Thu, Aug 06, 2009 - Page 18 News List

Female fighter gains chokehold on fame

NY Times News Service , LAS VEGAS

Gina Carano works out in Las Vegas on Sunday. Carano may be the public face of women’s mixed martial arts, but she keeps a very private persona.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Gina Carano lives on a cul-de-sac where all the houses look the same. For companionship, she puts up two pit bulls and a convicted felon. She stays out of nightclubs, maintains few friendships and drives a foul-smelling Impala. She never finished college. She has never heard of Chuck Berry. In conversation, she assumes you have never heard of her.

Though austerity often attends the life of a young fighter, Carano has achieved the sort of renown that inspires sultry magazine spreads, online popularity contests and even mean-spirited sex tape rumors. At 27, she has become the face of women’s mixed martial arts, fighting her way to respectability in a male-dominated sport that has yet to secure its own respectable place in the mainstream.

“I think anybody else would have lost their mind a long time ago, especially someone who doesn’t enjoy being in the spotlight,” said Kevin Ross, a friend who introduced Carano to combat sports. “She’s a very secluded person.”

Building a career on such girl fighter novelty stunts as a role on a reality TV show and a turn on **American Gladiators,** Carano has emerged as a defining figure at a defining moment for her sport, cast as part suffragette, part test case, part marketing ploy and part crossover star.

Inside the cage where mixed martial arts competitors combine elements of kickboxing, wrestling and jujitsu in a manner still banned in New York for its brutality, Carano has demonstrated discipline, endurance and powerful striking. The promoters call her Conviction. Last year, appearing on the undercard of the first mixed martial arts event broadcast on prime-time network TV, she showed up male fighters whose bouts were called oversold, anticlimactic and possibly even staged.

On the strength of that performance, she was recruited to headline a presentation on Showtime on Aug. 15, with male fighters on the undercard. In publicity materials making reference to her beauty, promoters have promised nothing less than “one of the most eagerly anticipated battles of all time.”

At the HP Pavilion at San Jose, California, Carano (7-0) will face Cristiane Santos of Brazil (7-1), who is known as Cyborg and whose grappling skills are deployed with an aggressive, improvisational flair. In one video posted online, Santos demonstrated a chokehold on an interviewer who was either taken by surprise or a skilled actor. For five rounds of cage fighting, Carano and Santos will split a US$200,000 payday. The winner stands to gain a title in a new category for 145 pound (65kg) women.

The premier mixed martial arts league, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, has taken no interest in the fight. Its president, Dana White, broke off talks with Carano after concluding that insufficient talent had been developed to support a thriving women’s division, according to a spokesman.

Instead, a promotion called Strikeforce has underwritten the match as part of its effort to gain some purchase in the thriving mixed martial arts business. With varying degrees of success, other upstart ventures have sought to distinguish themselves as the team league and the Hispanic league. Strikeforce has cast its lot with women.

In an interview at a diner near her home, Carano recounted the curiosity of a strict religious upbringing in Las Vegas. She was enrolled in a private school not far from the Strip. Halloween was forbidden. Her family walked out of a screening of **Forrest Gump** on account of the sinful language. Her sisters seemed so effortlessly thin and pretty until the older one dragged the family through a crucible of the drug variety.

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