In 2004, a judoka named Ronda Rousey, aged 17, qualified for the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, becoming the youngest competitor in the tournament (she did not medal at this Olympiad; that triumph, for her, wouldn’t occur for another four years, when she took bronze in Beijing). At the same time, Sara McMann was wrestling her way towards a silver medal, the first American woman in history to attain this prestigious feat. Nearly a decade later, these two paradigm-setting athletes would meet again, though under different circumstances, with a different prize in mind.
It was February 22, 2014. Las Vegas, Nevada. UFC 170. The winter games in Sochi were drawing to a close, and the fights leading to the main event had been even and well fought, featuring victorious performances by welterweights Stephen Thompson (who won his bout against Robert Whittaker via slide-and-counter TKO in the first round), Rory MacDonald (who emerged at the end of a three-round, back and forth affair against Demian Maia with his hands raised), and Mike Pyle (who cinched a finish against T.J. Waldburger in the third), and the co-main event saw Daniel Cormier, in his light-heavyweight debut—a two-time Olympian—dismantle UFC newcomer Patrick Cummins in one minute and 19 seconds of the first round.
Cormier and Cummins cleared the stage. The lights dimmed; UFC bantamweight Sara McMann made her entrance, and the main event was primed to begin.
McMann strode from her tunnel, into the raucous noise of the Mandalay Bay Events Center, face expressionless and flat and walking fast. Brown hair braided across her skull, her bright brown eyes saw only the cage before her—not the cheering stands towering either side, not the dancing lights above. Her thick, v-shaped torso was stiff and unyielding in appearance as a Spartan shield and she stripped her outer layer of clothes, flashed her mouth-guard and moved quickly into the cage, where she began to pace. Perhaps the physically strongest of the champion’s opponents to date, her heavy muscles flexed as she moved back and forth and veins stood atop her arms like thinly-covered fingers. She looked imposing—thick of neck and with a face seemingly chiseled from marble—and she awaited the entrance of her foe.
Ronda Rousey, the UFC women’s bantamweight champion, also walked fast: appearing at the head of the concrete aisle with a smooth scowl upon her tan, wrinkleless face, green eyes glittering with intensity, and moving forwards—her footfalls imbued with purpose and anger. She wore only black and her menace spread before her like a shadow as she too shod her outer garments and stepped—slowly and purposefully—into the cage.
Both women, at the onset of the fight, boasted undefeated records (7-0 for McMann; 8-0 for Rousey). Both had a grappling-oriented skillset, forged in the crucible of Olympic competition. For each, this was the moment of her mixed martial arts career: one seeking to preserve a perfect legacy, the other to usurp an untested champion.
Referee Herb Dean called them together and explained the rules. McMann, stationary, did not make eye contact; Rousey bobbed on her toes with fiendish zeal.
They retreated to their corners.
The horn bayed.
They engaged immediately, throwing crosses and hooks with rhythmic violence. The space between them closed. They clinched; Rousey pressed McMann against the diamond-latticed wall, the rungs bulged. They separated. Rousey bridged the gap once more, this time with a knee to the gut. McMann winced, seized her opponent, countered. An elbow landed for Rousey, a glancing uppercut for McMann. They clinched: two puzzle pieces unwilling to fit. And then Rousey landed another knee that compressed McMann’s solar plexus and the challenger went down. Rousey swarmed—hammer-fists and hooks—and, as McMann was recovering her breath, rising to her feet, Herb Dean dove between them and declared the fight over.
Ronda Rousey retained the belt, advancing her record to 9-0, at 1:06 of the first round, her second title defense in eight weeks, and the first of her fights to not end via arm-bar submission.
It was, in this writer’s eyes, a questionable stoppage. It is true that McMann, for an instant, appeared hurt. She turtled, as is natural with a well-placed body shot. But she was also in the process of standing, and her hands yet protected her face, and the attacks Rousey unleashed—while landing—were not of the typical, fight-ending sort: more of an inaccurate flurry, brought on by a surge of adrenaline. It was also curious because, in the aforementioned Pyle/Waldburger contest, Herb Dean had allowed the punishment to continue considerably longer, despite the fact that Waldburger, bloody and tired, had visibly given up.
Regardless, Rousey still scored the telling blow. McMann still went down, and she was, however briefly, in trouble. There is no eight-count in MMA, and Herb Dean protected an injured charge.
Said McMann in the aftermath: “I thought it was a good fight. I got hit…. I would like to get a rematch; it was my own fault.”
UFC President Dana White grinned, the Vegas winds undulating in low wolf howls throughout the arena, and wrapped the golden championship belt round Rousey’s waist. The lights overhead shimmered atop its gleaming facets like a dream, and Rousey smiled—her entire face breaking like an egg into fight-swollen happiness—and her fists thrust into the air.