In November 1993, an undersized Gracie mowed through a field of competitors at UFC 1 behind Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills his opponents simply did not understand.
Rousey (8-0) has accomplished a similar feat in female mixed martial arts through 2013, finishing all eight of her professional fights in the same fashion -- arm bar. It’s not the exact same thing Gracie did 20 years ago, but there is a common theme.
As a U.S. bronze medalist in judo in the 2008 Olympics, Rousey has an ultraspecific, unique skill. Her opponents are forced to catch up, cramming judo sessions and defense of the arm bar into their preparations, and it’s an extremely wide gap to make up.
It is for this reason that Rousey’s next fight against the virtually unknown Sara McMann at UFC 170 on Feb. 22 deserves your attention. That wide gap, finally, won’t exist.
“I think that every other girl in the division has a very hard and long road to learning how to stop a high-level throw,” McMann said. “I don’t have that same problem.”
McMann (10-0) is free to roam the United States with her 4-year-old daughter and go unrecognized. She has fewer than 16,000 Twitter followers and has never been hailed as the face of women’s MMA.
What she has done is take a silver medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics as a member of the U.S. wrestling team. She has spent her life on a wrestling mat and was introduced to judo in the late 1990s, well before she ever heard the name Rousey.
“My best friend in college my freshman year, when I was 17, had done judo before she started wrestling,” McMann said. “She used to put on a highlight tape, and we would sit and watch it and say, ‘Wow, that is so beautiful.’
“She would show me different things and apply her judo to wrestling. I would see other judo girls do it too. I knew about judo long before this.”
That background contrasts sharply with other Rousey opponents. Sarah Kaufman began her career in her late teens in kickboxing classes. Liz Carmouche played noncombat sports in high school before starting to train MMA in the Marine Corps.
Miesha Tate, considered a strong grappler in her own right, fought Rousey in March 2012 and last month at UFC 168. She began wrestling in high school. She was taken down six times by Rousey in the rematch and submitted in the third round.
McMann, who watched that fight with the knowledge she would face the winner, said she saw nothing significantly wrong with Tate’s technique. It was even worse -- she was using the wrong technique to begin with.
“I don’t think there was anything technically wrong with the double leg she was hitting. It was more the technique she selected,” McMann said. “When you feel a person who can throw you, it’s a lot smarter not to load yourself on them.
“Single and double legs, they absolutely load you onto their hips. Some of the times when [Tate and Rousey] locked up, I was closing my eyes. But it takes years of experience [to know that], going against people who are trying to throw you.”
Many will write off McMann’s chances in the fight based on name recognition alone. Others might say the title opportunity has come too quick and she’s simply not ready for it. Oddsmakers have opened Rousey as a more than 4-to-1 betting favorite.
Without question, there are reasons to predict a third title defense for Rousey, but the suggestion McMann isn’t ready is a loaded one.
On one hand, more time to develop is never a bad thing. On the other, you might argue that her competitive background actually makes her the only woman in the world ready for Rousey.
“When Ronda grabs Sara, she’s going to feel something she hasn’t felt since the Olympic Games,” said Daniel Cormier, UFC light heavyweight and former U.S. Olympic wrestler. “She’s going to feel somebody who is a lifetime athlete, as she is.
“Ronda’s biggest advantage is that she’s a lifetime athlete. I’m not saying all these girls aren’t athletes, but Ronda hit the nail on the head when she told Miesha, ‘You wrestled for your high school team, and I went to the Olympic Games.' Well, Sara went [to the Olympics], and she placed too.”