SAN JOSE, Calif. – When Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos was introduced to American fans on CBS one year ago, with the idea of creating an ultimate opponent for Gina Carano, the Brazilian was given the moniker "The Baddest Woman South of the Equator."
After Santos finished Carano to become the first Strikeforce women's lightweight champion (145 pounds) in the biggest women's MMA fight ever in North America, her "Baddest Woman" title no longer needs any geographic boundaries.
In the aftermath of Santos' first-round victory, one question asked for months seems to have been answered with an exclamation point.
Strikeforce's card at the HP Pavilion, headlined by Carano-Santos, drew 13,524 fans, one of the largest non-UFC crowds in the history of the sport. There was little doubt the crowd came to see Carano, who came across as a star at the level of a fighter like Georges St. Pierre or Chuck Liddell. The notion that people weren't interested in seeing women fight was clearly put to rest.
But the result raises another question: Where will the women's sport wind up when its top fighter is a non-English speaking Brazilian who looks like she's right off the pages of Flex Magazine instead of an American like Carano, who finished No. 16 in Maxim's list of hottest women on the planet?
Santos won't be able to draw Carano's level of attention on her own, but she has star power of her own to make another gigantic match with the right opponent. The question is, who will be that opponent?
In this one, Santos' relentless approach paid dividends. Her fast pace seemed to tire Carano, particularly as the first round passed the three-minute mark. Both women had been fighting three-minute rounds before this fight, but this one was scheduled for five rounds of five minutes.
The match went back-and-forth early, with Carano even getting on top a few times and achieving mount position. At that point Carano stood up, and it looked like it may have been a tactical error because Santos had the edge in firepower when standing.
Santos took over late in the round and with the clock ticking down, she was pounding on Carano. In a somewhat controversial decision, referee Josh Rosenthal stopped the match with less than a tick left in the round, and until Santos celebrated by jumping on the top of the cage, much of the crowd thought it was the end of the round as opposed to the end of the fight.
The stoppage would not have been controversial if there were 20 seconds left in the fight. Clearly, a stoppage based on the pounding Carano had taken, under most circumstances, wouldn't have even been an issue. The only issue is that there was one second left in the round, and at that point perhaps Carano should have at least been given the opportunity to use her one-minute rest period before the start of the second round.
Either way, Carano's star should not dim because of the loss. History has shown that MMA fans recognize everyone can and does lose. Every major drawing card in the sport has lost at one time or another.
Still, it was an historic night for women's MMA, with an atmosphere equivalent to the biggest men's fights in history. Santos (8-1) was clearly the villain to the crowd in the MMA version of a Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova-type rivalry. Through an interpreter, she admitted sheltering herself in training. She didn't feel pressure and wasn't concerned about the hype of the match, while Carano was in the eye of the promotional hurricane as the star of the event.
"I never felt I was in danger," said Santos, particularly when Carano had her in full mount. "I took a lot of jiu-jitsu and was comfortable on the ground. I went for a heel hook and leg lock."
Carano (7-1) was unavailable for comment after the match. At times she tried to work a clinch game, similar to her trainer, Randy Couture, but she wasn't able to make it work.
"The clinch game, you can't learn it in one or two months," said Santos.
So where does it go from here? Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker noted that his next major woman's promotion would likely be Japanese-style tournaments, with one at 135 pounds and another at 145 pounds, perhaps as early as the end of this year. Coker spent years as the American promoter for K-1, the leading kickboxing group in Japan, which uses a tournament format for its major shows.
"We'll start with eight fighters," said Coker. "The winners would go to a second show, where we'll have the semifinals and finals. The winner of the tournament would become the top contender for Cyborg." Coker, when asked if Carano would be put in such a tournament, said he'd have to discuss it with her people.
The Strikeforce promoter is usually calm and cool under the worst of circumstances, and the weeks leading up to the show featured plenty of them, as several matches had to be rearranged for various reasons. But he thought he had a nightmare scenario on his hands the night before the show.
At about 9:30 p.m. on Friday night, on a show where every major match but the main event fell apart, Coker got a phone call from the Santos camp. They were apologetic, saying that they had no idea beforehand, but that when the commission was testing Santos, they found out that she was pregnant and the fight was off.
Coker fell for it … though later he was told it was a prank. Good thing for Coker – and for Santos.
- Gina Carano