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Ex-Olympic medalists Rousey, McMann raising bar for UFC competition

There are few times when Daniel Cormier isn’t the most decorated athlete in the room.

Among his numerous accolades, he’s a three-time state champion wrestler, NCAA All-American and two-time Olympian.

But on a recent Ultimate Fighting Championship media tour in Los Angeles to promote tonight’s UFC 170 card at Mandalay Bay, he was seated between women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey and main event challenger Sara McMann.

“I’m sitting there as the only one with no Olympic medal,” he recalled this week. “Come on, man, talk about just cutting me off at the knees, huh?”

Rousey and McMann will be the first Olympic medalists to meet in a UFC title fight when they step into the cage for tonight’s main event. Cormier, who will make his light heavyweight debut against Patrick Cummins, sees it as a major milestone for the sport.

“It’s a big deal, man, especially with the Olympics going on right now,” he said. “It’s huge for the sport of mixed martial arts to have people that have competed at the highest level of sports.

“I think Olympics is the pinnacle of all sports, and to have three Olympians on one card is a big deal. Before you would get an NCAA champion or something, now you’re getting the cream of the crop. Olympians. Olympic medalists with Sara and Ronda. They took it to a level even higher.”

Rousey, 27, and McMann, 33, are undefeated since transitioning to MMA. Rousey, who became the first American woman to win a medal in judo when she took the bronze in 2008, has been a transformative figure in MMA.

Her combination of talent and marketability is the predominant reason a women’s division is part of the UFC. She has used her trademark armbar to submit all eight of her professional opponents, including seven in the first round.

Rousey always is looking for new ways to challenge herself and for some time had been eyeing a matchup with McMann, a 2004 Olympic wrestling silver medalist. But Rousey isn’t ready to acknowledge the significance of the Olympic matchup.

“It will mean a lot more to me after I win,” she said. “I don’t really sit back and think, ‘Oh, what a historical thing that we’re accomplishing,’ until I’m sitting in my hotel room after the fight eating buffalo wings with my friends. Then it’s like, ‘That was pretty cool, wasn’t it?’ ’’

Cormier has a difficult time hiding his excitement to watch the fight, which will be contested after his with Cummins.

He and McMann were Olympic teammates in 2004 in Athens, and he thinks McMann will present a unique challenge to Rousey.

“They’re both ridiculously tough,” Cormier said. “But I think for the first time when Ronda gets into the cage, it’s been since 2008, she’s never grabbed someone (in competition) and felt, ‘This person’s on the same athletic level as me. This person’s as strong as I am. This person’s been competing as long as I have been.’

“She said it best herself when she was fighting Miesha (Tate). She said, ‘I was on the Olympic team. You wrestled in high school.’ Sara McMann went to the Olympics, too, and she actually did better than all of us. She’s going to feel her, and she’s going to think, ‘Man, this is different. She has everything I have.’ I think that’s going to make for a fun fight.

“We’re getting the best of the best here. It’s going to be fun.”

Another storyline for the fight is the debate of whether judo or wrestling is the more effective tool in MMA.

Rousey and McMann have somewhat dismissed that angle because both now train in all aspects of the game. Yet there’s no denying where they come from and where they are most comfortable as fighters.

McMann acknowledged it will be interesting to see how her wrestling base matches up with Rousey’s judo.

“We’re all waiting to find out,” McMann said. “I don’t care how many times you simulate it in practice, nobody’s going to know until it actually happens.”

McMann entered MMA after her daughter, Bella, was born in 2009. She said she hopes tonight’s fight will show women who compete in sports such as wrestling and judo that there are legitimate professional opportunities for them.

“It also means that women’s MMA now has the best athletes in the world entering the sport and becoming successful,” McMann said.

“I think for quite a few years the men have been drawing upon more and more high-level athletes to enter in the sport and make for very deep divisions. I think you’re witnessing the beginning of that for the women.”

The five-fight main card, which airs live on pay per view at 7 p.m., also features a welterweight bout between Rory MacDonald and Demian Maia, who both appeared on the verge of a title shot before losing late last year. The winner should get back on track.

A women’s bantamweight bout between Alexis Davis and Jessica Eye headlines the four-fight preliminary card on Fox Sports 1 (Cable 329) at 5 p.m. Two bouts will stream exclusively on UFC Fight Pass at 4.

Contact reporter Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.

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