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

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

Young jokes that the biggest challenge was telling her mom about her new sport. "I went to her with a fight tape to try to ease her into it...she freaked. But at that point I was old enough sign the release forms."

The fight took place at the Myth Nightclub in St. Paul. In the first round, Young caught her opponent, Lindsey Frandrop, in a Thai clinch and slammed her knee into Frandrop's head. "She took five or more solid knees to the face and didn't go down," Young recalls.

So Young came out in the second round and sent sharp leg strikes at her opponent. While Frandrop's chin may have been strong, she couldn't take the pain inflicted to her lower body. She verbally submitted. "It felt great," Young says. "And after the fight? Well, I ate at IHOP with my sister."

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

The next month Young entered a tournament in Indiana called "Hook 'n' Shoot." To win the event, she'd have to fight three times in one night. Young KO'd all three of her opponents in under a minute. The total time she spent fighting was 1 minute, 45 seconds, or the equivalent of half a round. This propelled her to the upper echelon of the sport, fast. Tara Larosa, the top fighter at 135 lbs., said, "I believe Kaitlin Young is the future."

Unfortunately, her next fight ended with her submitting to an arm bar, the first loss of her career. Then came the fight with Carano. But after the second straight loss, Young got right back to training. She returned to the academy to work on jiu-jitsu and striking. Among her training partners: breakout UFC heavyweight star Brock Lesnar. "She's a tough girl," he says. "A tough girl. She's one of the hardest-working girls that I've seen, next to my wife. As far as the fight game itself, she's in the gym all the time."

GINA CARANO LANDED ENOUGH punches to Young's face in the second round to feel like the win was just. Her trainers lifted her up and paraded her around the cage. She grinned between gasps of air. She'd beaten an opponent despite having limited time to train. And she'd also used a new jiu-jitsu move in the process.

"Kaitlin is such a sweetie," Carano would say later. "We actually cut weight together in the sauna before the fight. She's still young and is going to become a great fighter."

Amid the cheers, her father, Glenn Carano, former NFL quarterback for the Cowboys and backup to Roger Staubach, made his way to the ring. A camera followed the moment when organizers let him into the cage. He immediately ran over to his daughter and picked her up. "Where do you come up with all this shit?" he said into her ear. He gave her one last embrace and then promptly walked out of the cage, making sure the spotlight shone directly on his daughter.

Carano went to the center of the ring where the referee raised her hand in the air. Millions of people saw her face, beaming in her post-fight interview. The sport of women's MMA had a star that could back up her hype. She smiled and waved to fans. The crowd chanted, "GI-NA! GI-NA! GI-NA!"

Nearly a decade before that night, inside a high school gymnasium in Las Vegas with parents looking on, Gina Carano got her start in the world of combat. She was in the ninth grade and played point guard on the Trinity Christian girls' basketball team. She dove for loose balls and fouled tough and if an opponent went for a shot, she'd body-check for a good rebounding position.

Midway through one game, the girl who was covering her had had enough of Carano's hustle. "She charged at me," recalls Carano. "And it was on. I landed a great overhead right and was bonking her on her head with my fist before we got separated."

Three years later, Carano led the team to a state title. She also led the league in personal fouls. "I was the troubled middle child," she jokes.

Her official fighting career started when a former boyfriend got her involved with Muay Thai fighting. She picked it up quickly and established herself as a top fighter, posting a 16-1-1 record. Her success landed her a spot as a mentor on the Oxygen network reality show called Fight Girls.

This exposure, combined with a reputation as solid fighter, attracted the attention of MMA promoters. While this was happening, producers cast her for American Gladiators.

Carano has a combination that makes her easy to promote: She's a lethal fighter and she's flat-out gorgeous.

Yet the spotlight is tough for any fighter. People always talk about your weaknesses or your faults. And because Carano has a history of failing to make weight, there are critics who think she's getting an easy ride. But with the second season of American Gladiators still up in the air, Carano has amped up her training at Xtreme Couture, Randy and Kim's MMA gym in Las Vegas.

She promises she'll make weight for this Saturday's fight.

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