At UFC 159, former Olympian Sara McMann stepped inside the cage to face Sheila Gaff. But this wasn’t just a fight, it was an audition.

Not only did McMann have to contend with Gaff, but she was also making her case as a worthy challenger to women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. Granted, Rousey already has a title fight lined up with Cat Zingano, plus a potential fight with Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino looming in the distance, but McMann is certainly on the shortlist of contenders at the moment. But was McMann’s performance enough to sway public opinion in her favor to challenge the seemingly unbeatable Rousey?

In judging McMann based on her MMA career, the answer has to be no. There’s no doubt McMann is one of the best (perhaps even the best) grappler in women’s MMA. Her wrestling credentials could fill their own Wikipedia page and include an Olympic silver medal. Still, McMann hasn’t transformed her dominant grappling into dominant finishes in the cage.

McMann completely controlled her bout with Gaff at UFC 159, but it left a little to be desired. Given the lack of ground skills by Gaff, McMann should’ve steamrolled through her. Instead, McMann struggled to get her offense going after taking Gaff down in the early moments of the fight. The result was a stalemate and a stand up. McMann was able to plant Gaff on the canvas once more and secure the TKO victory, but it wasn’t a performance that would make Rousey concerned about stepping into the cage with McMann.

Looking back at McMann’s fight at Invicta FC 2, she defeated the very grappling savvy Shayna Baszler. In terms of competition, Baszler is the closest McMann has come thus far in her career to facing a championship-caliber opponent. Although the fight was scored as a unanimous decision victory for McMann, there were plenty in the MMA community who felt it was Baszler who should’ve had her hand raised.

Where McMann qualifies as a true title challenger is through her work outside the realm of MMA. As stated before, McMann sports a number of grappling credentials including the silver medal from the 2004 Olympic games. She is one of the most heralded grapplers not just in the women’s side of the sport, but in all of MMA. Fans would certainly believe McMann has the grappling skills to keep Rousey on the feet, but it remains to be seen how her freestyle background would fare against Rousey’s judo clinch work.

What I like most about McMann is her attitude. She’s not overly confident despite having every reason to be and seems fine with progressing up the rankings at a normal pace. She has the resume along with the record to go calling out Rousey, but up to this point she has maintained a level head. I spoke to her prior to the Baszler fight and was amazed at how “down to Earth” she was. After winning in the Octagon, it was clear that not much has changed.

As long as McMann can maintain a level head on her shoulders, her grappling skills will support her continued rise to the top. With the UFC fully behind the women’s bantamweight division, McMann will have ample opportunity to prove she’s ready to dethrone whoever is the champion. With some of the best wrestling and an improving overall game, it shouldn’t be long before McMann is referred to as the “title challenger.”

Photo: Sara McMann (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Kyle Symes
Staff Writer

Kyle is a recent graduate of Aurora University, where he obtained a Bachelor's in Communications. Kyle resides in Illinois, just outside of Chicago. He played baseball and football in both high school and college, but is now focusing on an amateur MMA career.