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Sara McMann quietly re-enters the (changing) world of contendership

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Things have been a little topsy-turvy in Sara McMann’s UFC run; in fact, the one-time Olympic wrestler’s trajectory seems slightly ridiculous even though the Zuffa portion of her career is just shy of three fights old.

McMann destroyed the "Wanderlei Silva" of women’s MMA, the German fighter Sheila Gaff, in her debut on the UFC 157 prelims. It was a good start which generated the right amount of buzz. How much buzz? Ten long months later, after bout with Sarah Kaufman fell through, she leapfrogged the women’s fleet and fought Ronda Rousey for the bantamweight title at UFC 170. She went from debuting on the prelims to headlining a pay-per-view.

And now six months after that loss, McMann’s fighting UFC newcomer -- and former Invicta 135-pound champion -- Lauren Murphy at UFC Fight Night 47 in Bangor, Maine. Back on the prelims. And with those prelim bookends, there’s a case to be made that McMann got cut off too much too soon in drawing a title fight with Rousey back at UFC 170. In fact, conspiracy theorists who believe the UFC is protecting Rousey -- opting to pursue Gina Carano ahead of Cristiane Justino, say, or giving her McMann sooner (while still green) rather than later  (when honed) -- have raised their whispers to a mumble.

McMann herself isn’t among them.

"With the way everything worked out, I still think that it was the right choice," McMann told MMA Fighting. "So I’m not upset at all about the timing thing. I think I just made a mistake [in that fight]. I made a positional error. You take that out of it, and it’s a very different fight. That’s why I need her for a rematch. If I had gone out there, and got completely dominated in positions, like she just clearly showed she’s a better fighter, I’d probably be like, oh man, maybe I don’t have what it takes. But judging from how the fight went previous to that liver shot, then I feel really confident about it."

McMann has spent the last six months with that in the back of her mind, but it’s not been an easy thing to get past. And not from the mental side of it, but from the practical side; McMann has had trouble getting a fight. She wanted to finally step in the cage with Sarah Kaufman, a fight that was made and scrapped in 2013, but after fits and starts it never materialized.

"I told my manager [Monte Cox], you know what, forget it," she says. "I took the fight three times against [Kaufman], and she was calling out Cat [Zingano] and Miesha [Tate] but saying she was too injured to fight me. So I said forget it. If she doesn’t want to fight, then that’s fine. I don’t need to not fight, I’ll just fight somebody else."

Asked if she thought Kaufman was ducking her, McMann said it’s not specifically Kaufman, but more a collective.

"I think a lot of people are, because I’m the harder road to get a title shot," she says. "You don’t want to take a risk of losing your position against me. But I can think about it a different way, too. If you aren’t willing to fight the other people underneath, then you don’t deserve a title shot. That’s how I feel. If you say I want to be the best, you have to fight everybody and prove that you are the best, not just the top girl.

"I had three different offers in June and July, and I said yes to all of them...and really Monte’s never come to me with a fight I said no to. It was frustrating to me, just because I’m 33, I’m not 23. I want to do more. I want to do this, and I love competing, and to not be out there. It gives me a lot more grit and fire when I am out there."

Since McMann fought Rousey in February the women’s bantamweight division has gotten theoretically more intriguing. Zingano, the original No. 1 contender who has been out with a knee injury, returns to action at UFC 178. Bethe Correira is a quarter through her mission to unseat every one of the four horsewomen, and looks like a challenge for Rousey. She fights Shayna Baszler at UFC 177.

And then there’s the three-piece hypothetical of the recently signed Holly Holm, the coveted Gina Carano, and the pariah Cristiane Justino. McMann says she sees and hears all the rumblings, but there’s a lot of red tape.

"Holly Holm still has a long way to go in fighting girls, and showing that her ground game is title contender worthy," McMann says. "And in my opinion, she has to prove it before she gets a title shot, or else she’s going to get thrown and arm-barred in quicker time than Sarah Kaufman. Cyborg, I’ve been hearing for two years that she’s coming down to 135. I mean, I can only get riled up or think about those things as a possibility for so long before I start rolling my eyes. They keep saying it’s going to happen, it’s not going to happen, who knows.

"But truthfully, when it comes to Gina, I don’t see a potential gain for her. She struggled making weight at 140 and she’s been off for five years. I really think that, unless she needs the money, it’s not going to help her popularity. Her ground game wasn’t her specialty."

On Saturday night, McMann will finally get the chance to once again join the fray. Her opponent, Murphy, is 8-0 in her career, and a finisher. Six of her victories have come via TKO, including her fight with Miriam Nakamoto in Invicta FC 7 last December for the bantamweight belt.

McMann, who has been in competition for much of her life growing up a wrestler, sees a competitor.

"I think that [Murphy]’s more of a ground girl," she says. "I think that also, to a certain extent, toughness goes a long way when it comes to fighting, and it’s actually the same in wrestling. You can have one person who might have more experience or be more technical or whatever, but there are strong factors when it comes to certain sports, and toughness in fighting and in wrestling, that’s the case."

And even if she doesn’t know what comes after Murphy, whether it’s a prelim or the main card or a rematch with Rousey or a welcome to the UFC for Justino or some other thing, McMann knows this. She wants to fight again in 2014. With only three fights in two years, she wants to be busier.

"Absolutely," she says. "I just like to compete, and I know I can’t compete forever. The only thing that’s going to stop me competing is not having an opponent or being injured. That’s it."