Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling, Sara McMann, challenges fellow Olympian and current Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) bantamweight queen, Ronda Rousey, this Saturday night (Feb. 22, 2014) at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
As an Olympian, expectations have been high for McMann, largely due to Rousey's overwhelming success.
After quickly acquiring a 5-0 record to begin her mixed martial arts (MMA) career, McMann was recruited to Invicta. In her sole bout with the promotion, she won a hard-fought decision victory over Shayna Baszler, as she used her improved striking and a couple of well-timed takedowns to fluster the submission specialist.
Sensing a future title match up, UFC quickly snagged McMann away from Invicta and threw her in with another newcomer, Sheila Gaff. McMann out-muscled the German and earned her first technical knockout (TKO) victory, looking very much the part of an elite fighter. Now, McMann has been fast-tracked into a title match up, but is she ready?
Let's find out.
Less than three full years into her professional career, McMann's striking is still a little rough. However, she's quick, aggressive, and improving. Plus, it's been about a year and half since her bout with Baszler, her last fight that had any continued striking exchanges.
McMann primarily relies on bursts of aggression, often focusing on landing a single right hand. McMann throws a tight overhand but comes up short fairly often. She'll also attempt a lead uppercut, but again, she usually misses the punch, which is already a risky strike to attempt.
The Olympian does much better when she extends her combinations. She generally throws right-left-right with little variation, but she mixes shots to the body well enough to disguise her next blow. McMann tries to set up these flurries by constantly bouncing around her opponent while feinting level changes.
It would greatly benefit McMann to add more feints into her game other than level changes. She works those well, but it begins to become predictable. If she incorporated more right-hand feints, she could follow it up with a strong left hook or even a power double. More varied striking could really open up her opponent to takedowns, which in turn helps out her striking game.
For such an inexperienced striker, McMann's comfort in close range is admirable. After her flurry, it's not uncommon for her to stay in range and unleash a series of body strikes. If she doesn't look to clinch after these punches, she does a decent job of slipping as she moves away.
Defensively, McMann's inexperience shows. She seems very tense at the end of her opponent's range, reacting to every feint. Also, she really needs to learn how to set up her low kicks better. As she bounces around her foe, she'll run forward without any feint or strike and throw a leg kick. This is a great way to get countered, and her leg kicks aren't powerful enough to be worth the risk anyway.
Anyone who makes it to the Olympics is an incredible wrestler, but the medalists are on a different level. McMann's freestyle background guarantees that she has a strong grasp on shooting for takedowns, and likely means that she has some techniques up her sleeve that she has yet to reveal.
For a freestyle wrestler, McMann has powerful clinch takedowns, thanks in part to her physical prowess. She doesn't really utilize trips, instead using a body lock to throw her opponent to the ground. One problem with McMann's clinch wrestling is that she gets impatient to close the distance, often allowing her opponent underhooks in her hurry to grab a clinch. She has been able to ignore this fault and power through her opponent's defense, but against Rousey, that type of mistake will get her tossed through the air.
McMann often uses the blast double, which she used to win her semifinals match in the Olympics. Inside the cage, she has been able to capitalize on her opponent's forward momentum to make the shot much easier. Once McMann gets in deep on her opponent's hips, she's almost certain to power through.
The shot McMann most relies on his her single leg. To finish, she runs the pipe, forcing her opponent to her back. Or, she'll begin running the pipe and escape out the back door, taking the back of her stumbling foe. Additionally, McMann can transition between her single and double as need, making her shot even more difficult to stop.
McMann does a pretty good job setting up her shots. For the most part, her constant level changes and burst-style of striking disguise her takedown attempts. Even if her opponent is able to predict the shot, these factors give McMann a split-second advantage, which is all a wrestler of her caliber needs.
From the top, McMann is not a particularly vicious ground striker, but she smothers and wears down her foe with small punches. Her bout with Gaff showed some improvement to her ground and pound, as she was able to secure a dominant position and finish "The German Tank" from there. Once McMann settled into the crucifix, Gaff could do nothing to shake her.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
For the most part, McMann relies on her wrestling more than her jiu-jitsu. However, if her opponent leaves a submission easily available, McMann will snatch it, resulting in two submission victories.
Despite her finish from the crucifix, McMann showed in her last fight that she needs to work on her guard passing. After breaking out of Gaff's closed guard, she immediately dove back in. Throughout her career, McMann will get to either full guard or half guard and be content to stay there, working elbows and small punches. She proved earlier in her career that she has the hip pressure to pass, but she seems more comfortable in the guard. This is a mistake, especially since she was able to finish Gaff so quickly once she gained a dominant position.
Against Baszler, McMann proved that her defensive jiu-jitsu was good enough to grapple with a skilled catch wrestler. At one point in the second round, Baszler used a leg lock attempt to sweep McMann. From the top, "The Queen of Spades" hunted for twisting foot locks. McMann resisted, so she switched to a kneebar and then heel hook. McMann defended each move well, twisting, spinning, and rolling the correct way to escape these dangerous positions.
Best chance for success
Unless she has put in some serious work on her grappling in the last year, McMann cannot afford to roll with Rousey, who proved her dangerous bottom game in her last fight with Tate. Instead, she needs to use her wrestling in reverse and box with the champion.
In her last bout, Rousey showed that she is vulnerable when being pressured by looping strikes. McMann has the boxing style to capitalize on this flaw, so she needs to rely on her aggression and right hand. It would also be smart for her to repeatedly work the body, as that would make things easier in the later rounds. However, she needs to be wary of hanging out in clinch range after her punches. That's Rousey's wheelhouse, so she needs to get out of there.
McMann's incessant circling may help her here as well. It's more difficult to close the distance on an opponent that is moving, something Rousey is certain to try. If McMann's movement frustrates Rousey, she may get impatient and look to exchange with McMann instead. While the striking could go either way, McMann's chances in that area are better than they are in a grappling match.
Will McMann be the one to overthrow Rousey, or can Rousey bring another arm home for her mantle?