As the fortnight of chilly competition was winding down in Sochi, a trio of Olympians was getting heated up in Las Vegas. The UFC hyped the Olympics angle in the lead-up to Saturday night's UFC 170, and it offered a chance to see what sets elite athletes apart.
Two weeks in Sochi showed the best of the best soar down ski slopes and around speed skating rinks, perform gravity-defying maneuvers on slopestyle jumps and skate ice with grace, resolve and fine tuning. These people are simply at a different level than the rest of us, physically and mentally and in a dozen ways unfathomable. And yet they're not a different species. So human.
It was within that context that Ronda Rousey and Sara McMann and Daniel Cormier took center stage at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. And it was there where some of the evening swelled a viewer's sense of existential parameters. If only it could have been more.
Rousey, who, along with the UFC women's bantamweight championship belt also owns a bronze medal from the 2008 Olympic judo competition, needed only 1:06 to add McMann to her list of victims. But this one was different from her past fights, in part because "Rowdy Ronda" (9-0, 3-0 in the UFC) unveiled a new path to victory, winning by TKO rather than utilizing the arm bar that had ended all of the bouts we've seen her in before.
The fact that Rousey won a fight while on her feet told two stories: first, that McMann (7-1, 1-1 UFC), a 2004 Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling, had the grappling chops to fend off the judo throws and other takedown tactics with which the champ had rag-dolled all previous opponents; and second, that Ronda had a Plan B.
This might actually have been Plan A.
"We studied her videos and noticed that no one really tried to hit her to the body," Rousey said in an interview in the octagon, moments after her knee to the liver had dropped McMann lifelessly to the canvas. "And since she's a wrestler, she had that bent posture. So we felt like it was the best thing to really concentrate on the liver shots for this camp."
If that was Rousey's strategy walking into the cage, kudos to her trainer, Edmond Tarverdyan, for preparing his fighter well. If Ronda was embellishing a little and her knees -- there were more than one -- were an improvisation while the fighters were clinched against the fence, more power to her for adjusting when the takedown wasn't there for her.
Fast finish notwithstanding, Rousey was pushed in this fight to finally show what she and her people have been promoting: her standup game. The punching actually favored McMann, who landed a 1-2 to start the bout, then connected with another left and right. Rousey responded by tying her up and sending a knee into the liver area. Rousey stayed in the clinch, pushing McMann against the cage, shifting her hips to get an angle for a throw. McMann maintained a strong base, though, and never appeared close to be taken down.
But while Rousey's arms clinched, her legs attacked. A left knee came McMann's way several times, mostly falling short of its target. But after the fight was a minute old, another Rousey knee collapsed McMann to all fours. She looked stunned, and didn't move when Rousey threw a couple of punches. Referee Herb Dean moved in just as the challenger was trying to get up.
The stoppage seemed too-quick, but even McMann acknowledged that Dean did what he had to do. "It was my own fault," she said. "If you see a fighter drop, he's got to protect us. I should have got back to my feet quicker."
If McMann still had some fight left in her -- that is, if the liver shot had disabled her only temporarily -- then yes, it would have been nice to see how this meeting of elite athletes played out. But if McMann was ripe to be punished by more body blows, then the abrupt ending was for the best.
The hasty finish to the co-main event, on the other hand, closed the book on a melodramatic short story. Barely a week ago, Cormier, a member of the 2004 and 2008 U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestling team, was bounced from UFC 170 when his opponent, Rashad Evans, injured a knee in training. Then along came Patrick Cummins, who was working at a coffee shop drive-up window when he took the call from UFC president Dana White offering him the fight.
The match came about because Cummins, a two-time All-American wrestler who was 4-0 in small-time MMA promotions, had taken to Twitter with a few words for Cormier. He'd helped train Cormier prior to the 2004 Olympics, and as Cummins tells it, he had broken Cormier emotionally when they'd wrestled, had made him cry. Cormier had a different take on the story, of course, but it didn't matter. There was a beef, so there was a fight. At Thursday's press conference, Cormier even shoved Cummins.
Was this all for show? Some of it, probably, but not all. Cormier was legitimately peeved that Cummins had spoken so mockingly of events that had played out in the privacy of the wrestling room. Apparently, those sweaty spaces are like Vegas itself: What happens there stays there. Unless you're Patrick Cummins and you want a job in the UFC.
Cormier made Cummins pay, battering him around the octagon for the better part of their 1:19-long fight. Cormier landed 18 significant strikes during that short time, wobbling his opponent and coming at him, again and again, until he floored him with an uppercut just after the one-minute mark. Cormier then swarmed with right hands -- hard right hands, the kind that could make anyone cry.
It was dominant and devastating. But Olympian? Fighting a short-notice newcomer didn't allow for that kind of status. Cormier made the weight in his 205-pound debut, and that will have to satisfy for now.
On the other hand, Rousey did reveal much about her capabilities. Confronted by a grappling game as elite as her own, she adjusted seamlessly and effectively. This may prove important after Cris "Cyborg" Justino revealed that she plans on dropping to 135 pounds with the intent of fighting Rousey.
If anything will force the Olympian out of Rousey, it's "Cyborg. Cormier needs just such a challenge.