There's been a lot of opposition to women's mixed martial arts. To some pundits, seeing women punch each other in the face hits a nerve.
It's uncomfortable to many, even those plenty willing to let men batter each other into unconsciousness. Everything in our collective cultural upbringing screams "wrong." It's not lady-like, uncouth, better left to the boys.
Others didn't question a woman's right to compete.
They simply didn't think women belonged on the big stage. Men worked hard to build this sport, after all. Who were these women, competitors without the full breadth of martial skill and experience, to usurp a position on a major card for which a man had worked and trained harder?
Former UFC, IFL and Strikeforce executive Shannon Knapp was among these quiet critics.
"The first time I was asked to take a space away from one of my guys and give it to a girl? It was a hard sell," Knapp admitted in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. "I felt like we were still fighting the fight for the men's sport and all of the sudden I have to push one of my guys out and put a girl in there?
"That was my mentality. What changed that for me were women like Cyborg (Santos, the former Strikeforce 145 pound champion), women like Marloes Coenen. These girls were training like the boys and they came in to fight."
Today, Knapp has done a complete 180.
The architect of Strikeforce's lauded heavyweight class, Knapp was worried about the women's sport when Zuffa purchased Strikeforce last year. UFC President Dana White had made it clear that he didn't consider the women ready for UFC cards. Behind the scenes, some UFC executives were vocally concerned about how well mixing men and women would work for mainstream audiences.
The very future of women's mixed martial arts was at stake. Knapp knew she had to act.
"I like the fight. I like to make a difference," Knapp said. "I started getting phone calls from all these girls. 'Shannon, what are you going to do? Are you managing anyone?' I started looking around at the state of women's MMA and realized this is a battle I could fight. Some place I could make a difference.
"...When I look over at the female side of the sport, it's really in disarray. In order to create depth in these divisions, to solidify in people's minds that there is depth, you have to have an organization willing to invest the time and resources to build those divisions. There are all these catchweights, girls who fight 125 going all the way up to 145. Just to get a fight. That had to change. I thought to myself 'Build a platform Shannon.'"
Teaming with partner Janet Martin, Knapp formed Invicta FC, a show designed to showcase female fighters in every bout from the opener to the main event. Knapp's long experience in the sport attracted top talent for the first of what she hopes will be a handful of events this year. Her presence alone made the promotion an immediate player for women fighters who are skeptical of fly by night promoters who have burned them time after time.
"Shannon is definitely one of the reasons I am here," rising star Liz Carmouche said. "There was a rapport built in Strikeforce and I felt comfortable with her. She's not a promoter setting up for failure. With her extensive background, this is something that could be right there beside Strikeforce and the UFC. So I felt really comfortable signing on that dotted line."
Headliner Marloes Coenen echoes Carmouche. She felt so confident in Knapp's abilities that she signed an exclusive contract with Invicta for her North American fights.
"I have so much respect for her and what she's achieved in the business. That, for me, was a big factor in my decision to sign with Invicta exclusively...I had a lot of offers, but (Shannon) was the only one who took the time to fly over to meet with me, talk with me," Coenen said. "We spoke for two days, had a few dinners. She talked to me about anthropology, about females in the sport. This is really a step forward, to promote girls in an all-female show."
Invicta won't be the first promotion to attempt a card filled top to bottom with all female fighters. Former UFC announcer Jeff Osborne promoted Hook n Shoot cards over a decade ago with women packing the card. But that was a different time.
In a post-Gina Carano, post-Cyborg Santos, post-Ronda Rousey world, spectators are used to watching high-level women compete. Knapp has them in spades, including Coenen and top prospect Carmouche, who is just grateful to get another chance to compete.
"Each time I compete, there's usually a light bulb that goes on and I go 'Oh, right!' We may have practiced it 20 times, but it's when it happens in a fight that you go 'Now I understand.' I probably should have put my hand there so I didn't get punched in the face. Now I know," Carmouche said. "Getting in the cage is what helps me the most, because every time there is so much to take away. It takes me getting kicked in the face, punched in the face, for learning to occur."
Carmouche is also signed to Strikeforce, which has given her permission to compete on the Invicta card. It's an obvious potential pitfall for Knapp. What happens when she helps build a star, only to see Zuffa pull them back to the fold or gobble them up?
"I'm okay with that. I don't aspire to be king of the jungle. That's not what this has to be. That's not what this is about for me. For me it's about giving fighters the opportunity," Knapp said. "Sure, build it and they will come. Absolutely."
"I'm in the business to create dreams and opportunities. You can't do that and also stomp on those same dreams and take big opportunities away from girls. Am I going to build girls that Strikeforce may need? Absolutely. But is Strikeforce going to have girls they aren't using that I can use? Absolutely. If I build these weight classes and Zuffa decides they want them? That's great for the fighters. You can have what I have. I'll build more."
For now, details remain sparse. A television partner hasn't been found, although Knapp promises the first card will be widely available. In many ways, these early cards will serve as the promotion's "pilot" episode, designed to convince potential sponsors that this is an event worth partnering with.
"I hope we can inspire women," Coenen said. "This might be a moment in time to really push through. MMA is becoming so big, especially for the men. I think the time is right for women."
The inaugural Invicta FC card streams live Saturday April, 28, 2012. The live stream on InvictaFC.com will begin at 8 p.m. EST/5 p.m. PST with the event’s five-bout preliminary card and the seven-bout main card.
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