April 04, 2013
Cris 'Cyborg' Santos has in the past refused to drop 10 pounds to fight star Ronda Rousey.

Let's get this straight from the start: It's not that mixed martial artist Michelle Waterson doesn't appreciate the honor of headlining Friday night's Invicta 5 promotion in Kansas City. It's just that as a fan of women's MMA -- not just as a practitioner of it -- she has a confession to make: "I would love to be able to fight first and then watch the rest of the girls," she says.

Hardcore female fight fans understand why.

Invicta, the women's-only fight promotion, celebrates its one-year anniversary by hosting what many industry insiders suggest might be the best all-female fight card ever assembled. Invicta co-founders Shannon Knapp and Janet Martin have bet good money -- their own money, in fact -- on the concept that fight fans will pay $9.95 to watch an online stream of legitimate female fighters show off their legitimate skills. The promotion isn't peddling the notions of celebrity (there's only one Ronda Rousey), or history (like the inaugural UFC female fight last February), but in the simple belief in its viability (show good fights and fans will pay good money).

The business plan is as straightforward as it is scary. After all, it was only two years ago that UFC president and de facto industry boss Dana White derided women fighters and declared that they would never fight in the UFC. Nor have legacy sports like basketball or boxing presented a blueprint for the economic and cultural success of female athletes.

It's not that the mainstream masses don't want to watch females fight. The franchising of The Real Housewives of Wherever -- complete with its table throwing and bickering -- proves otherwise. Invicta 5 features a helping of the kind of personal vendetta and catty sniping that anchors the Bravo network's reality programming in the Bec Hyatt (4-2-0) matchup with Yasminka Cive (5-0-0). Their beef stems from an exchange of Twitter slights that results in

" target="_blank">this promo video. As former Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker succinctly put it me last January, "Anytime you've got fighters with personal beef, it's always a great matchup."

Hyatt-Cive won't undermine that conventional wisdom. Hyatt, a 24-year-old upstart fighter with her bleach blonde hair shorn punk-style, has gained a cult following in her short tenure on the WMMA circuit. The Australian showed sprightliness and grit in her short-notice loss to strawweight champion Carla Esparza last January that was both endearing and entertaining. But she'll need more than fan support when facing Cive, an Austrian with an impressive kickboxing resume and an MMA curriculum vitae that includes four consecutive knockouts and an amateur bout in November 2010 against a male opponent that ended in a draw.

But the Hyatt-Cive bout won't be more compelling than the return of Cris "Cyborg" Santos to the cage. The most dominant fighter of the pre-Rousey era of WMMA -- she ended the fighting career of Gina Carano, after all -- will fight for the first time in 16 months after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

The central question in Cyborg's faceoff with replacement opponent Fiona Muxlow isn't if she'll win but how she'll appear doing it. UFC president White dismissed Cyborg as "irrelevant" in February after the 27-year-old Brazilian with perhaps the most potent punch-out power on the women's circuit, refused to drop down from her 145-pound featherweight division to the 135-pound bantamweight class where Rousey looms. It's fair to assume that any and every opponent is simply a sparring match until Cyborg tests her striking against Rousey's judo. Cyborg isn't fighting to simply win fights but to regain relevance in a women's fight field that has moved on without her.

Yet most of the card doesn't have the reality TV show storylines. And that's what makes Invicta's promotion noteworthy. It's banking on legions of fans who will value the mastery of Sarah Kauffman's boxing in her fight against Leslie Smith. Or those who want to see if Jennifer Maia's groundwork is as impressive as the other Maia (Demian, her fellow Brazilian in the UFC). Or if Jessica Penne can use her long, lithe body to her advantage the way another long-limbed fighter does on the male circuit: one Jon Jones. Or if Michelle Waterson, trained in the birthplace of muay Thai, can leverage her trademark creativity to submit the titleholder.

The list goes on. There are 14 fights and 28 reasons to watch. Even, as Waterson, if you're Waterson, from backstage.

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