Gina Carano: How Would Women's MMA Pioneer Do in the Sport Today?

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Gina Carano: How Would Women's MMA Pioneer Do in the Sport Today?
Rich Schultz

Unless you've been living under a rock lately, you've seen that Gina Carano has been the talk of the MMA town. 

Sure, she hasn't fought in years. Sure, she hasn't fought at 135 pounds since 2006. Sure, she would probably get an undeserved title shot only to immediately leave again for Hollywood. But, as Chad Dundas spelled out in irrefutable fashion, the air of inevitability remains.

One day, she will need a paycheck. One day, the UFC will need a big headline. Then, it will happen.

What made her such a draw in the first place? Was she more than just a pretty face? Really, how good was Carano at this whole mixed martial arts thing?

That's what we're here to take a look at. What was she good at, what wasn't she good at, and how does she stack up to other fighters today? 

Find out right here.

 

What Did Gina Carano Do Well?

While many MMA fans try to paint the picture that Carano was a regional-level fighter who got by based on her looks, that isn't actually true. While her muay thai pedigree was a bit overhyped, there's no getting around the fact that she actually was a legitimate threat standing.

As one would expect from a muay thai practitioner, she owned a rangy jab, a stifling front kick and a chopping leg kick. Her bread and butter, though, was her devastatingly accurate right hand, which she frequently found success with in nearly every conceivable way.

EliteXC footage
Carano's fake jab into overhand right was one of techniques she had regular success with.

Sometimes, she would channel her inner Roy Nelson (but not really, since her MMA career predates Nelson's UFC career) and feint left into a big overhand right. Sometimes, she would lean back and deliver a counter right. Sometimes, it would be the punctuation mark of a combination. At all times, it was about landing that right hand.

Of course, opponents would try to hinder Carano's punching power through clinch work and takedowns whenever possible. It was her raw physical power that let her still find success in those situations.

Indeed, Carano was able to outmuscle basically every opponent she ever faced with ease. While many of them were woefully undersized, even Cris "Cyborg" Santos (now Cris "Cyborg" Justino) was unable to consistently bully Carano in her usual fashion. 

EliteXC footage.
Carano was difficult to take down, even for fighters from grappling backgrounds.

In the clinch, she was able to wrench a hand free to deliver short but damaging punches or twist things around enough to make room for knees. If opponents attempted a takedown, she was able to simply yank at them to free herself. If things hit the ground, she was able to explode before her opponent could get into a dominant position and wind up in either mount or side control with a strange degree of consistency.

Carano displayed both her lethal right hand and her pure muscle in her one-punch knockout of Rosi Sexton.

World Pro Fighting Championships footage.
Carano's strength and accurate right got her this win over Rosi Sexton.

After having a takedown stuffed, Sexton clinched with Carano. Throughout the fight, Sexton had successfully limited Carano's offensive output by keeping her very, very close. Carano, the much bigger fighter, was frequently able to swap position, though, and pressed Sexton to the cage to deliver those short punches and knees.

The ending of the fight saw her do just that but slip a huge right hand over Sexton's shoulder. The punch landed clean to the jaw, crumbling Sexton. It was an incredibly rare one-punch knockout in women's MMA among two legitimate competitors.

 

What Did Gina Carano Not Do Well?

The thing many people focus in on was her inability to make weight. Hand-in-hand with that was her iffy gas tank, which was frequently on display, even with EliteXC's three-minute rounds.

How much of it was a lack of commitment and how much of it was an actual weakness on her part? I don't know. What I can say for sure is that the holes in her game didn't end there.

While Carano had solid hands, her kicking game was severely lacking. She was capable of kicking very hard, of course, but those kicks were thrown without being set up and were rarely followed up.

EliteXC footage.
Carano telegraphed her kicks, which led to takedowns on numerous occasions.

The dangers of throwing hard leg kicks without any kind of setup are obvious these days following Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva 2 (oh, and Tyrone Spong vs. Gokhan Saki). In addition to that, Carano would often open rounds by spamming front kicks to the body. In both cases, she was at high risk of being taken down.

In the clinch and on the ground, as we discussed earlier, she was able to consistently escape danger. That said, she would also frequently find herself in dominant positions with no clue how to use them.

The most egregious example of this sort of wasted chance came when she faced off with Cyborg. When the Brazilian muffed a throw attempt from the clinch, Carano found herself in full mount position. She immediately postured up and began throwing punches as Cyborg moved toward half-guard. Carano, rather than actually trying to maintain mount (or even just being content that she wasn't losing a brawl against Cyborg anymore) abandoned it, needlessly giving up a prime offensive opportunity.

Strikeforce footage.
Carano was bullied standing up but passed on the chance to fight on the ground.

Both her kicks and her inability to take advantage of strong ground position suggest poor risk management and, in turn, suggest a low fight IQ.

That, frankly, is both to be expected and entirely forgivable. Keep in mind, while Carano is undeniably a pioneer of women's MMA, her career was just three years and eight fights long. Even those three years weren't exactly full-time MMA, as she fit in various media obligations and TV appearances that wound up being the preview for her leaving the sport.

Fans never really got to see a "complete" Carano in the cage. While there was an undeniable progression in her overall abilities as time progressed, she never wound up with the veteran savvy to become an elite-level mixed martial artist.

 

How Would Carano Fare in Today's Women's Division?

Obviously, when it comes to Carano, there are many factors to consider when it comes to a possible UFC run in 2014. 

She hasn't fought since August 2009. She had trouble making weight, even when it came to 140 pounds. It's unknown how much she has been training since leaving the sport.

It's basically impossible to say how much better or (far more likely) worse a 2014 version of Carano is compared to the 2008 model. Because of that, let's simply hypothesize using her circa 2008.

It has been said many times but is worth repeating: Women's MMA today is far, far more evolved than it was a few years ago. When Carano was a top female fighter, weight classes were borderline nonexistent, and fighters' skill sets were still very narrow. 

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While women's MMA is still a work in progress, legitimate athletes and world-class grapplers are funneling into the sport en masse. There were no Ronda Rouseys or Sara McManns in 2008, and the difference between today's best and the best of 2008 is apparent every time they happen to face off.

Carano was ahead of her time in the same way Chuck Liddell was ahead of other fighters back in the day. Her striking was generally superior to her competition, and her grappling game was evolved just enough to avoid being put in a position where she couldn't use it. That is a concept the competition just hadn't quite grasped yet, and it's something female mixed martial artists are still in the process of rectifying. 

A combination of formidable striking and raw physical strength won't make her a champion at this point—not with Ronda Rousey around, at leastbut it would definitely be enough to get wins.

The Ultimate Fighter 18 runners-up and undersized scrappers like Amanda Nunes and Bethe Correia would likely be easy pickings for Carano (who, as it stands, is good enough to qualify as Top 10 right now). Past that lot, though, it is a question of individual matchups. 

Would she be able to compete with Sara McMann and Ronda Rousey, who have Olympic medals in takedowns? Probably not.

Would she be able to avoid the mat against less accomplished fighters who have grappling backgrounds like Cat Zingano, Alexis Davis and Miesha Tate? Could she do work in the clinch against formidable dirty boxers like Jessica Eye and Sarah Kaufman? 

It's tough to say but ultimately irrelevant. If Carano is going to make a comeback, it will almost certainly be against Rousey, and only Rousey. It's unlikely she would stick around following a loss, and it's borderline impossible that she would take the belt.

If she entered the field like a regular fighter, didn't lose much strength from the weight cut and was on par today with where she was with EliteXC, she would be a welcome addition to the division.

Carano, however, probably won't end up being a real part of the division. In reality, she is a sideshow that shows how desperate the UFC is for star power at this point.

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