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In an industry that really only has a few truly proven marketable top stars – and right now, only one stable major league operation – the folding of Elite XC last week has raised questions about the future of women's mixed martial arts and its biggest star, Gina Carano.
The two main organizations over the past two years who promoted women’s fights, Elite XC and Bodog, are now both out of business, leaving women searching for a place to ply their trade.
Affliction, hardly stable but at least still in the game, has never promoted women’s matches, but is open to the idea. UFC, at least as of the weekend, was not.
"I think that Gina Carano is a real star," UFC president Dana White said on Thursday. "She’s beautiful, talented and she’s a real fighter. I just don’t think there are enough good women fighters that you can start a division around them."
Jeff Osborne, longtime promoter of the Evansville, Ind., based HooknShoot promotion, which pioneered the promotion of women’s matches nearly eight years ago, said White's claim might have been valid two years ago, but that things have changed. He said the number of quality women fighters has increased greatly in the past two years, and believes if UFC started featuring women, the division would explode.
"It’s really taken off in the last year or two, maybe in a small part due to Gina," said Osborne.
In late 2006, when women fighters such as Carano, Tara LaRosa and Erin Toughill started getting some television curiosity attention, there were a number of questions about the viability of women’s MMA.
At the time, men’s MMA wasn’t even fully accepted by the sporting community. Women’s boxing had a run in the early part of the decade based around Laila Ali and Christy Martin, but it ended up a novelty that didn’t prove to have legs.
While there are exceptions, most women’s sports haven’t done well with spectators. And there were questions whether seeing women bruised and bloodied would be a turnoff that hurt the perception of the sport. UFC, treading cautiously until the sport was regulated in all the major commission states, didn’t want or need the risk.
"Women fights are generally more exciting than men’s fights," said Osborne. "Some of the men fight not to lose. The women just don’t care as much about winning and losing. They just want to go all out and fight."
The real visibility of the sport can be traced to Elite XC’s first event on Showtime on February 10, 2007. While all the pre-show hype was based around a Frank Shamrock vs. Renzo Gracie match, it was a prelim match between Carano and Julie Kedzie that stole the show. As the match ended (a unanimous decision for Carano), and the two hugged to a standing ovation, it was an emotional moment that put the sport on the map.
It almost didn’t happen. Like UFC, Showtime was very squeamish about the idea. Just doing MMA at the time was controversial enough. They were afraid of what people would think with women fighting inside a cage.
It was little known at the time that the match was a do-or-die proposition, as Gary Shaw, the head promoter of Elite XC, saw Carano as a potential breakout star and begged to get the match on the live show, saying that if it didn’t work, he’d never ask again. After the match was over, he never had to ask again, and all opposition from the Showtime side was gone.
By the time Elite XC made this year's deal with CBS to air matches on prime-time network television, Carano was considered the company’s second most valuable marketing asset, behind only Kimbo Slice.
On the last Elite XC show in Sunrise, Fla., Carano and Cris "Cyborg" Santos had two of the three most exciting fights on the show. Both got better fan reactions than Andrei Arlovski, a former UFC heavyweight champion who was probably the company’s second most popular heavyweight over the past five years, behind Randy Couture.
Osborne, one of the country's most successful independent MMA promoters, could have told the TV types that women's MMA would be a success. He has even promoted all-women’s fight cards, which have been hit-and-miss. His first women-only show, in 2002, was a big success, but the second, a few months later, did poorly.
"The first show, people didn’t know what they were going to see," he said. "Some of the regular fans didn’t go because they didn’t want to see only women fighting. Others came because they thought they were going to see catfights. The second show was way down, but by the third show, people started to care about the fighters. Today, with Kaitlin Young (who scored three first-round knockouts in a row in winning a tournament on one of his shows, and later faced Carano on CBS), people pay specifically to see her.
"It’s definitely come up over time," he said, noting his major women’s shows the past three years have shown a general increase in interest, as well as fighter depth and quality. "We’ve been able to retain the audience and build since 2005. And now there are more and more women training. Now half the people training in our gym are women. I honestly think now is the time to make a move."
For UFC, the key to a women's division at first would be Carano, and her contract situation is unclear with the Elite XC bankruptcy. But if she is available, it is not at all far-fetched she could become the biggest mainstream star in the sport, and become MMA’s answer to Danica Patrick.
Carano fought at 140 in Elite XC, and given her issues with making that number, it would be safer to use her in a 145-pound weight class. There are plenty of women who can fight at that weight, including former Elite XC fighters such as Santos, Young, Tonya Evinger, Kedzie, Kelly Kobold and non-Elite XC fighters such as Meisha Tate and Elaina Maxwell who are all well-trained and skilled fighters.
Osborne said there is actually far more depth at 125 and 135, noting people such as Sarah Kaufman (who Elite XC was using at 140), Tara LaRosa, Marloes Coenen, Rosi Sexton and Megumi Fujii, who are complete unknowns to anyone but the most hardcore fans. He believes there are 30-40 genuine quality women fighters today in those divisions.
There were women’s fights on all three of Elite XC’s shows on CBS. While the idea of MMA on CBS garnered the expected negative reaction from people who mostly had little or no understanding of the sport, there was virtually nothing negative written either before or after about the Carano vs. Kaitlin Young match.
And Young had massive swelling on her face, so the lightning rod of a women’s face being banged up from a fight, held live on CBS with millions watching, caused none of the feared outrage.
As far as the public not wanting to see women fight, the evidence couldn’t contradict the notion more. There have only been five MMA matches in history that have gained one million new viewers to a television show from the previous match. Two of them have been Carano’s two fights on CBS.
Based on minute-by-minute ratings and the increase from the prior match on the show, the largest-ever gain of new viewers for any MMA match on U.S. television was the Oct. 4 Carano vs. Kelly Kobold match. It gained 1,643,000 new viewers, growing the audience from 3.6 million to 5.2 million. Not shockingly, it gained 69 percent in males 18-34.
Most UFC television shows, in total, don’t even have 1,643,000 viewers.
The unanswered questions are whether the ratings and popularity are unique to her, and whether her popularity is more a short-term novelty of a woman with a great look for television who can fight, as opposed to the idea people as a general rule will care about woman fighters.
The Christy Martin phase of boxing would argue one way. Osborne’s experience as an MMA promoter is a strong argument the other way.