Invicta a feeder to UFC? No, says Shannon Knapp, more a ‘game-changer’

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

On Wednesday, Dana White held an impromptu media call to announce that the UFC would be acquiring eleven strawweights from Invicta FC in creating its own division. Not only that, but those strawweights, along with five others from the lusher global garden of straws, would compete in the 20th edition of The Ultimate Fighter, which begins filming in May.

The winner of the show will be crowned the first ever UFC strawweight champion, the tenth title in the UFC’s pantheon of divisions.

This news is a lot of things all at once. TUF, a franchise that often feels on the verge of playing itself out even as it expands into other countries, gets yet another fresh coat of paint, this time with an all-female house (season 18 was merely co-ed) and the highest stakes possible (season four, the "Come Back" season, dangled only title shots).

Then there’s the emergence of women’s MMA in the UFC in general, which now, a year after it got started, begins to perpetuate.

White had spoken about the introduction of the 115-pound division a few weeks back, which then opened questions about where he intended to get them. Invicta, a pioneering women’s league that Shannon Knapp has made into a springboard for athlete recognition in just a short year-and-a-half, was obviously the most poachable. In Knapp’s Kansas City-based Eden everyone was happy just to fight, and they fought hard, and they fought for the things they (and she) stood for. No promotion in 2013 has casted the kinds of cool vibes that Invicta has.

Just how dear and darling was it?

Even the UFC and Dana White gets along famously with Knapp and Invicta, which is a feat in itself when you consider "Djork/Bjork," "Strikefarce," "Vadummy" and the universal sign for a Fedor Emelianenko loss, which goes down in history as, ":)." White doesn’t hate Invicta. And that non-hate is mutual.

So what does Wednesday’s news of the UFC bringing over a full hovercraft of Invicta’s fighters ultimately mean? To hear Knapp tell it, this acquisition is, if not a natural progression, then certainly a form of validation that works both ways.

"Basically, we’d been in conversations [with the UFC], and there was interest shown in that [115-pound] division, and we cut a deal," Knapp told MMA Fighting after the announcement was made. "That’s basically it. We were able to come to an agreement, cut a deal, and we moved forward."

"Moving forward" is a concept that Knapp lives by. In describing the reasoning behind the shipment of strawweights -- which she refers to as a win-win -- she mentions the word "graduation." She says "advancement." But her favorite word is "opportunity," which is why she provided a platform for women mixed martial artists to begin with. The UFC can offer her fighters more than she can currently, and therefore she would be hindering their progress as professionals to stand in the way of them going.

"You know, I think it’s huge on many levels. I think the opportunity that these female athletes have right now will do amazing things for the sport as a whole, and for future female athletes," she says. "This is an opportunity to change their lives. And it’s certainly not one that I can match at this moment in time.

"My goal has always been -- always, from day one and from the moment I ever stepped into this sport -- to make a difference. And when I had the opportunity to start Invicta, and to build Invicta, the goal professional and personally was to still make a difference. And to create opportunities. So for me, this is an amazing thing not only for Invicta, but for athletes and for future athletes. Because these girls are going to go in there and continue to break down those barriers that we’re fighting hard to break down everyday, and they’re going to get the opportunity and the recognition that they deserve."

Though Knapp didn’t go into detail on how she was compensated, the deal also proves that she was (and remains) ahead of the curve -- even if looks right now like she’s harvesting tomorrow’s UFC stars. Not only was she hip to women’s MMA enough to make it her promotional flagship, but she scouts talent better than about anybody in the fight game. That the UFC would take one of her divisions wholesale is a testament to that.

Just look at the cosmopolitan list of names: "Thug" Rose Namajunas, Australia’s Bec Hyatt, Felice Herrig, Carla Esparza, Brazil’s Juliana Lima, Emily Kagen, Alex Chambers, Claudia Gadelha, Tecia "The Tiny Tornado" Torres, Scotland’s Joanne Calderwood and Paige VanZant (ironically of Team Alpha Male). Knapp has a metal detector for the ore just under the surface.

And let’s remember: those names are names in large part because of her platform.

"I can go out there and fill out that roster and division again," she says. "Because, if you think about it, how many people knew those girls before? You really know their names because of Invicta, and that’s an astounding thing itself. From a company that’s only a year-and-a-half old, with only seven shows. To be able to do that that quickly, and have [the UFC] take notice that quickly…they’re the biggest show in the world. For them to give me that amount of acknowledgement, it’s huge. I think there’s a lot of things we both get out of it, which is what a good relationship is all about."

Though Knapp concedes that it’s "bittersweet" to let go of some of her own (she likens it to seeing her kids off to college), she honors Invicta’s original ideology, which was to bring attention to the women who compete in MMA.

"How can I stand in front of my girls and say go in there and fight your heart out for me and this promotion, but at the same time tell them I’m not willing to stand in front of them and fight for them to get their dreams and the opportunity that they deserve?" she says. "I can’t do that. And this ever comes down to nothing but money for me, I’ll pack it in and pack it up. That’s not how I got in."

As Invicta FC now goes about restocking its own 115-pound shelves and searching for a television deal, people will wonder about its future. Contrary to those concerns, Knapp says it’s all systems go, and that she will continue to do what she’s been doing since early 2012.

"If you’re asking me what does this deal do for Invicta, I can think of many things," she says. "I think it gives us recognition for what we’re doing over here and for our accomplishment. Aside from the great things and opportunities that it’s going to provide the athletes, you know, I was stacked in that division. And I have a ton of young athletes that are coming up through the ranks that need a home. I can fill that division tomorrow. I have a platform that makes it easier for me to build stars and fill divisions out."

And in light of Wednesday’s news, there will be temptation to call Invicta a "feeder" league for the UFC’s burgeoning women’s divisions. Knapp, an optimist, doesn’t like word nor find it accurate, because it skews too heavily towards a specific sort of catering. Invicta is still as much as destination as it is a potential gateway.

"What’s a feeder? I don’t know that I would look at us as a feeder so much as I’d look at us as a game-changer," she says. "I’ll never look at us as a feeder. We’re doing exactly what we wanted to do, which was build these divisions out and give these girls opportunities. If they moved on and graduated that doesn’t make me a feeder.

"The UFC has two women’s weight divisions, we have five. And I’m planning on adding one more. I was going to look to a 155-pound division. A feeder? No, we’re game-changers. We’re making a difference."

Eleven current strawweights and many future female fighters would concur that Knapp and Invicta FC have indeed changed the game.

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