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Carano-Santos set for Strikeforce main event on Saturday

Let's go ahead and admit the obvious: If Strikeforce's main event this Saturday night were a beauty contest instead of an MMA fight, it would be a blowout. With her classic features and girl-next-door charm, it's not surprising that Gina Carano is the one doing magazine layouts while Cris "Cyborg" Santos is more likely to get hired to work security at a beauty pageant than participate in one.

But what should be equally obvious is that good looks have never won a fight. When men compete, never do we even bother talking about it. It's irrelevant, and not terribly interesting.

Yet with Carano and Santos, the 'Beauty and the Beast' comparisons seem unavoidable, and "Cyborg" has had just about enough of it.

"This kind of position that the media takes is dumb," Santos said through an interpreter when asked her reaction to the news stories about her fight. "It's something that idiots could do. A fight isn't about who is prettier. It's about who is the better fighter. This is what matters. When we are in the cage together, it won't matter who is pretty and who is not, so it makes no sense to focus on this."

If Santos sounds annoyed, that's because she is. You try listening to questions about how much more attractive the person you're about to fight is and see if it doesn't get old in a hurry. The fact that it's even part of the discussion in women's MMA is an obvious double-standard, and a tiresome one.

The trouble is, the issue becomes complicated somewhat when Carano is involved. Her fame is inextricably tied to her good looks, despite her undefeated record. It's also a big part of why she's become the media darling that both Strikeforce and their TV partner, Showtime, are intent on promoting. Meanwhile, Santos, the betting favorite in the fight, gets treated as little more than the next test for the woman who is commonly referred to as "the face of women's MMA."

The truth is that Santos is more than just a challenge for Carano, she's also a potential nightmare. With vicious striking skills and one-punch knockout power, she presents a serious stylistic problem for Carano, whose gameplan usually consists of avoiding takedowns and picking opponents apart on the feet.

If there's one thing we've learned watching her since she made her American debut at last summer's EliteXC event, Santos is equally capable in the stand-up department. Her aggression in the cage is often reminiscent of a female Wanderlei Silva, which makes sense when you consider that she comes from the same Chute Boxe gym in Brazil that Silva helped to make famous.

Santos ended up there almost by accident. She was a handball player in Brazil, and after one match a Chute Boxe coach took note of her competitive fire and invited her down to the gym. Six months later, she had her first fight.

Now four years later she finds herself in the biggest fight in women's MMA history. It's the first time a major organization has put two female fighters in the main event. After injuries and licensing issues forced a series of changes to the fight card, Santos and Carano are tasked with making the event a success.

In some ways, it's the Ali-Frazier of women's MMA. It's fight that's been a long time in the making, and one that could propel the participants and the sport itself to new heights. It's also a lot of responsibility to be heaped on the shoulders of the 24 year-old Santos, and she knows it.

"Gina and I, we are the pioneers. I know that and Gina knows that. In a way we are like the men who fought in the UFC in the 90's. We want to represent ourselves and women's MMA well, and we also want to pay back Strikeforce for the opportunity we have been given. We are doing this not just for ourselves but also for all the girls who will come later."

While it's undoubtedly a tremendous boost for women's MMA to have Santos and Carano in the main event, there's still the question of what will happen after these two square off in San Jose. The lack of depth in the women's division is what's keeping the UFC from adding female fighters to its roster, according to UFC president Dana White, so you have to wonder whether there will still be enough interesting match-ups once this fight is in the books.

Furthermore, if Carano is the face of the sport, what will it mean if she loses? Will fans turn their attention to Santos, or is the interest in women's MMA really more of an interest in one particular fighter.

Santos, whose career hasn't suffered all that much even without Carano's looks, isn't concerned.

"I think the work that Strikeforce is doing now will open things up for more women fighters," she said. "After this fight more people will see that women can fight and the door will be open for more women to train and to become fighters. In the future it will be just like the men, with just as many good fighters."

For the sake of the future of women in the sport, let's hope she's right. Chances are that Strikeforce will be hoping the same thing.

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