Evolution.

It’s key for every mixed martial artist. Some fighters may use the adversity of a loss to emphasize a weakness. Others might spend an entire fight camp focusing on just one aspect of their fight game.

But undefeated Olympic wrestling silver medalist Sara McMann would rather learn things on the fly. It’s a strategy that has propelled her to six straight wins, including a decision victory over veteran Shayna Baszler at Invicta FC 2 last year.

“As far as growing and learning, that was an unbelievable fight for me,” McMann told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview. “I forced myself to stay on the feet and only use my takedowns to secure rounds. It was a risky gamble, but the payoff was that I exposed a lot of the mistakes that I haven’t been making in practice.

McMann (R) delivers a right hand (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

“It’s a very wrestler mindset. Sometimes wrestlers will handicap themselves and take away their best stuff in order to force themselves to grow in other areas. People probably think I’m crazy. ‘Why as an Olympic wrestler would you stand and strike?’ The answer is that I want to be a great striker.

“In my other fights I didn’t have as much time on the feet, so I didn’t make as many errors. I needed those things to be exposed.”

McMann’s game plan resulted in a closely contested fight that saw her get rocked late in the third round by Baszler—marking the first time McMann had truly been in danger in her MMA career.

“Late in the round I just decided I was going to stand there and duke it out toe-to-toe. I don’t normally agree with that sort of tactic,” she said with a laugh. “[But] that’s what happens when both people stay in the pocket and throw.”

The back-and-forth battle with Baszler marked the third time in the 32-year-old’s young MMA career that a fight went the distance. However, unlike her previous performances, there was no guarantee that she’d have her hand raised.

“Whenever you go to decision you can think you won, but they can still take it from you,” declared McMann. “I just don’t trust MMA judges. I’ve watched a lot of fights where I thought one person won and then they read the other person’s name. That’s a very nerve-racking feeling.

“I thought that I had won the fight. I was aggressive, got takedowns, had cage control. I was confident that I competed to the best of my abilities and I would feel good about my performance, but I wasn’t confident about how it would look to the judges.”

McMann (Invicta FC)

Although McMann may not have faith in MMA judging, her Invicta victory earned her a Strikeforce contract and a scheduled fight with Liz Carmouche in November. Unfortunately, the promotion canceled the event, which left the bantamweight out of action for nine months. Yet the extended time between fights allowed her to travel and work on her fight game.

“Just being in the gym brings out the competitor in me,” said McMann of trips to Tristar MMA in Montreal and Marcelo Garcia’s in New York. “I get all the pros of a lot of competition without the damage from competing too frequently.”

The trips away from her usual training at Revolution MMA and Limestone Wrestling in South Carolina only furthered McMann’s development as a fighter. But she’s far from done evolving.

“I am extremely hard on myself,” she admitted. “I’m very progress oriented. I probably undermine my skills because I want to be excellent in every single area. I would rate myself lower than my trainers.

“It wasn’t until I was done competing in the Olympics that I said, ‘you know, I became a pretty good wrestler.’ Once in a blue moon I’ll acknowledge that my striking is really coming along or I’ve learned a lot of stuff in jiu-jitsu.”

No matter what McMann thinks of her own skill set, others think quite highly of it. Following the demise of Strikeforce and the creation of a women’s 135-pound division in the UFC, McMann finds herself making her Octagon debut at UFC 159 on April 27 in Newark, N.J., against Sheila Gaff.

“I didn’t think it would happen in my time,” revealed McMann of fighting in the UFC. “When a promoter is adamantly against it, it doesn’t give me much hope. I wasn’t holding my breath for that. I was just trying to be the best in the world.”

McMann will get the opportunity to prove she’s one of the elite female fighters when she takes on the hard-hitting German fighter, who possesses an eye-opening 10 first-round finishes in her 14-fight career.

“She kept the exact same pace in her fights that went longer than the first round,” explained McMann. “I’m not thinking that she’s going to waver and falter in the third round. I fully expect that if it goes 15 minutes that she’ll be going as hard as she can the entire time. I just have to make sure that I’m conditioned and focused for the full 15 minutes and not one second less.”

So what does McMann feel is Gaff’s biggest weapon going into the fight?

McMann (R) works for a takedown (Invicta FC)

“She likes to keep a really high pace. Even if the strikes aren’t hard, the frequency of them can stun a person or confuse them and get them disoriented. I think that’s a very strong and bold tactic for fighters to take,” said the fighter. “Personally I don’t like that style, but I can certainly understand why someone else would do that. It only takes a second to get someone out of focus and then you can do some damage.”

If McMann can again weather the storm against a dangerous foe like Gaff, she may find herself on the verge of a title shot. But with champion Ronda Rousey tied up with filming The Ultimate Fighter 18 opposite No. 1 contender Cat Zingano, don’t expect McMann to sit on the sidelines.

“I would prefer to get other fights, to be more active,” she stated. “If there’s anything about MMA that I wish, it’s that I could be fighting more frequently.”

After years on the wrestling mat, McMann’s desire for competition is understandable. And as she continues her march toward the pinnacle of the sport, she doesn’t care who stands in her way.

“Whoever is holding the title, my sights will be set on her. I want to be the best.”

Based on her drive and progress thus far, McMann likely isn’t too far away from reaching that goal.

Sara would like to thank Fear the Fighter, Revolution MMA, Limestone Wrestling, Trent Goodale, Cody Freeland and Jimmy Fowler. Follow her on Twitter: @Sara_McMann

Top Photo: Sara McMann (Invicta FC)

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