The sudden shift from a roaring arena filled with fans to a nearly silent stage where every strike, reaction and call for adjustment is heard has been a troublesome change for some UFC athletes.
But for Sara McMann, she simply feels at home.
“It kind of reminds me more of my wrestling roots,” McMann said with a nostalgic smile. “I’m really excited about fighting in a really different venue and in a really different way.”
The ninth-ranked UFC women’s bantamweight has been competing for well over twenty years, with more than half of her competitive career spent in wrestling - a sport where half-filled arenas and lackluster crowd sizes were often the norm.
“I like a smaller environment,” she said. “Sometimes you can hear the fans, but only at a white noise level. I just shut it out. So really, I don’t have to go through that mental effort.”
In a lot of ways, this fight reminds the 2004 Olympic silver medalist of her time in wrestling. Her 16-hour flight to Abu Dhabi wasn’t much different than her three to four intercontinental flights annually to wrestle in places like Japan, Russia and across Europe. She’s accustomed to drastic time changes with little-to-no turnaround time.
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So while this unique UFC Fight Island experience with minimal fans may save McMann quite a bit of mental effort compared to the rest of her 17 professional fights, the UFC veteran said she feels polished and ready to go ahead of Saturday’s highly-anticipated card, thanks to her rolodex of traveling tips and, of course, a mid-flight workout.
“Everything is geared toward performance,” McMann said. “If I want to perform well, I have to do the things that get me to that spot. I’ve just learned that sitting for 16 hours on a plane just isn’t good for performance.”
UFC 257 Embedded: Episode 2
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UFC 257 Embedded: Episode 2
Ahead of her first fight in almost a year after having two bouts fall through last year, the 40-year-old mother of two is excited to face a top-quality opponent in Julianna Peña.
“It’s going to be an exciting fight. She likes to keep a lot of action and keep the pace,” McMann said. “I think some of my worst fights were the ones where somebody was backing away and being more strategic and being a lot more guarded. If I have somebody else who is willing to engage out there, it makes for a better fight, and I think that she’s game for that.”
McMann admitted to being extremely particular about who her next opponent would be, stating that “sometimes when you just fight whoever, you end up staying really low in the rankings, and I just don’t really have a lot of time for that.”
She said her biggest opponent of late has been time, which is why her decisive January 2020 victory over Lina Landsberg was a turning point for her.
“I think that it really proved a lot to me. I knew what I was capable of, but I still had yet to prove it,” McMann said. “Now I can really evaluate myself and not look at myself as someone who just had a baby or someone who’s now 40, but say, ‘what actual athlete are you?’ and then work with that.”
While a year-long layoff is not what McMann had in mind in her race against the clock, she was still able to take something away from each camp, so that no time was wasted.
“Having two fights fall through was frustrating, but all of that work wasn’t for nothing. All of that work I put in for those two other camps still gave me the skills, and I still gained everything I needed for those two opponents, without the actual fight.”
At first, the transition from competing a dozen times in wrestling to fighting only a few times a year proved difficult for McMann. Used to a fast-paced learning environment, she said her growth in her early MMA career could have been quicker if she had competed at a volume more similar to wrestling.
But now, in hindsight?
“There’s no way I would’ve been able to do this now,” she said. “My body just wouldn’t hold up under the training. So, fighting this way, where I only have one competition at a time, allows me to do it later in life.”
McMann also credits her discipline in various areas of life to her success as an athlete, believing that she’ll be finished “when my body tells me I am.”
She said the fact that she’s still able to compete now, 26 years and two children later, is “a testament to the work I put in. I’ve just put decades into doing the right thing for my body to be able to perform, and it’s really paying dividends.”
Those dividends will be put to the test on Saturday at UFC 257 as she takes on the seventh-ranked “Venezuelan Vixen” in the ground game gauntlet where wrestling meets jiu-jitsu.
“I want to finish her,” McMann said. “She’s a gamer and she’s well-rounded. So I think getting a finish in a dominant way will say a lot to how I’ve grown and what I’m capable of.”
Don't miss McMann and Peña face off at UFC 257, Saturday, January 23. Prelims air live on ESPN and ESPN+ at 8pm ET/5pm PT.
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