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Sara McMann wants Julianna Pena or Valentina Shevchenko next, talks division upheaval

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Sara McMann was in Las Vegas during International Fight Week and present during the UFC 200 ceremonial weigh-ins at T-Mobile Arena. The UFC women's bantamweight contender heard the crowd boo when, in a promo, UFC president Dana White called Miesha Tate "the baddest woman on the planet — except for Ronda Rousey."

McMann was pretty surprised. Tate was about to defend her UFC women's bantamweight title against Amanda Nunes in the main event of what was supposed to be the biggest card in UFC history.

"I heard that and I kind of like winced a little bit -- I was like, oh, ouch," McMann told MMA Fighting. "That's not really something very inspiring for the girl who is going out there. That's like saying, ‘Oh Sara, she's a great fighter, but she lost in the Olympic finals.' It takes a little bit off of your momentum. [Tate] earned that title. She did what Ronda couldn't do. She beat Holly [Holm]. Ronda was losing the striking game also. Miesha didn't get kicked in the head and knocked out. And she took her down and submitted her. Don't take that away from Miesha. She did something pretty f*cking miraculous considering she was losing that fight. To be down in the fifth round, do you know what it takes to lose to somebody for freakin' five rounds and still have enough belief in yourself to turn around and win?"

Of course, the division continued to shift 24 hours later. Nunes beat Tate via first-round submission to win the belt at UFC 200. On that same card, Julianna Pena beat Cat Zingano in her best performance to date to put her name on the list of title contenders. And, two weeks later, Valentina Shevchenko pulled off an upset of Holm in the UFC on FOX 20 main event in Chicago.

The division seems a long way from when Rousey ruled over it even though that was only a year ago. McMann, currently ranked sixth in the UFC's official rankings after a unanimous decision win over Jessica Eye in May, thinks fighting either Pena or Shevchenko next would make the most sense for her. One of them is likely to face Nunes for the title next; the other will probably need at least one more win.

"Julianna doesn't have a fight if the UFC doesn't give her a title shot," McMann said. "And I want to fight her. I think that helps me and that's what I'm interested in. I want to keep fighting people above me. And I want to keep fighting worthy people above me. Everyone one of those girls in the top five are great fighters. That's the challenge that I'm looking for.

"[Shevchenko] did a great job against Holly and I want to fight the best girls rising in the division."

Shevchenko lost to Nunes at UFC 196 in March. McMann has also fallen to Nunes as well as Tate and Rousey. That's just the look of the division now: parity across the board. And that's not a bad thing, McMann said. After Holm knocked out Rousey and Rousey went on hiatus, the rest of the contenders have proven themselves.

"I think it's good for our sport," McMann said. "It shows that we had a dominant champion and everybody rose up to become a better fighter. If Ronda comes back, she'll have her hands full. Every one of us is improving our games."

Pena qualifies there. She has never lost in the UFC, unlike all of the other contenders, and has come back stronger after a devastating knee injury. McMann was very impressed with her win over Zingano. She not only wants to fight Pena because of her ranking, but also her exciting fighting style and willingness to take on all comers.

"I have a really hard time getting people to accept fights against me and I think Julianna would be game," McMann said. "I don't think she's someone that backs down from strong competition. I'm selecting the people who I want to fight and someone tough enough to not look at me and say, ‘No, I don't think I should take that fight.' It's a compliment to her. I think she'd say, ‘OK, let's fight.'"

The women's bantamweight division is now one of the the most interesting in the UFC after being just a one-woman race for years. Rousey remains out with no timetable for her return. Holm and Tate, the two other biggest draws, are coming off loss (two in a row for Holm). Nunes is the champion. Pena and Shevchenko are the top contenders. And McMann is right there as well.

McMann, 35, said she still practices armbar defense from all the positions Rousey gets them from. She's anticipating a Rousey comeback. But, for now, without the woman who started the division, the others at 135 are carrying on just fine.

"You can say that Ronda did great before without saying the rest of us are terrible, if you choose to," McMann said. "For a long time, though, was she a notch above everybody else? Yeah. But it was just a notch."

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