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Marloes Coenen started studying mixed martial arts when the sport didn't even have a name.
"They referred to it as Free Fighting Females in the Cage," says Coenen, who took up the sport in her native Netherlands at age 14. Like the heroine in a fairy tale, Coenen had to travel through six miles of dense forest, with seedy men rumored to be hiding in the shadows. Unlike a childhood story where a prince or godmother would protect her, Coenen knew she had to take care of herself.
"I had to go to school on my bike, through the forest," Coenen said. "There were all these stories about dirty men doing weird stuff, so I wanted to learn to defend myself."
Sixteen years later, Coenen is the Strikeforce women's welterweight champion, MMA has more female participants than ever before and those women have a fast-growing following.
"When you look at TV numbers and track the quarters [15-minute stretches] when women are fighting, they do very, very strong numbers," said Bjorn Rebney, CEO of Bellator, one of the two nationally televised MMA circuits that crown a woman's champion.
Miesha Tate, who will fight Coenen for the Strikeforce title Saturday, is one of the most popular fighters on Twitter. She has over 14,000 followers, more than Strikeforce men's champions Jacare Souza (3,000) and Nick Diaz (12,000).
Strikeforce, formerly the second-largest MMA organization and the largest that promotes female fighting, was purchased in mid-March by Zuffa, parent company of the industry's undisputed leader, the UFC.
For Strikeforce's male fighters, the surprise move meant the possibility of fighting some of the biggest names in the sport, such as UFC stars B.J. Penn, Cain Velasquez and Brock Lesnar, and of the big paychecks that would accompany such bouts. But for the women of Strikeforce, the merger was not necessarily a step in the right direction.
The UFC cast a shadow every bit as intimidating as the forest of Coenen's youth. The organization had the reputation of being a men's club, with women welcome only if they were toting a card telling the crowd what round it was. (The face of women in the UFC is Arianny Celeste, a sultry ring-card girl who has posed for Playboy and Maxim. She currently has 134,000 followers on Twitter, close to 10 times Tate's number.)
UFC president Dana White has made no secret of his disdain for women's MMA. A little over a month before the merger was finalized, White was caught on camera laughing at the prospect of women fighting for the UFC.
When asked how soon females would be included in his league, White responded, "Never," as he laughed and stepped into a waiting car.
Even when he's spoken at greater length on the issue, White hasn't shown women fighters any respect. White's attitude toward women also came into question following his infamous Internet rant against female MMA journalist Loretta Hunt two years ago, in which he cursed 45 times in a three-minute attack preserved on video.
More recently, one of White's fighters, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, gained attention for making overtly sexual advances toward a female reporter interviewing him on national television.
"It's a little stressful," Tate said at the time of the merger, about having White in charge of the future of women's MMA.
Yet in the four months since the merger, the UFC has welcomed the women fighters into the organization. Despite Tate's concerns, top women's fighter Cris Cyborg was signed to a new contract last month after her existing deal expired. And there are other signs of progress.
Liz Carmouche, who lost to Coenen in a title shot in March, became the first openly gay fighter -- male or female -- to compete under the Zuffa banner when she met Sarah Kaufman on July 22 in a fight televised on Showtime. Finally, it appears women are being welcomed into the fold and slowly given the same opportunity to succeed as male fighters. Still, the battle for equality has a long way to go with personalities like White standing in the way of promoting a positive culture for females in MMA.
"Dana is still just really ignorant with women's MMA right now," Tate said. "He hasn't really given it a chance or researched it or even really watched it. ... He doesn't know enough about it to make a judgment call. With the purchase of Strikeforce, he's going to be paying more attention to it. Now we're going to have the opportunity to say, 'Hey, Dana, this is what women's MMA is all about. This is what you've been missing in the UFC.'"
When Tate challenges Coenen on Saturday, it has a chance to be the most-watched women's fight in history. Ironically, the merger that was thought to be the end of women's MMA may end up taking it to new heights. Especially among American viewers.
"I started fighting [professionally] in Japan, because the center for women's MMA was there," Coenen said. "Now there's no question that the center is in the States. Women are much stronger than before, much more technical and much more professional."
The Tate-Coenen fight will be broadcast on Showtime. Check local listings for times.