Sara McMann: one of the faces of the growing, and thriving world of female MMA.
One of the more interesting factoids (and perhaps this is debatable) about MMA is that one of the sports' most iconic images has nothing to do with the sport itself. Instead it's the infamous photo of Dana White holding a tombstone of all the defunct organizations that tried to compete for a piece of the MMA pie.
For many, the image is just a reminder of how insensitive and draconian Dana White tends to be. How could a guy who claims to love the sport relish the demise of organizations trying just like him to help the sport grow?
While I'd agree the image isn't flattering for Dana, it's not especially sinful, and certainly doesn't lend credence to the theory that Dana has only ever been interested in the UFC profit above else. For one, I don't think some of the defunct organizations made an honest effort to help the sport grow.
Some of their sins were ill-advised rather than malicious; the IFL with their too quirky to embrace format, and Affliction with their over-ambitious spending for example. On the other end of the spectrum, you had Gary Shaw and his Vanilla Ice-era obsessed son, Jared Shaw, simply make fools of themselves in plain sight. And beneath the stretch clown car lies the metaphorical bowl of misguided dreams called the YAMMA Pit.
What's refreshing about hearing Shannon Knapp speak is that she appears to be acutely aware of this history. Offering fights for free in the information age is crafty on her part. Grab loyal customers first, and hopefully the rest will follow.
For many critics of female MMA, the question has always been about the quality of its product. After watching Invicta FC 2, I think it's safe to say there are moments when the sheer spectacle and entertainment of an event becomes the quality, if just for a moment. Can even the harshest critics of female MMA argue they'd rather watch Cheick Kongo vs. Shawn Jordan over Sara McMann vs. Shana Baszler?
I offer the strawman scenario to follow up with the next point. The counter to that argument is that Kongo and Jordan don't represent the highest levels of male mixed martial arts. McMann, though still very much a prospect in the sport, and to a lesser extent, Baszler, do represent the higher levels of mixed martial arts in their sport.
Shannon Knapp's response to that criticism couldn't be more pointed. A criticism she directly addressed on Ariel Helwani's MMA Hour.
"I think it's a very fair assessment on his part. And I think it's why we're in this space which is to create that depth. Are the female athletes where the males are? Absolutely not. Look back 10 years ago. Look at 10 years ago where female athletes are and where men are today. There's a huge difference. Ten years ago females were competing with men as well. ..
...I think Dana's assessment is very fair and very accurate. However, my rebuttal to that is, there's been no one on this side of the sport actually applying themselves and trying to make a difference. Ariel, it's like a garden. If you're not in there tending to it, nothing's going to grow. So for us to come in and build a platform, and to educate, and to establish legitimate weight classes...it's a building process. Now are all these weight classes ready to step into the UFC like the men are? No, we're not. But will they be? Absolutely."
If female MMA succeeds, it will be because women like Knapp are leading the charge.
She doesn't harbor any delusions that female MMA is ready for primetime. When asked about the prospect of television deals, she had this to say:
"The number one lesson I learned from Dana is that until we are able to line ourselves with a great broadcast partner and be able to maintain control of our product. Every female athlete that's relying on us to watch over their interests to make the sport and they are represented properly, so I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that happens."
It's taken for granted that doing what Dana and Co. have done is the recipe for success in this business (the road has been bumpy), but in certain areas, the UFC has hit it big. Knapp is wise to take some of their cues.
The sport isn't lacking in stories. While Ronda Rousey has established herself as the main attraction (an increasing amount of which is coming from the type of pugnacious language that reveals insecurity rather than theatrical bravado), she's still no less of a prospect than fighters like McMann, for example.
Give McMann a few more fights, and a potential fight with Rousey is one of the better white hat vs. black hat grudge matches the sport (male or otherwise) is able to muster. Given Ben Fowlkes' recent profile of McMann as a loyal competitor, while Rousey doesn't hesitate to shred fellow Olympians she seems to have not even met, female MMA isn't lacking in more than simply Rousey vs. Tate 2.
Years ago, female MMA couldn't offer a scenario that involved compelling personalities between former Olympians. This isn't just a step in the right direction. It's a quantum leap forward by any standard.
Team Bloody Elbow