GREENVILLE, S.C. — On the last Thursday afternoon in May, Sara McMann hopped into her maroon Mini Cooper and drove three hours across the border to Greensboro, N.C. Before she arrived at Triad Math and Sciences Academy to deliver a speech at an athletics banquet that evening, she punched six ideas about her life into the notes section of her iPhone.
A few years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. McMann wouldn’t have been able to stand in front of a group of about 300 people and tell them that her parents struggled with heroin addiction, and that she grew up at times without electricity or heat. She wouldn’t have been able to tell them that her brother was brutally murdered in 1999. She wouldn’t be able to tell them that five years after that, the man she planned to marry died in a car accident — and that she was the driver.
The talk was about resilience, so McMann told them that even after enduring that endless pain, she still plans to become a UFC world champion. She knows the clock is ticking on her chance to reach the pinnacle of her sport, where she remains a relatively unrecognized face. McMann, a native of Takoma Park, Md., and a former Olympic medalist, is 36 years old and a single mother. She is the sixth-ranked challenger in the women’s bantamweight division and, despite winning her last three fights, is still searching for a career-making victory over an elite opponent.
The talk was delivered with McMann in the middle of a reinvention, throwing herself out into the world like she never has before. She is using her platform while she can to open up about her experiences. She has refined her skills as a mixed martial artist over the past year and is planning on moving to California with her daughter next month to train with an established professional outfit. She is far more willing to promote herself than she had been: The move will also be made in pursuit of endorsements not readily accessible in South Carolina. And on Sept. 9, she is scheduled to fight Ketlen Vieira in Edmonton at UFC 215, the biggest stage of mixed martial arts, with a chance to strengthen her case as a top contender.
“I’m not sitting around going at this lax pace. I’m pushing the pace,” McMann said. “Maybe my fate will be a little sealed because of my losses, or maybe some fights that were less exciting, but I turned a corner in my career. And I’m just asking for them to invest. Invest now in me, and I will fulfill my end of the bargain.”
That is a promise McMann intends to keep, though she has learned that so much of her destiny is out of her control.
She is not a natural writer, but she has begun thinking about a possible memoir. She could begin her story with her parents, who moved the family constantly between Maryland, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Her parents were drug addicts, she said, and she is haunted by the time she found her mother passed out on the floor of their home in Maryland after an overdose. Sara was 6.
Her mother survived the ordeal, and it brought Sara closer to her brother, Jason, a natural athlete who wrestled at Quince Orchard High in suburban Washington and inspired his younger sister to try out for the boys’ wrestling team when she was 14. McMann was in her freshman season on the wrestling team at the University of Minnesota-Morris when Jason disappeared in January 1999. His mutilated and decomposed body was found about three months later in the woods near Lock Haven, Pa., but his case went cold. McMann’s family appeared on the television show “America’s Most Wanted” in an effort to find his killer.
It took nearly three years before authorities zeroed in on Fabian Desmond Smart, a football player at Lock Haven University who had beaten Jason with a gun and a stick after an altercation at a party before leaving him in the woods to die.
By that point, a grieving McMann had transferred to Lock Haven University and was training with the men’s wrestling team, which would provide the foundation for a precipitous rise in the sport. She competed in her brother’s memory, learning how to channel the pain of her loss into countless victories on the mat. She won the Olympic silver medal in the 63-kilogram (138.5-pound) weight class in 2004, when women’s freestyle wrestling made its debut at the Athens Games.
At 23, McMann was the face of U.S. women’s wrestling when she returned to the United States later that summer. In Athens, a romance blossomed with 27-year-old Steven Blackford, a former all-American wrestler at Arizona State who was attending law school in the District that fall. McMann would move with him and begin a new chapter near her birthplace of Takoma Park. The couple planned to marry.
They started their new life together with a cross-country trip after leaving the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs on Sept. 3, 2004. Around 1:20 p.m., as McMann drove her 1997 Jeep Cherokee east on Interstate 76, her vehicle drifted toward the center lane.
She overcorrected and the vehicle rolled off the shoulder. Neither McMann nor Blackford were wearing seat belts and both were ejected. Blackford died at the scene, and McMann was hospitalized with minor injuries. McMann was eventually charged with reckless driving.
About a month after the accident, Smart was convicted of first-degree murder of Jason McMann. Sara retreated deep within herself, forced to bear the pain of losing her brother and future husband within five years of each other.
While no one understood the depths of despair that McMann reached in the years after, people would often ask her how she became so tough.
“It’s not innate, it’s not something you were born with, and you have to decide every day,” she said.
McMann decided to go on, though it took years to cope and every day provided its own fight. She went back to training as a wrestler, realizing more than ever the kind of joy it brought her life. (She made her professional debut in MMA in 2011.) She eventually started to work toward a master’s degree in mental health counseling, which helped her compartmentalize her thoughts on the losses that shaped her. Part of dealing with it was fiercely guarding her privacy and simply not talking about it openly.
She tried to rebuild her life in South Carolina after meeting Trent Goodale, a former Iowa wrestler who became the head wrestling coach at Limestone College in Gaffney, S.C., in 2008. A year later, the couple had a daughter named Bella, who became an anchor as McMann continued her process of healing.
“She has good coping mechanisms. She has that old style, ‘You can’t sit around and pout, suck it up and let’s move on,’ ” said Monte Cox, McMann’s manager. “And I think Bella is the reason.”
It wasn’t until 2013, the year McMann made her UFC debut and nearly nine years after Blackford’s death, that McMann began sharing her story with students. “I coped with it first. I’m not using it to cope with it,” she said of speaking at schools. She could see the nods of inner-city students in New York when she first spoke. She went to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 2014 to spread her word.
“There’s no harm, once I’ve gotten through it and survived it, if it can actually help somebody else, that’s pretty cool,” she said. “It doesn’t make my situation better. It’s like, I decided to help other people, so at least it’s not for nothing. “
When a wrestling coach from her college years, Adem Kaya, called this past spring to invite her to speak to his students at Triad in Greensboro, McMann didn’t hesitate. Kaya, the athletic director at Triad, had never spoken to McMann in depth about her pain, and he didn’t know what to expect once she arrived to speak. McMann didn’t need to look at the bullet points in the notes section of her phone.
“To be honest with you, I did not expect her to reflect on her personal life so deeply,” Kaya said. “But it was well worth it.”
McMann’s willingness to talk with teenagers about the rawest of her emotions has translated to her career. If part of the UFC’s rise can be credited to its robust presence on social media, then she certainly wasn’t part of the wave. McMann rarely publicly opened up about her past, and she came to detest the thought of turning herself into a brand. Her work ethic had brought her an Olympic medal and a professional mark of 11-3, but not the self-promotional skills of several of UFC’s top fighters. Taking selfies felt inauthentic, as did any trivial trash talk that might garner headlines in the lead-up to fights.
Yet there McMann was in February, pointing to a television camera after winning her third consecutive fight, a submission in 74 seconds against the up-and-coming Gina Mazany.
“By the time I take that championship from Amanda or Shevchenko,” she announced, “you will see the most complete Sara McMann that you’ve seen.”
She was talking about bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes and top challenger Valentina Shevchenko, who are scheduled to fight for the title on the same card as McMann at UFC 215.
“I just know I’m more of a complete fighter and I know I’m ready to be the champ,” McMann said. “Now I can actually promote myself, in the way that they would want, and I can back it up, too.”
McMann has already had a title chance. She was 7-0 in February 2014 when she fought Ronda Rousey in the main event of UFC 170, as the champion was in the midst of crossing over into a mainstream sports phenomenon. McMann was knocked out 1:06 into the fight by a knee to the body, another highlight in Rousey’s reel.
McMann lost two more high-profile bouts the next year, to Miesha Tate and Nunes. There were signs that her boxing was coming. She broke Tate’s orbital bone with a hard right hand in the first round of a savage fight that ended in a decision. But she was 8-3, forced to return to work quietly on her jiu-jitsu and striking while wondering if she would get another chance to prove herself.
Back in Greenville in May, McMann sat cross-legged on a plush chair inside musty Alliance Champions Training Center, which she has made her home for much of the past year. McMann is the most well-known fighter in this nondescript, white cinder-block gym, but she is never above giving a middle-aged lifter a spot or pushing the antiseptic mop to clean the mats each night. Before a jiu-jitsu session, she scouts a beginners’ class for any technique she might be able to incorporate into her game.
“I think wrestling gives her that much of an advantage,” said Rafael dos Santos, a 34-year-old Brazilian who runs Alliance and helps train McMann. “I think the only thing that has changed has been that her ground game has become more efficient. The past few fights, if you notice, she was pretty much in control.”
Said McMann: “Whether I win or lose a fight, I go back home and I ask myself a basic question, and that is: Do you still want to do this? And are you capable of it? I know what I want to do and I know I’m capable of doing it.”
Though McMann has warmed to the possibility of promoting herself more, she made a conscious choice early in her career that she didn’t want to model for magazine spreads or post suggestive photos of herself on Instagram. She said she will not waver in that refusal. Neither the UFC nor her own advisers ever pushed her to capitalize on her image, she said, but she understood that refusing to do so might affect her own career and bankroll.
“I had a lot of people who meant really well, and they would just say, ‘Hey, you could do so much better. You could make so much more money if you do this,’” McMann said. “‘As long as you understand, you’re leaving money on the table. You could market yourself in a prettier way. You could market yourself in a more aggressive, fighter way.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I understand that, but no thanks.’ It was just a choice I made.”
McMann is well-paid — she made roughly $240,000 over her last three fights, according to Cox — but she doesn’t have any major endorsement deals. That has been a product, in part, of where she is based. The Greenville community is not a hotbed for fighters, let alone female fighters.
“I think the UFC could have done a much better job of marketing the fact that she was the first woman silver medalist in wrestling, and her story. They could have made her a much bigger star,” said Cox, who believes McMann has two or three prime years left in her career. “I think at the time, Ronda [Rousey] was coming up, too, and I think she kind of got lost in that time . . . and I can’t say that they were wrong. It certainly worked for them.”
Cox said McMann is not “a self-promoter person, so it hurt her a little bit. So I said, ‘If you’re not going to promote yourself, you’re not going to conform, then win. Winning solves everything.’ ”
McMann believes she will have more marketing opportunities once she settles down in Sacramento in August and begins training with Team Alpha Male, which was founded by retired UFC star Urijah Faber and includes men’s bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt.
She said of her upcoming move: “I’m not reinventing who I am, I am reinventing what I’m comfortable with displaying to the world. That will be a big shift in my life.”
McMann is a single mother first and foremost — she is no longer in a relationship with Goodale — so her obsession with winning a title belt could wait one morning in late May.
She slipped on a dark baseball shirt, jeans and a pair of UFC sandals to attend Bella’s second-grade graduation at Shoally Creek Elementary outside of Greenville. Nobody recognized McMann as she strolled into the school and started filming her daughter with her iPhone.
“She’s so embarrassed,” McMann said with a laugh. She sat alone in the cafeteria of the school and ate cashews to store energy for her workout later that afternoon. She followed Bella to her classroom to watch a slide show of memories from the school year, and her daughter wiped cupcake frosting on McMann’s nose before proudly handing her a book of her writing.
McMann has not yet told her daughter about everything she has been through, about her difficult upbringing, about Jason or Steven. She doesn’t know when that day will come, but for now, she wants to enjoy moments like these. Soon she would be back to work on a punching bag at Alliance, preparing to position herself for her title dream. She allowed her daughter to stay at school with her friends that afternoon, knowing that in a few short weeks they would say goodbye to this place and begin their cross-country trip to start a new life.