Monday, April 23, 2018

View from the Hawks Nest:Throwback Fight Carano vs. Cyborg

View from The Hawks Nest
An event review from a fan's perspective
By Matthew “MMAHAWK” Hawkins

Carano vs Cyborg

All photos by Matthew Hawkins


The sport of mixed martial arts as we know it has been around for roughly 25 years. For a large portion of that time it was considered mostly a sport for men, but in their shadow women were competing all over the world. In the early years, it consisted of catching an occasional Becki Levi fight on an IFC combat event, U-Japan show, or an all women Hook-n-Shoot card. While these events, for the most part, were few and far between, some promoters were leading the charge. They saw that women not only deserved their spot at the table but could actually sit at the head of it. From the Indian reservations to UFC 219, I have had the privilege to see the evolution of women in this combat sport, but there was one fight that we can point to that really started it all; Gina Carano vs Cris Cyborg. In this write-up, I’ll get into the excitement and general atmosphere that surrounded the event.

In the late 90’s I was training with Mark Hall. One day he gave me a copy of an event he competed in called U-Japan 96’. In this event Becky Levi fought a Japanese woman, Yoko Takahashi. Levi took down her opponent and eventually finished her with punches a few minutes into the fight. This was my first experience witnessing women fight in a cage. While I have to admit, it did take some getting used to, it wouldn’t be long before I was watching women compete just mere feet in front of me.

Mark was running his Cobra Fighting Federation events in Southern California. He had two successful shows featuring all men, but it was in his third that he introduced his first women’s bout. Now this was not the MMA of today, this was straight UFC 1 style with no rules, “wild west” type events. One woman dressed in t-shirts while another one wearing jean shorts squared off in a violent back-and-forth fight that had the crowd going crazy. Like I said earlier, only those that had searched out some rare VHS tape had ever seen anything close to this. The fans were left wanting more, and Mark never being one to deny the fans, two events later had three female fights on the card. Over the course of several more shows he would continue to have them compete, eventually crowning the first and only Cobra fighting female champion, Nicole Albrect.

Mark Hall’s Cobra Fighting Federation 

After Mark’s shows came to an end, there seemed to be a gap of a couple years where I don’t recall many female bouts. They were still taking place in Japan, the midwest, and occasionally on the east coast. The top of the food chain was beginning to establish itself and names like Larosa, Toughill, and Kedzie began to pop up on the MMA news sites I was able to access at the time. These women brought skills to the table that had not really been present in the previous era of women’s fights. They weren’t just tough females that wanted to fight; they were skilled athletes who trained at big-time gyms to sharpen those skills.

The time was right for there to be a huge breakout star in the world of WMMA. It simply took an organization to put them front and center. In December of 2006 an organization named EliteXC was formed and in February of the following year they held their first event. It was during this show when they would introduce Gina Carano. The daughter of a former NFL quarterback, Gina had the skills and the look to take on mega-stardom. She squared off with the aforementioned Julie Kedzie and went on to win a unanimous decision. The fight was broadcast on the Showtime network and for most fans it was the first time they would see a female bout. The win kicked off her professional record to 4-0 and the future was very bright. She would continue winning, adding three more consecutive wins to her resume including a showcase fight on CBS network television and Gina was now a worldwide star. I specifically remember listening to Mike Golic on ESPN radio commenting on her fight. On the same night that people were tuning in to watch Kimbo Slice, they left talking about Gina Carano. She was on top of the combat world, and the face of women's MMA. But, at the same time there was a Brazilian known as “Cyborg”, also making a name for herself.

Gina Carano Bellator 183

When Cris “Cyborg” Justino made her way to EliteXC she was already 4-1, coming off of three consecutive TKO wins. She was a physical specimen who beat her opponents with a brutal ferocity not seen before in WMMA. In her first fight in EliteXC, she faced off with another up and coming fighter, Shayna Baszler. Cyborg easily disposed of her opponent, finishing the bout by TKO with punches halfway through the second round. She ended up fighting three bouts under the EliteXC banner, and while dominant, she was still fighting in Carano’s shadow. As talks of a possible first women’s super fight between the two were being discussed, EliteXC closed their doors in late 2008. It was at this time Strikeforce MMA picked up the two stars and a mega fight was in the works.

After another TKO win for Cyborg in April of 2009, it was announced that on August 15 of that year Carano vs. Cyborg would take place. The event would be Held at the HP Pavilion (now SAP Center) in San Jose, California. It would be a landmark in Women’s mixed martial arts, as It would be the first female fight to headline a major organization, as well as the first time that women fought with a five minute round(previously was 3 minutes). It was time for the biggest fight in women’s history to determine the baddest woman on the planet. When the fight was announced, it came at a time when I was not attending that many events. The UFC was at it’s peak and the prices of tickets were something I couldn’t stomach at the time. I had watched Strikeforce since the early days of the organization, including when they were only promoting kickboxing events. It was time to give another company my combat dollars and this fight heavily peaked my interest. I wanted to watch historical events and this one was bound to fill that need. For the first time, I booked a flight to attend an event. I also purchased cage side seats for the first time since UFC 37.5. A monumental event was ready to take place and I was front and center to witness it live.

Cris Cyborg Carano Vs Cyborg weigh in

Upon arriving in San Jose it was time to attend the weigh-in held on the night before the show. I had been to a few for the UFC previously, and there was never an issue getting in and finding a seat. It was instantly noticeable as I approached the entrance that this event was something special. Hundreds of people were gathered out front, many of whom were young girls holding pictures and wearing Gina Carano shirts. There was also a very excited chatter among everyone. “Who would win? How would Gina deal with Cyborg’s strength? Was it even possible for Cyborg to be beaten?” As the doors opened it became apparent that not everyone was going to make it in. My friend and I put down our heads and put politeness on the back burner as we forced our way into the limited area. My guess would be roughly 200 were able to get into the standing room only setup and witness the most famous weigh in off all time. HDNET was broadcasting it live and had a panel there with fighters Cung Le, Josh Thomson, and Bas Rutten to break down the fight. There was also a tension as in the past, both women had previously had issues with making weight. Tonight that would not be an issue as both made weight to the cheers of the crowd. The fight was set, and a historical event was only 24 hours away.

Fight weigh in

Heading into the event, I remember thinking how great it was that there was another top-shelf MMA organization to go head-to-head with the UFC. Strikeforce put on great shows and this event was absolutely loaded with talent. Huge names for the hardcore fans filled the main card from top to bottom. Leading to the main event Werdum, Melendez, Mousasi, and Babalu set the table. The time had come for the main event, and announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. took the center of the five-sided cage. The lights dimmed and he gave his catchphrase “ It’s Showtime!” as he had done on several championship boxing matches before. The crowd was very much pro Carano and as she entered the cage, the cheering was as loud as any event I had ever witnessed. I was in shock as I looked around at a sellout arena, and couldn’t believe that in such a short time, these two women could create a fight of this magnitude. As the cage doors were locked, the undefeated superstar stared across the cage at the wrecking machine named Cyborg.

Gina preparing for battle

The tension was thick as the fighters met in the center of the cage.There was no feeling out period. Cyborg backed Carano up against the cage and unleashed a huge combination of punches. She then attempted a throw that backfired, and Gina found herself on top launching down punches as the crowd exploded in cheers. However, almost immediately Cyborg transitioned into an ankle lock, which then led to an attempted choke. Gina survived those attempts but Cyborg now had her back, landing huge shots.The madness continued as Carano got back to her feet. She got off a few punches but Cyborg was simply to overwhelming, retaliating with a massive punch and kick combo of her own. Incredibly, again the fight headed down to the mat and Gina assumed the mount position. While landing hard punches that had Cyborg covering up, she made what appeared to be a mistake, she let Cyborg up. These warriors stood in the center of the cage throwing everything they had at each other. It was clear that Cyborg had the strength advantage as she was walking through Carano’s punches, stalking her down. At this point both women started to show signs of fatigue. For every punch Gina threw, Cyborg responded with three sledge hammers of her own. This continued until Cyborg was able to get Carano to the ground and take a dominant side mount position. An attempted key lock was unsuccessful, but punches were landing. With about ten seconds left in the first round, Cris postured up and unleashed a hellish barrage of punches down on the obviously weary opponent. At 4:59 of the first round referee Josh Rosenthal had no choice but to step in and stop the fight. After five minutes of fury there was one queen of female MMA standing. Her name was Cris Cyborg and there was no denying her at this point.

Cyborg Attacking with punches

After the dust settled and the arena emptied, the only thing left was to recall the incredible fight that I had just witnessed. Both women left everything they had in the cage. Both women stood in the spotlight and delivered performances to be proud of. From this moment on the sport of women’s MMA would no longer be a sideshow. This fight showed that two athletes who prepared for combat could put on a show no matter the gender. It was a fight for the ages and to this day, after a couple hundred events attended, one of my favorite memories. In the years that would follow, these combatants would go their separate paths. This would be Gina’s last fight in the cage as she moved on to acting and starred in several movies such as Haywire, Deadpool, and the Fast and Furious series. Even today she is still brought up whenever the idea of another female super fight is discussed. Cris Cyborg, on the other hand, continued to compete, and my god has she. Nine years later, she still has not lost since her first career fight. Now 20-1, she has collected every major female title. Including the UFC featherweight crown at UFC 214. She has established herself as the baddest woman on the planet in 2009 and in 2018 it's even more undeniable. But when someone asked me about the career of either fighter, Carano vs.Cyborg is without a doubt the go-to viewing.

No comments:

Post a Comment