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Future of women’s fighting uncertain under Zuffa

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Future of women’s fighting uncertain under Zuffa
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Gina Carano's unique charisma helped fuel the boom in women's mixed martial arts

Two summers ago, a fight between Gina Carano and Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos appeared to answer any questions about the long-term future of women’s mixed martial arts.

A Strikeforce event in San Jose, Calif. on Aug. 15, 2009, advertised as the first time women had ever headlined a combat sport on premium cable, drew 13,524 fans, still the fourth-largest paid crowd for a non-Zuffa produced event in North American history, and largest for any show not headlined by Frank Shamrock.

Ratings for the event were through the roof. It is still the highest-rated overall MMA show (a 2.17 rating) and second-highest-rated fight itself (2.91) ever on Showtime, trailing only February’s Fedor Emelianenko-Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva bout. On the night of the fight, Carano-Santos was the most talked about subject on Twitter, the most-searched item on Yahoo! and second-most searched on Google.

Carano-Santos was the culmination of a run, largely based on the popularity of Carano, and the importance of making the right first impression.

Strikeforce was the first major promotion to feature a women’s fight in the U.S., a Carano vs. Elaina Maxwell fight that tore the house down in San Jose in 2006.

When Showtime got into the MMA business in 2007 with Elite XC, its promotional head, Gary Shaw, felt Carano could be one of the company’s building blocks. At the time, as funny as this sounds today, just broadcasting MMA on television was controversial enough, and the idea of women fighting in a cage was something Showtime, at first, wanted no part of, and her fight was scheduled for the untelevised undercard.

Shaw had to beg and plead, and eventually an agreement was made that Carano would get one chance on television. If it didn’t work, Shaw was never to bring up the subject again. Carano and Julie Kedzie stole the show in an emotional three-round fight, and women’s fighting became a fixture everywhere except Zuffa, parent company of the UFC.

Two years later, not only has women's MMA never come close to the level it reached with Carano vs. “Cyborg,” but a series of events has led to many questions as to its future under the national spotlight.

Three major factors are involved:

• The first and most important was the purchase of Strikeforce on March 10 by Zuffa, the dominant MMA company in the world, and one that has never promoted a women’s fight. UFC president Dana White’s opinion on women’s fighting has evolved over the years. At first, when rival promotions featured women, he responded that he didn’t like the idea of women fighting, and that he didn’t feel like fighting of any kind was a sport for women. As Carano’s fights proved to be big hits with the public on Showtime and CBS, he softened his stance, stating that there were some very good women fighters, but simply not enough of them. The UFC’s model is for a full complement of weight classes separate divisions there aren’t enough quality fighters.

When XC went out of business, Zuffa did try and land Carano, due to her ratings drawing ability, and thus was willing to feature women’s MMA at one point in the since-folded WEC. After Carano went with Strikeforce, there never appeared to be any interest from Zuffa in women’s fighting.

Miesha Tate, 24, has a chance to become Carano’s heir apparent as the face of the women’s sport if she can beat welterweight (135-pound weight class) champion Marloes Coenen on July 30 at the Sears Center in Hoffman Estates, Ill. When she woke up to the March news that UFC bought Strikeforce, she quickly recognized how significant it was for her side of the sport.

“I thought it was a joke,” said Tate about when she was first told the news. “I wanted to check my calendar to see if it was April 1. I was caught completely off-guard. Once I realized it was reality, obviously I had some concerns about the future of women’s MMA. I can’t say worrying is going to change anything. If Dana and [co-owner] Lorenzo [Fertitta] and Zuffa decide not to have it, me stressing isn’t going to make a difference. I have to put on a performance that will convince them that women’s MMA is valuable and worth keeping around.”

• The second factor is the departure of Carano, who has not fought since facing Santos. While Santos proved to be the better fighter in that match, becoming Strikeforce’s first recognized world champion with a first-round TKO, it was clear going in and coming out that the popularity and growth of the sport was due to Carano, who has both a model’s looks and had proven her mettle through grueling battles in the cage. Santos, as champion, has fought twice since then, and neither fight garnered even a fraction of the interest the Carano fight did.

Carano had a movie, “Haywire,” produced by Steven Soderbergh, built around her as the lead featuring a cast of Hollywood heavyweights such as Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton and Antonio Banderas. She was scheduled to return in June, suffered a mysterious medical issue and pulled out. According to Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker, there is nothing new to report on her since.

• Finally, Santos has also not fought in more than a year, and has no fights on the agenda due to a contract dispute. Essentially, Santos, having beaten Carano, was looking to be paid in the $125,000 per-fight range Carano earns. Santos made $35,000 in her last fight, a June 28, 2010, win in a fight so one-sided it became almost hard to watch at times, against Jan Finney.

“Negotiations are still going on,” said Coker regarding Santos, who indicated he didn’t believe talks were dead, but they’ve been at an impasse for several months. “Her understanding and our understanding is a little different.”

With Santos out of the picture, Coker has shifted focus from the 145-pound weight class to 135. The Coenen vs. Tate fight, a five-rounder, is being promoted as the No. 2 fight on the Showtime broadcast headlined by Fedor Emelianenko vs. Dan Henderson.

A former high school wrestler in Olympia, Wash., the 11-2 Tate moved to Sacramento to train with Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male camp, citing the positives of training with the best male fighters in the world that are in her weight class.

“It’s huge. I think this fight has a lot riding on it you could say,” she said between her workouts earlier this week. “That’s why I hope Marloes comes in just as ready as I am. As much as I’d like to knock her out in 10 seconds, for the big picture, I’d like for us to battle it out and let people see what women’s MMA is all about. I’m looking to raise the bar.”

Women will be a fixture as long as the Strikeforce brand remains on Showtime. There have been two instances in the past year where a women’s fight was put on in the second-from-top position on a show, and ended up drawing higher ratings than the more publicized men’s main event. That’s not likely to be repeated on a show with Fedor vs. Henderson as the headliner.

Long-term, its survival is going to depend on whether White and the other key decision makers in Zuffa see it as something viable to promote.

“I think that generally speaking, the head honchos of UFC are not as gung-ho on women’s MMA, not as big supporters and it’s going to take a little bit of work on our part,” said Tate. “But I also feel like they’re also going to be paying more attention. Before, I don’t think they did.

“Dana was relatively ignorant to women's MMA. He said he watched one fight, a total mismatch, and it left a sour taste and didn’t give it the time of day. I don’t think that was fair. I’m hoping that now they will be more observant, watch Marloes and I fight, and see that we’re entertaining, we’re skillful, we’re powerful, and we can make them money. They’re smart businessmen and they’ll understand that and want to keep us around.” While technically Julia Budd’s split-decision win Germaine de Randamie on June 24 in Kent, Wash., on a minor Strikeforce Challengers show, would have been the first women’s fight under the Zuffa umbrella, Coenen vs. Tate is the first one under any kind of a real spotlight. And its importance can’t be overestimated, because the history of women’s fighting has been about being given one chance and making that right first impression.