When Ronda Rousey and Sara McMann locked up at UFC 170, it was a night of fists and firsts.
Two Olympians coming together from different sports could really only happen in MMA, and that’s a glorious thing. When you add to that the fact that they were both undefeated, it was without a doubt a very big night not only for WMMA but Olympians of the combative sports.
Before MMA began to take off, athletes who were drawn to sports such as judo or wrestling could not see anything beyond an Olympic birth. It seemed to be their highest aspiration, and there would be no competitive life beyond the world’s stage, save as a coach perhaps.
Kevin Jackson, a gold-medal winner in wrestling, is a perfect example of this. He entered the UFC under the wing of Mark Coleman, who won the middleweight tournament at UFC 14 and then was quickly defeated by Frank Shamrock in a stunning upset.
One more defeat, via armbar, at the hands of Jerry Bohlander set Jackson out of MMA and back to the wrestling mats, where he went on to great success as a coach of note.
But had the sport been as big back then as it is now, Jackson may have given it another run.
Before Zuffa bought the UFC and began to grow it with any significance, MMA simply wasn’t a viable option for Olympic-caliber athletes. In the early days, many Olympians who entered the sport seemed to do so upon the assumption they would dominate with relative ease and in doing so establish a kind of secondary income.
When this failed to materialize, they would simply move on, putting it in their rearview mirror and going back to their roots, where there truth waited for them.
As the sport began to make a resurgence in the early 2000s, competitors like Matt Lindland tried to parlay their success from the Olympics to MMA. Lindland had a modestly successful MMA career, but he failed in his bid for UFC gold, losing to Murilo Bustamante via submission.
Hidehiko Yoshida, a gold-medal Judoka for Japan, fought with his fair share of success as well, entertaining his countrymen in Japan. Then, Pride FC pitted him against another gold-medal winner in Rulon Gardner—Olympic judo versus Olympic wrestling.
Gardner won the fight in uninspired fashion, then disappeared from the scene as quickly as he arrived. It was a big night for Olympics on paper, but it was nothing compared to UFC 170, which put the Olympians on the biggest stage ever.
And then, just as a true contest was beginning, the bout was stopped thanks to a hard knee to the body of McMann. Up until that moment, it was a high-pace fight that saw both ladies fighting aggressively and with passion.
Whenever there is a quick stoppage in a spirited contest, questions remain; it is simply unavoidable. The blow that ended the bout was significant, but a clear argument can be made that the bout was ended too early.
But for as long as it lasted, it did showcase the talents of Olympians in MMA. In fact, that was nearly unavoidable given the historic nature of the bout.
Obviously, it would have done more for legitimizing the cause of combative sports in the Olympics had the fight lasted longer and seen both women employ their incredible grappling skills. Given that wrestling was removed from the Olympic program for a short period of time, UFC 170 gave both Olympic-caliber judo and wrestling some much-needed exposure.
To that end, both sports were served, no matter how short the fight was or where it was resolved.
It will also probably garner a rematch that is apt to attract just as many viewers and will likely be much more dramatic the second time around. Competitors like McMann are loath to be remembered in such a fashion, and it will drive her that much more in the sequel.
There are still questions to be answered as to who is the better grappler, and that question is still compelling. The buildup to UFC 170 was firmly grounded in the notion that Olympians are the cream of the crop, and Saturday night’s results have not changed that.
Rousey is still the champion, representing Olympic-level judo with a passion and polish that speaks to the worth of her bronze medal without question.
McMann is still the closest threat to Rousey’s title in the UFC, her worth as a silver medalist undiminished.
And when the rematch occurs, the events of UFC 170 will serve as the ultimate preamble—proof positive that Olympians from the combative sports have more options after the Olympics, the drama of competition still theirs to enjoy.
And to that end, the sport of MMA may just find future footing on the Olympic stage. If that becomes the case, then it may be due to the first fight between female Olympians at UFC 170.