ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- It could be said that women’s mixed martial arts truly debuted to the masses a little more than five years ago, when Gina Carano and Julie Kedzie locked horns in the first female fight ever televised on the Showtime network.
Fighting for the now-defunct EliteXC promotion, Kedzie and Carano battled for nine entertaining minutes -- rounds were three minutes then -- and earned “Fight of the Night” honors, all while giving the fairer sex some much-needed exposure in a rapidly emerging sport. The two women shared a warm embrace at the conclusion of the bout, which Carano won via unanimous decision, before promoter Gary Shaw entered the cage to inform them of the history they had just made. Kedzie, then 25 years old and still fighting out of her native Indiana, had been blissfully unaware of the significance of the event. At the time, it seemed like just another fight.
“I didn’t really think it was that big of a deal,” Kedzie told Sherdog.com inside trainer Greg Jackson’s office in Albuquerque. “I honestly thought that Showtime was the name of the promotion. I was pretty dumb. I’m sure my manager had explained it to me, but, to me, it was another fight. I like everything just being another fight.”
Carano, who back then was just four fights into her professional career, was well on her way to becoming the most marketable and recognizable figure in female MMA. Kedzie, meanwhile, had big dreams of her own.
“I wanted to be a big deal,” she said. “I wanted to be in the UFC. I wanted to be this and I wanted to be that. In the end, it’s being comfortable with yourself as a fighter, being who you are as a fighter [that truly matters].”
Today, Carano is currently pursuing an acting career and has not stepped inside the cage since taking a beating at the hands of Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos in the headliner of a Strikeforce event on Aug. 15, 2009. Kedzie continues to soldier onward; Carano was her 14th professional bout, and she has fought 12 times since, capturing the inaugural Jackson’s MMA Series women’s bantamweight crown along the way. She fancies herself as the female MMA equivalent to an Aaron Riley or Chris Lytle, respected veterans of the sport who never quite achieved mainstream prominence.
“Superstardom I don’t think is in my future,” Kedzie said. “I think being a good, established fighter is who I want to be -- one of those, we’re-putting-the-foundation-down-for-what-a-good-fight’s-like types.”
Meanwhile, current Strikeforce 135-pound queen Ronda Rousey continues to monopolize the headlines, both for her skill inside the arena and her brash personality outside of it. Her March 3 triumph over then-bantamweight champion Miesha Tate was the most highly anticipated women’s tilt in recent memory, drawing at least as much -- if not more -- interest than Carano in her heyday.
Rousey delivered, submitting Tate with an armbar at the 4:27 mark of the opening round. Since then, her popularity has continued to skyrocket. The Olympic judoka has appeared on the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s “Body” issue, was a guest on “Conan” with Conan O’Brien and is the subject of a Showtime “All-Access” special. She will once again be the featured attraction on Saturday, as she defends her belt against former titlist Sarah Kaufman at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego.
Kedzie will be on the undercard against Tate, the only woman to last longer than 49 seconds against Rousey. It is likely the highest-profile bout for the Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts representative since she squared off with Carano, but Kedzie is not buying into the hype. Instead, she looks at Tate much like she looked at Carano some five-and-a-half years ago.
“I’ve been asked [whether Tate is the biggest bout of my career] a lot, but she’s just another opponent. I don’t disrespect her or her marketing schemes or whatever she does, but she’s just another fighter. That’s how I see it,” Kedzie said.
Kedzie was at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, cornering Kaufman the night Rousey defeated Tate. While she was most pleased with her friend and sometimes-training partner earning a title shot, Kedzie also came away impressed with Tate.
“I thought Miesha was doing well. It looked like she might have abandoned her game plan somewhat because when she was standing and striking, she was actually doing a pretty good job of hitting angles and pushing the attack,” Kedzie said. “I thought on the ground her transitions looked fantastic. She was dealing with somebody who was a stronger, higher-caliber grappler than she was. I know she got caught -- she got armbarred -- but Ronda has armbarred everybody. I thought Miesha did better than people gave her credit for in that fight.”
Tate has earned her “Takedown” moniker for her wrestling background, and she continues to hone her craft at the highly respected Team Alpha Male camp in California. According to FightMetric.com, Tate enjoyed a 15-to-0 advantage in takedowns in six Strikeforce bouts prior to facing Rousey five months ago. Dealing with strong wrestlers has been a weakness for Kedzie, who was held against the fence for much of her most recent outing -- a July 2011 loss to Alexis Davis.
However, facing her shortcomings against Tate is an opportunity Kedzie relishes. In addition to training with the plethora of female fighters that inhabit Jackson’s MMA and improving under the guidance of wrestling coach Israel Martinez, “Fireball” has also tested her skills on the mat against the likes of UFC talents John Dodson and Diego Brandao.
“For me to fight a wrestler when I’ve come up short against wrestlers is a blessing. It’s always a test, and I’m glad they put one in front of me that’s a big test like this,” Kedzie said. “I’ve learned that [wrestling is] a martial art that I was woefully ignorant about; you don’t think it’s that exciting of a sport because a lot of it is just grabbing on here or grabbing on there. It’s hip shifting, it’s movement and it’s setups. I’m really developing a new appreciation for wrestlers and how they move.”
While Kedzie’s showdown with Tate has garnered its fair share of attention, these days it is nearly impossible to be a woman competing in MMA and not get asked about Rousey’s impact on the sport. By sharing roster space with the Olympic bronze medalist, Kedzie figures to benefit from increased publicity that Rousey will bring to a card that includes two other women’s MMA bouts. While Kedzie will admittedly be rooting for Kaufman, she can respect what Rousey has been able to accomplish so far in her burgeoning career.
“She’s brash, she’s fun and she makes me laugh in the stuff she says. I’m of course cheering for Sarah Kaufman, but I think that Ronda’s put herself in a position to get a lot of attention. That’s great. The people who do fight her will get paid more because of it,” Kedzie said.
However, Kedzie will not be donning her best evening gown to help promote one of her own fights anytime soon. The promo for Rousey-Tate, while not out of line by any means, clearly placed a premium on sex appeal and even included the phrase: “Looks aren’t the only thing that can kill.”
Been there, done that, Kedzie said -- and never again.
“I’m not a huge fan of promoting yourself sexually,” she said. “That’s because, through my own experiences of trying to do that, I felt gross and cheap.”
For the most part, Kedzie is not concerned about who is and who is not currently above her on MMA’s ladder of fame. If and when Rousey becomes a prospective opponent, she will allow herself more time to mull over all things “Rowdy.” If that day never comes, Kedzie is perfectly content following in the footsteps of the Rileys and Lytles of the world.
“When I started out back in the day, I was much more [concerned] with who was getting attention,” she said. “I’m 31. Who cares who the spotlight is on? I don’t care anymore.”