Following Ronda Rousey’s convincing win over Miesha Tate at UFC 168, the dust had barely settled on the Octagon’s canvas before officials declared a new women’s bantamweight title contender, Sara McMann.
The cliché of “striking while the iron is hot” holds true with this announcement. For Rousey, the women’s bantamweight division and the UFC, McMann is the logical choice for top contender at 135 pounds.
The UFC’s vision for its women’s bantamweight division and the ultimate significance of Rousey vs. McMann should become apparent through the examination of the various motivations behind this match-up and the decision to book it for February.
For Women in MMA
In the scope of the UFC’s long-term objective to establish women’s MMA, the women’s bantamweight division and its champion, Rousey’s bout with McMann is a valuable contribution.
A heated rivalry and reality television in The Ultimate Fighter 18 brought women’s MMA to the mainstream audience using Rousey’s and Tate’s raw animosity for each other as fuel. Capitalizing on the emotional investment fans made in that fight, Rousey vs. McMann now shifts focus to fighter credentials. Both athletes medaled in specific martial art disciplines at the Olympics, an event globally renowned as the purest form of sport. The champion’s bronze in judo and the contender’s silver in freestyle wrestling bring undeniable credibility to MMA and its women’s divisions.
Although “bronze vs. silver for the gold” is an attractive marketing concept for the event, the fight itself holds significance in a much wider historical and social context. Between main-event status and the accomplishments of both women, this fight looks to bury the stigma of gender inferiority that has plagued society for centuries and is still an attitude towards women’s MMA among some fans (and even some male fighters) today.
For Aspiring Athletes
Beyond gender dynamics, the Olympic narrative underlying this fight also sends a strong message to the MMA competitors of tomorrow.
Next generation talents with current aspirations to medal in the Olympics will hopefully see the fight as mild reassurance that mixed martial arts offers a professional venture to earn a living once amateur careers end and state funding dries up. An Olympic athlete’s transition into the mire of reality can prove difficult and is well-documented. With enough exposure, however, this fight offers some measure of reassurance—a light at the end of the tunnel.
For the Definition of Sport
As much as Rousey’s fight with Tate indulged the entertainment aspect of MMA, a meeting with McMann returns to the fundamental concept of sport, pitting the best against the best.
Rousey and McMann boast perfect records in their mixed martial arts careers. These feats are especially impressive considering their time in the elite organizations of MMA, including the UFC, Invicta FC and Strikeforce. Each lady has carved out her athletic reputation in dominant fashion. When two powerful forces collide with their records and a world championship at stake, we are treated to intense competition.
Sceptics questioning McMann as a No. 1 contender lose sight of the division’s relative infancy on the biggest stage of MMA. McMann’s wins over Sheila Gaff and Shayna Baszler—a first-round stoppage at UFC 159 and a decision triumph under Invicta’s banner—position the South Carolina resident as one of the elite in women’s MMA.
McMann’s approach to her training preparation reflects the high stakes of the fight. Contrary to the public access and wide speculation that fueled Rousey’s rematch with Tate, McMann has voiced her desire to maintain privacy in the run-up to UFC 170.
Alexis Davis, the other mixed martial artist who was in the debate for No. 1 contender status, has checks against her name. Despite a four-fight winning streak with two victories in the UFC, her two losses to Sarah Kaufman—a fighter Rousey overpowered, out-grappled and submitted in 54 seconds—raises questions of how competitive Davis would be against the champion. Davis’ five career defeats are also inevitably compared to McMann’s unblemished record as an indicator of in-ring ability and promotional potential.
For Truly Testing the Champ
As a life-long athlete as proficient in one discipline as Rousey is, McMann represents a fundamental test for the champion. Having matured in such a competitive environment, McMann is less likely to rush in with the reckless abandon of challengers before her.
Rousey has demonstrated a combination of in-fight intelligence and physical balance that overwhelmed Tate, Kaufman and Liz Carmouche. McMann arguably shares these same qualities. Like Rousey, she has dedicated herself to her craft from a young age on a rigorous regime. Work ethic and muscle memory from two decades in wrestling offer a sense of intrigue to the bout that Rousey has not experienced before in her eight-fight career.
For the UFC
We must remember that the UFC is a business in the sport of MMA. Its executives make virtually all their decisions in the interest of commercial value. Booking Rousey against McMann for UFC 170 in February is one of those decisions.
A strong fourth quarter for the UFC in 2013 has left the roster available for early 2014 events looking somewhat thin. A quick turnaround for Rousey not only capitalizes on the interest surrounding her beef with Tate, it compensates for the void of true stars left by Georges St-Pierre’s hiatus, Anderson Silva’s horrific leg break, Cain Velasquez’s recurrent shoulder issues and Jon Jones’ delay until his April fight. Although there are plenty of other champions active, few, if any, of them command the mainstream interest that Rousey does.
After a lengthy layoff filming The Ultimate Fighter and exploring participation in the movie industry, Rousey emerged from her second bout with Tate relatively unscathed. She, too, is eager to return to the Octagon, and it would be foolish to assume financial gain had nothing to do with her decision.
The collective effect of these values establishes McMann as the outstanding choice for next crack at Rousey’s title. Several different elements add intrigue to the bout, while the UFC has plenty of incentive to book the fight sooner than later. Another non-title fight for McMann offers more to lose than she and the UFC stand to gain. In this scenario, however, everybody stands to win. So, why wait?