Olympian vs. Olympian: Sara McMann Aims to Stop the Ronda Rousey Show at UFC 170

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Olympian vs. Olympian: Sara McMann Aims to Stop the Ronda Rousey Show at UFC 170
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today

Ronda Rousey is getting a massage.

It’s Wednesday afternoon in Glendale, Calif., 11 days before she’ll defend her UFC women’s bantamweight championship against Sara McMann at UFC 170, and Rousey is due for a short break.

All week, reporters and camera crews have been in her gym just outside Los Angeles, peppering her with questions about her future as the face of mixed martial arts, about her budding movie career and, most notably, about McMann.

This physical therapy session at the end of the day is supposed to be her time to relax, but instead she is using it to finish up a few final phone interviews. If the squeals coming from her end of the line are any indication, the massage is also its own special kind of torture.

“They’re being mean to me right now,” she says.

Al Bello/Getty Images

Her bout against McMann on Feb. 22 will mark the first time two Olympic medalists have met inside the Octagon, and the mainstream media’s attention is duly piqued.

The spotlight is bright whenever Rousey fights, but considering their shared Olympic backgrounds—McMann won a silver medal in wrestling in 2004, Rousey a bronze in judo in 2008—the press and the UFC public relations machine are working overtime to fashion McMann as the champ's most dangerous opponent yet.

And so there are questions.

Everyone wants to know where Rousey’s head is as she prepares to defend her 135-pound title for the third time. They want to know how she’s feeling after a lightning-fast, 56-day turnaround from her last fight, an emotional victory over archrival Miesha Tate. They want to know how she’s preparing for McMann as rumors of a handful of new movie roles simultaneously swirl around her.

This has been her life since the UFC named her its first female champion 14 months ago—one part luxury, two parts tedious, grueling work.

Now that she’s comfortably ensconced as the best female fighter in the world, the Ronda Rousey show never stops. She’s been living it so fast and so hard, it doesn’t even seem weird to her anymore.

“If anything it’s starting to feel normal,” she says. “Even before, when I wasn’t getting as much media attention for my fights, I was doing just as much work. I was just doing it on my own. I was spending hours a day on social media. I was trying to do every single interview I could—if it was somebody’s blog or some random Joe’s podcast. I was spending just as much time doing it, I just wasn’t reaching as many people.”

***

In just over a year with the company Rousey has done more than most of her male counterparts will do in their entire careers.

Inside the cage, she’s dominated the competition with a ferocity she honed as an Olympic judoka, finishing all eight of her career fights with the same armbar submission. Her opponents all know it's coming, and they still can’t stop it. Only one (Tate) has lasted longer than a single round.

Outside the Octagon, Rousey has been an even bigger success, landing on the cover of Maxim and ESPN the Magazine, appearing in commercials, spending a season coaching on the UFC’s The Ultimate Fighter reality show and securing parts in mega-movie franchises like The Expendables 3 and the still unreleased Fast & Furious 7.

Her unique mix of viciousness and good looks makes her UFC promoters visibly giddy. Before Rousey, they had no interest in women’s fighting. With her, it’s arguably the organization’s fastest growing asset.

“I'm going to go out and say she's the biggest star we've ever had...,” said UFC President Dana White, with his characteristic flare, via Yahoo Sports. “This chick does two movies back-to-back, fights, comes back in (expletive) training camp, films The Ultimate Fighter, (expletive) does all these appearances and all this other (expletive). She's a (expletive) rock star.”

The ride has not come without a few hiccups. Many fans found her turn on The Ultimate Fighter grating and her unabashed hatred for Tate—think profane tirades interrupted only by middle fingers—off-putting.

In January 2013, she drew extensive heat for tweeting a link to what she called an “extremely interesting, must watch” video, which alleged the Sandy Hook school shooting was a staged government conspiracy.

She later deleted the tweet, and her manager told MMAJunkie.com she meant “no disrespect” by linking to the video.

“It’s definitely not easy,” she says now, of her budding celebrity and the scrutiny that comes with it. “It's not fun that every single minute mistake you ever make could be blown out of proportion...There are a lot of really awesome, cool things about this job, but it is a job.”

***

Thus far, Rousey’s missteps have been overshadowed by—and in some cases only added to—her innate marketability. In a very short period of time, her fame has reached unprecedented heights, and it's only beginning to snowball. The general consensus in the MMA community is that as big as she is now, she’s about to get much, much bigger.

To that end, the McMann fight comes at a strange time in Rousey’s career. After she defeated Tate as part of the UFC’s biggest selling pay-per-view of 2013, White came to the post-fight press conference with the poster for her fight against McMann already printed up.

Afterward, she’s going to take some time off. She’s already landed roles in the upcoming Entourage movie as well as the film adaptation of Brad Thor’s The Athena Project. Despite the fact she’s tried to downplay this sort of talk, there is a growing unease that she might soon leave the sport to chase Hollywood dreams.

If that’s the plan, though, she is not admitting it.

“The UFC’s agreed to give me some time off, a good amount of time,” she says. “They gave me a timeline, like the maximum time that I could take off, but I don’t think I’m going to take all that. I think I’ll be back sooner than they expect me.”

She appears cool, calm and collected leading up to this fight—a far cry from the buildup to the Tate bout—and is saying all the right things about McMann being her toughest challenger to date. At the same time, with a scheduled vacation on the horizon and a couple of new movie jobs locked down, it’s easy to assume Rousey just wants to get this one in the books.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

“Physically and mentally it’ll be nice to have a break after doing back-to-back camps,” she says. “But I’m not the type to just sit around and do nothing. I think having some things (like acting) to focus on in the meantime will actually help me rest more than just sitting around and staring at the wall.”

Sounds like she’s got it all figured out.

There’s just one catch.

On this Wednesday afternoon while Rousey is getting her massage, there’s a woman 2,400 miles away who is working to take it all away from her.

***

On paper, Sara McMann is not so different from Rousey.

They both took up their respective sports at young ages—McMann as a freshman in high school, Rousey even earlier than that. For years they both toiled in the obscurity of amateurism, competing all over the world and winning a slew of medals at events like the Pan American Games, World Championships and Olympics.

They’ve both overcome significant adversity in their private lives. Rousey nearly died at birth from a lack of oxygen and didn’t speak until she was six. Her father committed suicide when she was eight, after a long struggle with a blood disorder and the debilitating effects of a sledding accident.

McMann’s brother was murdered in 1999, and that year, she left school at Lock Haven University to be close to her family. In 2004, her fiance died after a car wreck while McMann was driving.

They’ve both talked about the tragedies in in public and with the media but have refused to be defined by them. Still, it may not be too great a stretch to say those early hardships in part fueled their near peerless athletic careers.

When their lengthy runs as amateurs ended, McMann and Rousey both transitioned to MMA around the same time, making their professional debuts just two months apart during the spring of 2011. Today, they are both undefeated with comparable levels of experience—McMann is 7-0, while Rousey is 8-0—and head into Saturday’s UFC 170 as two of the best 135-pound fighters on the planet.

And that’s where the similarities end.

Because while Rousey rode a bullet train to the top, McMann’s path has been less direct and far lower-profile.

***

Rousey had just two fights and four-and-a-half months of experience before she made the jump to the Strikeforce organization, which was the biggest purveyor of women’s MMA at the time. McMann navigated the stormy seas of the sport’s independent circuit for much longer.

She appeared at small-time events with names like Universal Cage Combat and BlackEye Promotions before earning her UFC deal with a one-fight pit stop in the respected, all-women’s Invicta FC promotion in July, 2012.

Today, while Rousey lives in LA—and there is perhaps nothing that describes her more succinctly than "living in L.A."—McMann trains in the town of Gaffney, South Carolina, outside Greenville. Official population: 12,414.

She’s 33 years old, six years older than Rousey, and balances her MMA career with raising a four-year-old daughter with her longtime boyfriend, the wrestling coach at Gaffney’s small liberal arts college.

That life Rousey has planned for herself? The magazine covers, fashion shoots and movie roles? McMann desires no part of it.

“I absolutely do not want that whatsoever,” she says. “I’m a lot more private, a lot more low key. It’s not an accident that I haven’t gotten as much attention. I try to avoid it as much as I possibly can.”

She says she very much wants to win the UFC title. “I’m not going to lie to you,” she quips, “I do love to win." But she doesn’t crave the lifestyle that comes with it. Tee her up a softball question about how her life will change if she manages to become UFC champion, and she just laughs.

“I might be committed to a mental institution from the media attention,” she says. “That’s probably how it will change the most. The people who care about me and love me will still care about me and love me. People who don’t like me will still not like me. I’ll just have to do it more publicly.”

McMann holds a master’s degree in mental health counseling from Gardner-Webb University and talks about going to work with kids when her MMA career is over. She wants to have another baby and joked to Fox Sports last week that if life as a UFC titlist gets too hectic, she'll “just get pregnant.”

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Despite their parallel careers in judo and wrestling, and though women’s MMA circles are still comparatively small, she had never met Rousey before the UFC made the bout late last year. Naturally, the champion’s reputation preceded her, but thus far their interactions have been about as cordial as could be expected from two women about to fight each other inside a cage.

“I try to stay out of drama...,” McMann says. “It’s always the same thing with my opponents, they’re somebody else that’s trying to do the same thing that you’re trying to do. They’re not horrible people, they’re not Hitler. It’s not like you have to hate people (to fight them). Well, I don’t, at least.”

***

Even now, days away from appearing in a main event pay-per-view bout against MMA’s biggest crossover star, most of the things McMann says sound more like the words of a gritty amateur wrestler than a glitzy prizefighter.

When she discusses her chances in their upcoming fight, she sounds like a technician who is talking about her craft. Sure, she wants the title, but she says it's more about testing herself, implementing the techniques and strategies she’s drilled in training in a live-fire situation.

If she can do that, then victory and defeat will be secondary concerns.

At least that’s the story she’s sticking to for now.

“It’s about the journey for me...,” McMann says. “I’ve had matches where I went out and wrestled my absolute heart out, did the best that I possibly could do and didn’t get the win. That didn’t sting nearly as bad as the feeling of missing opportunities or having a really, really crappy performance. Those are the things that will haunt me more than my losses.”

***

Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

Ask Rousey if there’s anything she misses about those old judo days—the hard work crossed with the anonymity, the travel and the half-empty stadiums—and for five seconds all you'll get is a long pause. She starts a sentence and then stops. For perhaps the first time, there is real conflict in her voice.

“Well,” she says finally, “there’s a reason I quit.”

She lapses into what sounds like prepared material, making a joke out of it, saying sometimes she misses going out in public and looking like a slob. She can’t go to the coffee shop in her pajamas anymore, she says, can’t slip off to the store with her hair going a thousand different ways. These days, she has to make an effort.

“I can’t look like a crazy cat lady...” she cracks. “I think that’s good, that I’ve had to increase my overall personal hygiene. I can’t really complain about that.”

It’s funny, but the message is clear: She likes her life.

The 24-hour circus that surrounds her now is at least in part her own doing. White says after this fight she’ll break into the top 10 in career earnings among UFC fighters all time. When you think about how brief her stay with the company has been, that’s an incredible feat.

Charles Sykes/Associated Press

Her celebrity is still very much on the upswing. She’s MMA’s "It girl"—the sparkling, breakout star nobody saw coming.

At the moment, there’s no telling exactly how big she’s going to get.

And she’s not about to let McMann rob her of that.

***

According to Best Fight Odds, Rousey will be something approaching a 4-1 favorite when the two women take the cage on Saturday night.

That seems lopsided, but the whole idea of competitiveness has been a relative concept throughout her career. The fact is, she’s destroyed everyone she’s ever fought. McMann being merely a plus-385 underdog means oddsmakers see her as the most dangerous foe of Rousey’s short UFC campaign.

Rousey believes that, too. She points to McMann’s Olympic experience as evidence of her dangerous athleticism and the fact she won’t shrink from the moment, despite having just one previous UFC appearance under her belt.

“Her athletic background (shows) she’s definitely going to deal with being in a high-pressure situation better than I think almost any other girl in the division could,” Rousey says. “Except maybe Liz Carmouche, who was trained to be a Marine and be in combat. I think (McMann) will have a similar type of performance.”

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Carmouche was Rousey’s first UFC opponent, a 7-1 long shot who nearly shocked the world by climbing on her back and securing a choke in the first round.

So, the comparison is not one that Rousey makes lightly.

Still, there are concerns that, stylistically, this isn’t a great fight for McMann. Her silver-medal wrestling is obviously her best quality, but going to the ground with Rousey means diving headlong into the champion’s vaunted submission game. Nobody has yet managed to do that and emerge with two working arms.

On the other hand, if McMann uses her grappling defensively and attempts to test Rousey’s rudimentary but ever-evolving striking, she’ll have to do it without getting sucked into the champion’s arsenal of judo throws. History has shown that if Rousey is able to grab hold of an opponent on her own terms, it’s going to be a short night.

It could be a pick-your-poison situation for McMann, who is known more as a grinder than for crafting dynamic stoppages, even though she beat Sheila Gaff by first-round TKO in her UFC debut.

“She’s definitely a much more cautious and methodical fighter than anybody I’ve fought before,” Rousey says. “I expect her to approach this in that way. You can see from her past fights that she’s not really a finisher, and so I don’t know if she would suddenly approach this fight in that way. We expect everything, but we’re definitely more prepared for what she has a tendency to do.”

***

For her part, McMann isn’t buying any part of that scouting report.

“I plan on winning every position,” she says. “If you go in and you’re positionally strong and you go to not just counteract somebody else, but to set your own pace and set your own game plan, that’s how you beat people.”

Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

Her best strategy may well be to wear Rousey down in a long, physically taxing fight. Afterward, she'll take the title and go back to her normal life in South Carolina.

She doesn’t want to steal Rousey’s shine or refashion her fame in her own image. She just wants to win this athletic competition and then return to being a regular person—a mom and a hardworking fighter—with just a little more public recognition of how good she is at what she does.

It’s impossible to tell if that idea irks Rousey, who says it’s perfectly understandable that McMann would want to preserve as much of her privacy as possible.

Then again, Rousey says this as a person for whom privacy no longer really exists—a person who knows that her life will never be normal again.

What's more, she says it as a person who doesn't want to be ordinary.

Not again. Not if she can help it.

***

In an hour-long documentary produced by the UFC and Fox Sports prior to the Tate fight, Rousey said that as a child, she didn’t dream of growing up to be an accountant or a dentist. She wanted something more.

“I wanted to be something extraordinary,” she said in the show’s opening scene. “I wanted to be a superhero.”

Now a version of that dream has come true. She’s the best female fighter in the world and perhaps the most well-known fighter in the UFC, regardless of gender. When her career is over, if everything has gone according to plan, she'll go down as the biggest star that MMA has ever produced.

She’s not going back to where she came from. Not willingly, anyway.

She only wants to go forward, no matter the cost.

“I think you do have to sacrifice a certain amount in order to be a UFC champ,” Rousey says. “It’s not like being an Olympic champion, where you can go win and have everyone’s attention for a second, say what’s up to a Wheaties box and then return to being normal. It really does change your lifestyle, and maybe she doesn’t really want the lifestyle that comes along with being a UFC champion, but I do.”

 

Chad Dundas is a Mixed Martial Arts Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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