Miss Congeniality

By Loretta Hunt May 28, 2008
On a crisp November morning in Culver City, Calif., Gina Carano (Pictures) pulled up in front of Sony Pictures Studios. It was the final day of cuts for "American Gladiators," the popular spandex-laden, physical-challenge driven TV series that thrived on Saturday night television from 1989-1996.

Carano hadn't been aware of the show when news leaked of the latest guilty pleasure revival. She hadn't waited in the lines of thousands that churned out as many pull-ups as they could muster at rapid-fire pace or catapulted their bodies from end-to-end of a gymnasium in the hopes of catching the right producer's eye.

Instead, NBC producers had seen Carano -- who had fought two of her five career MMA bouts under the newly-formed EliteXC banner that year on Showtime -- and wanted her. She had turned down audition after audition, until her coach of four months, six-time UFC champion Randy Couture (Pictures), encouraged her to head down to Los Angeles and at least give it a try.

Sitting outside the studio, looking up at the massive white building in front of her, Carano made a decision. She started her car, pulled out of the parking lot, and kept driving until she reached a friend's house in San Diego.

"I didn't want it to take away from who I am. I wanted to live up to my responsibilities of being a well-known female MMA fighter," says Carano. "I wanted to be good for the sport."

Carano's name, along with her beautiful face and a physique more suited for modeling than fighting, had become a regular fixture of EliteXC advertisements played in diligent rotation on Showtime. Carano's gutsy performance with fellow femme Julie Kedzie (Pictures) for EliteXC "Destiny" that previous February has not only helped launch the fledgling promotion, it had cemented at least a temporary home for female fighters.

The dimple-cheeked 26-year-old was crowned "The Women's Face of MMA," and with good reason. EliteXC executives saw that same intangible quality that fueled NBC producers to go back to the raven-haired beauty one last time and convince her to finally join the "American Gladiators" cast the night before shooting was scheduled to begin. This time, Carano hesitantly agreed.

"After I walked away from doing it a third time, I decided I would not be staying true to myself if I allowed worries of my image or worries of being shy and not wanting attention hold me back from an opportunity," says Carano. "That would've been the easy way out. If people are going to be negative about what I am doing, than they never understood me to begin with. I love being a fighter, but that is not all that I am."

Seven months later, Carano still lives by these words, mainly because she has to. Not surprisingly, fame has come with a price.

The success of "Gladiators," which drew 12 million viewers in its debut episode, has spawned a second season. And as the NBC producers had hoped, Carano's quiet, but assertive turn as the character "Crush" has penetrated pop culture's consciousness.

A recent Yahoo! Buzz article cooed that, in addition to appearing regularly on their list alongside tennis ace Maria Sharapova and the cast of "American Idol," Carano garnered 19 times more interest than former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell (Pictures) after his May beating from Quinton "Rampage" Jackson a year before, 10 percent more buzz then hotel heiress Paris Hilton, and 25 times more looks than former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards after his endorsement of Barack Obama - all in one week.

Yet for every fan that ogles at Crush in her shiny, skin-tight metallic suit while she bashes contestant's heads in with a giant-sized Q-tip, there are detractors, mostly MMA-orientated, who confirm her greatest fear: Carano shouldn't be taken seriously as a fighter.

Her performance against Minnesota college student Kaitlin Young (Pictures) this Saturday at EliteXC: Primetime on CBS will undoubtedly suffer, they say. She shouldn't have agreed to a second season of the time-consuming series, they note. She should have stayed home and trained. Carano just doesn't care about fighting.

There is a congregation that believes the physically captivating Carano has been given more opportunities then many of her counterparts, some of them much more seasoned than herself. It's a thought ESPN's "E:60" series touched upon when they profiled Carano a few weeks ago.

EliteXC Live Events president Gary Shaw, an accomplished boxing promoter who discovered the former muay Thai fighter in her hometown of Las Vegas, is quick to defend Carano's honor.

"It's a real fight with Kaitlin and if she's successful, she moves on," says Shaw. "If she doesn't she'll still move on. Those girls that have negative things to say, if they're in the right weight class, they're gonna have an opportunity -- if they can fight. But just because someone's done it longer, doesn't mean they're the right person."

Carano didn't ask to be the right person. The daughter of Glenn Carano, a former quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys and later a member of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, stumbled into fighting. When Carano followed an ex-boyfriend into Master Toddy's Muay Thai Academy like a puppy dog, the tough, but Teddy bear-like trainer zoned in on her, standing on the sidelines.

Carano had been an athlete as a child, immersed in gymnastics and dance classes, then a standout on school basketball, softball, and volleyball teams. However, Carano hadn't stepped onto a playing field in a while.

"Oh baby, you fat," Carano recalls the grandmaster telling her in his thick accent. A few days training to tame the chub unlocked a hidden aggression. Carano was soon fighting on the amateur, then the professional circuits for the next four years. MMA was the natural progression.

There are few mixed martial artists, male or female, that have matched Carano's rise. She was a featured attraction on Showtime by her fourth fight, though Carano's path has some glaring similarities to the majority of her class. Her parents, particularly her father who went on to become a successful businessman, didn't take a shine to her career choice.

"My whole life, my dad was trying to tell me ‘go to school, become a lawyer, become a doctor,' you know, become something of importance and then I go and become a professional fighter and it threw him off of his seat for a second," says Carano.

Mr. Carano, now shown cageside cheering for his daughter at the top of his lungs during telecasts, eventually came around.

A solid performance against the doe-eyed Young could bring others around, though there are cards stacked against Carano. It looked like fun and games, but the "Gladiators" schedule was gruelingly unpredictable from day to day, and Carano had a difficult time fitting her fight training in while she hopped between gyms in Los Angeles.

The series wrapped shooting only three and a half weeks ago and Carano raced back to Sin City to reconnect with her teammates at the Xtreme Couture gym. There, it was back to twice-a-day training with her mentor Couture.

"She hit the ground running as soon as ‘Gladiators' was finished running and has gotten herself up to speed," says Couture. "I was actually impressed with how quickly she was able to get herself into shape, so she was obviously working out some during the shoot."

Then there is Carano's weight, a constant topic of debate among fans who've calculated every inch that has seemingly been packed on or taken off her athletic 5-foot-8 frame. When a woozy Carano balanced on one leg on the scale, struggling to make the 140-pound cutoff last September before a bout with Tonya Evinger (Pictures), the floodgates opened.

Carano hasn't hidden the fact that she cuts weight -- many of her male counterparts do so under much less scrutiny. She doesn't feel the need to apologize for it either. None of her bouts have been cancelled for her failure to make weight.

"You hit this point of complete exhaustion, of complete emptiness, and you just don't care," she says. "You enter this euphoric state and it can be dangerously addicting."

Carano said she will be within five or six pounds of her target weight when she touches down in Newark, N.J. to take center stage at the Prudential Center as part of the first MMA card to air on broadcast television in a prime time slot.

She's overcome a lot of her shyness through her stints both as an American Gladiator and as a fighter. She's also learned to silence the critics, especially the one in her head who convinced her to pull out of the Sony Studios lot that November morning nearly seven months ago.

"I kind of live in my own world anyways, so I don't feel the same way that others might feel about things," Carano says. "I'm very good about keeping a good head about me and not buying into the hype, and really looking at things for what they are. I know who I am and where I'm at in my career. I know I'm 5-0 in MMA and keep my head about me. I think that might be one reason why people do like me."
<h2>Fight Finder</h2>