Gina Carano, Kelly Kobald, and Kaitlin Young fight for mainstream acceptance

Female MMA will be in the spotlight during EliteXC on CBS this Saturday

"My guess," says Reynolds, "is that a decision was made to stop the fight due to a feeling that primetime was not ready for female fighters bleeding."

In many ways, MMA as we know it began in 1993 with the first Ultimate Fighting Championship. Early matches hit upon a fanboy's curiosity of who would win in a fight: a boxer versus a wrestler, a shootfighter versus a jiu-jitsu grappler, or anyone versus a sumo. While no biting or eye gouges were allowed, opponents could fish hook, head-butt, and strike each other in the groin. Sen. John McCain infamously called it "human cockfighting" and led the charge to ban it from pay per view.

In 2001, casino executives Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta bought the UFC and installed Dana White, a bald-headed former boxer with a penchant for F-bombs, as its president. White established weight classes and instituted more rules for the safety of its combatants. The league secured approval from boxing commissions and returned to pay per view, this time selling the athleticism, not the mayhem.

Kelly Kobald
Dan Olson Photography
Kelly Kobald

The big break came in 2005, when the UFC launched a reality TV show called The Ultimate Fighter. The show, which followed novice fighters training and fighting for a chance to win a UFC contract, showed people that while the fights were often brutal, not all the fighters were brutes. By 2006, the UFC was generating more annual revenue than pro wrestling or boxing.

But the UFC is strictly "boys only." Recently, when asked if there would ever be a women's bout in a UFC event, White responded quickly and confidently: "Probably not."

Historically, women's MMA in the U.S. has been more of a spectacle than an actual sport. "It was like extreme cat fights," recalls Herb Dean, the dreadlocked UFC referee and one of the most recognizable officiators in the business. "The girls would dress up in little outfits. Some of them were there because of, I don't time...and some were there to fight. It made for some bad fights. Some of the girls were strippers and some were actual athletes. The matches would end with one girl absolutely destroying the other. Today, there is no way those matches would ever get sanctioned."

But the sport still had its pioneers. Starting in 1993, Debi Purcell began to take fights around Huntington Beach, California, a hotbed of MMA. And with a background in jiu-jitsu and kickboxing, she demolished her opponents. But her skills made it hard for her to find quality competition. So she spent the next decade trying to score decent fights. (Only in the last few years has she found them.)

While the men had to overcome the cockfighting perception, Purcell and others had to deal with another social taboo: women in combat. But unlike the men's, their stigma didn't disappear with the addition of padded gloves.

There are still plenty of men who don't like to watch a woman's face beaten blue. A woman walking down a street with a black eye conjures up thoughts of domestic violence, even if the truth is that she got the lump from a sparring session at her gym. "People can say all they want about not being sexist," Young says. "But many have a problem with women's mixed martial arts. I think it's tough for people to get used to it. They have issues with violence and watching women do it."

But women's MMA is picking up fans and respect from an important group: male MMA fighters. "I tell you what," says Kenny Florian, UFC fighter and commentator for MMA Live on ESPN, "the last two fights I've seen in women's MMA have been really exciting. They need more fighters, but the fights they've been putting on have been pretty impressive."

Even the fight blogs are slowly coming around to the sport. Luke Thomas, blogger on the popular MMA site, wrote back in September 2007 that he didn't care much for women's MMA. But by January 2008, he'd changed his take, saying that the female fighters exhibited an excellent level of technique. "Looking back on it," Thomas recalls, "I think the difference is that once it had a bit of hierarchy, it became more interesting."

Still, all the gains won't convince White or the UFC to put a women's fight on one of their cards. "The problem with women are there are not enough good girls to have a whole division," says White. "Much like in boxing, there were some girls that were really great and then a lot of girls that got the shit beat out of them."

Yet this has opened a door for other promotions to jump on a niche market. EliteXC ran to the forefront by signing Carano, who became the highest profile promoter of women's MMA.

"We're looking into having two divisions. And we hope to keep bringing in top-level talent to fill our rosters," says Jeremy Lapin, head of EliteXC fight operations. "We're actually looking into having an all-female card in the future."

IN THE SHORT HISTORY of women's MMA, there is already a fight that tests the comfort level of even hardcore fans. Many who watched it wanted it stopped. It's known in the MMA world simply as "the Kim Couture fight."

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