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Did Strikeforce Just Kill Women’s MMA?

Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: .

As far as guilty pleasures on television go, there are few that I feel guiltier about than HBO’s True Blood. Every show is more and more nonsensical than the last and this past weekend’s kickoff of the series’ fourth season was no exception. There were pixies fighting demons, witches covens, and vampire, all somehow coexisting in the heart of Louisiana. Hardly reality TV. But what was perhaps the most bizarre moment was a segment featuring a women’s mixed martial arts fight. It wasn’t just a cage fight — there were gloves, a ref, a padded cage and the fight ended by what would seem a legitimate armbar — it was an MMA fight, deep in the heart of a pop culture darling and somehow… it wasn’t the butt of a joke. Yet the unfortunate reality concerning that particular branch of the world’s fastest growing sport is that even as it’s seemingly becoming as excepted as its mainstream male counterpart, with the news of Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos’ departure from Strikeforce this past week, the idea of women’s MMA gaining any real momentum as a sport has been all but crushed.

As of last Sunday it’s been one year since “Cyborg” last fought for the San Jose-based promotion, a dominant win over Jan Finney. But as per her contract, she was obligated to remain solely under the Strikeforce banner to negotiate her next fight for that 365 day period of time. That deadline has come and gone, and as Cage Potato reports, it appears that the best women’s MMA fighter in the world will be taking her services elsewhere. “We’re told that Cris is in serious discussions with a promotion that we’ve been asked not to name until the deal is finalized and that she could have a new contract in place as early as this weekend.” However there’s a little more to it than that.

There are two main issues with women’s MMA fighting expanding right now — at least in the U.S. The first is a genuine lack of top-tier talent. EliteXC and Strikeforce both went against the trend set by the UFC in introducing women’s fights to main cards in the U.S., before later pushing them all the way to headline status; a bold move if there ever was one. But the obvious reality became clear early on: by lack of numbers alone, they served as oddities among cards full of male fighters, and to some degree are still viewed as sideshow events. A point that UFC President Dana White has been oh-so willing to stand behind, firmly repeating his stance that the world’s most popular MMA promotion would never showcase women fighters.

The idea, from White’s perspective, doesn’t so much boil down to the perception that women can’t fight — if you’ve never seen “Cyborg” in action before, you need to do so immediately — but that the talent pool is too shallow to claim a genuine hierarchy. Yet with ZUFFA, the UFC’s parent company, purchasing Strikeforce, a shadow began to grow over the newly acquired company concerning the future of the promotion’s highly balked at women’s divisions. Therein lies the second problem.

Though the argument is a touchy one, it’s misguided to suggest that there is, in fact, a talent pool waiting in the wings to compete against a world class athlete such as “Cyborg.” In her two Strikeforce bouts since defeating the face of women’s MMA, Gina Carano, in 2009 for the Women’s Middleweight Championship, “Cyborg” has hardly looked human, taking out current Welterweight Champion Marloes Coenen in addition to the aforementioned beating she put on Jan Finney. With talk continually swirling about how Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva have cleaned out their respective UFC weight classes, it seems that with Strikeforce’s inability to find her a reputable opponent over the course of an entire year that it’s fairly evident that Santos has done the same. Her dominance as a fighter is hardly questioned. But the second issue of note comes in ZUFFA’s disinterest in genuinely attempting to support women’s MMA.

At Strikeforce’s recent Overeem vs. Werdum event, Carano was set to face Sarah D’Alelio in what would have been the first ever women’s MMA fight under the ZUFFA banner. Yet, due to undisclosed reasons, Carano pulled out of the fight a week and a half before the bout despite being medically cleared. While the news certainly made an impact, the UFC’s ongoing transparency regarding its fighters certainly wasn’t displayed by Strikeforce. Despite Carano arguably remaining the largest name to ever receive worldwide publicity as a female MMA fighter, it was as if it wasn’t a big deal because it was merely a women’s MMA bout; no replacement was announced to take on D’Alelio and the match was immediately scratched. Sure, it’s been called off, but the surrounding details really aren’t that important, are they?

With the news of of Santos’ departure, not only does Strikeforce have two vacant titles and a champion who’s defended his belt only once in the past three and a half years, but they might have signaled the end of women’s MMA as it currently stands. Presently there remains a pending title match between Welterweight Champion Marloes Coenen and Miesha Tate which is set to take place later this month, but with the departure of the world’s fiercest female fighter, one can only assume that it’s only a matter of time before the male dominated sport becomes a male-only sport under the ZUFFA banner.