Female Prizefighting Hits Homerun…In MMA

BY David A. Avila ON September 01, 2009
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It took the pretty face and skills of Gina Carano and the menacing looks and style of Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos to convince a major premium cable network to finally showcase women in the main event of a televised card.

And the result?

“That was a homerun. It generated unprecedented publicity,” said Ken Hershman senior vice president for Showtime Sports. “The fans that saw them weren’t necessarily fans of the sport.”

Cyborg versus Carano televised by Showtime drew a 2.5 rating on the television ratings and out-performed Spike television’s replay of one of Ultimate Fighting Championship’s earlier fight cards.

Basically the women beat them down.

It’s time to realize that female prizefighting belongs on television and belongs headlining major fight cards too. Showtime realizes what it has. Or does it?

Not to disparage female prizefighters in mixed martial arts, but after Carano and “Cyborg” the cupboard is relatively bare. Yes, there are plenty of other female MMA fighters but not at that skill level or weight class. It’s just not there.

Female boxing, however, is already at that point where several tournaments in certain weight classes could generate massive interest and dollars for the first network savvy enough to realize it.

Unknown to many outside the inner workings is that female boxers are not paid much to perform. What TV networks pay C-level men fighters they can get top notch female prizefighters who not only fight extremely well, they don’t dog it in the ring and more than a few have the looks that would turn heads.

Only in Germany are female fighters paid in six figures and sell out large venues. Most women fighting in the U.S. make around $800 to $3,000. For a world title fight they possibly make around $4,000. If an American goes to Europe to fight, they can pick up between $8,000 to $12,000 for a title fight. That’s basically unheard of in the U.S. unless it’s Mia St. John, Laila Ali or Christy Martin fighting. And even they might not make that money today.

America prides itself on forging the best prizefighters but most promoters will not pay or even consider putting women on fight cards. Even though the cost to put a female on a strong Las Vegas fight card is minimal, promoters just won’t do it.

Female fighters popular in Mexico

Until recently, Mexico was one of the biggest exporters of boxing talent to this country. No longer. Women now can fight in Mexico for $3,000 to $8,000 because of the mounting interest of female fighting. Boxers like Ana Maria Torres, Mariana Juarez and Zulina Munoz are not only putting people in the seats but generating huge televising ratings in Mexico. Ironically, until recently, female boxing was forbidden in Mexico.

Recently Las Vegas-based fighter Melinda Copper journeyed to Mexico City to get a piece of the action and won by decision. She had not fought in more than a year and had one fight in Las Vegas postponed three times.

With killer looks and killer punches Cooper is one of the most electric female fighters in women’s boxing. Fighting between 112 pounds to 126 pounds, Cooper does not care about the weight. She just wants to fight and she wants to show off the skills she’s developed since age 11 when her trainer discovered her in a gym as a little waif. That waif is undefeated after more than six years as a pro and has 11 big knockouts. It’s not that no one wants to fight her but nobody wants to do it for the paltry sums offered.

Another action-packed fighter is Southern California’s Kaliesha “Wild Wild” West. With her mixture of aggressiveness and speed she’s never in a boring fight. Most call her a female Sugar Shane Mosley who also displays a type of fighting called “power boxing.”

Currently Showtime is organizing a super middleweight tournament for men that has the boxing world in pensive anticipation. It’s never been done before where some of the best fighters in a weight division are amassed from Europe and the U.S. to determine the truly best 168-pounder in the world.

Could this happen in women’s boxing too?

“I don’t see it in the boxing world in the next few months or year but we’re always open to it. We'll never rule anything out,” said Hershman, adding that Showtime will be continuing the female MMA fights.

Female boxing tournament is key

We’ll see what develops in women’s MMA and Showtime, but for a grand slam it might be wise to look at a female tournament featuring fighters from 112 to 122 and show them to American television audiences.

One scenario could pit Cooper, West, Torres, Elena Reid, Mariana Juarez, Ava Knight, Jennifer Barber, and Ana Julaton in a tournament held at 118 to 120 pounds. All are personable, attractive and extremely skillful. Not to sound sexist but when it comes to television looks do count.

Look what Carano did for the ratings.

“I think her looks had a lot to do with the curiosity. But once you went beyond and see that she was a tremendous athlete and a pleasure as a human being they like to see that kind of person achieve that kind of success,” Hershman said.

That’s yet another factor. You won’t see female primadonna prizefighters. All of those mentioned above are articulate, and extremely humble but ferocious in the ring. And these are just the bantamweights. The lightweights are also filled with talent galore.

For the moment the MMA girls hold the floor, but for how long?

“When you look at the criteria for a main event these women had it all,” said Hershman of Carano and Cyborg. “They had major mainstream appeal.”

Carano, a somewhat soft-spoken MMA fighter with a Thai kickboxing background, proved in several notable fights that she wasn’t just a pretty face. With televised victories over Kelly Kobold, Kaitlin Young, Tony Evinger and Julie Kedzie, she was brought into American television adroitly and correctly.

However, the loss by Carano several weeks ago could hurt Showtime, unless it sidesteps that pothole and moves into professional boxing where female fighters with pretty faces and excellent fighting skills are in abundance.

But will they do it?

Though MMA continues to gain popularity especially with middle class America and young white television viewers, female fighters are not as plentiful or as skillful as their boxing counterparts. Basically, girl MMA fighters are at the same point professional girl boxers were in the 1980s. Some MMA girls are ready, but when it comes to the all-important Q ratings, not enough girls are available when you look at the big picture.

Female boxers, on the other hand, especially in the lighter weight classes between 112 pounds and 122 pounds are plentiful. And like Carano, they have the looks and personalities to match the skills.

Another world title fight in San Jose Sept. 12

Coincidentally, Julaton has a world title fight scheduled against former world champion Kelsey Jeffries for the vacant IBA junior featherweight title on Sept. 12, in San Jose. It’s taking place in the HP Pavilion, the same arena as Carano and Cyborg was staged. It’s also the main event of the fight card. Theirs is the only female bout.

“Yes, I’m excited to be fighting for the world title,” said Julaton, a Filipina-American from Daly City who has a large fan base in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties as well as in Northern California.

Jeffries is from nearby Gilroy and expects many from her area to attend the main event of the entire fight card. She’s fought all over the world.

“It’s going to be a good fight,” says Jeffries, whose experience will be a tremendous advantage. “A lot of fans will be there.”

Carano and Cyborg were able to prove there is an audience for female prizefighting. Now it’s up to the television networks to do their homework and put more female prizefighters on the screen whether it’s MMA or boxing.

In Germany, Mexico and Korea the television networks in those countries have realized female prizefighting has a wide audience. Female boxers like Susi Kentikian, Mariana Juarez and Myung OK Ryu have drawn large television numbers in their respective countries. So far, U.S. networks have been slow to the draw, until now.

“We actually were the leader in showing women’s boxing back in the Christy Martin days when she was on the cover of Sports Illustrated,” said Showtime’s Hershman. “I think it takes a woman that is an amazing athlete to capture the imagination. For whatever reason there are so few and far between.”

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