LAS VEGAS — Sara McMann would like to make one thing perfectly clear: She is grateful to Ronda Rousey for helping usher women's mixed martial arts into the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
"I am literally the first person to say that. Whether you like her or not, I absolutely agree," McMann says. "Dana White was adamant about not adding women to the UFC, even though women had been doing it for over 10 years. These women you see fighting now? They didn't just see Ronda Rousey and go, 'Oh, I think I'll start doing that.' They had been fighting for a long time. Cyborg, Gina Carano and tons of others.
"But we needed a catalyst. We needed someone to catch the UFC's eye, to let us do it on that stage. And she was it, and we do owe her a thank you," she continues. "Even if she was doing it for herself, all of our boats float a little higher when the water is raised."
McMann, who faces Rousey in the main event of UFC 170 on February 22 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, is confident in her chances to dethrone the best female fighter in the sport.
Like Rousey, she is unbeaten. Like Rousey, she is a former Olympic medalist. And like Rousey, she has been participating in athletics for nearly her entire life.
She has often been pointed to as a potential opponent who might be able to counteract the prodigious Rousey judo attack that has confounded everyone else thus far.
McMann agrees with that sentiment.
"I think that every girl in the division would have a very hard and long road to learn how to stop a high-level throw. And I don't have that same problem," McMann says. "Some girls can defend once they get to the ground. But in MMA, it's a lot different when you're on the bottom. You can sustain a whole lot more damage, even if you are doing good jiu-jitsu. It's a lot harder road once you're taken down by somebody who has a strong submission game.
"If someone can come in and take her down, you have an advantage if you can get in the mount. But taking her down and making sure you're not taken down by those high-level positions? That's tricky."
Rousey vs. McMann marks the first time that two Olympic medalists will face each other in the Octagon, and it's happening during an Olympic month. It's also a short turnaround for Rousey, who just defeated Miesha Tate at UFC 168 and jumped back into training camp a few days later.
McMann has not competed since last April, when she made her UFC debut with a win over Sheila Gaff. The Olympic wrestler gave an emphatic performance, but the long layoff and what some perceive as a short turnaround time leave many feeling she'll be at a disadvantage.
She doesn't think that's the case. For starters, she found out about the fight in November, leaving her ample time for a training camp. And though she traveled to Tristar Gym in Montreal to prepare for her debut, this time she's keeping things closer to home in South Carolina.
She will travel to New York to train with legendary jiu-jitsu player Marcelo Garcia for a week later this month. Outside of that, she'll be training exclusively at her home gym and feels that a lifetime of wrestling competition will leave her prepared and free of the cage rust that so often affects others after a long time away from the Octagon.
"I'm going to go back in there and do what I have done for so long. I took an entire year off to have a child, and I came back in and I performed well. I went to a wrestling tournament and beat some of the top girls in my weight class," McMann says. "You don't forget how to do what you've done when you've done it that many times. Your coaches make sure it's seared into your brain so much that you literally hate them sometimes. But then you can do it on a split-second notice. You don't even recognize what you are doing, but your body does, and you hit positions before you even know you've done it.
"I train year round. If I took a huge break from training, I might feel a little less comfortable. But going in there six days a week? I'm going to compete just fine. "
Daniel Cormier, who has known McMann for 12 years and was a teammate on the 2004 Olympic team, said that Rousey has no idea what she's stepping in the cage against next month. He concedes that he often favors fellow wrestlers when picking fights—often to his detriment—but says McMann is a different kind of opponent than any Rousey has faced thus far.
Who wins this fight?
"When Ronda grabs Sara, she's going to feel something she hasn't felt since the Olympic Games. She's going to feel a girl—and this is no disrespect to the girls who have competed against Ronda or the rest of the girls who are fighting—she's going to feel somebody that is a lifetime athlete," Cormier says.
"Ronda's biggest advantage is that she is a real athlete. I'm not saying these girls are not real athletes. But Ronda hit the nail on the head when she said, 'Miesha, you wrestled girls in high school. I went to the Olympic Games.'
"Nothing was ever truer than that. Well, Sara did, too. So when she feels Sara, she's going to feel something different than she's felt against anyone else. A real athlete that has competed internationally. That's why I am excited about the fight: because we have two girls who are high-level athletes competing in the Octagon."