The women in today’s MMA are known for stealing the show with their performances. But in 2009, Gina Carano and Cris Cyborg were the only ladies fans cared to see.
At the height of her powers, Ronda Rousey was a can’t miss attraction not just in sports but in all of pop culture. Her fights were the Super Bowl and New Year’s Eve rolled into one. She was hip and new and the whole world was seemingly on board the train to watch. But she wasn’t the first female fighter to break through to the masses. That honor went to two other pioneers back in 2009 when Gina Carano met Cris Cyborg in Strikeforce.
In 2009, women’s MMA was such a small niche that it was nearly nonexistent in the landscape. Multiple weight-classes had yet to materialize and the women were still seen as more of a rare side-show when they were booked to fight.
That is, unless your name was Gina Carano.
To best sum up exactly what kind of star Carano was to MMA at the time, the best star to compare her to would be Danica Patrick. Patrick is far from the only female racer on the circuit, but her popularity is so great that the uninitiated fan struggles to name another female driver besides her. Back in 2009, Gina Carano had exactly the same effect.
Fans immediately were attracted to Carano’s charm. Carano was personable in interviews and appearances in Maxim and the ESPN Body Issue quickly made her a favorite to the largely male audience. Her star power carried over to television, most notably as “Crush” on the reality show American Gladiators on NBC. Appearances in the cult film Ring Girls and the Oxygen reality series Fight Girls soon made Carano the marquee name in women’s MMA.
But as is the case with all sports, there is no appeal in a star without a rival. For Carano, that rival was Cris “Cyborg” Justino.
If you can believe it, “Cyborg” was even more dominant back in 2009 than she is now. She operated mostly in anonymity in Brazil for years before her debut in America in 2008 Even then, she carried the incredible reputation of being the “female Wanderlei Silva.” If you were to type in women’s MMA in a new website called YouTube at the time, you would quickly find clips of Cyborg’s relentless performances inside the cage.
The fight was expected to take place in Elite XC prior to the promotion folding abruptly in 2008. When it did, both women were quickly brought into Strikeforce with the rest of the talent. The UFC was the leader in mixed martial arts, but Strikeforce made their name by being willing to provide what the UFC did not. In 2009, that meant women’s MMA and Strikeforce had the two biggest female names in the sport. In what was considered a groundbreaking but widely celebrated move, Gina Carano and Cris Cyborg were pitted against each other as the first ever women’s fight to headline a major MMA promotion.
The fight sold itself: the popular Carano against the menacing wrecking machine that was Cyborg. Both women were easily the most skilled opponent they had ever faced and the fight was expected to do well. Would Cyborg be able to bulldoze an opponent who was battle tested in Carano? Could Carano prove she was a true warrior and not just the pretty face she was pegged to be?
The battle itself was a whirlwind of action. Cyborg swarmed Carano early and never let up with her pace. It was immediately apparent that “Conviction” had no answer for the power of the Brazilian. However, Carano would go on to reverse a takedown and end up in full mount to stop the onslaught. In what would be the most criticized move of the fight, Carano shockingly let Cyborg back up to her feet. Justino never ceased in battering her opponent and the ref would stop the bout with a second remaining in the first round.
Cyborg would win the featherweight title, defending it several times and continuing her dominance in Invicta FC. In 2016, she made her UFC debut and in 2017 won the world title in her first championship bout with the promotion. She remains undefeated and recently dispatched Yana Kunitskaya to defend her title back in March.
Carano would never compete in mixed martial arts ever again. After losing to Justino, she left the MMA world to focus on acting. She would star as the lead in the films Haywire and In the Blood. Ironically, while Carano became a star behind her nice girl charm, her most notable film roles featured her as a villain in the box office hits Fast & Furious 6 and Deadpool.
The closest Carano ever came to a return to MMA was in April 2011 where she was scheduled to face Sarah D’Alelio. Initially, Strikeforce announced that Carano had failed her pre-fight examinations. In a bizarre twist, it was revealed that Carano had passed her pre-fight medicals but was removed from the card for undisclosed reasons that to this day remain a mystery.
Women’s MMA has boomed since the night Cyborg and Carano collided. In 2012, Ronda Rousey met Miesha Tate in a bout that captured the attention of the MMA world and women entered the UFC roughly a year later. Rousey would go on to superstardom and the women behind her soon followed. Today, fighters like Rose Namajunas, Joanna Jędrzejczyk, Amanda Nunes, and others carry the torch for women in the sport while new upstarts like Paige VanZant continue to join the fold seemingly every week.
But once upon a time, there were only two women that mattered in the world of MMA. The ladies of today have proven they would have opened the door for themselves in due time, but credit always goes to Carano and Cyborg for being the first to the dance back in 2009.