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

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

On June 20, 2008, Couture stepped into the ring at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, to face Kim Rose. Both were making their professional MMA debuts, but because Couture's husband was Randy "The Natural" Couture, a five-time UFC champion in two different weight classes and one of the most popular fighters in the history of the sport, plenty of people showed up to watch, not really knowing what to expect.

When the bell sounded, Rose charged in, and on the very first punch, landed a haymaker right to Couture's jaw, breaking it in half. Couture dropped to the ground, but somehow fought through the rest of the 15-minute fight with the injury. Close-up shots would later reveal her lower row of teeth hanging at two different levels. During all three rounds, blood poured out of her mouth. And after taking another punch to the nose in the second round, it poured from the front of her face. Worse yet, she wore a white top and had dyed her hair blond, providing a great primer for her blood to soak into.

Around the MMA community, people debated the fight. Should it have happened? Should it have been stopped after the first punch broke Couture's jaw? If she had been a man, would we even be talking about it?

Kaitlin Young
Nick Vlcek for City Pages
Kaitlin Young
Gina Carano
Tom Casino ©2006-08 EliteXC
Gina Carano

"I think all that is ridiculous," says Kim Couture. "I also think it is unfortunate, the idea that girls can fight but they can't bleed. We're both trained professionals. We know what we are getting into. I gained more from that fight than any other."

Aside from Couture and Rose, the person with the best view of the action was Josh Rosenthal, referee of the bout. "You know," he says, "that was a fight that really turned into a war."

Of the thousands of fights Rosenthal has refereed, this one remains etched in his memory. "It was an intense fight. Just an intense, intense fight."

He says a big reason why he didn't call the fight was that Couture hid her pain and injury well. The corner doctor indicated that she was fine, and for the most part, she kept her mouth closed as best she could. "I don't ref women any different from men," Rosenthal says. "I always tell the fighters they need to defend and fight and advance their position. This fight was even on both sides of the coin. Couture would get into a bad position and then Rose would get into a bad spot."

Rosenthal admits that there were moments when he thought about stopping it, mainly at points when Couture ate some pretty hard shots. "But she kept in the fight," he says, still sounding amazed. And true enough, as the final bell rang, Couture was on top of Rose, controlling her on the ground.

"I didn't catch flak for the fight and some complimented me for letting the fight happen," Rosenthal says. "Kim Couture even complimented me by saying I had the sack to let it keep going."

AT HOME IN CIRCLE PINES on the night of the Newark fight, Young's mom, Cindy Clark, is one of the millions watching...sort of. She alternately looks at her television set and looks away. She doesn't like to see her daughter fight. "I also get nervous before my other daughter sings," she says. "but I get more nervous when Kaiti fights."

The next day, Clark greeted Kaitlin in their kitchen. "We talked about the fight and Kaiti explained her injury to me and what she needs to do to care for it," the mother recalls. "Our relationship is like two adults, and she didn't need me nursing over her. But it was good to see her spirits were still okay."

That night they took a photo of Young in the kitchen, smiling proudly and giving the thumbs-up with both hands. It's posted on the front page of Young's website.

Young first got into martial arts as a teenager when her mom convinced her to take a Tae Kwon Do class instead of playing football. She didn't want Kaitlin to get hit. "Yeah, that kinda backfired," jokes Young.

Young quickly found she excelled in the sport. She entered local tournaments, which led to out-of-state contests. At 15, she won senior nationals.

During these competitions, she always heard about "Thai boxers" and how tournament directors didn't want them competing. They were too dangerous.

Young wanted to learn more about it.

At age 19, she watched a Thai boxing match in Peoria, Illinois, featuring fighters from the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy. Within days she was taking a class. Andy Grahn, program director for the academy, remembers that Young caught on quickly. "She's really gifted athletically," he says.

Both Grahn and Greg Nelson, owner of the academy, have been around the world and watched some of the fiercest female fighters in action. When they saw Young working out, they knew she could compete with the best. "She has a lot of talent," says Nelson. "And she trains really hard."

The two encouraged her to try MMA. They didn't need to prod her much. She'd already seen a fight and thought she could hang with the girls. So she agreed to a match that fall.

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