Gina Carano, Kelly Kobald, and Kaitlin Young fight for mainstream acceptance
Let's look at the tale of the tape. Kaitlin Young has a one-inch height advantage, but her opponent, Gina Carano, has at least four pounds on her. Both study Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu. They stand across from each other inside a circular cage, bouncing in their respective corners. Young is a college student from the University of Minnesota. She's well-respected, yet relatively unknown in women's mixed martial arts. Carano is "Crush" from the new version of American Gladiators and the face of female MMA.
They continue to bounce while an announcer bellows introductions to the thousands of fight fans watching live inside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, last May. Millions more watch at home on CBS television. Lights flash and close-ups of the two fighters are shown on Jumbotrons inside the center.
The fight card, dubbed "EliteXC: Primetime," is something of a historic moment for the sport: It's the first time any MMA fight has aired for free in primetime on national TV. Later, CBS will report that 6.5 million viewers tuned in to watch. And right now, all those millions of eyes are on the two women, the night's first and only female fight.
The audience screams as the referee inside the cage calls the women to the center and gives them their final instructions: "Okay. Fighters, you both know your rules. Obey my commands at all times. Defend yourselves at all times. If I tell you to break, break clean. Do you have any questions? Do you have any questions? Touch gloves and come out fighting." Both fighters nod, tap gloves, and go back to their respective corners.
The bell rings. Young and Carano march toward each other, fists up. They circle one another. Carano tries a few front kicks, then catches one of Young's legs, sweeps the other one, and takes the fight to the mat. Carano quickly picks up Young for a power bomb, but Young somehow gets back to her feet.
Carano lands a looping right to Young's face. It stuns her for a blink, but Young fires back with several kicks. She body locks the bigger Carano to take her to the mat. Young moves into a top mount, and Carano sets her shin against Young's trachea and pulls down on Young's head. The announcers don't catch that Carano just secured a gogoplata, a jiu-jitsu chokehold used to cut off oxygen to an opponent's brain.
The fight slows as Young fights for air, using her hands to pry some space between Carano's shin and her throat. Eventually, Young uses the cage to leverage her way out of the hold, avoiding the submission. With Carano lying on her back, Young sends two sharp kicks to her thighs. They connect with a loud thwack, the equivalent of smacking a two-by-four flat against concrete.
The audience yells out, "Ohhh!"
Young lets Carano stand. They exchange a flurry of kicks and punches to end the three-minute round.
The announcers state the obvious: The girls are well on their way to stealing the show.
Round two comes quick. The bell rings and Young marches forward as the aggressor, landing knees to Carano's sides. Then she sends a kick that cracks off Carano's shin.
Carano gets pissed. She responds with her fists and lands a solid right under Young's eye. It opens up a cut. Carano follows up with repeated punches to the face, pummeling Young's head and nose.
The audience goes crazy.
Carano front-kicks Young. It sends her into the cage, then to her knees. Sensing a win, Carano moves in for a rear-naked choke, wrapping her legs around Young's body from behind and hooking her forearm against Young's throat. She gets it set but there isn't much time left in the round. Young waits out the remaining 14 seconds, refusing to tap out.
The bell rings. Carano releases her grip and Young stands up confidently, face swollen, but showing every sign that she is ready to continue. She walks to her corner and sits down on a stool. Her trainers and coaches attend to her injuries. They place an icepack to the back of her head and tamp her cut with a cold press. A ringside physician walks over to examine her. He tries to assess her mental acuity by asking, "Where are you?"
Amid all the commotion and people tapping at her face and pouring water into her mouth and the crowd behind her yelling out her name and the cameraman adjusting a lens in front of her, Young correctly answers, through her mouth guard, "We're at EliteXC, in Newark."
But somehow the answer doesn't play well with the doctors. They call it off.
It takes a moment for Young to get the news. Once she hears that the doctor declared a medical stoppage she yells, "Why!?"
Carano comes over, and, in an act of sportsmanship, kisses Young on the side of the head. That's the last shot the audience sees of Young. But in the background she can be heard still questioning the decision. "What?! Why are they stopping it?"
DR. HAPPY REYNOLDS watches the stoppage of the Young fight on TV at her home in San Francisco. The decision puzzles her. In the five years she's worked as a ringside doctor, she's never seen this happen. In the fight world, Young's cut is considered a minor one, below the eye. It won't obstruct her vision. The blood will flow down her cheek. Young's good for the final round. But for some reason, the doctor still calls it off.
"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.
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 know...sexy 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 bloodyelbow.com, 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."
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?
"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.
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."
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.
Down inside the basement of an American Legion in East St. Paul, a group of fighters train in a room that looks like it was decorated with props from the set of Rocky. The team manager gives reporters directions to the place by saying, "Once you find yourself in a nasty location and you start to feel unsafe, you've found it."
A stench of mildew and sweat greets you at the street entrance and amplifies as you crawl down the two flights of stairs to the basement. Underneath a leaky section of the ceiling, a rubber trash can collects athletic tape caked with blood.
This is the home of Team Bison and Kelly Kobald.
On this night, a tattooed guy with a pink mohawk does pull-ups while another guy with absurdly big shoulders bangs out push-ups with one hand on a balance pad. Across from him another dude takes a giant Caterpillar tire and flips it over, jumps into it and then out of it, turns around, and flips it back the other way. It's a collection of every guy you'd never want to piss off at a bar.
Kobald skips into the room with a grin. She carries her fighting gear in a princess-pink gym bag and flashes a gap-toothed smile at her coach and manager, Mike Reilly, a gruff-talking guy with a barrel chest.
"You better not call me a gruff-talking guy with a barrel chest," he warns a reporter as Kobald heads to a back room to change into her workout gear. "I had some other guy come in here and write that when I was telling him about the dichotomy between the fighter and the team. Gruff-talking? Hell, I used the word dichotomy. I mean, c'mon."
Kobald returns and immediately joins the guys on the mat who are already practicing ground techniques and jiu-jitsu holds. Kobald takes a turn grappling against each guy on the mat. Most are former wrestlers.
As she practices, Reilly tells the story of her first fight. "Kobald picked it," he says in delight. "There was this girl who was good at judo and Kelly went up to her and said, 'Wow! You're really good at judo. Wanna fight?' She did enough to piss the girl off, and when they fought the judo girl found out how hard Kelly can punch."
As he talks, Kobald reverses a guy and quickly slaps a rear-naked choke around his neck. The guy taps her arm to tell her to release.
When Kobald first came to a practice at Team Bison, she was known simply as "the redhead." Reilly gave her instructions that if she fought here she would be treated just like any one of the fighters. "After her first night I wasn't sure she would come back," he says. "But she came back night after night."
Unlike many girls in MMA, Kobald has no background in martial arts. At South High in Minneapolis she ran cross-country and swam. But then she discovered the rush of MMA. "When I fight, everything slows down," she says.
While only 25 years old, Kobald is a relative veteran of the sport. She has a record of 16-2 and has fought in places that make Team Bison's basement look like the Bellagio. In her early fights up in Duluth, she was lucky to make a couple hundred bucks. By her 16th fight, she barely made $600.
Despite the lack of pay, Kobald got a reputation as relentless. "Kelly comes at you like old-school Vitor Belfort," Reilly says, referring to the onetime UFC phenom with lightning-quick hands. "She doesn't know how to go backwards. Once, she broke a girl's face. And that was with boxing gloves on."
People have made much about Kobald's upcoming fight against Carano on CBS this Saturday. Kobald has been quoted to the effect that she plans on fucking Carano's shit up. "Right now it's the Gina Carano league and her opponents," Kobald says of EliteXC.
An hour into her practice, Kobald's hair sticks to her face with sweat. "You can't rest," she says later. "When you rest you get punched." After ground technique she works on body throws and tosses a teammate into a crash pad. Two heavyweight fighters watch in the boxing ring as she works on her form. They lie atop the bloodstained mat and laugh at the face of Kobald's opponent as it strains to hide the pain she's inflicting. While this happens, a guy walks past the mat and leans in to tell a reporter, "She's pretty good, right? I know it. She caught me in the face."
Once the practice ends, Kobald goes to a back room to change out of her practice clothes and returns in an outfit from one of her sponsors. The duds are so new that the tags haven't been cut off. She pulls out brand-new shoes given to her by the same sponsor. They're flashy high-top sneakers sewn with teal patent leather. Kobald shakes her head. She puts her feet in the shoes and looks for approval.
"Wow, Kelly, those things really highlight your calves," Reilly jokes.
She gives him a look like she might punch him.
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