Sara McMann a fighter, pure and simple
No one can know another person's full truth.
This is one reason Sara McMann refuses most media requests. She does not believe that spending a few hours with her, or even a few days, means you're capable of understanding her. The way she sees it, very little of who she is, and what drives her, can be communicated in a headline or summarized on a page.
But hold that thought for a minute. First, here are some facts about McMann that we do know for sure. She is 33 years old. She lives with her husband, Trent Goodale, their 4-year-old daughter, Bella, two cats and a dog in a small white house on top of a hill in Gaffney, S.C. Trent is the wrestling coach at Division II Limestone College, located just a few blocks from their home. Life here is simple, and McMann likes it that way. No pretense, nobody pretending to be something he or she isn't.
Of course, the most relevant fact of all right now for fight fans is this: On Saturday, McMann will square off against Ronda Rousey, the reigning women's bantamweight champion, in a main-event title bout at UFC 170 in Las Vegas.
The two athletes have a few things in common. Rousey is listed at 5-foot-7, McMann at 5-6; both weigh 135 pounds and have a 66-inch reach; both are undefeated in MMA fights (Rousey is 8-0, McMann 7-0). Most notably, both own Olympic medals, with McMann taking silver in wrestling at the 2004 Athens Games and Rousey earning bronze in judo at the 2008 Beijing Games.
That's pretty much where the similarities end.
Rousey fully embraces her role as entertainer and occasional villain -- so much so that UFC president Dana White recently called her "the biggest star we've ever had."
McMann, on the other hand, takes a no-frills approach to her sport, finding purpose in the pursuit itself, in going toe-to-toe with the best.
"I don't fight for fame or money," she says. "I am knowingly wasting opportunities other fighters would love to have. But why should I want something just because other people want it? Should I want to drive a new Lexus just because other people do? I don't want a new Lexus. And anyway, whatever car I drive would just smell like workout gear anyway."
Unlike some other fighters, McMann seems to hold no grudge toward Rousey, the celebrity. But she answers honestly when asked about their differences.
"Ronda wants things that I don't want," she says. "I am thankful for what she has done for female fighters. Even if she was pursuing it for herself, she has helped us all achieve a bigger platform. I don't have a strong dislike for her; I just don't think we'd be friends. Let's just say that I wouldn't invite her to my Christmas party. None of my friends chase fame and money."
There is no animosity in her voice. McMann wants only to make it clear that she sees life through a different lens, and the things that matter to her won't change based on the outcome of Saturday's fight.
Part of the reason she doesn't like having her story told is because it's painful, and no one else's words can ever fully represent what she feels in her heart. She lost her brother and best friend, Jason, in 1999 after he was beaten and left to die in the woods, his body missing for more than two months. Tragedy struck again in 2004, when McMann's fiancé, Steven Blackford, was ejected from their car and died after she lost control of the vehicle while driving on Interstate 76 in Colorado.
Both men were wrestlers, and McMann has honored their memory by training and competing as hard as she can. It feels more real, more honest, than the clumsy sentiments that others attach to her personal history. Over the years, she has been called "an inspiration" -- the supposed silver lining of having lost so much -- and yet the very use of the word makes her bristle.
"Inspirational story?" she says. "It certainly doesn't feel that way from the inside. I wish my life was a little less inspirational."
At the moment, she is sitting on the leather couch in her living room, 12 days before her fight with Rousey. The family dog, Tula (a bulldog-pitbull mix), is curled in a ball to her right. Bella is setting up the board game Candy Land on the coffee table. The child wants to start playing now, except she hasn't eaten her eggs yet and that was the deal. Eat your eggs; then we'll play. Bella crosses her arms and locks eyes with her mother. The two stay like this for several long seconds. Bella looks away first, and Mom finally allows herself to crack a smile. "I'm sure when she grows up, I'll be glad for her stubborn streak," McMann says. "She's a worthy adversary."
McMann has sparked some headlines in recent weeks by saying she sees Rousey as "just another opponent" and their fight as "just another fight." She rolls her eyes at the manufactured controversy, viewing it as a byproduct of competing in the UFC, which pushes as many storylines as possible in hyping fights.
"Look," she says. "I take everyone seriously. Every woman I've ever fought, in my entire life, I've put my best foot forward."
She trains twice a day five days a week. Most days include a morning session focused on technique and an evening session with some sparring work in a controlled setting. Another regular fixture on the schedule is a group running workout that goes something like this: Jog two to three miles at a steady pace, sprint up the hill outside McMann's home 10 times, jogging down as rest, then finish with a "buddy carry" back up the hill. And, yes, that means she lugs a training partner piggyback style.
Thursday is reserved for low-impact training, such as yoga and time in the sauna. That leaves Sunday as McMann's only rest day. The way she says it, you can almost see the word written on a calendar in capital letters: REST.
She knows she won't be able to keep up this pace for too much longer. She walked away from wrestling in 2010, making the transition to MMA because her body couldn't recover and bounce back as quickly as it did when she was younger. Wrestling tournaments require a competitor to start and stop multiple times a day, whereas MMA allows McMann to marshal all her body's resources for one high-intensity clash.
"On the other hand," she says with a sly smile, "this is harder because my opponent's goal is not just to pin me but to physically hurt me."
Rousey has won every fight of her professional career with the same submission move: the dreaded armbar. But Rousey's trainer, Edmond Tarverdyan, predicted recently that Rousey would "out-wrestle" and then "knock out" McMann -- a bold statement given McMann's wrestling pedigree.
The challenger spends her mornings training at Limestone College and her evenings at Revolution Martial Arts, a small gym just off a rural highway in Inman, S.C. On the night of Feb. 10, McMann goes hard for nearly two hours, sweating alongside a dozen guys as the windows of the gym become fogged with condensation. Jimmy "The Prowler" Fowler, a 123-pound fighter, is her coach; the two have worked together for four years.
"Sara presents the biggest challenge Ronda has ever had," Fowler says after their practice session. "Sara can dictate where the fight goes. It's hard to armbar someone who is standing up."
That may be true, but McMann herself has little use for the usual prefight posturing. She is too focused on the pursuit, on moving in a straight line toward her ultimate goal, regardless of who or what is in the way. She appears motivated simply to train her body for victory, doing the bare minimum of media to promote her fights.
"You could take me to an empty gym in the middle of nowhere, with no one watching," McMann says. "And if you told me the woman across from me was the best in the world, and this was my chance to beat her, that's all I would care about."
Still, much of the world around McMann enjoys the spectacle that comes with a big match, and she is visibly disgusted by the certain segment of MMA fans who enjoy trashing fighters online. "I won't read stories or go to message boards," she says. "I look at it like, I wouldn't stay in a room where 75 percent of the people are saying obnoxious, ignorant comments, so why expose myself to those spaces online?"
Let everyone else talk themselves silly. Let Rousey's star power sell the fight. For McMann, bluster and bravado make lousy training partners.
"If Sara's personality were Ronda's, I wouldn't be working with Sara," Fowler says. "I tell guys all of the time, if you're fighting to be rich, you're going to go hungry. Sara pursues the accomplishment for the purity of seeing if her body can achieve it. The pursuit is noble."
And the messaging around this fight is clear.
In one corner is Rousey, the fighter who seems to have it all. In the other corner is McMann, the fighter who knows that no such thing exists.