Once you get to the Division I level of college wrestling, you run into guys who can physically beat you to a pulp, humiliate you, or both.
Scott Moore was one of those wrestlers. Wrestling for Penn State and the University of Virginia, he placed top four in the nation twice, and in his final year of college, lost one match all season while leading the nation in pins. If you were unlucky enough to run into him on the mat, he would likely hurt you and embarrass you.
The thought of wrestling Moore would scare most men. It did not, however, scare Sara McMann. At the 2000 Penn State Open, McMann wrestled Moore, and while she lost by pin fairly quickly, she left a permanent impression on her opponent.
"I can remember that match very well," Moore told Bloody Elbow this week. "The thing I remembered most about that match was the confidence she had in approaching the match. She had defeated a Lehigh wrestler the match before and came in very aggressive off the start."
"During the match I was impressed with the amount of fight and effort she put forth and remember telling people that she fought harder than most of the men that I wrestled. I certainly respected her after that and have been a fan ever since."
During the time she spent training at Lock Haven University, McMann faced some of the best male college wrestlers in the country. Wins came rarely, but maybe that's the point; she would take on all comers, regardless of their sex, strength or skill, and regardless of the certainty of her defeat. Long before McMann abandoned the wrestling mats for the canvas and cage, she was a true fighter at heart.
The Origins of McMann's Wrestling Career.
Though McMann hails from the wrestling hotbed of Pennsylvania, she did not begin wrestling until 14 years old and a high school freshman, after moving to Marion, North Carolina. There, at McDowell high school, she joined the boys team, and by her third year, earned a spot on the varsity starting lineup. In her fourth and final season of high school wrestling, competing exclusively against males, she won more matches than she lost.
The wrestling bug had bitten McMann, and she looked for a chance to pursue the sport after high school. It just so happens that the University of Minnesota-Morris (UMM) had recently started nation's first women's collegiate program. McMann packed her bags and headed for the frigid Upper Midwest.
In 1998 and 1999, McMann excelled for UMM, winning a University National Freestyle Championship (women's college wrestling did not hold an actual intercollegiate national championship until 2004). Despite her success, McMann sought a different training environment, and in 2000 she moved back to her childhood home to continue her development as a wrestler at Pennsylvania's Lock Haven University. By this point, USA Wrestling had awarded McMann a monthly stipend due to her success in freestyle competition. This stipend disqualified her from actually representing Lock Haven in varsity competition, but she did travel with the team to open college tournaments, like the Penn State Open, where she would enter fields of some of the roughest and toughest young men the Keystone State had to offer.
The move to Lock Haven paid off, and McMann quickly shot to the top of the United States Women's Rankings at 63 kilograms (the first couple years the weight class was actually 62 kg, but who is counting). In 2000, she won the World Team Trials, her first of six, and in 2004, she claimed first place at the first ever Olympic Team Trials in women's wrestling.
McMann maintained her place at the top of American wrestling until the 2008 Olympic Team Trials, where, facing off-the-mat distractions and an excellent opponent, she lost in the final wrestle off to Randi Miller. Soon after the 2008 Trials, McMann's wrestling career petered out, and she went off to face new challenges.
McMann's Time at the Top
McMann had both really good timing and really bad timing in her wrestling: good timing in the sense that she peaked as a wrestler right around when women's freestyle first became an Olympic sport, bad because just as she came into her own, so did Japan's Kaori Icho.
Three Olympic golds, seven World Championships and unmatched technical ability make Icho the greatest women's freestyle wrestler in history. While countrywoman Saori Yoshida claims more world championships, she lacks Icho's fluidity and clinical precision. Icho flows from move to move in a way that would make many male wrestlers jealous, and, sadly, she wrestled at the same weight, and same time as McMann.
McMann won three medals at world championships: silver in 2003, bronze in 2005 and bronze in 2007. At each of these competitions, she only lost to Icho. As some of you might have guessed by now, McMann also had to contend with Icho in the 63 kg finals of the 2004 Olympics.
For a change of pace, here's some video analysis of the final three fights on the UFC 170 card by our own Kid Nate, Dallas Winston and Connor Ruebusch. They dive deep into Ronda Rousey vs. Sara McMann, Daniel Cormier vs. Patrick Cummins, and Rory MacDonald vs. Demian Maia.
Impressively, or tragically, depending on how you look at it, McMann almost beat Icho in the Athens Games. Down 2-0 in the first period, Icho had to rally to tie the match. With 20 seconds left in the bout, and the score deadlocked at 2, Icho shot in and scored the deciding takedown. Below, you see McMann defend the initial shot, but great wrestlers don't stop with one move, and Icho cuts back the other way for the score and the Olympic gold medal.
McMann's defeat in the Olympic finals left her inconsolable. We know this because on the medal stand, Icho, whom seems like a very nice woman, actually reached to her right and attempted to console the silver medalist. It didn't work, and I understand why; to work so hard, for so long, in pursuit of an improbable dream, only to come so close and fall barely short, would really suck.
I would also speculate that McMann felt a particular edge to her disappointment because she knew that she could beat Icho. Though Icho's last technical loss came in the 2007 Asian Championships, where she forfeited to Taiwan's Hou Min-Wen, her last real loss in an actual contested match happened at the 2003 Klippan Open, when McMann defeated her 6-3.
That match appears below.
McMann's Wrestling Style
Disgraced boxer Antonio Margarito's trainer once quipped that when Margarito fights, the makeup comes off. I find this description even more appropriate for Sara McMann's wrestling. No matter her opponent, McMann always seems meaner, better conditioned and more aggressive. From the moment the whistle blows, she attacks her adversaries with extreme prejudice, brawling and battering like a long-haired Brands brother.
McMann adopts an elegant and effective wrestling strategy centered around controlling her opponent's head. Where the head goes the body will follow, and taking control of someone else's body proves quite easy with their face in the mat. The best part about applying continual downward pressure to an opposing wrestlers head is that eventually they start standing taller to avoid getting snapped down. When Mcmann's competition starting popping upright to counteract her pressure up top, they would leave their legs open for McMann to crash in on a powerful shot.
As you can see, when McMann took a shot, she fully committed to it, Above, she hits a drag to a driving double on Greece's Stavroula Zygouri in the 2004 Olympic semis. Zygouri futilely tries to throw McMann through, but only ends up planted on her back, pinned and defeated.
From a physical standpoint, one thing that jumps out in the above sequence, and about McMann generally, is her raw power. Most of her competition appears downright weak standing across from her on a mat.
How powerful is McMann? On occasion she still does some training in the Lock Haven wrestling room, overseen by her old opponent Scott Moore, the University's new head wrestling coach. Recently, Moore noticed McMann's brute force had a shocking effect on some training equipment.
"She was in working out at Lock Haven a few months ago," Moore recalled. "I walked in my office and found a note on my desk saying she broke the chain on our heavy bag and that she was going to Lowe's to get a new one. She showed up the next day and we fixed it."
"I'm still not sure how she broke something so strong, but it certainly spoke to the type of person she is and how she is not someone you want to mess with."
Factgrinder Final Analysis
Sara McMann owns an Olympic silver medal in wrestling, no other American woman has anything other than a bronze, and but for the greatest female wrestler of all time, McMann would likely have won the 2004 Olympics, three world championships, and recognition as the greatest American wrestler ever without a Y chromosome.
Maybe things worked out for the better. Had McMann won that last match in the 2004 Games, she would still be wrestling, not fighting in tonight's main event for a UFC title and possibly starring in wacky commercials, like her Japanese contemporary.