Josh Gross
Friday August 14th, 2009

Gina Carano made like Joe Montana in grade school. She was the girl who tossed the pigskin around better than the boys, left 'em scattered and battered around the playground face down in their underage egos, dishing out bruises like badges of honor.

Carano, 27, remains awash in preconceptions. It's just that the egos are fully formed these days.

There's no way a girl with a smile like that deserves acclaim as the face of women's combat sports. To admit otherwise would be to acknowledge serendipity, genetics and hard work. VIEW A PHOTO GALLERY OF GINA CARANO IN ACTION

Born the middle child to a prom queen and pro football player, Carano has always competed for something. Always. On Saturday, her standing as the world's most recognizable (and perhaps best) female fighter is at stake. Brazilian stalker Cris "Cyborg" Santos (7-1), far more dangerous than any of the boys Carano may have roughed up along the way, awaits her in San Jose, Calif., where the pair will vie on Showtime for Strikeforce's newly minted 145-pound women's title.

The gravitational pull of an athletically focused and ambitious family can be hard to escape, not that anyone was trying. As a girl Carano danced, competed in gymnastics, air kicked Taekwondo; rode and handled horses, played basketball, volleyball and softball. With a football in her hand, she mimicked her father -- a backup quarterback in the NFL under Roger Staubach and Danny White.

"They didn't primp us up to be these pretty little girls," Carano said of her parents, Glenn Carano and Dana Teepee, who divorced when she and her sisters, Kasey and Christie, were still kids. "They allowed us to be very expressive in whatever we wanted to do. My mom's never been a super girly girl. They meshed well with creating three girls that can be physical if they want to but also be ladylike if they want to."

Tradition at family functions called for Gina to wallop on her cousins. Boy cousins. But she was also required to act with decorum in Las Vegas and Reno social circles, where the family has ties to the gaming industry. With Glenn moved north after the divorce, Gina and her sisters were asked to double up on festivities. Regular weekends with dad, spent mainly in Las Vegas hotels, were grand. Splitting time between parents that gave all they could -- two Christmases, two Thanksgivings, two birthdays -- worsened Carano's anxiety over her weight.

"Naturally we all had that mentality of what women should look like," Carano said. "Being the bigger boned one growing up did play a bit of a role. I didn't look like my sisters. I wasn't lean and skinny. But my mom would always tell me, 'It's not what you weigh, it's what you look like.' So my mom would try to balance out my dad's you-gotta-workout-you're-looking-kinda-heavy attitude."

Glenn didn't recall pushing his daughter to shed pounds. But the way he handled himself physically, maybe it wasn't something that needed much verbalizing. Typical workouts guaranteed sweat-formed lakes around treadmills and StairMasters. But that was nothing. Four times the former Dallas Cowboys QB participated in something called the Death Ride, a brutal cycling rally in the California Alps that twice brought him to dehydration; in 2000 the course demanded climbs totaling 19,000 vertical feet over a distance of 135 miles.

"Great ride," he said. "Hope to do it again. The endorphins are incredible."

Walking around in the best shape of her life, Gina still prefers not to train with him.

"When he works out, he's a madman," she said.

And mom?

"Gina gets a lot of her feistiness from her mother," Glenn laughed.

Teepee's brother played football at UNLV and explained that Gina's athleticism -- much like her sisters who were star point guards in high school -- comes from both sides of the family. Victories over her ex-husband in racquetball were offered as evidence.

The day Gina walked into Master Toddy's Muay Thai academy in Las Vegas she weighed 175 pounds. Coming off a five-year battle during which she skipped college basketball to save her older sister from drugs, "I didn't know what I wanted to do because when you go through that sort of severe crisis there's an after-effect of a couple years." READ JOSH GROSS' CYBORG-CARANO Strikeforce fight preview

Time spent in the gym with fighter Kevin Ross, a boyfriend who remains one of her closest friends today, opened eyes and burned ears.

"Thai guys can be so honest," she said. "I had my dad on my ass my whole life, but I never had some random person tell me, 'Oh, baby, really, you need to lose weight.'"

Six months after strapping on gloves, Carano began waging wars in the ring. Drawn to kickboxing, she was doing professionally what had come so naturally growing up. MMA followed, as did Gary Shaw and EliteXC, which promoted Carano on Showtime and CBS as the face of female MMA in four bouts around the U.S.

Ironically, she said, "I'm in a sport where it completely matters how much you weigh."

Focus and competitiveness matter more, and Carano has never lacked for either. She'll need both this weekend.

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