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Invicta Fighting Championships puts women's MMA on center stage

Shannon Knapp used to work for the UFC. She knows what Dana White thinks of women's MMA. She has heard her former boss say on several occasions -- pretty much every time a Gina Carano, Cris Cyborg or Ronda Rousey fight borrowed the public's attention from his behemoth fight organization for even a brief spotlight moment -- that he's not interested in bringing women's fights to the UFC because there aren't enough high-level female competitors to stack a division.

Knapp has heard all that, and here's her rebuttal.

"What Dana is saying is absolutely true," she says. "I mean, look at how many weight divisions they have in the UFC, and each one of them is stacked. When you come over to the female side of the sport, you find some talented fighters but they're spread across a few weight classes. So he's right in saying that there's not depth in the women's weight classes."

Some rebuttal.

"Actually, I do have a rebuttal for Dana," continues Knapp, who has spent more than a decade in MMA, not just at the UFC but also at Strikeforce and the International Fight League and as an assistant to fighters Randy Couture and Bas Ruttan. "The reason there's a lack of depth is that there is a lack of opportunity for women to build the sport, to build depth in the various weight divisions. To do that, we need to put on more fights. And no one has come over to this side of the sport, rolled up their sleeves and said, 'Hey, I'm going to make a difference.'"

HUNT: Invicta, new women's-only MMA series, was long time coming

Invicta, new women's-only MMA series, was long time comingUntil Knapp rolled up her sleeves and created the Invicta Fighting Championships, that is.

The all-women's professional MMA organization will make its debut Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, invictafc.com) in Kansas City, Kansas, with an 11-fight card headlined by former Strikeforce 145-pound division champion Marloes Coenen. The Dutch submission specialist, who hasn't fought since losing her belt to Miesha Tate last summer, takes on Romy Ruyssen.

Also on the card are Liz Carmouche, who made an unsuccessful challenge for Coenen's title last year, and fellow Strikeforce fighter Sarah D'Alelio, who in her most recent outing lost to current belt holder Ronda Rousey via -- what else? -- armbar.

But the fighter whose Invicta appearance is perhaps most anticipated is not at the top of the card but way down toward the bottom. She's situated there because she'll be making her MMA debut. Why the buzz, then? Because she's an Olympic medalist, which brings a certain cache, especially in the wake of "Rowdy" Ronda's success.

Like Rousey, Randi Miller won a bronze medalist in the 2008 Games. But while Rousey made the podium in judo, for Miller it was in wrestling.

"I think people are really excited to see her," says Knapp.

Part of the reason for that is, in the wake of Rousey's emergence, we're learning what an elite athlete can do even with little MMA experience. Another reason: The buildup of anticipation for Miller's debut has been building for quite a while. As early as 2010, she was slated to take on Hiroko Yamanaka, a veteran fighter who, despite being swarmed in 16 seconds last December by Cyborg (although the result was changed to a no contest after the Brazilian tested positive for steroids), would have been a tough test for a newcomer. Miller pulled out of the fight, saying she wasn't ready. Then the bout was rescheduled, and Randi ended up pulling out again.

"It was a humbling experience," Miller remembers. "As the fight grew closer, my preparation wasn't progressing well enough. It was a feeling I couldn't even remember, like when I first set foot in a wrestling room and was getting beat up."

Two years later, the 28-year-old Texan feels ready. And this time she's not taking such a big bite out of the MMA pie, taking on Mollie Ahlers-Estes, who has had several amateur bouts but has fought as a professional just once before. "That part doesn't matter," Miller insists. "Two years ago, what kept me from going through with the fight wasn't Yamanaka, it was me. I just didn't feel ready, and I would have felt that way no matter who my opponent was."

Elite wrestlers have seen much success in MMA, whether by sticking with what they do best, like Bellator's takedown machine of a welterweight champion, Ben Askren, or by adding a dangerous standup game to their arsenal, like Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix finalist Daniel Cormier. Miller, a U.S. teammate of both Askren and Cormier at the '08 Summer Games in Beijing, isn't sure which path she'll take. "You never know how you're going to fight until they close the cage and the bell rings," she says. "All I know is I'm going to be aggressive and go for it."

You might expect the same approach from Invicta. "We're coming out swinging," says Knapp. "We've been working on this since May of last year, trying to build a foundation."

That foundation has been fortified more than a little by outside forces. Right around the time that Knapp was poised to announce the inaugural Invicta event, Strikeforce elevated its Rousey vs. Tate bout to a main event on Showtime, putting the women's game in a rare spotlight.

"We got very lucky with that," Knapp acknowledges. "But we're in this for the long haul, not just this one event. We're doing the telecast in HD, treating it like a product that's ready for network television. And we're giving it away for free. The reason is we want people to see our vision. We want people to see we're serious."

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