Valentina Shevchenko and Liz Carmouche fought on a UFC card last Saturday night. Main event. Title fight. On ESPN+. All of those descriptors seem rather ho-hum these days in MMA. Female fighters headline events and are featured in prominent spots up and down the card regularly.
Ten years ago, however, that wasn't the case. There were barely any female MMA fights, let alone headliners on major broadcasting outlets. But, on Aug. 15, 2009, Strikeforce and Showtime took the first step. They put Gina Carano and Cris Cyborg in the same cage at the same time, with all eyes on them in the main event, and Showtime televised the bout. It was first time female fighters had such a spotlight -- a televised main event -- in MMA.
“People should look back in the history books and say this was the pivot point for female mixed martial arts to become accepted into the mainstream combat sports era and get the respect it deserves," said Scott Coker, then the president of Strikeforce and now head of Bellator.
Would there ever have been a Ronda Rousey or a Miesha Tate or an Amanda Nunes without Carano vs. Cyborg? Probably. But in 2009, the UFC didn't have female divisions. Zuffa LLC, UFC parent's parent company, didn't even buy Strikeforce until 2011, and it wasn't until the end of 2012 that they signed Rousey, then the Strikeforce champion, and brought those fighters under the UFC flag.
"Gina absolutely is the first female face that we saw in mixed martial arts, that really opened the door for Ronda Rousey and everyone else who followed her," said Randy Couture, a six-time UFC champion and cornerman for Carano against Cyborg. "She's an amazing person."
"It was electric," Coker said of the atmosphere created by nearly 14,000 people inside the HP Pavilion in San Jose, California, that night. "It was really the fight that everybody wanted to see. Being that it was the first female main event on a major TV platform - on Showtime. It was a fight that just had that electricity in the air."
The promotion for this fight began six months or so beforehand. And with a month to go, Strikeforce hosted an open workout and news conference for Carano vs. Cyborg in New York City. Keep in mind that the sport of MMA still was illegal in New York at that time (that would change seven years later) and that women's MMA, while there had been some fights and Carano was carrying the torch for the others, still wasn't yet accepted the way it is now.
Such mega-fight hype continued up to and through fight night.
"Some fights have that anticipation where you just can't wait," Coker said. "The minute the bell rings and the fighters start going toward each other, you kind of have that feeling in your stomach, that little bit of uneasiness. And this fight had all of that."
"At the very beginning of the fight, Gina actually hit her a couple times with some good shots," Coker said. "She got the respect of Cyborg. And then they went to the ground at one point, Gina had dominant position but she didn't want to go and follow up."
"That's when the tide turned in the fight," Coker said. "Gina got caught with a couple big shots. Cyborg's a big puncher. How many girls have even gone past one round with her, let alone past a couple minutes back then?"
The fight went back and forth in the first few minutes, but eventually Cyborg's power would give her control of the bout. She got Carano to the ground and pounded her out with strikes with one second left in the first round to win the Strikeforce women's bantamweight title.
There was some confusion at the end, however, as referee Josh Rosenthal stepped in to stop the fight at the same time the bell sounded to end the round. Officially, the bout ended at 4:59 of the first round.
The fight card averaged 576,000 viewers on Showtime and peaked with 856,000 viewers for the Carano-Cyborg fight. Both numbers were MMA viewerships records for Showtime then, and they lasted until February 2011 when Fedor Emelianenko faced Antonio Silva.
"Showtime saying we'll air it as the top billing and we'll get behind it and we'll promote it, that's a big statement," Coker said. "Not only was it Strikeforce saying that we think this is something that we're proud of to put on and be our main event, but it was Showtime. I think they probably took the biggest risk because we were going to do it one way or the other. They could have easily said, no we'll air this other fight as the main event but you can go ahead and do what you need to, but they didn't. They said hey we're all in. They took the risk with us and they should get equal credit because they were our television partner."
"That was a tough fight," Couture said. "We knew it was going to be a tough fight. We felt that if we could weather that early storm, and get her into the later rounds, she was going to slow down a little bit, she wasn't going to be quite as intense as she tends to be. Obviously, we were really close, but we didn't quite make it out of that first round."
Cyborg landed 50 of 96 strikes, with Carano connecting on 19 of 38, according to FightMetric.
Carano was undefeated going into the fight with Cyborg. She was the "It Girl" of MMA, the pretty woman with a silver-screen smile who could seemingly fight her way out of anything.
The amount of media and hype put on this fight was as big as any fight in MMA at that point, and probably for quite a few years afterward as well. Carano has said that after this fight, she broke down in tears in the locker room.
"When you're an undefeated fighter, I don't care who you are, you don't know how to lose," said Jay Hieron, who fought on that same card and trained with Carano at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas. "It's very difficult to break somebody's spirit if they're undefeated because they don't know what that is. You kind of have that aura about you, like you can't be beat."
Until you're beaten.
"Those are the two original pioneers of women's mixed martial arts, Cyborg and Gina Carano," Hieron added. "They delivered. They were the main event, they did well, both of them. Timing wise, everything played out good for it to be acceptable. I couldn't say it would be where it's at now, but I know they definitely had a part in opening up the door, for sure."
This would be the last fight for Carano, who went 7-1 and twice entertained returning to mixed martial arts. She since became an actress, with starring roles in movies such as "Haywire," "Fast and Furious 6" and "Deadpool." She now also stars in the TV series, "The Mandolorian," which is part of the "Star Wars" franchise.
"I think she's probably happy she's acting now," said Couture, who also has turned to movies with a role in "The Expendables" franchise. "She has that deep passion for the sport, which started for her in Muay Thai. Her father was a Dallas Cowboy, a quarterback. She's got great genes. It's there. And she's got a little rebel side in her."
Cyborg catapulted to MMA stardom after being Carano. She would defend that title three times before testing positive for stanozolol. Cyborg eventually would become the Invicta FC champion and a UFC champion. Cyborg (21-2, 1 NC in career) now is a free agent.
"Any women's fight that was going to be a main event, that's definitely the fight that should have been made," Hieron said. "They were the most recognizable and two of the best in the game at that point. And it delivered."