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The week that was saw a promotional push being made for a couple of very different projects. In one case, there was the announcement of Conor McGregor’s return to MMA for a bout with Donald Cerrone at UFC 246. There is certainly no shortage of interest in the homecoming of the sport’s all-time greatest drawing card, but there’s an unmistakable cloud hanging over the event. McGregor’s recent misconduct, from the dolly attack to his punching an elderly man, has disheartened even some of his most diehard supporters.
Even more serious still was the report in the New York Times that McGregor is under investigation for two sexual assault accusations. It’s hard to fully invest in the escapist entertainment of sports when such serious societal issues are implicated. Unfortunately, that’s frequently the cost of being a fan of combat sports. Boxing and MMA for a number of reasons have attracted more than their fair share of rogues over the years. For every Georges St. Pierre, Demetrious Johnson or Daniel Cormier who represents the sport with class and dignity, there are examples of fighters who make unfortunate decisions. McGregor clearly fits into that group.
As McGregor-Cerrone was confirmed, a former fighter was making the media rounds doing promotion for a different event. Gina Carano, one of the most influential figures in MMA’s development, reemerged to promote her first appearance in the hit Star Wars series “The Mandalorian.” For someone that has pursued such public vocations, Carano has always been a private person, so it’s easy to forget about her between movie appearances. When she does surface -- and in particular when she’s talking about her MMA career -- it doesn’t take long to be reminded of why she was such a beloved figure in this sport.
Today, women’s MMA just feels like a natural extension of men’s MMA. However, it wasn’t that long ago that women’s MMA was basically considered an oddity by many. Gary Shaw and EliteXC had to fight to get Carano on Showtime. Given the way she connected with the audience, it wasn’t difficult to put her on the air after that. Carano was one of the top ratings movers EliteXC and Strikeforce had at their disposal, and it was the success of her fight with Cristiane Justino in San Jose, California, that proved definitively women could not only headline cards but headline major events. Carano didn’t have the connection to that market that Frank Shamrock or Cung Le did, but it was an electric atmosphere on par with any MMA event held in the building.
Usually, fighters become major attractions in large part because of the perception of their dominance. Sometimes that dominance proves to be real over the long haul. Other times, it’s largely imagined but takes fans time to figure it out. Ronda Rousey, Carano’s successor in driving forward the popularity of women’s MMA, became a massive star because of the way she was rolling through opponent after opponent. For Carano, the appeal was different.
Carano was a very good fighter, but the big hook with her was not to see a competitor with unique generational talent. It was closer to the opposite. She was the girl next door with the warm smile and genuine personality who fought her heart out in the cage. It was less about fans being blown away by the talent and more about fans being invested in wanting to see her succeed. Wanting to see Carano succeed in turn made fans want to see women’s MMA succeed. Her success convinced influential decision makers that was possible. Her authenticity was the key to the whole thing.
Given what she meant to MMA, it’s uplifting for the MMA community to see the success that she now enjoys. “The Mandalorian” is an opportunity that is likely to pay dividends for the rest of her life. It was by no means a given she would get that type of break given the up and down nature of her acting career. When she said in an interview with Ariel Helwani that she delayed doing MMA media because she wanted to be in a place where she could be proud of the state of her acting career, it was an acknowledgement of the insecurity she must have faced in between her bigger roles. That had to have made this break all the more satisfying.
MMA certainly doesn’t need to be populated entirely by fighters like Carano. Trash talking and grudge matches are a big part of the sport’s appeal. Still, in a sport with plenty of great competitors who often make you uneasy about the way they’re representing MMA, it’s uplifting to know there have also been important figures like Carano who represented themselves in such a positive way. Whether MMA ends up the first or second sentence in her biography, the sport is much better for having had her in it.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.