Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
What ails women's mixed martial arts? If you ask Shannon Knapp, the promoter of Invicta FC, the biggest issue is women fighting at catchweights. It hurts their record, forces them to compete unprepared and gives off a general vibe of unseemliness. Yes, it's true other problems exist. As UFC President Dana White says, women's MMA lacks the same divisional depth commonly seen on the men's side of the sport. But according to Knapp, that problem is not as bad as some may think. The same could be said for a number of shortcomings in women's fighting. According to Knapp, what's needed is an opportunity to demonstrate otherwise.
And really, that's the genesis behind Invicta FC, an all-women's professional fighting organization whose inaugural show is tomorrow. Knapp, a former matchmaker for Strikeforce, believes women's MMA has the raw material to be bigger and better than it is today. The major obstacle holding back women's fighting is largely a function of how poorly their fights have historically been promoted.
In this interview with In Knapp, she candidly details the problems hindering the development of women's professional MMA, explains how Invicta FC plans to correct for it, reveals if her promotion is modeled on previous all-women fight leagues and answers the question of whether a women's-only fight league can be financially solvent.
Full audio and partial transcription below:
Luke Thomas: What is the state of women's MMA today? How would you sort of lay out the land in women's mixed martial arts?
Shannon Knapp: Well, you know, I always refer to it as in a state of disarray. What it lacks is someone coming in, rolling up their sleeves and getting involved and trying to help that side of the sport, trying to build solid divisions, none of this catchweight nonsense. Really, to create a platform that belongs to the female athletes and provides them opportunities. I think that's a huge missing component.
One of the things brought to my attention the other day - and this will give you a good gauge to where it's at - ten years ago, a decade ago, Jessica Osbourne did one of the first full female cards here in America this month on April 13th. Look now, ten years ago for the men where they're at today and where the women are at ten years later. Huge difference. Huge, right? That's a way to really gauge where the sport started, where it's been and where it came to and the difference to the male side of the sport.
Luke Thomas: So who is the audience? Who is an audience for all-women's MMA?
Shannon Knapp: We've done some studies on it and I've been really all across the board. You have the 18-35, somewhere in there but we jump up even more, even the 35-45 and females. I think on the female side, if you embrace the sport and you love it as a whole, then you also accept the fact that the sport is great whether it's a male or a female competing.
I think that's the difference in the mindset. You know, not everybody loves women's MMA. Some people think it's too violent. We still live in a society where it's G.I. Joe, not G.I. Jane, but I still think that you'll find that a lot of women that are involved in sports whether it's basketball, volleyball, softball, I think they appreciate it. I think men that embrace the sport as a whole and just love the sport, they embrace MMA, women's MMA.
Luke Thomas: You mentioned something at the top of the conversation which was that you've got to get away from these catchweights which is a huge problem in mixed martial arts, specifically on the women's side, if almost exclusively on the women's side at this point. So what is Invicta correcting for? One, I guess sort of the splintered lay of the land in terms of how bouts are made in women's weight classes, but what else is Invicta correcting for?
Shannon Knapp: I think that just the biggest deal is that weight issue. Girls are taking these fights that are a couple weight classes above where they should be or from lack of opportunities. They take a catchweight. There's no way to build depth in the divisions if they keep doing things like that and there's no way to gauge that depth. You have to create solid weight divisions and weight classes in order to build the depth, gauge the depth and you need to help this side of the sport.
Going back to my disarray quote, it's so scattered. You've got girls weighing 115 pounds that are trying to fight 135 just to have an opportunity to be seen on the big stage and when you're doing things like that, take a look at some of their records. You'll see a girl that has a 1-4 record and then you look and go, "Holy crap! She's actually a 105-pounder but she's been fighting at 125 pounds and fighting legitimate 125 pound females and her record reflects it". It's really sad and it all boils down to the fact of the lack of opportunity. There just hasn't been enough opportunities and really anyone that wanted to make the investment because it's certainly not one of those things where you're gonna get rich overnight. It's a long haul. It's a high climb to get to even a place where it will be regarded and accepted as the male side of the sport.
Luke Thomas: To what extent are you borrowing from all female shows? I know there was SmackGirl, Jewels, but that was Japan. There was another one, I think Fatal Femmes Fighting or something like that in North America. What is Invicta modeled on most closely?
Shannon Knapp: My thing is the professionalism. If I modeled anything after anyone in this sport, a promotion that does anything, it would be the UFC and their professionalism. I've worked for everybody out there and one thing that I've always commended and had a lot of respect for in the UFC is the way that they run the operation side of it. They provide a safe, professional environment. Athletes always know what they're doing. They have schedules. I love that part about what they do. As an athlete coming in, you know what you're gonna be doing. You're not floundering around. Everything is taken care of and I love that aspect of the product that they give. Yeah, if I strive to be like anyone, it would be to be as professional and to provide that type of platform for the athletes of the Invicta Fighting Championship.
Luke Thomas: Making money is very hard outside of the UFC and especially since you have something interesting going on, as noble as your cause may be, promoting female fighters, giving them opportunities, doing female fighting the right way. Can you do that, uphold that cause and make money at the same time?
Shannon Knapp: Well, for us, it's not about the making of money. We're happy. We're content as long as we break even. It's not about getting rich, getting famous. It's not about us. It's about providing the opportunity. That's why I got into this business twelve years ago as a huge advocate for the sport and the athlete. Let's make a difference. I've aligned myself with a business partner that that's their same vision. Yeah, we're in it for the long haul. That's the bottom line. As long as we can keep the lights on, we're gonna keep moving forward. It doesn't matter if we're making profits. We just want to be able to sustain our business and keep moving it forward to be able to provide those opportunities.
Luke Thomas: So what's interesting also about women's MMA and Dana White's made the argument that there are some talented females out there, but there's just not enough of them. Do you agree with the assessment that women's MMA is a little bit thinner than men? If so, how do you get from point A to point B where it's a little bit thicker?
Shannon Knapp: Well, yeah. It is. One of the things that I always commend Dana for, and he gets flack for this. It's not that he hates women and it's not that he doesn't want to give women opportunities. What he is saying is true. There is a lack of depth in these divisions, but once again, there is a rebuttal to that saying that no one has made the investment to try to make a difference in that area. If you provide platforms and opportunities and you provide solid weight divisions, you can fill divisions up and create depth. The depth is there. It's just so scattered and across the board.
For example, look at Strikeforce. They've got 135 and 145. Right now, it looks pretty much just like 135, right? You have a handful of girls, just a few that they have signed. Then you look over here and you've got Pro Elite and they've got one girl at 135. You've got Bellator over here and they're doing 125 pounds seems to be their primary focus, right? You've got everything spread out and there's only a handful of fights. When you're only seeing a handful of females fight, you're not aware of the others that exist in the world and that's because they're fighting on smaller shows that can't provide those opportunities to be seen.
The talent is out there. The amateur levels of the sport have a lot of females. There's a lot of girls out there waiting to make their pro debuts. The burden is upon us as a promotion to build stars. Once you get behind these female athletes, you put the focus on them for people to understand why they do what they do, show reasons to identify with them, then you're gonna create a fanbase. I think that's what we strive to do. We will fill those weight divisions. We will build the stars of tomorrow and we will create the fanbase.
Luke Thomas: One thing that men's MMA has done well and not just UFC but the way that the sport has been built, it's been on the backs of successful athletes in other areas that have crossed over. There are many examples. Of course in women's MMA, there's Sarah McMann and Ronda Rousey too but there's not as much. Doesn't women's MMA need to get more crossover athletes to come over from similar combat sports to really raise the level of the game?
Shannon Knapp: Oh, absolutely. You hear that saying, "build it and they will come." I think that once there is a foundation in place and a platform that caters to the needs of the female athlete, then I think you will see women from other sports that will make that transition in the crossover. Right now, what do they cross over to? You give credit where credit is due because Strikeforce is doing the best that they can with the amount of shows that they have. You give credit to Bellator because they're doing the best that they can, but it's still a male society. It's still the males that sell the tickets and if you're in business to be in business and make money and to have a working business, then that's your mindset.
For us, it's different and the reason I point out the difference is because, sure, would we like to make money? Of course, but is it the only reason that we're in this? No. Like I said, if we can keep the lights on, keep going, then that's what we aspire to do. That's success for us. Those other promotions are doing their best but when you only have a small handful of opportunities, that's not very enticing to make people want to make the jump. You either have to be the top, top, top to make any money as a female athlete or you sit around not making any. You can't survive, in other words. There's not females making money that even B-level athletes are making. You saw what the fight purses were of Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey. It was public knowledge. An athlete at that level, being there, what would they be making?
Luke Thomas: Probably triple that, if not more.
Shannon Knapp: So there's no reason. There's nothing enticing enough to have that crossover for all these other women in all the other sports to really aspire to do this and make a living out of it because you can't. Hopefully we can change that. Our goal is not to drive up the market value because then we're only hurting the females, but what we aspire to do is we pay fair market value. If you fight in Strikeforce and you fight on our card, we pay you the same amount. We pay you what they pay you so we don't cut any corners. We're not gonna inflate it either because that only hurts an athlete.
Let's use Affliction. Affliction was paying "this" and they would go back and forth between UFC and Affliction and drive the price up, right? In the end, you only hurt the athlete and the promotion because you drove up the market value which really they couldn't sustain because they couldn't sell the tickets. Then you hurt your promotion and you actually the sport as a whole for the females.
Luke Thomas: How do you promote this card and either address or don't address the idea of female sexuality. It was a big debate during the Tate/Rousey build-up. These women were being marketed as much for their looks as their skill. Some hated it, some loved it. Where do you stand on that issue?
Shannon Knapp: I don't have any issue. I never want it to be classless, ever. I would never stand behind that because I think that's really disgraceful to the female athletes, but I don't see anything wrong with marketing their femininity. If they're beautiful, they're talented, market the whole package. I think there's nothing wrong with that. I think there are definitely limits and you can easily cross the line, but I think it was done very tasteful the way Miesha and Ronda were marketed. I didn't see anything wrong with it.
Luke Thomas: You've got Liz Carmouche on this card and I like her a lot. She's an incredibly talented fighter. Is she done with Strikeforce or do you have a deal with Strikeforce?
Shannon Knapp: No, no, no. The thing is, once again and we can throw this right back on the whole Dana thing. Everyone says he doesn't care about women, but these were athletes that were sitting there that they didn't have slots for so they graciously allowed them to fight on this card to keep them active, keep them busy. If they didn't care, they'd still be sitting there.
Luke Thomas: And that's something they don't do for the men either, typically.
Shannon Knapp: That is true. Bellator is the same way. I think the thing is, to come into this space that we're coming in to, saying that you want to work with everybody and have an open relationship. It's really what's advantageous to this side of the sport and female athletes. The more you work with people, the more opportunities that exist, the more it elevates this side of the sport. We're very open to working with anybody. I think that you'll find our next card, you're probably gonna find a Pro Elite athlete. You're probably gonna find Bellator athletes and you're probably gonna find Strikeforce athletes and if any of those promotions came to me and said, "Hey, we'd like ‘so-and-so' to come over and fight," and even though I may have them signed, I would say to the female, "Is this what you would like to do?" and if they want to go, that's what they want to do, then I will let them go.
It's about creating opportunities and the way to do that is to work with everyone. We'll work with Japan. We're very open to working with people. If you're in the business to create dreams, you can't be in the business of squashing them.
Luke Thomas: So this card, when you build the card and I know there's been some changes to it but as it stands today, what were you trying to get out of these matches? Is there anything beyond what they try to do in the normal creation of a fight card that was maybe added to this one?
Shannon Knapp: Yeah. I think what we did was to cover every weight class so I think the only one that we didn't really cover was 125 because we were limited there. We had one with 125-ers. The bottom line was we were wanting to cover these five weight divisions and we wanted to provide a fight in each and every one of them to give everybody a little taste of what each solid weight division looks like. A lot of times you're seeing the catchweights and all that. This was an opportunity to put every weight class on the card.
Luke Thomas: Marloes Coenen. What more can you tell me about your deal with her? Obviously all eyes on her, biggest star on the card by far. What is your relationship with her?
Shannon Knapp: She's a great athlete. We signed Marloes and I worked with Marloes at Strikeforce so I know her talent and her skillset. I think she's a great ambassador. Women's MMA has many faces and Marloes has one of those that just represents it very well so we were happy to bring her on board.
Luke Thomas: But your deal is not exclusive?
Shannon Knapp: Yeah, it's exclusive in the United States and non-exclusive outside, but one thing is, if there were opportunities out there and she wanted to take them, that's a discussion we are open to.
Luke Thomas: The viewing, it's gonna be on InvictaFC.com. Obviously everyone in mixed martial arts wants to get on television but easier said than done. What is your gameplan, not to diminish the website, but what is your gameplan to raise the platform of which these fights are broadcast on?
Shannon Knapp: We have been shown some interest but here's the thing with potential broadcast partners. Here's the deal. When you're selling someone an idea, its' really hard to create and paint a picture because everyone's perception is different. So really, what we wanted to do was take this opportunity and give our product away so that everybody can see what our vision was, how we want to run this, the level of professionalism and what it's about and we strictly wanted it to be about the athletes.
The other thing was, over the years there have been a tremendous amount of support all over the world for women's MMA so we decided we wanted everybody to take the journey with us for this week's show. If we're on a network or anywhere, you wouldn't be able to see it anywhere in the world. This is our way of putting it out there and making everyone get the opportunity to make history with us in the first show.
Luke Thomas: Let's look five years into the future. Let's say Invicta is humming, you're doing great. You've accomplished not all the goals but many of the goals that you set out to do in this first April 28th show and then the UFC decided to build women's divisions. Would you view them as competition or would you decide that's a validation of what you've done?
Shannon Knapp: Well I think you'd have to look at it both ways. Would they be competition? I don't know. Maybe we'd be working together. I don't know at that point. I think you have to look at it like we pioneered and paved that way. I haven't given it that much thought. Business is business.
I go back again and say, as long as there's opportunities, that's all that we care about. You don't have to be top dog. We can be secondary. For us, that doesn't matter. As long as we put on a top notch professional show and that we are making a difference, that's what it boils down to for us. I know that sounds like all rainbows and butterflies, but truly that is why have gotten into this space. I could have done anything else. I'm an educated person but this is what I like. I like fighting the fight. This is a fight I can identify with.
Like I said before, twelve years in this business in a male dominated sport, I'm the first female executive, so let me tell you I've walked a mile in all these shoes that these girls are walking now. So if anybody's prepared to get in here and fight the fight, I think it's me and I welcome the challenge. I was bored, okay? You get bored with Strikeforce. They run a machine. It's like cookie cutter. Well I am not a cookie cutter person. It was like floundering, what am I gonna do now? What do you wanna do? I want to fight. This is my way. I like fighting the fight. The boys in this sport now are okay. They're fine. They're gonna be alright, but it's a mess on the girl's side of the sport. It's a perfect fit and that is as plain honest as I can possibly be with you. That's the nuts and bolts of it.
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