From NCAA Division I champions and All-Americas to Olympic medalists, there’s a good chance you can find an elite male wrestler in MMA without much effort. But venture into the more shallow pool of female mixed martial artists, and the search won’t render quite as many results.
However, there’s one lady poised to make waves in Strikeforce who can boast world-class wrestling skills and an Olympic medal to boot.
Her name is Sara McMann.
In 2004, McMann became the first American woman to claim a silver medal in freestyle wrestling at the Olympics. However, her life hasn’t been filled with victory. Loss has also played a big part in shaping McMann. Not defeat on the wrestling mat, but loss of a much more tragic variety.
McMann has been forced to deal with the loss of two men very close to her – her brother and her fiance. Her older brother, Jason, was the victim of homicide, while her fiance died in a car accident after being ejected from the couple’s Jeep. ESPN The Magazine’s Lindsay Berra chronicled McMann’s heartbreaking tale of loss, just as Sara was vying for a spot on the Olympic team, in the 2008 article The Rules Are There Are No Rules.
The tragic accident that claimed the life of her fiance took place on Interstate 76 in Colorado, leading McMann to have a hard time visiting the Colorado Springs-based Olympic Training Center, a mandatory requirement for US Olympic wrestling team members. Despite missing training sessions and butting heads with the team’s coaches, she continued on as a member of the team heading into the 2008 Olympic Trials, in which she finished second in her weight class.
Wrestling had taken its toll on Sara as she found herself dealing with the bureaucratic side of the sport.
“I didn’t want to wrestle anymore,” she admitted to MMA DieHards. “I didn’t have the same desire for it. I was dealing with a lot of different political issues that had nothing to do with the actual sport that was sucking the desire out of me. I decided I didn’t want to continue to stay in that kind of environment.”
As the 2008 Trials drew to a close, Sara was already planning the next phase of her life. Her plans centered not on her career, but on parenthood. McMann and her boyfriend, current Limestone College head wrestling coach Trent Goodale, planned to have a baby following the Trials, and after a few months McMann was pregnant. The pregnancy and subsequent birth of the couple’s daughter provided Sara with a break from competitive sports.
Once Sara was physically able to train again, it wasn’t long before her fondness for jiu-jistu drew her toward mixed martial arts. She describes jiu-jitsu as a second cousin to wrestling, and after training in the art for several months, she felt she only needed one more dimension, striking, to round out her game for entry into the world of MMA.
“Turns out, I totally fell in love with striking,” McMann said. “It’s very different from wrestling, but I just really fell in love with starting something, like a career, out from scratch again.”
The native of South Carolina trains at Revolution MMA in Boiling Springs and Linic MMA in Greenville, while also keeping her wrestling base strong by training alongside her boyfriend’s wrestling team at Limestone College, in Gaffney. She recently trained with Tara LaRosa and would like to seek out other experienced fighters from whom she can learn.
McMann’s training culminated in her entry into amateur MMA in 2010.
“I had probably like six or seven months of learning fighting before I went to my first competition,” said McMann. “Which, even that, might have been a little bit early for having that amount of training. But you learn so much when you get into the amateur fights. It’s worth months of training to have a fight. It reveals the areas that you need to work on.”
While most sites only list two amateur bouts for the Olympian, she has actually competed three times at that level. All three bouts ended with McMann’s hand raised.
“My first and my third fight were girls who were predominately strikers and didn’t have very much ground experience, so it was very different from wrestling,” McMann explained. Both of those opponents – Jasmine Reed and Danielle Carr – succumbed to McMann in the first round (Reed by way of TKO, Carr via submission). “I’m used to people being really versed at takedown offense and defense and working well from the ground. It was a lot different.”
McMann’s second amateur opponent, Rachel Dovidio, provided a tougher test for the Olympian.
“She was pretty well-rounded,” McMann said of Dovidio, who she defeated via unanimous decision. “She was a very tough, conditioned opponent. That was the closest to the wrestling caliber, where she was somebody who was strong and had a lot of willpower. She wasn’t easily pushed around and she was intelligent to work out of every area that I tried to either strike her or submit her. She was the best competition I’ve had.”
Opponents have been hard to come by, both at the amateur ranks and when Sara decided to turn pro.
“I think that while my record is either 3-0 or now professionally it’s 0-0, most of the girls feel that I bring a lot of experience, even if it was in just one of the aspects, a lot of sports experience, to the game,” said McMann. “I think that some of the people who are the equivalent record as me might think that we’re not a very good matchup. Like it’s not equivalent because I’ve had so much experience in another area.”
It looked like McMann would finally make her pro debut at a Carribean Gladiators event in Jamaica in November 2010, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Her fight was scheduled to take place at 145 pounds, but her opponent amazingly even gained three pounds when she was supposed to be cutting weight, and came in outrageously above the contracted weight, at 165 pounds. Desperate to compete, McMann opted to fight anyway, a position she never wants to be in again.
However, it seemed as if the MMA gods were trying to tell Sara to wait.
The cage for the event had been built from the ground up, and after the coaches got a look at the final product, none of them wanted to put their fighters at risk. The bottom of the cage did not connect properly and the coaches feared that their fighters might get scratched and find themselves in need of medical attention that could not be provided in that setting. The end result was the cancellation of the event.
Despite all of the mishaps with the event, McMann doesn’t hold any animosity towards the fight promoter.
“I feel bad for the promoter on that,” Sara said. “He worked really hard. He really got the crap end of the deal and lost money on that.”
Now, McMann has bigger and better opportunities awaiting her. The undefeated amateur will make her pro debut in the much higher profile setting of the Strikeforce cage. She recently inked a three-fight deal with the promotion and will compete at 135 pounds. She doesn’t know who her first opponent will be, but she’s not really concerned with knowing a name.
“Right now, I’m at a point in my training that I have to get better in all the areas,” McMann admitted. “So it wouldn’t even matter who I’m fighting, I’d still have to improve.”
Skimming the Strikeforce women’s roster, there are high level strikers and jiu-jitsu practitioners, and even a few ladies with high school wrestling in their backgrounds, but nobody else who can claim an Olympic medal to their names. That makes McMann unique.
In a sport where wrestling has become a key component, Sara McMann has the tools to be a pioneer among female mixed martial artists.