Women on Top

By Jake Rossen Aug 17, 2009
The fairly predictable thesis topics for MMA media coming out of this weekend: Severe-looking Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos defeats dimpled, doe-eyed Gina Carano, and women’s MMA immediately enters a blackout; Gina Carano was not as savage as advertised, damaging both her marketability and the quality of attention afforded to her sport; there is not enough female talent to support a recurring female division.

And one bonus springboard: Santos has a giant dragon tattooed on her back, and good God, is that the stuff of nightmares.

This is the great problem of an entire industry built almost exclusively on the talents and appeal of a single attraction. When Michael Phelps retires from swimming, his niche sport will resume anonymity. For millions of people in the 1970s, boxing started and ended with Muhammad Ali: No one else made their hairs stand up. Geena Davis, actress and archer, is the only reason you’ve ever seen the word “archery” in a mainstream publication. And you will never see it again.

This is not unreasonable thinking. Where it goes astray is the treatment of Carano’s loss as if it were some kind of assumed retirement. Carano isn’t going anywhere. And neither is the structure she helped build.

Danica Patrick, who is equally feminine in the equally masculine sport of car racing, attracts no end of attention despite the fact that she’s won exactly one major race in years of trying. Anna Kournikova was plastered on magazine covers for years, yet ESPN once named her one of the 25 biggest “sports flops” in history. For better or worse, female athletes tend to get leniency where male athletes would be shown the door.

It’s an ugly fact of beauty: Carano is pretty, and pretty people often land on their feet.

Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Carano will land on her feet.
She’ll be fine. And so will Strikeforce, which finds itself in the curiously attractive position of having one genuine superstar in Carano and one genuine boogeylady in Santos. The depreciation of Carano’s reputation is outmatched by the new appeal of Santos, who may not instill quite the same adolescent appreciation -- boys rarely fantasize of women with necks like tree trunks -- but is staking a reputation as a female terminator. It’s an easy sell: Santos smash.

(Their rematch will be big business -- maybe CBS business. Carano can smile and say that the 10-month layoff affected her, and that this time will be different. And maybe it would be.)

Strikeforce is additionally insured by the fact that there are few rivals for female talent. The UFC had its opportunity to seize Carano but didn’t take it, citing a lack of opposition. Bellator is scheduled to host a women’s tournament this fall, but having a clearly defined star to emerge from that scene could only boost a potential money fight down the line with two promotions willing to carpool to the bank together.

Even better: Women who are influenced by Saturday’s fight could be heading to gyms now. And who knows where they wind up? The lead-time for a credible athlete to become proficient in MMA isn’t exactly intimidating. (Carano had four months of muay Thai before her first fight.) A female Thai or Western boxer wouldn’t be defending the tackle of a 250-pound NCAA-accredited wrestler, making the learning curve a little less steep. (That’s only assuming grapplers like 2004 Athens Bronze Medalist Patricia Miranda -- who might see the sense in following their male counterparts to the prizefighting ring -- sit it out.)

In many ways, women’s MMA resembles the evolution of male competition in the mid-1990s; some sloppy affairs mixed with legitimate contenders. The UFC survived the absence of Royce Gracie. And female fighting will survive Carano’s showing to continue giving the sport what no one thought it needed: more estrogen.

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