Being an MMA fighter is a tough way to make a living. It's an even tougher way to make a living if you're a woman.
The cards are few, the paydays are small and infrequent and there are few opportunities for everlasting fame (or even just a little bit of spotlight) the likes of which prominent male MMA fighters get.
Enter Shannon Knapp, president of Invicta Fighting Championships. Invicta FC is an all-female fight promotion, a noble experiment in the world of American mixed martial arts—and one born not by greed but by circumstance.
"What really started the wheel spinning was when Zuffa came in and purchased Strikeforce," Knapp told Bleacher Report.
Strikeforce was seen as the de facto home for women's MMA (WMMA) in the US since they had the most high-profile female mixed martial artists, such as Gina Carano, Miesha Tate and Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos.
The Zuffa purchase rightfully alarmed female athletes since UFC president Dana White was an outspoken critic of WMMA.
"There was this paranoia that had set in place, that nobody really knew what was going to happen and what was going to happen to the females," said Knapp.
Knapp sought to correct this problem.
"I got into this business so long ago. One thing that hasn’t changed about me is that my priorities have been the same…it’s always been about the sport and the athletes. I think when you work at something for so long, your passion starts to deplete. This is something that kind of ignited the fires again, get in here and make a difference. This is what I like. I like fighting the fight for the better life for the athletes."
And fight she did. Invicta FC is generating a substantial amount of buzz on MMA websites and message boards, a feat which many critics and armchair promoters wouldn't have thought possible for an all-female card.
However, there have been many new promotions in MMA that were the subject of anticipation and exaggerated hype—the IFL, Affliction, EliteXC, ProElite—and each one of them was a spectacular failure.
But Knapp knows the pitfalls of such organizations. She's been around MMA for quite some time.
"I’ve worked for probably everybody out there. Worked for KOTC, SportFight, IFL, UFC, Affliction, Strikeforce, I even did a WFA show, I was Randy Couture’s assistant, Bas Rutten’s assistant," she said.
Regarding the death of the various failed promotions that were touted as the next big thing, Knapp was undaunted since she is employing one thing those organizations didn't—frugality.
"I can promise you this: I’m not spending anywhere the kind of money they spent for their shows. I promise you that," she said.
Again, it's Knapp's background in the sport that will aid Invicta FC's viability as a promotion—she knows how the fight game works, and the people who got involved with the IFL and EliteXC (as well as the others) didn't.
"Our sport is just different," said Knapp. "It's more grassroots. People think you throw money at it and it grows—slow and steady wins the race.
"The way we’re approaching it is that we’re just trying to put out that we’re the best possible product that we can—a professional platform for professional female athletes…We’re not throwing money away. We’re not bleeding it out…Leading up to this event it’s been very much a skeleton crew."
There is therefore no question about the stability of Invicta FC on a corporate and financial level, but what about on a content level? Will MMA fans ever truly embrace female fighters?
Knapp seems to think so.
"If you truly love our sport then you won’t have a gender bias towards it because the sport is the sport whether a girl or guy is doing it—it’s still the same damn sport," she said.
Nevertheless, Knapp still admits that WMMA is not without its faults.
"There are mismatches out there. They’re all over the place," said Knapp.
"Here's the rebuttal: No one is coming in here trying to make a difference. No one is rolling up their sleeves and taking care of this side of the sport, and that’s where we come in. We’re trying to build a legitimate pro female athlete platform. We want to get in here and provide opportunities and change the landscape."
Certainly an honorable task, but MMA fans are far from honorable at times. Born amidst Facebook and forums, MMA fans are notorious for their hate spewed forth on the Internet. Knapp isn't worried and actually welcomes the haters.
"All I ask you is to have an open mind, tune in, click on it, and check it out," she said.
"These girls are coming out there Saturday night to put on a show. All you gotta do is give it a chance. I don’t care if you hate it, if you hate it and you just want something to talk smack about, come on over and take a peek and then go back onto your forum and talk smack and say you’ve given us a chance."
And giving it a chance is what all MMA fans should do. Invicta FC's inaugural fight card—headlined by former Strikeforce champion Marloes Coenen and Romy Ruyssen—promises to be an exciting one, and it's absolutely free; it's being streamed on the Invicta FC website.
How will Invicta and Knapp measure the event's success? Knapp summarized the answer to that question with such poise and honesty that it cannot be broken up.
Truly, honestly, and I know people think this is a croc of BS: We’re not in this to make money. We just want to be home to female athletes. We want to have a solid, solid promotion giving opportunity to each and every female athlete out there that wants an opportunity. As long as we can keep the lights on and provide the opportunities, we’re successful.
People go in with these big, starry eyes: 'Oh it’s the fastest growing sport in the world and we’re gonna make tons of money,' but that’s now how it works. We go in with a different mindset. As long as we can sustain ourselves and put on great fights and give these girls opportunity, we are successful.
With a goal so genuine and respectable, and with such a seasoned veteran at the helm, it'd be nigh impossible for Invicta Fighting Championships to not succeed. So tune in on Saturday and see the world of WMMA be changed forever.