We are at a pivotal place in the history of women's mixed martial arts. Strikeforce, the promotion that in many ways was built on female stars like Gina Carano, "Cyborg" Santos and Ronda Rousey, teeters on the brink of extinction. As fighters continue to abandon ship to the UFC, the future seems bleak.
Bellator, another event that has invested time and promotional power into the women's sport, goes months in between featuring women at all. Other events use female bouts like old school wrestling promoters used matches between midgets—as oddities, spectacle to help sell the show. But little thought goes into the matchmaking and no time is spent developing the stars of tomorrow.
There was a void, a gap that former UFC and Strikeforce executive Shannon Knapp nimbly filled with her Invicta Fighting Championships. Her first event, featuring Strikeforce fighters Liz Carmouche and Marloes Coenen, shocked the MMA world by attracting more than 200,000 fans for a free live stream of their first show in April.
"Those numbers—I was blown away. I never expected that. I called (the streaming) company up to go over everything with me. Just so I could believe it," Invicta president Shannon Knapp told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "It was way beyond my expectations. Was I impressed, excited and happy? Yeah, of course."
For Knapp, a calculated risk had paid off. Like many regional promotions, or national events just getting their feet wet, HDNet had come courting. The MMA friendly channel covers the cost of production and offers a small fee to boot. It helps spread the risk a bit, keeping a promotion from losing big. But Invicta feared it would also prevent any chance of winning big as well. Knapp and business partner Janet Martin decided to go another direction.
"I have Time Warner and I don't even get that channel," Knapp said. "We're trying to build a brand here. I can go out here, I can pay for my own filming, put it out there for free and I can build my brand everywhere in the world. Instead of the small amount of people who can see it on HDNet, everyone can see it."
Now, three months later, Knapp is hoping lightning will strike twice for Invicta. Like former UFC welterweight champion Matt Hughes says, you aren't really a champion until you defend your title. Knapp says she is driven to prove Invicta's success was no fluke.
"I want to go in and prove we're not a one-hit wonder. We're trying to capture people's attention. All I'm asking for is people just give us that one moment. Click on, take a look and see what it's about. I don't think if you're a fight fan, a true fight fan, that you can be gender biased. Because I can guarantee you, every one of my female fighters is coming to fight. They're skilled, they're talented and they deserve to be on this stage."
A Risky Main Event
To main event the second card, Knapp looked for the best fighters available. Many promoters would have shied away from 2004 Olympic silver medalist Sarah McMann. A grinding wrestler, McMann, despite an undefeated record, has had some fights that had fans yawning. But she's also a fighter who has the potential to be the world's best at 135 pounds.
Knapp rolled the dice, matching McMann with submission expert Shayna Baszler. She's been a bit of a nervous wreck ever since. Does Knapp worry that the fight could be an bore, two grapplers battling for incremental advantages? Few promoters would admit that days before the fight. Knapp is a straight shooter though, and didn't hesitate to offer an honest assessment.
"Yeah, honestly," Knapp said with a laugh. "Yeah, I'm always concerned. You match them up, and it's a good matchup on paper. And then you just hope for the best. It's out of your control then. (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva would tell you the same thing.
"I'd like to say no, but...I think any time you put two wrestlers together and they both have that foundation—you take the risk that the fight can stall out. We are going to encourage them that it not happen. But a fight is a fight and an athlete will always go back to their roots. It's just a comfort zone. This is their life. This is their career. And a loss does matter. You don't want them to take chances or to manipulate them. I'm never going to say 'Hey Sarah, I know you're an Olympic wrestler and you're going to want to take her to the ground. But could you not? Could you stand and trade with her for a few minutes first?' No. You're overstepping your boundaries at that point."
McMann will make no promises that the fight will be exciting. Her focus is on winning.When I told her about Knapp's fears for the fight, she did nothing to alleviate them.
"I won't pull any punches either. Yes, it's entertainment, but I go out there with one objective," McMann said. "And usually me pursuing that objective ends up being entertaining. But I go out there to win. It's a competition. If this were fake wrestling, I'd be more than happy to go out there and be entertaining and have that be one of my objectives.
"When you take the highest levels of any athletic competition, it's typically more boring. I have a solid offensive game and defense. The other person has solid offense and defense. It's harder to execute moves on somebody. Now, if they give me somebody I can crush, that's going to be an exciting fight...but if you take two highly skilled athletes, they're not always the most exciting fights. I'm not going to lose a fight in order to be exciting."
The Zuffa Shadow
After the incredible success of the first Invicta show, rumors began to spread that Zuffa, owners of both the UFC and Strikeforce, were silent partners in the promotion. This speculation was fueled by Knapp's unusual business relationship with Zuffa, which allowed Invicta to use Strikeforce fighters on her show. Knapp wanted to set the record straight though—this is her show, not anybody else's.
"Zuffa is not a partner in our promotion. Not one penny. This is me and my business partner's money. It's us and just us. That's it. And isn't that a beautiful thing to have happen? Two people making decisions and building an organization," Knapp said. "I hear everything. It only takes one person to create a seed and spread it. Dana White and I have a mutual respect. But he doesn't own Invicta. I've been asked this, even by potential broadcast partners. Does Zuffa? No. Does Lorenzo (Fertitta)? No. Does Dana? No. They didn't ask about Frank (Fertitta). What about Frank? No."
The Rousey Dilemma
One Strikeforce fighter Invicta hasn't been able to ink a deal with is Ronda Rousey. The bantamweight champion is everywhere. On the cover of ESPN: The Magazine. In the tabloids dissing the ubiquitous Kim Kardashian. Presumably finding time to train in between media appearances.
It's a flashback to the days of Gina Carano, the beautiful former Strikeforce champion who has gone on to a career in the movies. And it makes Knapp a little nervous.
"I think Ronda's doing some great things," Knapp said. "But it's a little scary sometimes when you put the success of a sport on one person's shoulders. What happens if, and I'm not saying this will happen, but what happens if Sarah Kaufman does come in and upset Ronda? What happens to every thing that has been built around her and laid on her shoulders?
"It's kind of scary. Look at what happened with Gina (Carano). She carried the weight of the sport on her shoulders. When she got upset by Cris (Cyborg) look what happened. It's scary and makes me a little nervous."
McMann, who started focusing on Rousey as a future opponent the minute Ronda dropped to 135 pounds, doesn't have a problem with her status as the sport's "it girl." But she agreed with Knapp that women's MMA would be better served with a broader promotional focus.
"Optimally we would have more than one girl," McMann said. "Just so people can see the variety that exists within women's MMA. But I don't think it's bad that it's resting on her shoulders. If she decided to retire or leave the sport, or has to step back for some reason, somebody else would step in and fill that gap, just like Ronda filled that gap after Cris Cyborg had been all anyone talked about for a long time. And before that it was Gina."
McMann is happy to fly under the radar a bit. "I don't want to be the face of women's MMA. I'm more than happy that somebody like Ronda likes that role. That's cool with me. I wouldn't want to do the things you have to do to fill that role. I just want to beat everybody. That's my goal."
Knapp, for her part, frets a bit about the intense focus on Rousey. She's a big supporter and appreciates Ronda's public support of Invicta. But despite Rousey's obvious box-office appeal, the potential for disaster, she's afraid, lurks.
"I won't take anything away from Ronda," Knapp said. "I think she's as good an ambassador as anyone. I embrace what she's doing. I know she's trying. My only concern is whether it's fair to put all that weight on one athlete's shoulders.
"That's what bothers me a little. We build all this, put it all behind one person and let's say that person goes in there and they lose that fight. What does that do when we've put all the hype just on that one person? As far as the sport goes? Do fans say 'See, I knew these women sucked.'"
The goal, for any promoter of combat sports, is to see transference. In theory, all the promotion and hype put into Rousey would transfer to Kaufman in the event the Canadian beat the Strikeforce champion. Knapp understands that in principle, but doesn't think it applies here, not after months of Rousey hype.
"Not in this case. We'd love if it would, but not in this case. That has to do with public perception and the way we've sold it. We've sold Ronda as unbeatable. Now, what if Sarah Kaufman comes in and demolishes her? Oops. That was the face of female MMA. That's who the sport was being built on. Now what? What do we do with it? There are many faces of women's MMA. And when you watch our event you'll get to see each and every one of them."