Mixed martial arts is the fastest growing sport in the world. It garners more attention and new fans daily. The emergence of so many new athletes sometimes makes it hard for fans to notice some of the fighters on the verge of making it to the next level. MMAWeekly.com takes you deep inside the sport and presents you with some of the upcoming New Blood.
KEY VICTORIES: Shayna Baszler, Hitomi Akano
WEIGHT CLASS: 135 lbs.
COUNTRY: United States
Many world-class athletes find it difficult to cross over to other sports when their original endeavor has run its course. That’s not the case for 2008 Olympic wrestling silver medalist Sara McMann. The transition from wrestling to mixed martial arts has gone as well as can be expected.
McMann jumped headfirst into the cage in early 2011 and hasn’t slowed down. She won all four of her fights last year, including victories over Tonya Evinger and Raquel Pa’aluhi. McMann continued her winning ways in 2012 with victories in the deeper end of the pool. She started off this year with a win over veteran Japanese star Hitomi Akano, who has fi ve times the former Olympian’s MMA experience. McMann followed that performance by toppling well-traveled Shayna Baszler, one of the top American fighters in the bantamweight division. Even though she’s undefeated in six pro fi ghts, McMann still feels she still hasn’t reached the peak of her abilities quite yet.
“I’m starting to feel like I’m finding a little bit more of my niche in MMA,” says McMann. “Basically, I feel the natural fi ghter I am is going to be revealed through practice and more competition. I don’t know if I’ve ever had one competition that I didn’t look back and think that I couldn’t have done better in some area. I’m always critiquing it so I can do better next time.”
The win over Baszler also saw McMann in a headlining roll for the all-female fight promotion Invicta FC. Her career has certainly rocketed quickly into the spotlight, but that’s something that McMann relishes.
“In the MMA world, things can happen at a snail’s pace for months, but then things can come together all at once and you’ll have lots of competition back-to-back,” she says. “For me, it’s growing at the fastest rate I can, and I’m going to be ready for a big jump at any point.”
Considering her career path has run parallel to that of Strikeforce’s 135-pound sensation and fellow former Olympic medalist Ronda Rousey, a fight between the two seems inevitable, although McMann isn’t so singularly focused.
“I really plan on fighting all the top girls, every single one of them,” she says. “I’m looking to fight Sarah Kaufman, Alexis Davis, Marloes Coenen—any of the girls who are good enough to be champion. I’m not really setting my sites at one person. I want to beat them all.”
KEY VICTORIES: Kaitlin Young, Colleen Schneider
WEIGHT CLASS: 135 lbs.
COUNTRY: United States
Liz “Girl-Rilla” Carmouche rocketed up the women’s ranks, tearing through her first five opponents with little problem. After wrecking Jan Finney in late 2010, however, Carmouche got a taste of the top of the 135-pound division, losing back-to-back bouts to then-Strikeforce Champion Marloes Coenen and former Strikeforce Champion Sarah Kaufman.
Following the two consecutive losses in Strikeforce, Carmouche made her comeback a little less than a year later at Invicta FC 1 in April—and she did not disappoint. Handily defeating Ashleigh Curry in less than two minutes was not the whole story—being a part of Invicta’s fi rst event was special in many ways to Carmouche.
“It was a great experience, and I really enjoyed being part of the show,” says Carmouche. “Where normally the women are a small group and men dominate the sport, it was nice to be able to network, socialize, and meet other women in the sport.”
She followed her TKO of Curry with another appearance in Invicta 2 in July, where it took her two rounds to foil veteran fighter Kaitlin Young, a woman with twice her experience.
“Being offered an opportunity to come back and help facilitate Invicta’s growth is an awesome, awesome feeling,” she says. “I hope that there are possibilities with both Strikeforce and Invicta. Right now, there’s no title in Invicta in this weight class, so I hope I can get into the running for that. If not, then I hope I can have another showing in Strikeforce, because I still have a contract with them and would love to go back and represent them.”
In particular, Carmouche has her eye on the Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight Title, with the division currently ruled by Ronda Rousey, Sarah Kaufman, and Miesha Tate.
“With Kaufman, I feel like I’ve grown in the past year since our fight, so I’d defi nitely like to have a rematch,” says Carmouche. “As for Rousey, I’d like to see her fight a few more times and see where she actually pans out. Even a fi ght against her, I would love that. Really, I’d like to fight anyone in Strikeforce. I feel like I’ve been put there for a reason and have been given opportunities because I do have talent, and I would like the opportunity to show that again.”
KEY VICTORIES: Lacey Schuckman, Yuka Suji, Seo Hee Ham
WEIGHT CLASS: 115 lbs.
While she may not be as familiar a name to American MMA fans as fellow Japanese stars Hitomi Akano or Megumi Fujii, Ayaka Hamasaki got her opportunity to shine on the U.S. stage in July as part of Invicta FC 2 in Kansas City, Kansas. It’s something that she had been looking forward to for quite some time.
“I am so happy that I was able to fight in America for the first time,” Hamasaki says.
Hamasaki didn’t get one of the biggest names in the sport for her debut fight on American soil, but at 7-4, Lacey Schuckman was an experienced, explosive fi ghter who poised a lot of threats.
Hamasaki had to make the long journey, plus adapt to the unifi ed rules of MMA, where elbows to the head are allowed, and a longer, three-round fight.
She mentioned before the fight that she had been preparing for all the different changes from her normal routine in Japan, where she is the Jewels Strawweight Champion, saying she was comfortable knowing what she had to do. Hamasaki performed well, submitting Schuckman late in the fight and improving her record to 8-0.
More importantly, she shoved her foot through the door in the American market, where Invicta is finally gaining a foothold in a sport dominated by the men’s divisions. There haven’t been many waves yet in the strawweight division, even for women, but fighters such as Hamasaki finding success could be what finally opens up a title for women in the 115-pound class in the U.S.
“For me, an Invicta title is not such an important issue right now, I just want to win first,” she says. “I am so happy to be able to fight in front of fans in America.”