Gina Carano vs. Cris Cyborg: This Day in MMA History
On August 15, 2009...
Barack Obama was in his first year in the White House, the average price of a gallon of regular gas was $2.64, and The Black Eyed Peas "I Gotta Feeling" was number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
Three years later, President Obama is running for re-election, the average price of a gallon of regular is $3.70, and "Call Me Maybe" is the number one song in the country.
While there has not been drastic, wild, earth-shattering change over the last three years, we can see through those simple cultural markers that this is a different world we are living in.
In 2009, the public at large had never heard of Carly Rae Jepsen, and only judo diehards, if there is such a term, had heard of Ronda Rousey, who one year earlier had become the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in the sport, taking a bronze in Beijing.
This weekend, Rousey will be one half of the third women's mixed martial arts fight to main event a nationally televised card in North America when she defends her Strikeforce Women's Bantamweight Championship against Sarah Kaufman.
The fact that the Rousey vs. Kaufman fight is on Showtime at all is a direct result of Gina Carano and her success as a television ratings draw.
Carano fought twice on small shows in Las Vegas in 2006, before making her major promotion debut with Strikeforce in December of that year. But the Strikeforce of 2006 was a vastly different promotion than the one Carano would fight for in 2009. At that time, Strikeforce was a regional promotion, largely running shows only in San Jose, California.
When EliteXC, a national promotion that partnered with the Showtime network decided to promote women's fights, Carano got the call and faced Julie Kedzie in the first women's bout aired on Showtime in 2007.
Although The Ultimate Fighter series on Spike TV had been a hit for a couple of years at that point, there was a sense that Showtime was taking a chance by airing the sport. The network was incredibly wary of airing a fight between two women.
Mixed martial arts in 2007 was not exactly considered "human cockfighting" (or in this case, "human henfighting", I suppose) but network television still had not touched it because the sport had a certain stigma to it. EliteXC promoter Gary Shaw pushed to include the Carano vs. Kedzie fight on the EliteXC: Destiny card, the fight stole the show, and Carano was given a national television platform as a result.
When EliteXC became the first mixed martial arts promotion to air on American network television on CBS in May, 2008, Carano fought on the card, defeating Kaitlin Young. That show remained the most-watched mixed martial arts show in American television history until UFC debuted on Fox in November 2011.
EliteXC brought Cristiane "Cris Cyborg" Santos into the fold in the summer of 2008. She fought in the opening match of the second EliteXC card on CBS, defeating Shayna Baszler in July. Cyborg would also fight on the same card as Carano in October 2008, the third and final EliteXC show that aired on CBS. She took a decision victory over Yoko Takahashi.
It was clear from the way that they promoted her on national television in July and in her inclusion on the same card as Carano in October that EliteXC was grooming Cyborg to be an opponent for Carano.
But the third EliteXC show on CBS was a disaster. The scheduled main event of Ken Shamrock vs. Kimbo Slice never took place, because Shamrock sustained a cut while warming up on the day of the show that would not allow him to fight. The promotion pulled Seth Petruzelli, a former Ultimate Fighter cast member from his scheduled prelim fight and placed him in the main event with Kimbo.
Petruzelli destroyed Kimbo in just 14 seconds, exposing the myth of Kimbo Slice as an unstoppable force. The promotion was bleeding money at that point. Despite being the number two promotion in North America, UFC's surge in popularity and more established brand name made it difficult to compete with.
Still, with all that, the company may have been able to survive had CBS been willing to continue as their business partner. But CBS got cold feet and ran as far away from them as they could when Petruzelli hinted in a radio interview in the days following the fight that he had been asked not to take Kimbo to the ground in their fight.
It is obviously one thing to protect your top star by putting him in fights with opponents that he should be able to beat. It is another thing entirely when you are promoting yourself as real sport and then asking someone to hold back. CBS, not wanting anything to do with a worked fight scandal, pulled the plug and EliteXC ran its final event one month later.
After some legal wrangling, Strikeforce purchased some contracts from the remnants of EliteXC in February 2009, agreed to television deals with Showtime and CBS, assuming the role of the departed EliteXC, and agreed to new contracts with Carano and Cyborg.
There was talk even as EliteXC was crashing that Carano vs. Cyborg was going to be a main event fight, somewhere, at some point. That was briefly jeopardized while all of the legal wrangling was going on, and then too when Strikeforce made the call to have Cyborg fight in April 2009 on a Showtime card. As it turned out, that was ultimately the right call, as Cyborg TKO'ed her opponent on Showtime, Hitomi Akano.
With Cyborg fresh off a televised victory, and with Carano under contract, buzz started to build in the internet fan community for the anticipated Carano vs. Cyborg fight. There was such interest that some felt at the time that Strikeforce could have run their first pay-per-view event with the two women headlining, or at the very least made the fight the main event of their first show on CBS.
After all, the Affliction promotion had run two pay-per-view events in the preceding months and had done an average of 95,000 pay-per-view buys without the benefit of any television shows to promote the cards, and Carano was a proven ratings draw on network television.
Instead, for reasons that I am not privy to, the decision was made that the fight would main event the August 2009 Showtime card, airing from Strikeforce's home base of San Jose.
There was a media blitz for the fight, with Carano as the centerpiece. Strikeforce held a press conference in New York a month before the fight, attempting to garner attention from major media outlets to push their historic main event.
The event was a success at the box office, drawing a reported $736,000 live gate. For frame of reference, this past Saturday's UFC 150 brought in an estimated $650,000 gate. Admittedly, that is one of the weaker UFC gates for a major show in a long time, but the Carano vs. Cyborg event proved that the right women could successfully draw money when put in a main event.
The fight will be one of the better-remembered fights in American mixed martial arts history, Some of that is because it took place at the tail end of a UFC boom period in America.
It will also be remembered because the hype for the bout, the match itself, and the aftermath of the fight are great examples of the kind of storytelling that we rarely see in mixed martial arts today.
The story of the fight was Rocky IV, with a twist. Instead of Rocky taking on the juiced-up Ivan Drago, It was the girl next door taking on a stereotypical foreign villain, who would fail a steroids test years later.
Watching the fight today, it is clear how much the caliber of women's fighting has improved in just the last three years. While not amateurish, the level of skill and strategy that both women used was nowhere near that of the Rousey vs. Miesha Tate fight that headlined a Strikeforce show earlier this year.
Carano threw first, missing with a left hand, which Cyborg countered with a combination of strikes that forced Carano into the fence. Cyborg then used a trip to take down Carano, but Carano landed on top, virtually in full mount position, only to stand back up. Carano threw some heavy strikes while standing over Cyborg, but Cyborg grabbed one of Carano's legs and applied a heel hook. Carano somehow got free, but Cyborg stood over her and threw strikes while Carnao covered up.
Carano was able to get back to her feet and the two stood toe to toe, throwing strikes with Cyborg getting the better of the exchange. Carano was briefly able to get separation, but Cyborg clinched and again used a trip takedown. Again, Carano ended up on top of Cyborg in mount, and threw a series of strikes that briefly threatened to end the fight. Cyborg looked to be trying to give up her back, but rather than take it, Carano again decided to stand up. Cyborg laid on the canvas, seemingly inviting Carano into her guard, but Carano wanted nothing to do with that, so Cyborg stood up and grabbed a clinch.
After the clinch broke, the fight returned to a standup battle, which clearly gave the advantage to Cyborg, although Carano did well enough for herself that she was able to keep Cyborg from dictating the pace. Cyborg caught a kick and pushed Carano into the fence. She pushed Carano to the ground, but Carano was back up immediately and used a front kick to try to generate some distance, to little avail. They briefly fell to the ground in a messy clinch, but were back up. Carano clearly looked gassed at that point.
From there, Cyborg used her superior power to begin picking Carano apart. From a clinch, she used knee strikes to push Carano into the fence. Carano used a trip takedown, but Cyborg landed on top in half guard. Carano was able to keep good head and arm control, but only briefly, as Cyborg began working for a wristlock.
She quickly abandoned that plan, however, and stood up and fired punches down at Carano. Carano covered up. Referee Josh Rosenthal gave Carano a verbal admonition to defend herself, but Carano was done. Rosenthal dove in and waved the fight off, literally a split second before the air horn sounded that signaled what would have been the end of the first round.
The show set a mixed martial arts ratings record for Showtime that stood until Fedor Emelianenko fought for the first time on the network in February 2011, and drew an attendance of 13,976 to the HP Pavillion.
Hollywood soon came calling for Carano, who starred in the Steven Soderbergh film "Haywire" earlier this year, and will reportedly have a role in 2013's Fast Six, the next installment in the Fast and the Furious franchise.
Women’s mixed martial arts suffered a significant blow in the wake of Carano’s departure. The 145-pound women’s weight class in Strikeforce had been designed to ensure that Carano, and to a lesser extent Cyborg, would be able to make weight, as both had previously missed the mark when trying to get down to 135 pounds.
Cyborg was a star at a certain level entering the fight and became a bigger star after. But between the promotion struggling to find credible opponents for her, to a lengthy contract dispute, to the reality that she had a vastly different look than Carano, to the sense that she lacked a certain intangible aura that Carano had, she never connected with the audience in the same way that Carano did when she was the female face of the sport.
Soon after the fight, Carano posted a message on her various social media sites that seemed to hint at retirement, and although she was at one point set to fight in 2011, that fight was cancelled for unknown reasons and it seems unlikely that she will ever fight again.
Her message read, in part:
"...Also a special thanks to the fans who support me from their computers at home, watch me on television and scream for me in the stadiums. Because of you, barriers have been broken down and you have inspired me to believe in a larger dream. Congratulations to Cris Cyborg and the women of MMA who have a great platform to shine. I am more excited than ever for female fighters and this amazing sport which has transformed my life. God Bless. Gina"
I had watched mixed martial arts for a couple of years before I ever saw Gina Carano fight, but I watched from a different perspective than some people. I am, and was, a wrestling fan, and I wanted to see what exactly it was about mixed martial arts that was stealing viewers and pay-per-view buyers away from the wrestling business.
I watched fights, and there were fighters whose stories I knew that I wanted to see do well, but I never had a rooting interest or much of an emotional investment in the sport.
That changed for me when I saw Gina Carano fight. There was a moment in her fight against Kaitlin Young where I jumped out of my chair when she tried to apply a gogoplata choke. I had never had a visceral, emotional reaction when watching a fight before, but Gina Carano made me buy in.
The day she fought Cris Cyborg is also the day I packed everything I owned into my car to drive across the country to attend Arizona State University. I was leaving the house I had lived in since I was seven years old and leaving the only city I had ever lived in to move 2,000 miles away from everyone and everything I knew.
That day marked an end to a significant chapter in my life, and that fight marked an end to the most significant chapter in women's mixed martial arts to this point.
On August 15, 2009.
Follow me on Twitter @EthanRenner