UFC 215 features a pivotal fight for the bantamweight division and possibly the newly reestablished women’s featherweight division. World-class wrestler and Olympic silver medalist Sara McMann steps into the cage to face undefeated Brazilian Ketlen Vieira.
The fight is important not so much because of Vieira, who doesn’t have a lot of cache in the biggest platform in MMA, nor does she have a history filled with top-end opposition. As far as the Brazilian is concerned, this is a fight that allows her an opportunity to jump the line and place her hat in the ring as a legitimate title contender in the bantamweight division.
For McMann, meanwhile, this could be the last step to becoming the next title contender at bantamweight or a potential title challenger against women’s pound-for-pound great and UFC women’s featherweight champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino.
On the feet, McMann is basic. She’s much more of an attribute-based, one-dimensional striker rather than a measured, diverse and crafty one. Her most dangerous and consistent weapon is her right hand. This in and of itself isn’t a problem, but her inability to effectively gauge range and land the right hand, as well as her unwillingness to develop a jab or the footwork necessary to set up her shots, is. This forces McMann to lean exclusively on her athleticism to close distance to make up for her underdeveloped footwork and poor sense of spatial awareness.
McMann has shown a “good” 1-2, but little more than that in regards to her offensive capabilities. On the defensive side, the same technical limitations and habitual dependency on athleticism have turned into liabilities. She lacks the defensive footwork, awareness, techniques and poise to do anything of note when coming forward and becomes even more of a target when forced to move back. McMann’s success on the feet is built around her explosive (but poorly executed) forward pressure and the threat of her wrestling, which she almost exclusively uses to punch her way into clinches.
When McMann can get her hands on an opponent, she shines. McMann’s immense physical strength and ability to control an opponent on the fence allows her to strike freely, especially with knees, and ultimately transition to a series of trip, sweep and body-lock takedowns. This is in many ways very similar to what her fellow Olympian Ronda Rousey had mastered during her once-in-a-lifetime initial run at bantamweight. Unlike Rousey, though, McMann has the ability to get takedowns in the middle of the cage via her dynamically superb doubles and the series of chains that accompany it in the few instances where she has failed initially. Defensively, McMann is Supergirl, bulletproof in regards to her takedown defense, and She-Hulk levels of devastating in her ability to counter. McMann hasn’t shown finishing ability on the ground, but she has provided glimpses of a punishing ground-and-pound attack when committed to doing damage and not just maintaining control.
McMann as an athlete is unmatched by the majority of female fighters. She possesses an inordinate amount of athletic talent. She is explosive, fast, incredibly strong, physically durable, and gifted with a natural sense of balance and body control. These are all tools necessary to not just win, but to destroy. She has the work ethic and desire, but the thing that has hindered her in her journey as a mixed martial artist is her level of skill, which has never quite approached her level of talent. This is why her wins weren’t as celebrated or impressive as Rousey’s victories. It’s also why McMann’s losses came faster and in larger numbers.
Overall, McMann’s career in MMA has been a bit of a mixed bag, much like the career of fellow world-class athlete and Olympic medalist Henry “The Messenger” Cejudo. McMann was 8-0 to start. She had competed in five different organizations, including the UFC, but she hadn’t shown a wide array of skills or faced a particularly high level of opposition. McMann had managed to beat a list of experienced, accomplished and well-known fighters on her way to this stage of her career, including Hitomi Akano, MMA pioneer Shayna Baszler and future Invicta bantamweight champion Tonya Evinger. The world-class athleticism and high-level wrestling that formed McMann’s pedigree was on full display as she decisively beat these women before coming into the UFC and defeating Sheila Gaff by referee stoppage in the first round.
The win over Gaff would be the last time McMann left the Octagon as an undefeated fighter. The organization and her team pushed her into a title fight with the aforementioned Rousey. Rousey had cut a swath of destruction through the bantamweight division in two organizations and was looking for a big fight, but also, more importantly, a competitive fight. McMann was tapped as Rousey’s opponent, and the fight was to take place on Feb. 22, 2014 as the main event of UFC 170.
That Saturday night at UFC 170, the hype train came to a screeching halt. Rousey impressively finished McMann in one round with strikes. The Olympic silver medalist was unable to hurt Rousey, stop her forward pressure or keep herself from being bullied to the cage, controlled and ultimately broken down with strikes to the body. The much-vaunted athleticism, the explosiveness and the physical strength were neutralized. The world-class wrestling was nowhere to be seen. The limitation in McMann’s striking offense, footwork and defense were exposed to the world.
The much-hyped fight between the two former Olympians ended as quickly and decisively as so many of Rousey’s previous victories. Rousey ascended in the world of MMA and in the popular consciousness, continuing to batter, beat up and defeat every name fighter in her path for quite some time. McMann, who was expected to bounce back quickly, only managed to win one out of her next three outings.
McMann’s one win out of those next three fights turned out to be a fairly competitive fight against former Invicta bantamweight champ Lauren Murphy. However, McMann’s inactivity on the ground and her limited options on the feet were again exposed. She followed up the win by suffering a one-sided drubbing at the hands of Miesha Tate. After a slow start, the former Strikeforce champ Tate turned the fight around and proceeded to outwork McMann and beat her within an inch of her life.
McMann’s fall was punctuated by a first-round stoppage loss to eventual UFC bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes. It was at this point the bloom was completely off the rose and we were left to wonder if McMann could regain the momentum she had upon entering the UFC or if she was just another high-level wrestler who couldn’t make the transition to MMA at the sport’s highest level.
After an extended break from competition, McMann came back refocused, rededicated and taking the proper steps to propel herself forward as a fighter. She made it a point to train at different camps and expand on both her stand-up and grappling skills, finding a happy medium where the setups and transitions were directed toward the sport of MMA.
The results were immediate and impressive. McMann went undefeated in her next three fights. The highlight came in an impressive submission victory over former title challenger and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Alexis Davis. In these fights, McMann no longer relied on her wrestling as a way to control the contest or to avoid having to fight. Instead, she used them as a foundation to outwork, out-position and finish her opponents. This was something that was sorely missing in earlier fights. More importantly, McMann developed a more balanced and deliberate approach, one that allowed her some creativity in how she attacked a problem and some flexibility in what she could or would do when put into a precarious position.
McMann has a record of 11-3. She has only lost in the UFC and only to the very best the division has to offer — Rousey, Tate and Nunes. These opponents stand as the first, third and fourth champion in the UFC division’s history. Two of these women are multi-organization champions, and two are the only fighters to successfully defend the belt.
McMann is known among the fans, too. She has been active since 2011 and has been in the UFC for almost four years, which means media attention and approval from fans.
Then, there’s her current winning streak. If McMann is successful at UFC 215 on Sept. 9, the streak will extend to four victories, which would give her the most consecutive wins in the division outside of the current champion. In each victory, McMann has looked decidedly better and has won in a much more decisive and efficient manner. No other fighter has been as active or as impressive recently.
As dominant as McMann has been in her recent run, the circumstances of each win limits how much credit can be given to her.
In the case of her decisive but tepid win over Jessica Eye, McMann beat a fighter who had essentially lost to everyone in the UFC not named Leslie Smith. As talented as Eye is and as accomplished as she was outside the UFC, she has never found her footing in the Octagon and more often than not found ways to lose instead of win.
McMann’s victory over the aforementioned Davis by submission is impressive. Davis is a BJJ black belt and was coming off a submission win over Sarah Kaufman. However, Davis was being soundly outstruck and outworked by Kaufman before the most obvious case of poor fight IQ allowed her to win the contest. Furthermore, Davis was able to badly hurt and almost finish McMann from an inferior position in a similar but much more effective manner than Lauren Murphy did almost two years prior.
This is concerning. It clearly shows that McMann has developed a sense of poise, strategic awareness and flexibility in her fight game, but it also highlights the familiar presence of the same limitations that derailed her undefeated streak and put her in a position to have to fight for redemption. The fact that two years later she found herself in a worse spot, versus a very similar opponent, hints that she still hasn’t fully transitioned to MMA or, worse yet, she has and just isn’t very good in key spots.
McMann’s final win was over Gina Mazany, an unheralded, short-notice fighter who had neither the savviness nor the skill to compete with McMann.
None of these fighters had been particularly active prior to facing McMann. Most of them hadn’t faced or beaten anyone of note in a long time. None of them were comparable athletically or in regards to their wrestling, either. McMann got to fight the fight she wanted against all three of these foes. When she has been able to do this, she has always been effective. In the potential challenges she will face moving forward, that won’t be the case.
We have an idea of what McMann can do, what her skills are and where she fits in the pecking order of the bantamweight division. At UFC 215, she has a chance to exceed these perceptions and establish herself as a legitimate top-ranked fighter and potential title challenger. Vieira, an undefeated prospect, stands in her way. The Brazilian hopes to take the next and biggest step on her way to establishing her own place in division. This makes for a crossroads fight. One lady will take a step toward the title, while the other will be forced to the back of the line. Will it be the new kid on the block or the established veteran?