Josh Gross
Sunday August 16th, 2009

Not surprisingly, similarities abound when it comes to the promotion of male and female fighters. There remain, however, distinct differences. For example, when Strikeforce CEO and founder Scott Coker's cell phone chimed 24 hours before the most important event of his professional life with news that one half of the main event was pregnant, he couldn't just slough it off as nonsense.

Fortunately for both his heart and promotional company, it turned out Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos pulls off pranks about as well as she throws punches.

"She scared the crap out of me," Coker relayed an hour after Santos pummeled Gina Carano to capture the vacant Strikeforce women's lightweight title.

With women headlining a major mixed martial arts event and a Showtime-televised card for the first time, a milestone in female combat sports history, Coker could ill afford for anything to happen to Santos or Carano. While three testosterone-fueled championship fights had fallen apart over the past eight weeks, both women dutifully fulfilled their end of the promotional bargain. More important for 13,524 raucous fans on hand in San Jose, Calif.'s HP Pavilion, the pair showed up to fight -- a testament to Coker's faith in the drawing power and entertainment value of women mixed martial artists.

Well, at least one of them.

The oft-described face of female MMA, Carano was everywhere in the lead-in to Saturday. She owned the record, recognition, exposure and intangibles. In Coker's case, for as passionately as his company got behind Carano-Santos, most of its success was rooted in 18 months worth of hyped, ready-to-sell material.

"We were lucky," he said. "We were the beneficiary of CBS and Showtime teeing that fight up. I wanted to see that fight even when ProElite was going to do it. So when fights happen like that, it's great.

"Now we gotta go in and build some matchups, make them relevant and put 'em together."

In other words, the hard part.

Carano was the star walking into the cage. She received overwhelming support from virtually the entire arena, as well as a slew of fans around the country.

Cyborg? Well she brought viciousness and aggression.

It was a back-and-forth clash until Cyborg (8-1) found herself on top of Carano wailing away with lefts and rights. When referee Josh Rosenthal stepped in to call a halt to the contest with one second remaining in the opening round, Coker was forced to contemplate life sans Carano (7-1) at the top. The 27-year-old Las Vegan isn't going anywhere, of course. She just isn't the same promotable commodity today as she was on Friday. And therein lies the difficulty for Coker when it comes to delivering marketable women's fights for fans and his television partner Showtime. Had Carano won, Strikeforce would be sitting pretty with a roster that includes Fedor Emelianenko, the best male heavyweight in the world, and an immensely popular female fighter. As it stands now, Strikeforce is left with a champion who doesn't speak English, hasn't appeared in Pepsi commercials, hasn't drawn a tremendous amount of press, and isn't nearly as marketable as Carano.

Santos, 24, needs fans to embrace her wild gun-slinging style, a staple of the academy out of which she trains, if she's going to be any kind of draw. For years, Chute Boxe, one of the most respected gyms in Brazil, churned out exciting champions like Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio Rua and Jose Pele Landi-Jons. Santos is their eighth and perhaps most unique world champion.

"She's very happy doing what she's doing right now," said Chute Boxe founder Rudimar Fedrigo. "I think she's very capable of receiving [Carano's mantle as] the female face of MMA. She worked hard for that and will take care of that title." Perhaps. Cyborg said since she owns the belt, a version made especially for women, Carano could keep the label.

In Strikeforce, Cyborg has a willing promotional partner. And since the UFC declines to promote women based on the declaration that there's not enough depth among female competitors to round out divisions, Coker's group has an opportunity to corner the market on one, albeit niche, area of the sport. Whether fans care enough in the long run is a worthwhile question. To that end, a concerted effort is under way to bolster Strikeforce's female ranks. And highlighting Cyborg's tremendous physicality will be key.

"When I think of Cristiane Cyborg I think of an athlete where you could see her in Shape Magazine," he said. "I could see her in Muscle and Fitness. There's a whole different promotional angle you can take with her. You could say she's one of the fittest women in the world. She's an amazing athlete, and that's how we're going to try and promote her. She's obviously the best female fighter in MMA."

With Showtime's blessing, Strikeforce will promote eight-woman tournaments at 135 and 145 pounds with the idea that winners earn title shots. Established talent such as The Netherlands' Marloes Coenen, a highly regarded lightweight, is also being brought in to create compelling championship fights.

"For women in MMA, it was a perfect night," Coenen (16-3) said. "I gave a lot up so I could keep on training. Now, finally, after 10 years everything is coming together. I hope it really happens and we don't stop. MMA is growing so much in America."

Buzz from Santos' stoppage of Carano was strong enough to rank "Gina Carano," "Cris Cyborg," "MMA," and "Strikeforce" among Twitter's 10 Trending Topics in the hours after the fight. That news brought a smile to Coker's face.

"It's a historic night for us, for Showtime, for female fighting period," he said.

For young women "there's a future in this sport," said Meisha Tate, a popular 135-pounder who might participate in one of Coker's tournaments. "There are doors that are open, and doors that are being opened. I hope they can watch this and be inspired by it."

No joke.

GALLERY: Best shots from Strikeforce

BLOG: Blow-by-blow analysis of Carano vs. Santos

MMAWEEKLY: Couture weighs in on Carano loss

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