SUNRISE, Fla. – If there was any solace to a strange Saturday evening at the Bank Atlantic Center for Elite XC's third prime-time network television special, it was a night, at least in the arena, where the women stole the show.
Cris "Cyborg" Santos and Gina Carano came into the show with a chance to set up the biggest women's fight, at least to the public, in North American mixed martial arts history. And they came through with the two best received matches on the card.
Santos' three-round unanimous decision win over former Japanese pro wrestling star Yoko Takahashi was the best fight of the night. Santos, who trains with Brazil's famed Chute Boxe Academy, dominated the fight, but Takahashi showed incredible toughness in not going down to hard strikes. If most woman fighters were in with Santos on this night, it would have been a short evening.
Carano, whose popularity has put women's MMA on the map as the star attraction for Elite XC, also came through with a three-round decision win over Kelly Kobold. The action wasn't quite as fast paced, as Kobold, after some great exchanges, would slow things down by bulling Carano into the fence and continual attempts at takedowns.
Carano survived a tough second round where she was on her back taking punishment, but her stand-up was quicker and more accurate. She put it away late in the third round with hard kicks to the face, and nearly finished things with a standing choke.
The reaction by the women after the show was atypical, as both winners and losers seemed equally happy to just be part of the night.
"I'm very happy," said a smiling Takahashi (13-10) in broken English, despite a bandage under her left eye.
Kobold, with a cut near her right eye, echoed similar sentiments, talking up the experience and expressing no disappointment whatsoever, even though she lost.
For Carano, it was the second time she got to see Santos live and up close. The 23-year-old Brazilian, billed as the "toughest woman south of the equator," lived up to that moniker in improving her record to 6-0.
"I need to get to the gym and work on a lot of things," said Carano, now 7-0, who because of her model looks is sometimes easy to dismiss as a serious fighter, but she has strong stand-up, and proved to be difficult to take down and has shown improved submissions. "It's a fight that I want to do and it's a fight the people want to see."
"It's the biggest women's fight in MMA history," said Elite XC head of operations Jeremy Lappen. "It may be one of the biggest fights in MMA history."
While "one of the biggest fights in history" may be pushing it, stylistically, the match figures to be one that can live up to the hype. Carano is best in a stand-up fight with her Muay Thai background. Santos seems complete no matter where the fight goes, but her style is very similar to a prime Wanderlei Silva, with almost uncontrollable aggressive stand-up style, preferring rapid punches with some kicks, and trying to overwhelm her opponent from the start.
Unified MMA rules have women fight three-minute rounds instead of five minutes. It's a throwback two years ago, when women's fighting first gained prominence, because so many of the women had limited experience.
But at this point, there is no reason for elite women's fighters not to go with the same rules as the men.
The weekend that ended with the women as the star attractions of the promotion started as almost a circus, making Carano, and because she's the most well known fighter, the sport in general come across as a novelty act.
On Friday at weigh-ins, Carano, who has had weight issues at nearly every fight since her Showtime debut early last year, first weighed in at 142 3/4 pounds on a fight with a 141- pound weight limit. Worse, the pressure had been on Carano to make weight after failing to do so in her CBS debut fight on May 31, when she defeated Kaitlin Young.
For the Young fight, Carano had something of an excuse, in that her schedule taping "American Gladiators" left her with only a few weeks of training time. For this show, she had ample time, and claimed her weight wouldn't be an issue after getting a new nutrienist.
On her second try, after stripping down with a towel covering her, which her father, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Glen Carano, was holding up with his teeth, somehow came loose but she quickly covered up. While weighing in with no clothes on behind a towel is commonplace among fighters, when it was Carano, it caused an Internet sensation.
But what was strange is that on her second try, her weight was 142 1/2 pounds. Yet, a third try, with it appearing little was different, suddenly it was announced she had made weight. The story was that on the second try, a towel was accidentally left on her because nobody could understand how she could have dropped a pound-and-a-half in a few seconds. Even stranger when the second weigh-in was viewed back, there was no towel accidentally left on her shoulders.
Also unexplained was why her fight was at 140 pounds (with a one pound discrepancy allowed since it wasn't a championship match) when she's had these problems before. Cyborg, on the other hand, who didn't have problems making 140, fought at 148, largely because that was the weight Takahashi usually fights at.
Carano got the better of the standing exchanges, and emerged without a mark. The only time she was in trouble was late in the second round, when Kobold (16-3-1) finally got a takedown and was able to throw some punches on the ground until the short round ended.
Lappen indicated the fight would probably take place early next year, and would most likely determine Elite XC's first women's champion. They would be saving themselves a potential problem by having the championship at 145 pounds.
Santos, for her part, wasn't aware Carano wasn't the champion already.
"She's the champion," Santos said through an interpreter. "I want a shot at the belt."
- Gina Carano