I didn't shed many tears for the demise of EliteXC late last year. Any promotion that garners a national television contract and then does something as irresponsible as trying to convince the American public that Kimbo Slice is an elite fighter deserves what they got.
But the one major downer of EliteXC's end was the collapse of a reasonably successful women's division. Thankfully, Scott Coker and Strikeforce were able to step in and pick up the contracts. Now we're on the verge of the biggest moment in women's mixed martial arts history.
Saturday night, Gina Carano will face Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos for the Strikeforce Women's Championship at 145 pounds. You may have noticed the posters. It's the first time a major MMA card has been headlined by a battle on the distaff side, between two fighters that were skillfully built up by EliteXC into the biggest stars in the women's game (with more than a little help from NBC's American Gladiators, which showcased Carano as "Crush" for two seasons).
Strikeforce, however, deserves credit for making this happen. They've thrown some major promotion behind the event, even going so far as to make it the main event on a night that's certainly not lacking for good fights. Three titles will be contested on Saturday night (and Nick Diaz smoked away a shot at a fourth), but it's the ladies who are getting top billing. Beyond the promotional effort, Coker has worked to get the women on equal footing in another major way. For the first time in women's MMA, the title bout will have five-minute rounds. Previously, women's matches were contested in three minute rounds: the standard for "less experienced fighters". Moving to five minutes is a major step towards erasing any possible stigma that the women can't compete under the same conditions as the men.
Now, it's not perfect. Some of the marketing — and certainly, a lot of Carano's career, though whether the blame is hers or ours is up for debate — focused too much on the looks and not the skills of the competitors. Wags referring to the fight as "Beauty and the Beast" don't accomplish anything productive. And all this assumes that everything goes according to plan; both Carano and Cyborg have a spotty history of making weight, with both fighters missing their mark once in their last two fights and Carano just barely passing, sans clothes, on another one. It would be tremendously embarrassing for Strikeforce to contest a title at 145 with neither competitor at that weight.
Still, I'm going to be a glass-half-full guy here and think that what we're going to get on Saturday night is an excellent fight between two talented fighters. It's going to be a wonderful, celebratory night for women's mixed martial arts; hell, for women's sports in general.
Okay, great. Then what?
The biggest test for women's MMA this weekend won't be Carano-Cyborg; it will be Sunday morning. Will people be discussing the fight? Will it be a watercooler moment on Monday? And more importantly, will Strikeforce be able to take the momentum from the fight and use it to build a women's division that shines throughout all of MMA? Or will the hype from the fight fizzle out as quickly as it came, leaving women's MMA in the wilderness again?
If the fight is remotely close, or in any way controversial, obviously a rematch will be in the cards. But that's just forestalling things. As the major women's division in MMA, Strikeforce needs to have a Plan B: more top-tier contenders to step in and become household names. The women's division is still a shallow one, but look at the UFC for a model of doing things with thin divisions. Even in their shallower weight classes, when one championship fight is over, there's immediately an idea of which few fighters are in line for the next title shot. Beyond Carano and Cyborg, how many casual fans can name another women's MMA fighter? There's Kim Couture, sure, but she's known more for her ex than for her fight game, which still has a long way to go before she's ready to challenge either of the two leading ladies. No other woman fighter really even moves the needle on the Q-rating meter.
And is Strikeforce worried about a Cyborg win? At fight time, she'll probably go off as about a 2-1 favorite. As champion, she'll be a true test of the continued viability of women's MMA because she's likely not going to bring in the casual fans (and horny boys) like Carano will. Yes, she (and Carano) will both attract fans of good fighters, but face it: they were going to watch anyway. If Cyborg dominates Carano on Saturday and she's then stuck with a line of tomato cans to face, any gains made could be lost again quickly. Women's MMA faces enough of an uphill perception battle without having to deal with instability and lopsided fights. Coker needs to act quickly to build up more stars; I'd have loved to see the previously-announced Erin Toughill fight on the card, but she's being held back in case the main event needs a replacement fighter. As such, there will be no women's fights on the undercard of the biggest women's fight of all time.
It's a major mistake that Dana White hasn't been more receptive to the idea of a women's division; if not in UFC, then at least in WEC, where 145 is a natural weight class. It's ridiculous that the female faces of Zuffa are still the Ring Girls when there's a major untapped demographic for combat sports that women's MMA could help bring in. Strikeforce can only benefit from Zuffa's lack of foresight. By the time UFC comes around — and I think White will eventually come around, possibly around the time a network deal is signed — Strikeforce should make sure that they've got every promising female fighter under their flag already. As the only major American promotion embracing female MMA, Strikeforce has a responsibility to make their women's division something that can last, for the sake of the sport. MMA should not be exclusively a boy's club.
Gina Carano and Cristiane Santos are strong ladies, but their shoulders are only so big. Once the dust has settled on this superfight, it's on Strikeforce to stock the division, hype the contenders, and make sure that the first women's match to headline a major MMA card isn't also the last.
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