Carano vs. Cyborg and the future of female MMA?

Awhile ago in a post I made the argument that Gina Carano was the most popular MMA in the world. I still stand by that remark, but after her fight with Cris Cyborg Santos on Saturday August 15 people may ask where she stands in the future as the “Face of Women’s MMA”? To that I can say that Gina will remain the more popular fighter out of the two (at least in the foreseeable future), especially in the U.S. Her combination of skill, personality, and good looks means that she will have cross cultural appeal to many people that other fighters male or female do not have. She is liked by both male and female fans for a wide variety of reasons and that will continue as long as she continues to have success in the cage. And before we put the proverbial “nail in her coffin” remember that this is Gina’s first defeat in a cage. And while her Muay Thai skills are well known, she is still a relative newcomer to the world of MMA having only fought MMA for three years and having eight fights. Santos for her part proved she is a serious fighter, for those of you who do not know. But she is herself kind of a “newbie” with only nine fights in four years. She has however come up in the Chute Boxe camp and has been around MMA for considerably longer than Carano, but that still does not mean that she is a seasoned veteran in her own right and as evident by the ground “skills” both fighters displayed Saturday, there is considerable room for improvement for both in this area. But after what had been billed as the “Biggest Fight in Women’s MMA” where do both fighters go from here? And what is the future of the sport? After some careful consideration of the events that transpired, both fighters answered some questions and left many open for debate.

As stated before Gina Carano will remain popular for a wide variety of reasons. In addition to her fighting, she has a lot going for her and will still find her way in the media and mainstream America and the World. But as a fighter Saturday offered a glimpse of what can come. One of the biggest problems in Women’s MMA seems to be the lack of “well rounded” fighters. This is more because in terms of a sport Female MMA fighters are more in their “infancy” stage than their male counterparts, not because of some “physical” weakness that some may propose. Most female fighters at this point appear to be good at one aspect of MMA (BJJ, Muay Thai, Boxing, Wrestling, etc…) but do not possess the well rounded skills necessary. Out of all of these skills wrestling may be the most lacking and this is because there is a lack of women wrestlers at the amateur levels when compared to their male counterparts. Gina like many female fighters comes from a striking style background which often does not translate into being able to easily learn a ground game or grappling style. This was apparent in her fight Saturday as she had a dominant position a couple of times and either stood up or Cyborg got out of. But just training extensively in a ground fighting style may not be the only aspect Gina needs to focus on, and that may cause more problems that not translate well into her MMA career.

The major problem that occurred during the fight was two fold for Gina. First Cyborg’s aggressiveness   was too much for her to pick a part as was her game plan according to Randy Couture. While this can be countered by skill, Gina’s problem was as stated above; she fell back on her Muay Thai background which is also a strength of Cyborg. A better rounded fighter may have taken the fighter to the ground or used a counter punching style like Anderson Silva or Chuck Liddell to counter an aggressive stand up. But Gina’s style of Muay Thai is straight forward and played into Cyborg’s game plan. It is easy to play Monday Morning quarterback, but the fact is that Gina was loosing the stand up war and had nothing to counter the attack of Cyborg. Many people will suggest more hardcore training in wrestling or BJJ to counter this and both are right, it really just depends on what style fits her more.

The second problem may not be easily rectified and that is Cyborg’s power. Gina’s problem making weight is well documented and truthfully it is really not a “problem” but perhaps a fact of nature. While she fights at 140 pounds, her non-fight weight is somewhat of a mystery. But at 5 foot 8 inches she appears to have a larger frame capable of fighting at a higher weight class. She never looks as lean or cut as Cyborg or other fighters in any of her fights and that may be the issue when it comes to adding more strength and power. By attempting to do so Gina may not be able to fight at 140 as it appears she would probably carry too much muscle on her frame. This is by no means saying that she is fat or soft at 140, but rather a simple fact of nature: muscle fibers are denser than fat cells and there for a smaller amount of muscle cells are denser than fat cells. If Gina were to attempt to pack on more power she would inevitably add more muscle and probably push her out of the weight class. This may present a problem as there is a lack of depth at the higher weight classes in Female MMA, perhaps not a lack of talent, but which lists female fighters has only eight fighters listed at 155 for example as opposed to the 14 listed at 140. Unless others drop down or move up a fight at an upper weight class may prove more difficult. Finally, weight cuts can deplete a fighter’s strength and power, as well as energy levels, so any gains may be lost in the cutting process.

Cris Cyborg Santos has the more interesting questions to be answered. Obviously Cris is not going to be marketed the same way as Gina is, but that does not mean her future is not bright. As far as fighting goes she is from a long line of Chute Boxe fighters, both past and present, all of whom have become fan favorites like Wanderlai Silva, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Anderson Silva, and Fabricio Werdum amongst others. Her aggressive style plays well to most MMA fans, both hardcore and casual; especially since her style is striking based and therefore should be a focus of any promotion of her as a fighter. The fact that she finished the most well known and popular fighter in Women’s MMA in the first round should garner her more fame and fortune, as well as fight fans. But is there a way to counter the promotion of Gina Carano’s “face of Women’s MMA” that is available to Santos? Obviously she is not the type to be featured in a pictorial in Maxim Magazine or other publications, so what venue does that leave?

In actuality in today’s day and age Cyborg can follow in the lines of other female athletes like Dara Torres, Serena and Venus Williams, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Florence Griffith-Joyner, etc… Many female athletes face the stigma of being “too muscular” by many, but they are first and foremost athletes and therefore train for high performance in sports. As long as women have been in sports there has been one group who has seen some athletes as being “feminine” and another who perceives some as being “manly,” but it would appear that many are starting to see them as what they really are which is athletes. Will that be for everyone? No. For every person who finds certain women athletes as attractive, there will those who will find them to masculine. That is a subject for another debate, but in Cris Cyborg Santos’ case an appeal as an athlete would go far in her career. There are probably many people male or female that would like to have abs like hers, so a feature of her training in a magazine that would feature such types of articles is not unlikely. She may not be a “supermodel” but nor does she pretend to be.

Female athletes have always had to walk a fine line between competitiveness and being perceived as feminine. During the 1970’s and 1980’s in women’s tennis Martina Navratilova and Chris Everret-Lloyd were two of the more popular female athletes on the planet (Navratilova held a record of 10-4 in head to head match ups), and both had their own fan base. Navratilova was seen as the more “masculine” by some, yet represented the superior athlete to others, while Everett-Lloyd was seen as the representation of “feminine” athletes. The argument continued about feminism and athleticism throughout their career and beyond, because once they had both left the sport newer tennis stars emerged to continue the debate. Now as Women’s MMA begins to garner attention the same debate seems to surface as well. If Cyborg vs. Carano match ups work out like the Everet-Lloyd vs. Navratilova match ups the true winners are the fans. If Carano adjusts her game and comes back stronger it will benefit MMA in general because the sport needs her at the top of her game. But it also needs Cyborg as well. Both fighters appeal to different senses and tastes of the MMA audience and with both of them as dominant forces they will both bring Women’s MMA to higher acceptability.


2 responses

  1. SN

    Awesome perspective. I hope it starts to infect the forus where I’ve seen a lot of anti-Cyborg sentiment based soley on her looks. I hope the world starts to open their eyes and realize there are women who participate in athletics and then there are women who are athletes – yes, they may look different from each other.

    August 17, 2009 at 11:21 pm

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