Saturday night will see two Olympic-caliber combat athletes go toe-to-toe on the last night of the Sochi Games, when women's bantamweight champion and former judo medalist Ronda Rousey battles wrestling ace-turned-MMA star Sara McMann in Las Vegas.
There's plenty of intrigue in that main event, though McMann is a considerable underdog and most are assuming the champion will retain in a romp. That's been her custom so far in MMA, and it's easier to ride that wave than it is to defend the merit of McMann's challenge.
Except McMann is a challenge, and the merit of that warrants defending. She's a lifelong grinder with the size, strength and technical acumen to give Rousey utter fits when the cage door closes. If she can do that for 25 minutes, she'll leave town an improbable champion.
To see her path to that goal, one must first consider Rousey as an obstacle. The champion has, to this point, enjoyed success at 135 lbs for a couple of major reasons: She's a generally better, grossly more experienced athlete than her peers and she's a hulking bantamweight who has competed at far higher weights for much of her life.
Against McMann, both of those cornerstones become largely moot.
|Miesha Tate||UFC 168||Submission (armbar)||0:58, R3||Dec. 28, 2013|
|Liz Carmouche||UFC 157||Submission (armbar)||4:49, R1||Feb. 23, 2013|
|Sarah Kaufman||Strikeforce||Submission (armbar)||0:54, R1||Aug. 18, 2012|
The challenger has the same degree of experience and the same degree of athleticism, and she has the Olympic hardware to prove it. What Rousey accomplished in judo, McMann matched (or bettered, if one wants to split hairs) in wrestling.
She's also by far the most physically impressive combatant the UFC has in its women's bantamweight division, cut with musculature that most male bantamweights on the roster can't match. Only a life in wrestling would ever give her the tools to cut weight to 135 lbs; no other discipline would equip her to get close.
Assuming those points hold and the experience, athleticism and physicality are a wash, then it really comes down to technical ability.
Rousey is a flawless judoka, one who uses the clinch better than anyone in the sport. Her ability to load her hips from the ground up and get pop on her throws is unlike any fighter MMA has ever seen. When her fight is on the mat, it has an air of inevitability regarding her ability to finish. It's not if, but when.
For her part, McMann is surely her equal as a wrestler, though she may be a little behind Rousey's curve in terms of adapting it to MMA. She's a technical marvel with the type of shot that simply doesn't exist at this point in the development of women's MMA, and her considerable physical gifts allow her to put a little English on takedowns to finish them when her technique isn't perfect.
|Sheila Gaff||UFC 159||TKO||4:06, R1||April. 27, 2013|
|Shayna Baszler||Invicta FC 2||Decision||5:00, R3||July 28, 2012|
|Hitomi Akano||ProElite 3||Decision||5:00, R3||Jan. 21, 2012|
That will be the key for McMann if she's to upset Rousey: put the champion on her back and keep her there. Rough her up with elbows from guard and pass as soon as the opportunity presents itself.
Do not under any circumstances throw punches from inside of guard, because that's a road that will lead to being caught in an armbar. Period.
A high pace and relentless offensive thrust is the key to victory, something that's been proven to a degree in Rousey's prior UFC appearances. Liz Carmouche gave her a hard time by being aggressive, and Miesha Tate took it several steps further with a willingness to absorb a beating to dish one out.
McMann should be thinking of Chael Sonnen in his first crack at Anderson Silva, specifically focusing on how she can round out five rounds instead of succumbing to an improbable submission at the last minute.
These are the two best pure athletes in the promotion at their weight, and that makes this a close fight.
The UFC may not want it to be because Rousey is the hot new star, and it can make money on her name.
Fans may not want it to be because Rousey is a hero to some and a villain to others, while McMann is just a pleasant mom from Maryland, and it's not as much fun to be heated about her.
Rousey may not want it to be because she's building a brand and a reputation, and having a wrestler smash your face for five rounds is a hard way to keep Hollywood interested.
But that doesn't change anything: The main event of UFC 170 is going to be hotly contested, and McMann can win it. The blueprint is there, but Rousey will surely have something to say about how well she follows it.
Follow me on Twitter: @matthewjryder!