Since women's MMA exploded on the big stage in February 2007, it's been Gina Carano who's been involved in the division's watershed moments.
Her win over Julie Kedzie at "EliteXC: Destiny" set the path for Showtime to continue promoting women's MMA. Her victory over Kaitlyn Young on EliteXC's debut on CBS in May 2008 added 1.02 million viewers during the span of the fight while her main event loss to Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos in August 2009 gave Showtime its highest rated MMA event until this year and drew nearly 14,000 fans to HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.
Now, with Carano's fighting future in doubt and the UFC bearish about promoting female MMA, the new biggest moment in the short history of women's mixed martial arts is undoubtedly this weekend when Marloes Coenen defends her Strikeforce women's bantamweight championship against Miesha Tate at "Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Henderson" in Hoffman Estates, Ill.
Since Zuffa purchased Strikeforce in March, there has yet to be a high-profile female fight. Carano was scheduled to make her return in June but had to pull out due to a still-mysterious medical issue. Now the hopes and dreams of hundreds of female mixed martial artists everywhere fall squarely on the shoulders of Coenen and Tate to put on a magical fight Saturday and begin the process of showing UFC president Dana White they deserve the chance to compete in the UFC once Strikeforce is inevitably absorbed.
Is it fair? No. Is it reality? Yes.
This isn't to say the future of the women's division entirely rests on this fight, but this could have a significant bearing on the division going forward. Coenen and Tate absolutely need to have a good fight (and continue to have good fights) to make the public demand female MMA in the UFC. We've seen it time and time again that White listens to the public and will do things based on outcry (and this was proven well before Twitter existed), so Coenen and Tate have to have a fight the public remembers.
Coenen is on the right track now. Her come-from-behind win over Liz Carmouche in March at "Strikeforce: Feijao vs. Henderson" was one of the most thrilling and captivating fights of the year and was an exercise in what a great fight can do to a crowd. What I witnessed that night at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio was special. The crowd was intrigued, but ultimately not gung-ho for the fight going in. But something happened. Whether it was the sense of an upset as Carmouche built a three-round lead, or whether it was seeing that type of violence between females for the first time, the crowd built and built to a fever pitch and exploded when Coenen locked in the fight-ended triangle choke after being pounded on for three straight rounds. It was an incredible moment and one that took me back to HP Pavilion on the night of the Carano/Cyborg fight. I've only felt energy like that in a building a few times. That was one of those times.
Ultimately, I thought Cyborg's win over Carano would lead to bigger things for the women's divisions, but it unfortunately has been pretty much mismanaged six ways to Sunday since.
So that's where we are. With Santos out of the equation, it's up to Coenen and Tate to prove the women's bantamweight division has worth for the UFC and I think it most certainly does. Coenen is capable of doing that, but Tate is going to have to step out of the comfort zone she went into during Strikeforce's 135-pound female tournament last August, but that could be tough considering she hasn't fought since and is coming off a knee injury.
These two certainly are capable of going in there and having a fight for the ages. The fight could play out just like Coenen's fight with Carmouche did, and if it did, it'd be all aces. These women aren't stupid. They know this fight has higher stakes than just the Strikeforce women's bantamweight title. How they'll react to this is anyone's guess, but how they do could have a significant impact on the future of women's mixed martial arts.