LAS VEGAS – There was a loud knock on the door and Gina Carano peered outside.
Police officers were there.
Suddenly, she got a queasy feeling in her stomach. Her heart sank. She was expecting the worst news possible.
Her older sister, Casey, had been missing for six months, the direct result of a losing battle with the drugs Ecstasy and methamphetamine. She was anorexic, had drug-induced schizophrenia and was living her life on the edge.
When Gina saw the officers at the door, she nearly got ill, because she expected to hear the words she didn't want to hear: We're sorry, but your sister is dead.
Casey Carano had long been the most influential person in her sister's life.
"When I was younger, I ordered everything she ordered," Gina Carano said. "I did everything she did. I couldn't go anywhere without her. I dressed the way she dressed. She introduced me to music. She introduced me to concerts, to life, really. A lot of my style, a lot of who I am, is because of Casey. She was my role model."
Gina Carano is 26 and quickly becoming one of the most searched athletes on the Internet. She's fast become the face of women's mixed martial arts, is one of the most popular of the American Gladiators and is rapidly becoming something of a sex symbol to young American men.
Carano, who will fight Kaitlin Young on Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., on the first MMA card broadcast on network television, is along with Kimbo Slice, almost single-handedly keeping Elite XC relevant.
There was little question that Elite XC officials would put her on the CBS show, given its importance to both the company's future and the sport's.
"Whenever I meet someone, when they find out what I do, one of the first things they ask me about is Gina," Elite XC president Gary Shaw said. "People love her. In a lot of ways, she is what mixed martial arts is all about."
But Carano wasn't thinking of stardom five years ago. Her mind was flooded with emotion about a person she loved so much when the doorbell rang at her Las Vegas home.
"I could have sworn the cops were going to say, 'Your sister is dead,' " Carano said, softly. "With all that was going on in her life, that's kind of what I thought I was going to hear. But instead, they surprised us."
Her sister, older by a year, was found living in Arizona with a woman who took in indigent people. She was in bad shape, but she was alive.
That's all that mattered to Carano and her family, who raced to Arizona to recover her.
What they saw was stunning.
"She was 22 at the time and was such a beautiful girl," Carano said. "But she looked like she was 12. Her bones were popping through her skin."
Carano said that she has "done my fair share of things in my life," but said she managed to avoid the problems that plagued her older sister.
And so as she was starring on nearly every women's sports team there is at tiny Trinity Christian High School in Las Vegas, she was serving as a marshal of sorts for her sister.
"I'm a junior in high school and while everyone else was getting ready to go to the prom and to do their thing, I was getting phone calls 'Hey, your sister's in jail,' or 'Hey, your sister is in rehab again,' " Carano said.
Carano said she was "the pit bull" who would wander into the seediest parts of town in search of her sister. She would get a phone call telling her that her sister had relapsed and was having difficulty while at a party.
"I walked in this one place and something had happened and I went into the bathroom and three big dudes were holding her down," Carano said. "And I was like, 'Get the (expletive) off of her.' I scooped her up and brought her home.
"I was the one who went and got her. I never really thought that much about what kind of situations I was in, because my focus was on saving her. I loved her and I owed her that."
The story, for now, has a happy ending, as Casey Carano has recovered and regained her health.
She is, Gina says, beaming, "doing wonderfully."
Casey, though, isn't the only member of the Carano family who is doing wonderfully. So, too, is Gina, whose performance on the first Elite XC card in February 2007 on Showtime saved an otherwise dreadful show.
She's had a meteoric rise since then. She was voted "Hottest Woman in America," in the spring issue of Big Biz magazine. She was featured in a pictorial in Maxim.
On May 13, she was the third-most searched person on Yahoo! and was the most-searched person on Google.
Carano is not sure why she's all of a sudden exploded in popularity, but is content to ride the wave. She appears in a video game, Command and Conquer. She has a bit role in an upcoming movie, "Blood and Bone."
But Carano, who had a 12-1-1 record as a Muay Thai boxer before transitioning to MMA and compiling a 5-0 mark, doesn't get the whole sex symbol thing.
"All the attention has helped me, but it's also hurt me," she said. "Sometimes, you get portrayed the way you don't want to be portrayed. People start thinking about you a certain way. I'm like, 'What's everybody talking about with this sex appeal thing?' I don't get it. I'm not that way. I'm not that person and I'm never going to be that girl, because it's not in me to get people's attention sexually. But that's what people are saying out there now.
"I want people to see me for who I am and not for how someone else is trying to promote me. I don't mind answering any questions, because I'm not just a fighter. I'm a lot more than that."
Fighting, though, was always a big part of her life. She has athletic genes – her father, Glenn, is a Reno, Nev., casino executive who once was a backup quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys – and grew up doing what the boys in the neighborhood did.
And that meant that more than once, she'd be wrestling or in some way roughhousing with her male friends.
"It's not that unusual to me because that was just kind of how I was and how I grew up," she said. "Since I grew up fighting a little bit – well, not fighting – well, a little bit of fighting – but I grew up with a lot of guys around me and we were always just beating each other's asses. There was no ref there, no one there to stop it and you just had to learn how to survive."
She's learned to survive and, so, too, has her older sister. Casey Carano is now more of a mentor to Gina than she's ever been.
"I'm just so, so, so lucky to have her," Gina said. "And because of what happened, you appreciate what you have more. I have always looked up to her and respected her, but I just cherish every moment we have together now. It's a wonderful life."
It's not a bad life, indeed, when you star on one show on NBC, are featured on another on CBS, appear in movies, appear in video games and are the heartthrob of millions.
Carano concedes she's stunned by her meteoric rise in popularity, but said she's not certain where she's headed with her career.
"I'm just going to leave it in God's hands and go out and do the best I can do and give all of myself to whatever it is I'm doing at the moment," she says.
She's almost without ego, praising her opponents nearly to excess and picking out flaws in not only her fight game but other aspects of her life.
In a way, though, she said that might be the secret of her popularity.
"I'm not playing a character, I'm just me," Carano said. "Maybe if people like me, it's because they see me as a person who loves what she's doing and is doing what she wants. How much better can things get than that?"
- Gina Carano