Gina Carano has done hundreds of interviews and personal appearances since the day in the spring she announced she'd reached contract terms to fight Christiane "Cyborg" Santos on Saturday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.
And in virtually every one of those interviews, Carano can barely finish a sentence without beaming and chuckling a bit.
Santos is, by far, the most dangerous woman she's ever faced, yet Carano exudes cool. The pressure on her in Saturday's nationally televised bout is immense. There is no athlete in any sport, male or female, who is more important to the success of that sport than Carano is to women's mixed martial arts.
The NFL made it without Tom Brady last year. Barry Bonds hasn't played a baseball game since 2007, but ticket sales and fan interest continue to soar. Tiger Woods didn't play golf for nine months, but courses still were filled and tournaments still were broadcast.
If Carano quit fighting tomorrow, though, she'd take women's MMA down with her. She's in the main event Saturday and has received superstar treatment, but there wouldn't be a women's fight on television, let alone headlining the card, if Carano weren't involved.
Through it all, though, she manages to remain one of sport's most humble and self-effacing figures.
Nothing seems to faze her. She seems as if she's going to play tennis in the park with her sister, yet she's fighting for the first Strikeforce women's featherweight championship in the main event of a much-hyped nationally televised bout.
She was an instant hit in her first MMA bout and hasn't slowed down. Yet, she doesn't try to figure it out and just seems to enjoy the attention and the chance to increase the visibility of a sport she loves.
"I don't have to be there for the sport to be successful," Carano said. "I'm doing the best with this opportunity to represent the sport. I'm doing everything I can do. But the sport is awesome. It'll make it by itself. They don't need me for it to be successful. I'm being given the chance right now for a period of time and there will be another person with the chance next."
Eventually, some woman would have come along who would have done for women's MMA what Carano is doing now. Carano, though, has essentially created the industry.
It hasn't been without potholes along the way.
Just as when Woods joined the PGA Tour and there were players who were unhappy with the amount of attention he commanded, so are there women who are unhappy that the world seems not to notice them and lavishes attention on Carano.
Eventually, those golfers who complained about the attention being paid to Woods were soon thankful that he was on the Tour when purses started to rise, crowds began to swell, television ratings soared and sponsorship opportunities increased dramatically.
Carano is doing the same thing for female fighters. She was the first woman to fight on both premium cable and network television and is now the first woman to headline a live nationally televised card.
Whether she wins or loses on Saturday won't matter, because her contribution to MMA will go far beyond a single bout. Because of Gina Carano, it's OK to put a women's fight on television. Men's MMA is still struggling to reach the mainstream, but Carano is doing her part to nudge it in the right direction.
She's been the epitome of class and grace in the most trying of circumstances. Most importantly, her fights consistently deliver. She's one of the most exciting fighters, male or female, active today.
The fight on Saturday figures to be a Fight of the Year type of bout in which each woman will stand and throw power shots at the other. She relishes that type of head-to-head showdown.
"I think Cyborg said it best," Carano said. "It's going to be who makes the least amount of mistakes [who wins]. We both have things going for us. We're about the same size. She's got bigger muscles, but I'm pretty strong and I love to get down."
She concedes the nerves occasionally get the best of her, but her trainer, five-time Ultimate Fighting Championship title-holder Randy Couture, has spent plenty of time advising her on the mental side of the game.
Couture is renowned for his ability to relax and remain calm and he's shared his secrets with Carano.
"Randy Couture has taught me a lot of things, like the difference being anxious and nervous," Carano said. "Nervous is negative. Anxious is when you expect to do well. There are good and bad days. I can't let the pressure get to me. I'm still human.
"Some days, I'm wondering how this all happened and why I got this opportunity. I've gotten to go to Thailand, New York. I love life."
That passion translates easily to the public, which picks up on it and embraces her. Fans love athletes who are highly skilled, highly motivated and who clearly enjoy what they do, as Carano does.
Her mere presence has made Saturday's show an event rather than just another fight card. No athlete in any sport has had the kind of impact, particularly in such a short time, that Carano has had on women's MMA.
All you have to do is watch on Saturday and you'll quickly understand why. When she eventually walks away and hangs up the gloves, there will be little doubt that Gina Carano left her sport a lot better off than when she joined it.
- Gina Carano