It has been eight years since Sara McMann fought for the undisputed bantamweight title of the UFC. Now a savvy veteran of the division at 41 years old with an Olympic wrestling career atop her MMA one, she comfortably sits within the top 10 as a massive test for any bantamweight working towards gold.
Aspen Ladd broke into the UFC with a ton of hype in 2017 with ferocious skills spanned over a well-rounded style. Unlike McMann, who made her way in an era where expert combatants from other sports like wrestling then transitioned to MMA, Ladd was a product of truly growing up inside a cage. She began training as a young teen and earned her first amateur victory less than a month after becoming an adult on her eighteenth birthday and has never looked back since.
The two now meet at UFC Fight Night 211. For McMann, it’s a step back towards the title she once fought for almost a decade ago, and for Ladd, it’s a chance to prove it’s her time and her era to be champion. Ladd vs. McMann is one of the bouts on this weekend’s UFC Fight Night 210 card. Subscribe to ESPN+ to watch every UFC fight live.
The young and upcoming Ladd will be the slight favorite against the former title challenger.
Although Aspen Ladd only has 12 fights on her entire pro record, she has already performed on very large stages. She has headlined a UFC fight night and fought amongst the top 10 of her division for some time. This level of experience for such a young fighter can be attributed to her extensive amateur experience plus an undefeated eight-fight career in kickboxing. Before going pro in MMA, she amassed a record of 16-1 between kickboxing and amateur MMA.
Ladd is a very good fighter when she is aggressive. This does need to be prompted sometimes by her corner if she finds herself slow to get into the fight, but ultimately she wants to be the one pressing forward. She does not have an especially strong ability to move in and out of range quickly but her initial attacks, specifically her jab is often used to bait in a counter in order to land the left hook. Her left hook is nice and sharp and comes in short. She also likes the lead overhand as a weapon to push her opponents back, and if she can get them heel to fence she negates her inability to bounce in and out by trapping them.
Grappling-wise, she has strong top jiu-jitsu. She likes her outside trips from bodylock positions, and she utilizes her hips and shoulder pressure to maintain top position. She has ferocious ground and pound to the point where it has cost her position, but it has also created chaos on the other end forcing her opponents to react desperately and open up better positions. On her back her guard is primarily defensive, where she stifles damage as much as possible until she can find a moment to incite a scramble and get to her feet.
Sara McMann will always be synonymous with wrestling as she is one of the few who can boast an Olympic medal in the sport. However, while she still demonstrates a very heavy traditional wrestling game, the setups to her takedowns have particularly evolved. As a striker, she tends to throw short volume in terms of punches in combination, with only one or two real heavy shots coming at a time but the beauty in the wide arcing shots she attempts is that if she doesn’t land she tends to crash and latch onto a clinch position regardless. This allows her to transition her strike entries into takedowns very well fairly often. On the flip side, the threat of her level change is also what opens up the overhand right, which may be her most powerful weapon.
When she does commit to the takedown, it’s very difficult to stop McMann. She has a good deep double leg and will immediately look to cut through to the back once she secures it but this is more of a strategy to get past the hips and let them turn into her mount or half guard rather than chase hooks. Half guard is an especially strong position for her as she can base with her hips, frame and land short elbows to chip away at her opponents. The largest hole McMann has shown in her game is in submission awareness. Ladd will have the advantage in submission setups but like McMann, her best work is done on top. This is why the big battle for McMann, while she will definitely want to test out Ladd’s wrestling, will be to not allow Ladd to reverse position even if that means abandoning top control and resetting on the feet. McMann should be able to take Ladd down, especially out in the open octagon away from the fence so it’s a better bet to allow Ladd up than risk positions where it seems Ladd can put McMann off balance.
Aspen Ladd has struggled against opponents who can stay on their bike and pick her apart without entertaining her gritty ‘in-close’ striking style. Sara McMann is not this same kind of striker, and will likely have to engage in a format closer to what Ladd would like, compared to Ladd’s most recent opponents.
In general, McMann will have the wrestling advantage, but Ladd thrives in her fence wrestling, which is less comparable to the Olympic background of McMann. This may even out the difference here at least a little bit, but the big area where the fight will be won is in scrambles. Ladd is vicious with her grappling strikes and her jiu jitsu, at some point if she can create chaos or desperation from McMann with elbows or submission attempts we could see Ladd end up on top and chasing the neck or a limb.
While it’s a close fight, I think that there are a lot of opportunities that Ladd can jump on throughout the fight with McMann slips up at all.
Prediction: Aspen Ladd to win (-135 odds at BetUS)