being properly goaded.

On the flip side, McMann isn’t one for too many disruptions, particularly when a fight is getting close. When Cox received an email from the UFC asking about a personal appearance with Danica Patrick at Daytona just a week before the fight, he knew instantly that such things won’t fly with McMann. Once she’s in the zone she wants to stay in the zone. PR be damned.

*

Imagine playing the role of the crasher of all tomorrow’s parties. That’s where McMann is heading into Feb. 22. If she does her job successfully, she will knock off "the biggest star in the UFC," and in turn become a bigger star herself -- which can a curse as much as a blessing for somebody trying to uphold "a semblance of privacy."

It’s her own private paradox.

But the makings are all there for a good one. Two Olympians with different skill sets, and not a loss between them, are meeting at the Mandalay Bay on Saturday night. One is a nasty finisher who has transcended the sport, the other is a blitzkrieg at existential loose ends. One changed the industry; the other can redirect the future.

There, that wasn’t so hard. This fight practically sells itself.

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