Is there a place in mixed martial arts for an all-female promotion? A "league of their own," as it were?
Shannon Knapp and Janet Martin believe the answer is "yes," and their quest begins Saturday in Kansas City, Kan., with the debut of Invicta Fighting Championships.
"For us, it's just about creating opportunities, because that's the one thing that is lacking [for women fighters]," Knapp said. "There is more than Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate among the girls signed in Strikeforce. There are a ton of girls out there. [Strikeforce] is only hitting a couple of weight classes. There are lot of girls out there; they just don't have the platform to be seen. I think for us it's all about creating opportunities."
In certain cases it's proven that women can move the needle. As a longtime operator in MMA, Knapp, whose last position as a matchmaker and talent relations manager for Strikeforce ended when Zuffa purchased the company last year, knows firsthand how popular women can be when given the proper push and circumstance.
"I don't know that it's something I've wanted to do,” Knapp said. “I never really sat back and said 'someday, I'll have my own promotion.' I was always content doing and helping and building. But I think you get to the point where you keep building it and it keeps either getting bought out or people make decisions and choices that end your job, and you keep finding yourself at the same crossroads. For me, when Zuffa purchased Strikeforce I was standing at the crossroads again."
Will the individual success of a Gina Carano or the niche's latest star, Rousey, translate to fans taking the time to watch an event comprised entirely of women? If lessons learned over the years working for multiple promotions mean anything, Knapp says "yes," even if that means struggling against a strong headwind.
"I like fighting the fight," she said. "I can understand this fight. I've worked on the business side of this for so many years. You know how many times, because I'm a girl, I got passed up for something? Or the boy took the credit for the work that I did? So I can certainly identify with the struggles that [female fighters] have sometimes."
Saturday's event (invictafc.com, 8 ET), is headlined by former Strikeforce champion Marloes Coenen. The 31-year-old Dutch fighter said she believes so strongly in Knapp that she decided to put her name on a three-fight contract with the promotion.
"Shannon has the know-how and the power now to make this happen," Coenen said. "That's why I'm so happy to do this. I really believe Invicta is the next step, next evolution of the sport."
Having started in MMA at the age of 15, Coenen bristled at the concept of "women's MMA." The sport offers the same challenges, dangers, rules and structure regardless of gender, she said. However she conceded that an all-female organization offers unique marketing opportunities, including the possibility of introducing MMA to a wider world of women sports fans.
The prospect of success for Invicta and women fighting in MMA will be directly tied to this kind of crossover potential.
"I don't think there's a huge difference between marketing the males and females,” Knapp said. "If anything, I've learned in this business to tell the story. That's it; tell the story. Put on good fights, but dive deeper.”
Selling a story gives the viewer additional incentive to watch, there’s no question about that. But Invicta can’t rely on highly polished production pieces. As with any fight promotion, the key lies with the talent it holds. Coenen (19-5) is a terrific fighter; however, in her last bout she lost by submission to Tate, who subsequently tapped to Rousey. At best Coenen, who fights France’s Romy Ruyssen (5-1), represents the present state of women in MMA. Invicta must cultivate the stars of tomorrow if it hopes to find staying power.
Twenty-eight-year-old Randi Miller, for example, makes her fighting debut on the card. The 2008 Olympic bronze medalist wrestler at 63-kilograms said Invicta has opened the door for athletes like herself to “transition well into MMA" and she is excited to play a part.
"It was something I was interested in but when my career ended as a wrestler I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do,” said Miller, who fights 1-0 Mollie Estes. “If I wanted to coach, compete in MMA, get a job. I really didn't know what I wanted to do for a while. Eventually I decided I wanted to compete because I felt like I was still young enough. As you know in sports your time is very limited so as long as you feel you can, you should because you won't always be able to."
Miller has a point. Timing is everything.
Ten years after HooknShoot “Revolution,” a lauded all-women card in Evansville, Ind., is this the right moment for a venture like Invicta?
"I hope it grows as much as the men's side,” Miller said. “I hope people like what Invicta is doing and like watching me fight."