Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 | 4 p.m.
Sara McMann started making the long trek from central Pennsylvania to Stillwater, Okla., more than a decade ago.
One of the top female wrestlers in the world, McMann traveled the 1,200 miles periodically to train with the powerhouse Oklahoma State men’s team. The most notable Cowboy wrestler around back then was the 2001 NCAA runner-up, a young Daniel Cormier.
“She used to stay with me and my family,” Cormier reminisced Thursday. “I’ve known Sara for a while.”
The post-college paths of McMann and Cormier took off on a parallel. They excelled in amateur wrestling at the highest levels before reaching the pinnacle in August 2004 at the Olympics in Athens.
McMann won a silver medal. Cormier fell just short of placing at fourth.
They both eventually transitioned to fighting where the apex of their still-nascent professional careers takes place in the headlining affairs at UFC 170 Feb. 22 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
Cormier (13-0 MMA, 2-0 UFC) makes his light-heavyweight debut against former champion Rashad Evans (24-3-1 MMA, 14-3-1 UFC) in the co-main event. He’ll set the stage for McMann (7-0 MMA, 1-0 UFC), who challenges fellow former Olympian Ronda Rousey (8-0 MMA, 2-0 UFC) for the women’s bantamweight title.
“When Ronda grabs Sara, she’s going to feel something she hasn’t felt in the Olympic Games,” Cormier predicted. “She’s going to feel somebody who has the same lifetime-athlete advantage she has.”
It’s setting up as the night where the five interlaced Olympic rings adjoin with the eight sides of the UFC cage. The 2014 winter games will be wrapping up in Sochi, Russia, at the same time of the event.
Rousey has long held the torch for Olympians in mixed martial arts after she found the sport following a bronze-medal performance in judo at the 2008 games in Bejing. Few realize the polarizing champion was technically an American teammate of McMann during her first Olympic run four years earlier.
Rousey and McMann become the first two Olympic medalists to ever fight in the UFC, both undefeated nonetheless to make their clash one of the biggest of the year.
“It’s an awesome thing,” McMann said. “It’s awesome to say we’re the first ones to do something, but I think I should probably take more pride in getting the medal than representing it after.”
McMann never crossed paths with Rousey during their time at the Olympic Training Center — they met for the first time during a media tour earlier this week — but became close with several other judokas. McMann remembers watching judo highlight videos, marveling at the techniques and finding ways to implement them into her wrestling.
The challenger believes it will give her a leg-up as opposed to Rousey’s past opponents, all of whom have gotten submitted by an arm bar.
“I think every other girl in the division would have a very hard and long road to learn to stop a high-level throw,” McMann said. “I don’t have that same problem.”
McMann is adamant that their bout shouldn’t receive billing as wrestling vs. judo. She’s not looking at UFC 170 that way, but is aware plenty others won’t be able to help it.
“I know judo is very respectful and loyal, same thing with wrestlers,” McMann said. “I know every wrestler that’s watching is going to be like, ‘Kill her, Sara!’ because they’re my family.”
Cormier nodded his head in agreement. He subconsciously roots for wrestlers in every fight, but that’s not what has interest at a high for Rousey vs. McMann.
Cormier hopes to rush though his post-fight procedures to catch UFC 170’s main event because he knows the fighters’ Olympic backgrounds. And he knows they mean something.
“I know we have two girls who are highest-level athletes competing,” Cormier said.