Separate But Not Equals?

By Loretta Hunt Jun 24, 2009
Gina Carano was shocked by the news.

The Las Vegas native wasn’t told that her mixed martial arts bout against Elaina Maxwell for Strikeforce was going to be fought with two-minute rounds until she arrived at the weigh-ins the day before.

Carano-Maxwell, held on December 2006 in San Jose, Calif., was the first regulated women’s MMA contest in the state. The California State Athletic Commission had been regulating men’s MMA matches since March of that year utilizing three- to five-minute rounds. The women were obviously not going to get that same luxury.

“I thought it was a little ridiculous, actually, but I didn’t say anything,” said Carano, who had fought two previous fights with five-minute rounds in Las Vegas. “I thought, ‘Well, at least I’m prepared.’”

Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker was caught off guard just as much as Carano was.

“(CSAC Executive Officer) Armando (Garcia) called me right before the weigh-ins and said we’re not authorizing this fight to go more than the two-minute rounds for females,” recalled Coker.

Coker said when he asked Garcia for the reason why women would get shorter rounds than their male counterparts, he was told “that’s just the way it is.”

A martial arts promoter for over 20 years already, Coker had put on dozens of female kickboxing and muay Thai bouts without flinching. He said his women’s bouts were always among his most competitive and well received, but with Garcia, Coker didn’t want to rock the boat.

“It was a new relationship,” said Coker. “It was our fourth fight working with (the commission). I think he was a little bit, I don’t want to say nervous, but coming from a boxing background trying to regulate MMA, maybe he overcompensated.”

As a longtime boxing referee and officials’ instructor, Garcia, who could not be reached for comment for this article, possibly modeled the condensed rounds after women’s boxing, where two- to three-minute rounds are standard.

By the time Coker promoted his next fight that February in California, women’s bouts had been bumped up to three-minute rounds. That’s where they remained for the next two and a half years.

On June 16, however, Strikeforce issued a news release announcing that two forthcoming women’s bouts -- one in Washington and the other a championship title bout between Carano and Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos scheduled in California -- had received approval for five-minute rounds.

Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.com

Sarah Kaufman is no fan
of three-minute rounds.
“Until now, three-minute rounds were the norm for most female fights in the United States,” said the release.

That statement was misleading, as numerous states have and still allow five-minute rounds for its female MMA competitors, including Washington.

“There’s no distinction between the genders in our rules,” said Sandra Gonzales, program manager for the Washington Department of Licensing, which oversaw the Strikeforce event on June 19 with one female fight on the docket.

Gonzales said that, to her knowledge, no women’s mixed martial arts bout had ever been run at anything less than five-minute rounds in the state.

Illinois and Florida are two additional states that recently allowed five-minute rounds for women during Bellator Fighting Championships events.

And contrary to public perception, five-minute rounds are nothing new.

Since it first began regulating the sport in 2001, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board has overseen a rich history of female MMA competitions thanks to standouts like Tara Larosa, Laura D’Auguste, Roxanne Modafferi and Amanda Buckner in promotions such as Reality Fighting and Ring of Combat.

NJSACB Deputy Attorney General Nick Lembo said almost all of those bouts were contested with five-minute rounds, unless the promoter requested the rounds to be shortened.

“The unified rules passed in New Jersey in 2001 never called for lesser round times or a lesser number of rounds for female mixed martial arts contestants. No distinction was made between male and female contestants,” wrote Lembo in an e-mail to Sherdog.com. “Further, the Association of Boxing Commissions has never recommended that female contestants be limited to three-minute rounds.”

Lembo said one group that requested three-minute rounds in New Jersey was Pro Elite, another California-based fight organization that inherited the abbreviated rounds from the CSAC. Pro Elite, under its EliteXC and ShoXC brands, promoted 13 female fights in its 20-month tenure -- all of them under three-minute rounds. With the promotion’s two visits to New Jersey, Lembo said the state would have approved five-minute rounds.

“There is absolutely no reason why female MMA fighters should not be able to fight five-minute rounds,” wrote Lembo. “There’s no plausible argument available that I’ve ever heard of why they should not.”

Sherry Wulkan, a 12-year ringside physician for both the NJSACB and the New York State Athletic Commission, agrees.

“From a cardiovascular and physiological point of view, there’s no reason why a woman wouldn’t have enough stamina to do a five-minute round at all,” said Wulkan, who has worked hundreds of MMA bouts. “Women tire if they’re not trained appropriately, just as men do, but a well-trained woman, or one that comes in prepared, is easily capable of three, five-minute rounds.”

Wulkan, who’s trained muay Thai for 14 years and Brazilian jiu-jitsu for six off and on, said that she’s observed that some female fighters are, in some ways, in superior cardiovascular shape and more technical than some of their male counterparts.

Bill Douglas, who was appointed to the role of CSAC assistant executive officer right before Garcia abruptly left his position last November, said the three-minute rounds had been introduced in California as a way to monitor athletes -- both male and female -- in a state devoid of an amateur system.

“Three-minute rounds were introduced for ‘beginning’ athletes, male and female, to allow them to compete and gain experience,” wrote Douglas in an e-mail last week. “By the term ‘beginning,’ it applies to athletes competing in a new sport for the first time or for the first few fights despite the fact that the athlete may have had previous combative sports experience in another discipline.”

While the practice might have been born from the best intentions, it has created confusion in the sport. Numerous female athletes have fought in California under three-minute rounds, regardless of the fact that they have established records that hardly classify them as “beginners.” And that has perpetuated a stance that women fighters are in some way less equipped to handle MMA’s battlefield than the men.

Sarah Kaufman carried an 8-0 record into her debut fight in California on May 15 for Strikeforce. She also had to settle for three-minute rounds after enjoying a majority of her career working within the confines of five-minute rounds.

“To the average person, it was kind of like, ‘Why are they doing threes? Are they not as good? Are they not as talented?’ I think it puts a lot of questions into peoples’ minds,” she said.

Kaufman, 23, won her May 15 fight against Meisha Tate and was invited back for a bout on June 16 with the promotion in Washington, where she was awarded a unanimous decision over Shayna Baszler after 15 minutes.

She said the extra six minutes are crucial to any fighter -- male or female.

“Every second counts when you’re only doing three minutes,” said Kaufman. “You get caught up against the cage for 45 seconds, and that’s a third of the fight already done. It doesn’t give the fighters a chance to continually work on something that they’re trying to go for.”

Kaufman said that when specific promotions request three-minute rounds, it sends out the wrong message.

“From that point, it’s looking more like you’re trying to push forward a particular fighter or a particular style, as opposed to promoting all females that put on good fights,” she said. “I really think that there was no reason for it. The five-minute rounds is what MMA is. It seemed like we were stepping back.”

Carano said women’s MMA parallels the sport’s journey for acceptance, as “MMA had to prove themselves coming up behind boxing.”

“I shy away from the whole discrimination thing, just because I feel things needs to progress and we should be thankful but at the same time try and push for those five-minute rounds,” said Carano. “It’s baby steps. I’m one for closing my mouth and working hard. We’ve been ready to fight five-minute rounds and we have been fighting five-minute rounds, but it just takes people a little while to catch up. You have to wait for the other people to get used to the idea of what you’re doing.”

And as some in the fight community come to grips with the fact that women’s MMA isn’t going anywhere, where does that leave female fighters in California past Aug. 15?

“[Women’s bouts] will be determined on a case-by-case basis, as it is being handled to this day for men's bouts,” wrote Douglas. “Experience and skill level are the primary factors for evaluating the bout's time limits per round.”

Strikeforce’s Coker said his organization will make the case for five-minute rounds, if necessary, in every state it visits.

“When we go to a state, unless it’s against the law,” he said, “we’re going to do five-minute rounds.”
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