Mixed martial arts may be the world's fastest growing sport, but its women fighters are getting left in the dust.
Since 2002, the number of professional female fighters has steadily grown into the hundreds in the U.S., but opportunities for them to compete only seem to be dwindling.
In that time, there have been over 15,000 MMA events promoted throughout the country. How many of those shows have promoted women's fights from top to bottom? It could be as few as a dozen.
Shannon Knapp understands this statistic all too well. She watched female fighters get turned away daily as she worked in various executive roles for the UFC, International Fight League, Elite XC and Strikeforce promotions.
Knapp was the one who got the calls from panicked female fighters hoping they still had jobs when UFC owners Zuffa LLC purchased the rival Strikeforce promotion in March 2011 (The UFC had never promoted a women's fight during its 18-year existence). Right then, Knapp decided to step off the sidelines.
On Saturday, she and co-promoter Janet Martin will present Invicta Fighting Championships, an 11-fight, all-women's event in Kansas City, Kansas, and a promotion over a year in the making.
"For the men, in the last 10 years, it's been an uphill climb and a struggle, and that's put the women even further behind," said Knapp. "But it's still societal no matter how you look at it. It's G.I. Joe, not G.I. Jane."
Jeff Osborne, the patriarch of women's MMA, probably couldn't say it any better. Osborne was the man behind the first all women's show a decade ago this month, which drew 1,800 fans to the very modest Evansville Coliseum in Evansville, Ind.
Already a successful local promoter with over 40 Hook N Shoot events under his belt since 1995, the father of two had already included a couple of one-off women's bouts in his shows.
In late 2001, Osborne popped a copy of an all-women's show out of Japan called Remix in his player, but was called away into another room. He came back one hour later to find his wife and 5-year-old daughter together on the couch staring at the screen. Watching his daughter's expression, Osborne saw a sense of pride rise within her. These women were role models to her.
Osborne sat and jotted down the names of every female fighter he could remember -- Shelby Walker, Debi Purcell, Erin Toughill, Tara LaRosa. Osborne figured there were no more than 40 active female fighters on the planet at the time.
He decided to call the show "Revolution," taking the savings he'd earned from the DVD sales of a previous men's event to fund it all on his own dime. Most sponsors would commit only product samples, if that, said Osborne. "Most wouldn't touch it. It was taboo. They said that nobody wanted to see women's MMA."
But on April 13, 2001, 12 women started the revolution, most of them making $300 and an extra $200 if they won.
Osborne lost around $8,800 on the show, which drew local NBC and Fox affiliates, as well as ESPN's
"I think I lost about $4,000 in airline tickets alone as women started to drop from the card for the usual reasons and I let them come anyway," said Osborne. "Sometimes it's better to make history than money. This was that kind of show. It's one of my greatest achievements."
Osborne promoted six all women's events up until 2010, but with an oversaturation of MMA shows and a faltering economy by 2009, he's migrated back to men's events of late.
In Los Angeles in 2006, aspiring writer and director Jason Dudek was having his own love affair with women's MMA just as the men's side of the sport exploded onto television with
"The fighting was so above the venues that these women were fighting in. They were as technical, if not more technical than the men," said Dudek, who found a handful of investors to fund a one-off show in L.A.
In four years, the female fighter pool had deepened significantly, but Dudek still ran into issues with the California State Athletic Commission trying to fill the card. The CSAC had just launched an amateur MMA program and wouldn't license some of the women as pros, which forced Dudek to fly in foreign talent to help fill the Fatal Femmes Fighting card. The CSAC also instructed Dudek to shorten the women's rounds from five to three minutes, a practice the commission would reverse in 2009 under immense public pressure.
Like Osborne, Dudek got the cold shoulder from potential sponsors.
"I was shocked by the resistance I got. People called it a gimmick or a freak show or said it would be boring because women were fighting. Venues wouldn't book us," said Dudek. "Out of 10 phone calls, I'd get two to consider it and the other eight would hang up on me."
But Dudek wouldn't relent. He and his partners produced four Fatal Femme events in three years to crowds as big as 1,500 fans, paying the athletes between $1,000 and $5,000 a fight, he said. During that time, Dudek's promotion had to weather public disparagement from UFC president Dana White, who'd famously tell reporters in early 2011 that he'd never promote a woman in the octagon.
"Dana White was one of the people who said that he wasn't sure he liked his women in the cage," said Dudek. "It didn't make things easier."
Interest came from elsewhere, though. In late 2007, Dudek said he was offered a broadcast deal with Showtime, which was already airing co-gender EliteXC events along with its sister network CBS. But when that deal fell through and the economy followed, Dudek returned to burgeoning opportunities in the film industry.
Strikeforce became the torchbearer for women's MMA when Pro Elite, EliteXC's promoter, collapsed financially in 2008. Women's fights in Strikeforce were a natural fit -- CEO Scott Coker had been promoting female kickboxers since the 80s -- and became one of the promotion's main attractions because it set it apart from the UFC, its major rival.
The three most popular women's fighters produced by the sport -- Gina Carano, Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos and Ronda Rousey -- all came from Strikeforce, which was building bantamweight (135) and welterweight (145) divisions up until the promotion was acquired in early 2011. In the restructuring, Zuffa signed a new deal with Showtime that cut the number of Strikeforce shows they'd produce from 20-plus to no more than eight a year.
Since women began competing in MMA in the U.S., the shortage of fights has forced a majority of them to take bouts at any weight they can get them, and has ultimately prevented women's MMA from sprouting permanent roots to grow upward.
"All these weight divisions are a mess," said Knapp. "To try to go into them and organize them and create the depth in them? These girls are jumping all over the place. We have girls fighting two weight classes up -- 105-pounders are fighting up at 125 pounds."
Invicta, which will promote fights between the 105- and 145-pound divisions on Saturday, couldn't be coming at a better time.
Zuffa and Bellator Fighting Championships, another promotion that was recently purchased by Viacom, have both "loaned out" a few of their female fighters under exclusive contracts, who will be paid their rates from those promotions, said Knapp.
"Nobody's making under $1,000 on my card," she added.
With the relationships she's culled from over 10 years in the business, Knapp has locked down a handful of faithful MMA sponsors, and said she won't pursue sponsors outside that sector until she has the first event to show them.
"Then I will knock on doors," said Knapp. "If you want to align with companies that aren't normally in this space and you're providing them with a new opportunity with the females, you have to show them something."
Sponsors will have to wait, but the sport's fanbase will not. From a modest start-up budget, Knapp has set aside funds to stream the show live on the Internet (8 p.m. ET, invictafc.com), a technology Zuffa found success with when it partnered with social-media juggernaut Facebook to air live undercard bouts in early 2011.
Viewers will be welcomed by a commentating team that includes industry staple Mauro Ranallo, former Strikeforce champion "King" Mo Lawal, and Julie Kedzie, who won at Osborne's second all-women's Hook N Shoot show in 2004.
In Kansas City, Knapp predicts the show will draw about 2,000 fans, and she's already planning a second show for July.
Consistency, defined by well-produced, regularly running shows and other opportunities for the female athletes, will be the key to helping women's MMA find its true footing, said Knapp.
She believes the awareness that the male athletes have brought to the sport is finally strong enough for the women to truly get in the game. Now all that is needed is a promoter who will stay in it for the long haul.
"Why hasn't women's MMA really taken off on its own yet? I think it's that nobody's inspired to get involved and try to really, really, take it to the next level," said Knapp. "It's not what everybody thinks it is. This isn't a get-rich-quick type of thing. It's going to take time. It's going to be an uphill battle. We're in it to make a difference and I like to fight the fight."