On the shoulders of media darling Gina Carano, female mixed martial arts managed to command the attention of the MMA world and, to some degree, the sports world at large. Now, on the muscular shoulders of newly crowned Strikeforce champion Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos, the question is whether a female fighter besides Carano can hold that attention.
In an intense five-minute battle, Santos defeated Carano via resounding TKO to cap the latest Strikeforce card on Aug. 15 in San Jose, Calif. It was a remarkable achievement. For the first time in MMA history, two women headlined a card that featured nothing else but male fights. The live atmosphere was on par with any main event you'll see: A hyped crowd booed Cyborg as she shadow-boxed down the ramp and thunderously cheered Carano as she appeared before the 13,542 spectators at the HP Pavilion, Strikeforce's home arena.
Santos was in command in nearly every regard, though Carano's toughness in powering out of a heel hook and kimura attempt created some dramatic moments. Carano, accustomed to working with her muay Thai strikes from range against smaller opponents, appeared to wilt under Santos' forward-moving power. Carano struggled to answer Santos’ barrages and fell beneath the Brazilian in a clinch takedown attempt in the final minute. Referee Josh Rosenthal stepped in a split second before the horn sounded to end the first round. Carano and her corner, headed by Randy Couture, did not dispute the stoppage.
Having suffered her first loss, Carano did not grant any interviews in the week after the fight and did not appear at a post-fight press conference. Both fighters' history with weight issues did not play a role in the fight. Carano and Santos came in below the limit after a week of Strikeforce officials doing status-check weigh-ins. The California State Athletic Commission had made it clear before the event that fighters would only be allowed one trip to the scales to qualify for a title fight.
After her victory, a gleaming Santos was carried out of the ring on the shoulders of her husband, Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos, signing autographs and soaking in the spotlight all the while. Most reports indicate Santos' first title challenger will be Marloes Coenen, a 16-3 submission artist out of the famed Golden Glory gym in Holland. Coenen was in attendance at Strikeforce as a potential replacement if either of the principals failed to make weight. She was referenced on the Showtime broadcast of the event, and told MMA Fanhouse she will be facing Cyborg next, possibly by year's end. A 10-year veteran of the sport, Coenen has competed primarily in Japan.
All told, Strikeforce “Carano vs. Cyborg” was an unqualified success. The 13,542 on hand marked the biggest crowd for a non-UFC card in the United States that was not headlined by Frank Shamrock, and translated into a $700,000 gate. On Showtime, a broadcast of the card broke the network’s record for the most-watched MMA event, attracting an average of 576,000 viewers. That eclipsed 522,000 for a Kimbo Slice vs. David "Tank" Abbott fight in February 2008, since which Showtime has grown by some 2 million subscribers.
While the fight’s dynamic was a special one, Carano, who earned $125,000 to Santos' $25,000 on the night, was clearly the main draw. Her fights have consistently shown the most impressive viewership growth during any broadcast she's on. Carano vs. Cyborg drew a peak rating of 856,000 viewers, an increase of 17 percent over the preceding bout between Renato "Babalu" Sobral and Gegard Mousasi, according to Yahoo Sports. In May 2008, Carano, on CBS, was able to grow the audience by 1.64 million viewers over the course of her 12-minute fight with Kaitlin Young.
The focus now turns to whether Santos received enough of a rub to pull similar numbers in the Carano ballpark. Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker was non-committal when asked by Sherdog.com if he planned to keep Santos in a headline position. Showtime executive Ken Hershman told the Sherdog Radio Network's "Beatdown" show that there is a push to get Cyborg to learn English, to which she has been amenable. Viral interest in both fighters seemed high, as Internet search terms associated with the event on fight weekend were some of the hottest trending topics on Twitter and among the top searches on Yahoo and Google.
Santos wasn't the only fighter to come into his or her own at the event. Gegard Mousasi made a thunderous Strikeforce debut in putting away wily veteran Renato "Babalu" Sobral via first-round knockout. With the win over Strikeforce’s light heavyweight titleholder, Mousasi become a champion in his first fight on U.S. soil. It took the composed battler one minute to put away one of the tougher fighters in the sport, dragging Sobral to the mat and landing in side mount. The Holland-based fighter steered clear of Sobral's jiu-jitsu in raining down bombs that rendered the Brazilian wide-eyed and unconscious. It was the 13th straight victory for the former Dream middleweight titlist, who seeks his third title in just over a year in Dream's open-weight "Super Hulk" tournament. He faces Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou in the semifinal round on Oct. 6.
Elsewhere, Gilbert Melendez avenged the first loss of his career with a third-round TKO of Mitsuhiro Ishida. Melendez showed none of the vulnerability to the Japanese fighter's wrestling as he did in their December 2007 tilt, shutting down nearly every takedown attempt. Melendez took Ishida's back in the third frame and boxed his ears for the stoppage, showing an extra dimension of intensity that makes a rematch with lightweight champion Josh Thomson a more interesting proposition. After the fight, Ishida's camp made a verbal protest to the athletic commission accusing Melendez of greasing his body prior to the fight. Melendez denied the accusation, which came on the same week the Nevada State Athletic Commission approved a rule prohibiting fighters from applying any foreign substance to their bodies that could result in an unfair advantage. Doing so will now be considered a foul, like eye gouging or biting, in Nevada.
The well-produced Showtime broadcast also saw the first piece of marketing promoting the imminent arrival of Fedor Emelianenko in Strikeforce. A spot featuring a series of names the Russian has defeated was spliced with multiple angles of his scintillating knockout of Andrei Arlovski in January. An opponent is not yet set, but in defeating Mike Kyle via first-round guillotine choke on the show, Fabricio Werdum may be a frontrunner.
The preliminary card featured a handful of notable outcomes. Jay Hieron, originally set to face Nick Diaz on the show, defeated Jesse Taylor in a slow, wrestling-heavy decision. Also picking up wins were Scott Lighty (first-round TKO over Mike Cook), Justin Wilcox (decision over David Douglas), James Terry (first-round head kick KO over Zak Bucia) and Alexander Trevino (first-round kimura submission over Isaiah Hill). Longtime local fighter Poppies Martinez was set to compete on the undercard, but had to pull out after his young son was involved in a serious auto accident, he told Sherdog.com.
The industry-leading Ultimate Fighting Championship fired a counter-programming shot at the Showtime event, airing most of the fights from the record-breaking UFC 100 event head-to-head on Spike TV. In addition to Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir and Dan Henderson vs. Michael Bisping, the broadcast also included the first airings of Jon Jones vs. Jake O'Brien, Shannon Gugerty vs. Matt Grice and Mark Coleman vs. Stephan Bonnar from the night's preliminary card. The special clipped the controversial post-fight comments and antics from Lesnar and Henderson.
The Spike special drew an average of 2 million viewers on Spike TV, and attracted more male viewers 18-34 than any other sports programming on television that night. The number was portrayed as a drubbing of Strikeforce, but Showtime is only available in 17 million homes compared to Spike's 98 million. The Strikeforce card actually drew a greater share of its possible audience than the UFC 100 re-broadcast did.