MMA gaining acceptance as 'women's work'

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

You can follow Kevin Iole on Twitter at @KevinI

A watershed moment in women's mixed martial arts occurred last month on a night when there was nary a fight and arenas across the country were dark.

ESPN's "SportsCenter," which normally pays only slightly more attention to MMA as it does to professional lacrosse, included a women's fight highlight among its "Plays of the Week." A few days before that show, Sarah Kaufman retained her Strikeforce welterweight title with a third-round knockout of Roxanne Modaferi in Everett, Wash.

Kaufman ended the fight, which was broadcast live on Showtime, with a power bomb slam that instantly knocked Modaferi out. It was fourth on "Plays of the Week," joining nine baseball highlights.

If the women's sport continues to grow, Kaufman's slam may come to be known as the female equivalent of the 2005 Ultimate Fighting Championship bout between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. That is the fight which UFC president Dana White credits with saving the company from its demise.

That ESPN would show a women's fight clip among its popular highlight series during the height of baseball season is a sign that the sport is gaining mainstream acceptance and that the women who compete should only concern themselves with, well, fighting.

For that, give much of the credit to Showtime and Ken Hershman, the executive vice president and general manager of sports and event programming at the premium cable network. It is Hershman, even in light of the apparent retirement of Gina Carano, who made the call to continue to regularly include women's fights among its coverage.

Without Hershman's blessing, the four-woman tournament that Strikeforce will put on its Challengers Series card on Friday in Phoenix would have only been an idea floating in Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker's head. Showtime will broadcast the Challengers series card Friday from the Dodge Theater in Phoenix and will devote significant time to the tournament that will decide Strikeforce's second-ranked welterweight.

Miesha Tate, Carina Damm, Hitomi Akano and Maiju Kujala will compete in order to put themselves in position for a title fight. Strikeforce will randomly select the matches at Thursday's weigh-in, with the first-round matches being two three-minute rounds. The winners will then advance to meet for the tournament title in a fight which will last for three three-minute rounds.

"What Strikeforce and Showtime have been doing is monumental for the sport of women's MMA," Tate said. "Men have had a platform for a long time, whether it is the UFC, the WEC, Bellator, whatever. But that platform hadn't been there for women before."

Showtime got into the fight game in 2007, when it struck a deal with Pro Elite and became the first premium cable network to broadcast MMA. On Feb. 10, 2007, Carano competed as part of that first Showtime-televised card, defeating Julie Kedzie.

It was clear even from that first match that Carano was a quality fighter, but it didn't stop the announcers from raving about her looks as much as her talent. She was routinely referred to as "the lovely" Gina Carano or "the beautiful" Gina Carano.

Those same announcers weren't referring to, say, "the hunky" Frank Shamrock.

Kaufman isn't insulted by the double standard as long as fights aren't made based upon looks and sex appeal.

"Most of the viewers [of MMA fights] are males and most of them are in that 18- to 35-year-old demographic and TV really caters to them," Kaufman said.

That's clearly true, though Carano's appeal was as much about her looks as about her skills. Even today, a year since she last fought, popular searches for her on the Internet are "Gina Carano hot," "Gina Carano Playboy," and the like. As much as it's unfair, it still helps to be attractive and talented.

Coker has done what he can to avoid stereotyping and has encouraged the development of women's divisions. By providing women an outlet, he's helped increase their marketability as well as their skill set. Because Strikeforce has included women's fights on nearly all of its cards, the natural progression figures to be that more women will take up the sport.

And while much of the hype about the Aug. 15, 2009, fight between Carano and Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos was about Carano, the fight also made Santos a star. Showtime set a new ratings record for that show and averaged 576,000 viewers. It peaked at 856,000 viewers during the Carano-Santos match, which Santos won via stoppage at 4:59 of the first round.

Carano hasn't fought since, and UFC legend Randy Couture, one of her trainers, said last week that he would be surprised if she fought again. Still, in the year since, Santos has fought twice since and has gained considerable appeal.

"Gina is who she is and Cyborg is who she is," Coker said. "But here's the thing: A lot of people saw her that night and even though maybe Gina might have been the favorite, they came to respect her and they appreciate her fighting ability.

"When she fought [Jan Finney] on our [June 26 card], the place was going crazy when she came out. The fans have clearly come to love watching her fight."

Slowly, it's changing, but the female fighters who want to be recognized for their skills have to give up the sexist nicknames. Damm is known as both "Beauty but a Beast," and "the Brazilian Barbie," nicknames that tout her looks as much as her talent.

Most of the women make very little money, but they continue to push on because they love the sport. Tate lived at her gym for more than a year to save money before moving into an apartment of her own.

All fighters – both men and women – have to sacrifice greatly until they make it, because 95 percent of the money is paid to about 5 percent of the fighters. There aren't many sponsors and the purses are very light, so female competitors can't survive solely on their fight pay.

Tate knows that all too well, though she insists she wouldn't change a thing if she were given the opportunity to start over.

"I love what I'm doing and I feel blessed to have the opportunity I have," Tate said. "It's not easy and at times, it's really, really hard. In the beginning, I was fighting literally for nothing and I'm fortunate I've had people around me who would help support me chase my dream.

"We're in a recession and more and more fighters are coming into the sport and the MMA market has been flooded. Sponsors are very thin with their funding. A lot of them aren't making money and are only spending it, so they can't pay as much. It's not easy."

But Tate, who wrestled on the boys' team in high school, has persevered. Kaufman has done likewise and said because most women know they're not going to get rich fighting, they do it because they love it. And that often leads to better fights.

"So many people say they've never seen a boring female fight," Kaufman said. "So many of us are scrappy and we just love this opportunity to compete. I don't want to speak for anyone else, but I see an incredible opportunity here and I want to take full advantage of it."