By Josh Stein on Jun 22, 2009
It should be made clear from the offset that Gina Carano’s role in women’s MMA is not debatable. She is the face of the female incarnation of the sport. She is beautiful, charismatic and an incredible fighter. It is not possible to debate any of those points, as far as I’m concerned, and so it is not even worth wasting time with them.
What is debatable, though, is whether (as some elements would like readers to believe) Gina Carano is a self-made queen of the sport who conquered all of the challenges the world presented. The press image, and perhaps the popularly accepted image, (and it’s unclear whether the chicken or the egg came first on that one) is that Carano is a thai fighter who came out of obscurity through hard work, exciting wars and a desire to champion female MMA, leading the lesser known branch of the sport into mainstream consciousness.
What is debatable, and what needs to be debated, is whether or not the perception of Gina as a self-made figurehead is realistic. Certainly, the characteristics that have made her a fixture in the sport make it clear that there is no one better to lead women’s MMA, but whether she was brought into the lead with the aid of those looking to further the cause should be scrutinized a little more carefully.
Gina’s muay thai career was well underway and well established when she entered the world of MMA, and her capacity as a striker was impressive to anyone who saw her fights. Certainly, she was one of the best female muay thai fighters in the western hemisphere, if not the world. Muay thai fighters have often been great standard bearers for the sport of MMA, because of their tendency to win fights standing, with viscious strikes, which helps them garner popular support (i.e. Wanderlei Silva, Pedro Rizzo and Anderson Silva). Strikers make for good figureheads in MMA, this is common knowledge among promoters, as well as the journalists who cover the sport. Even if the top fighters in the world are grapplers, their edge over top strikers has to be decisive because, lets face it, the casual fans see highlight reel knockouts and get far more excited than they will over highlight reel submissions (not that I particularly like this phenomenon, but it’s a reality among casual fans).
The fact that Carano was exciting, the fact that she was willing to stand and bang was well established before fighting in MMA, but became clear quickly when she started defeating respectable female fighters. While her debut against Leiticia Pestova already established what everybody knew about Gina (that girl hits hard), it didn’t mean much because it wasn’t on the big stage. Her second bout against Rosi Sexton, though, was. For those who knew women’s MMA, Rosi Sexton was a big deal. She was 5-0 with five finishes and was the top female fighter coming out of the U.K. It’s worth noting, of course, that Sexton is still a big deal, as she’s 10-1, with her only loss coming at the hands of Carano, who defeated Sexton by KO in second.
That fight got a lot of attention, if for no other reason than because it was a great fight and a great performance. Setting aside what people knew about Gina and what they knew about Rosi (which, for a casual fan showing up at the event was absolutely nothing), people knew that Gina was a fantastic fighter when she stepped out that night, and her career followed suit.
This is where the narrative hits a fork in the road. Certainly, the win over Sexton was what first established Gina (then 2-0) as a notable female mixed martial artist, but it would be serious overlooking the facts if we chose to ignore the contract which followed. Gina was brought in to fight at Strikeforce against Elaina Maxwell and while Strikeforce may not have been, at that time, the powerhouse it was now, it was a solid organization with a great deal of respect in California, and it was certainly in the early stages of demonstrating its potential as an organization.
Gina appeared on the main card of the event, which was headlined by Cung Lee and Josh Thompson (Lee fighting Jason Von Flue and Thompson fighting Nam Phan). Gina’s fight with Elaina Maxwell established what we knew, yet again. She is a great fighter, with great standup, and she did a good job showcasing it.
The issue here, though, is that whie this is a great fight, it was not a dominant, finishing performance. The win that Gina garnered was decisive and deserved, but the fact that she became the most recognizable face in women’s MMA as a result of appearing in Strikeforce, and then moving to EliteXC, has a lot to do with the way the event was promoted.
When Gina moved into EliteXC for her next fight, we saw the beginnings of a star. A beautiful woman with a stellar highlight reel (which looked longer, because there were a lot of clips that could be taken from Unanimous Decision win over Maxwell), Carano became a press darling because she did killer interviews, was incredibly modest and had a great personal narrative. That takes nothing away from the fact that she’s a great fighter, but she’s more recognizable than Miguel Torres, and it’s because Torres would never be invited to do a spread in Maxim.
EliteXC made the decision to build its organization built on image more than talent. In some cases, they happened to have both (this is true for Gina, who is immensly talented, on top of having a fantastic image), but in others, they were more flash than substance (see Kevin Ferguson).
EliteXC made a point of building Gina as their great female fighter, establishing a 140 pound weight class which differed from convention, because Gina had the ability to make that weight cut (at the time, she could not make 135, but would have been a little small at 145; this will be addressed again later). This “Gina Carano division” is probably the largest piece of evidence that she was picked by EliteXC as someone they could market well, to tie their own brand to a top tier athlete.
While the business plan for EliteXC may have been terrible, it is hard to dispute that their marketing hasn’t played a huge role in how Gina is percieved. Seen widely as the technical striker (an image that’s applicable, but was not given to her upcoming opponent, Christiane Santos, who may deserve the title just as much), Gina’s ability to take over the mainstream was certainly aided by the appearances on major televisions stations. While she would certainly be the #1 featherweight female MMA fighter in the world without the help of EXC marketing, it’s hard to believe that she would be #1 female MMA personality in the world, or that she would be the most notable MMA fighter (it is, in my opinion, hard to argue that Gina is the best female MMA fighter in the world, as long as Megumi Fujii is actively competing in the sport).
This is a question that needs to be raised, or simply a point that should be made periodically: EXC helped Gina a lot.
Gina deserved the help, but it wasn’t as though she’s the Million Dollar Baby, being backed by an old creeper like Eastwood and no one else. She had a PR department at her back, helping keep the focus off of her weight issues, as she started to put on some muscle mass and was clearly no longer equipped athletically for that weight cut to 140 and that “Gina Carano weightclass.” Even now, Carano has the support of the Strikeforce PR team, who seem to have done a good job keeping people from writing about the irony of both Carano and Santos moving up in weight after struggling for some time.
There can be no question that Gina will remain the top female MMA personality in the world. Even if she loses to Christiane “Cyborg” Santos when they fight in August, she will be the most highly regarded woman in MMA today. However, it is worth acknowledging that history is, from time to time, photoshopped in order to make the personal narrative more interesting, or to help make a point about how much someone has accomplished, and there does need to be some skepticism with respect to how media (especially in the mainstream) chooses to cover Gina, and if there is truly intellectual honesty in that coverage.
Gina Carano (7-0) and Christiane “Cyborg” Santos (7-1) will meet at Strikeforce in San Jose on August 15th for the women’s 145 pound title, the first women’s title fight in a major organization. All appearances suggest that the bout will be the main event on the card, alongside Josh Thompson vs. Gilbert Melendez, who are fighting for the Strikeforce Lightweight Title. The bout will be held at HP Pavillion and will be broadcast live on Showtime.
Filed Under: MMA
About the Author: Joshua Stein is a writer and editor for MMA Opinion. He has worked as a photographer and journalist and has a number of print journalism credits. He also works as a moderator for MMAForum.com and a grappling columnist (covering judo, collegiate wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and submission grappling) for profighting-fans.com.