Invicta president Shannon Knapp looks back at one year of starting all-women's group

Shannon Knapp - Invicta FC

With the Invicta Fighting Championship headed into its biggest show in its history, Shannon Knapp talks about where they are, where they hope to go, breaking down barriers, steroids, transgender fights and questions about whether an all-women's group can survive.

On April 5, The Invicta Fighting Championships continues to try and answer the question of whether an all-women’s MMA promotion is financially viable as a business, presenting what is probably the single deepest show of its kind ever held in the United States.

The company’s fifth show features two championship fights, with atomweight (105 pound) champion Jessica Penne (10-1) facing Michelle 'Karate Hottie' Waterson (10-3) and a match to determine the first flyweight (125 pound) champion with Vanessa Porto (15-5) facing Barb Honcak (7-2).

But the biggest names are on the preliminary card. The show features the return to action of Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos (10-1), who was considered the best female fighter in the world before her drug suspension, and is back in action after 16 months. Santos facing a late replacement in Australian Fiona Muxlow (6-2).

Sarah Kaufman (15-2), a UFC fighter who is that group’s No. 2 contender at bantamweight, faces Leslie Smith (5-2-1). And former Bellator champion Zoila Frausto Gurgel (12-2) goes against Jennifer Maia (6-2).

It’s essentially the one-year anniversary as Invicta ran its debut show on April 28, 2012. The first year was all about trying to get the promotion and its fighters exposure through free Internet streaming of every show. The most recent show was the first attempt to run Internet pay-per-view through. There were technical issues early, and Invicta President Shannon Knapp decided quickly that rather than create bad feelings, they would take down the firewall, let everyone watch it for free, and refund everyone’s money who purchased the show.

But in the black cloud, there was a silver lining.

"You don’t know how many people there were who told us they didn’t want their money back," said Knapp. "We still refunded all the money, but that reaction makes you want to do the best you can."

So they will try an Internet pay-per-view, for $9.95, but this time using a satellite feed instead of streaming the show. There was talk of it being on pay-per-view, but Knapp isn’t looking to rush things.

"It’s probably an old mindset, but I’ve always been of the understanding and the way of looking at it that if you go to pay-per-view before you’re ready, you take a real gamble," Knapp said. "And I wasn’t comfortable with it at this time. I didn’t want to push the envelope. I want to make sure that if when we make that move, you get one shot. I didn’t want for it to be at this point in time. I just think we’re in the process of building and it’s a little premature for us at this point."

In many circles, Invicta shows, even without television, draws more interest on MMA web sites than any promotion short of the UFC. Being talked about a lot, and getting lots of web hits is commendable, but it doesn’t pay the bills, and ultimately, at some point, this has to be viable economically or it won’t exist. Nobody has ever been able to make pay-per-view of MMA viable over the long haul except UFC, and UFC really wasn’t making it until they had a regular television deal with Spike.

Next week’s show at the Ameristar Casino Hotel in Kansas City, Mo., has, by far, the company’s best advance of its short history, but Knapp also makes clear that even then, you’re talking hundreds, not thousands, of tickets.

Ultimately, the success or failure of this concept is going to be determined by television. That is, both getting a viable deal that pays enough and gives exposure enough to open doors to sponsors and make the fighters into stars, and once getting that deal, being able to garner the ratings necessary to stay on the air.

What has been proven is a woman’s fight can help ratings on an other wise all men’s show. A night of nothing but women’s fights is uncharted waters. The advantage Invicta does have over any other promotion in the marketplace is that they will have much of the top tier of women’s fighters, although it’s inevitable the biggest stars will end up in UFC. But since Invicta works with UFC, a lot of the challengers for titles going forward are likely to be picking up the wins that make their name on Invicta shows, if the relationship continues the way it’s structured. In addition, women who have been on UFC shows, likely with the exception of the champions and two or three biggest stars, are likely to also fight on Invicta shows.

But Knapp said it’s not just about getting on television, as they probably could get some form of TV right now. It’s about having a deal where they would be more than just filling time or being one of a group of MMA promotions on a station, such as the Friday night time slot on AXS TV which airs a number of different companies..

"We’re having a lot of dialogue with a lot of people," Knapp said regarding television. "There hasn’t been the deal yet that I wanted and what I’m looking for. I’m looking for a partner, not someone who says you can be one of a number of shows on Friday night. You want someone to help with the vision and take an interest in promoting it, not be one of many companies on the station."

There are key meetings going on after the next show, and the deal they are looking for may be on the near horizon.

"I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people in 2013," she said. "Nothing is concrete. Something could fall through. But there are a lot of good things happening with Invicta and a partnership. I feel confident 2013 is the year we’ll find our home."

The optimum goal, when the right television deal is in place, would be to run eight to ten shows per year. Right now she’s looking at doing four-to-six until a television deal is in place. The plan for the next show to be in late June or the first week of July. The objective is to run on Saturdays when there isn’t a UFC show, but often that’s difficult, and this show is on a Friday because UFC has Saturday shows so many weekends. The goal for now is also to stay in Kansas City, where they know their costs and have familiarity with the market.

She said the key of what they’re trying to do is to allow women to fight at their best weight class. The 13-fight card will have women competing from 105 to 145 pounds. She wants to create a venue to where you don’t see a natural 125-pound women trying to bulk up to face someone at 145 simply because that’s the only way to get a fight, as has happened in the past. That differs from UFC, where all fighters are at this point going to be fighting at 135 regardless of their natural size.

Kaufman being on the bill shows how, unlike most other promotions that have any kind of a following, UFC doesn’t consider Invicta as an enemy. Right now the sides have a working relationship. UFC doesn’t have enough slots on its shows for women fighters to keep all the women under contract busy. So, like in this case, they offered Kaufman to Invicta. It’s a similar deal that was proposed for Santos, but things didn’t play out that way.

"Having a good open relationship with them is positive for both sides," said Knapp. "I think we’re moving forward in the working relationship. They respect what I’m doing and I respect what they have done. It’s easy to have that kind of relationship."

The deal was such that Knapp told all her fighters that if they were interested in trying out for the next season of The Ultimate Fighter reality show, that they wouldn’t stand in their way, nor would there be any hard feelings. Right now, she works with Sean Shelby, who is the matchmaker for the UFC’s women’s division, as far as who would be available on what dates.

Originally, the idea when it comes to Santos was for UFC to allow Invicta to use her for a period of time, freeing her to get in some fights while she tries to slowly drop weight since UFC is only doing a 135 pound weight class. But Tito Ortiz, Santos’ manager, decided against working with UFC, at least for now, and asked for Santos to be released from her contract.

"Dana (White) asked me is I’d be interested if they would pay the purse for Cyborg, and if we’d put her on our cards until they were ready to bring her in," Knapp said. "It’s a no brainer, of course. Part of the deal was also that they were going to help promote the event. But the deal between UFC and Cris fell through and it wasn’t going to happen. That was the end of the communication with Zuffa regarding Cris. That happened on a Thursday. I waited for one week and then reached out to her to sign her to Invicta. It took me two hours to get the deal done.

"Athletes change their mind a lot, and out of respect for Cris and to give her some time to think, I didn’t approach her right away. I gave them plenty of time to think about the situation, but after a week, there was no movement." But with Santos, the steroid issue, which Knapp admits is a major one, faces the company head-on. Knapp said the Missouri Athletic Commission will be testing some fighters before weigh-ins, some after weigh-ins, and others right after the fight.

There is a feeling that steroids are worse in women’s MMA because they make an even bigger deal of competitive difference.

"It’s a double whammy and a double standard, no different from the guy who sleeps around and how he’s viewed or the girl who sleeps around. That’s what you see with the idea steroid use is so much worse with the women. I think it’s the same across the board. The commission didn’t say you have to do this. I went to the commission and said we’d like to implement this process and they were very supportive.

"When we brought Cris in, we made the decision she will be tested more than any other athlete, and her opponent will be as well, because we won’t do one without the other. It’s a huge problem in the sport, period. We’re not in the position to do the things the UFC does, but anything we can do to alleviate these issues, we want to do."

Knapp had worked previously with the UFC, IFL, King of the Cage and Strikeforce. After Zuffa purchased Strikeforce, she decided in late October of 2011 to start the all-women’s promotion, something most were very skeptical of one when she first started talking about it.

But to a degree, luck was on her side with the rise of Ronda Rousey coinciding with her starting up. While Rousey was not involved with her organization, nor was there ever a chance she’d fight for them, Rousey did create interest in women’s MMA and made it suddenly come across as a lot more credible endeavor. Knapp said barriers against what she was trying to do were a lot more existent even one year ago.

"It’s helped the whole sport for females," she said. "Anything that brings positive attention to the sport helps. The fight that she and Liz (Carmouche) had was a great performance by Ronda and a great performance by Liz. If there were naysayers, I think this had a very positive effect on the sport for females and still does."

To an extent, Knapp can view things from that position. She came into the sport when it was a men’s world, and noted she can identify with people who don’t think women should fight as well as those who think it’s not a viable professional sport.

"We break down barriers every day, every time one of these athletes puts on a great performance, we change more people’s minds. I’m old school. It took me a long time to wrap my brain around the idea female athletes were legitimate athletes, and were talented at this, but they just hadn’t had the opportunity. I came from years and years of working with men. But coming from that position gave me all the tools to help with this promotion, to break down the barriers. It’s easier to identify with naysayers if you were one and you’ve changed your mind."

But on the heels of Rousey, a second major media issue has surfaced with transgender fighter Fallon Fox, a situation Knapp has been aware of long before almost anyone else. But it’s an issue she struggles with.

"I knew about Fallon for quite some time and she’s not the only one, she’s not the only transgender athlete who has competed. We’ve never had one competing for us at Invicta, but there are others out there who have been competing. It’s such an uncharted territory. I’m not someone who ever judges people. I just feel I need to know more. I do believe the athletes competing have the right to know if there opponent is transgender.

"But it’s hard. Everything is so conflicting. If you listen to people very much supportive of gay rights they say there’s nothing wrong with her competing, she’s a female. The other side says it’s not right, and I feel like I’m stuck in the middle. I hear doctors say it’s okay, and other doctors say, `Wait a second.’ It’s very confusing."

She noted she’s happy it’s not a pressing issue, since Fox isn’t with Invicta, but also realizes it’s inevitable it will become an issue, and at least for now, her answer is she’ll abide by what athletic commissions say.

"I don’t have a decision to make, because Fallon is signed with someone else," Knapp said. "I haven’t spent a ton of time trying to make a decision because I don’t have a decision to make. She’s signed with someone else."

But after a year, she’s also noticed differences in dealing with all women athletes instead of her years dealing with mostly men.

She said there has been a little more drama with managers trying to poach talent from other managers, and a lot of backstabbing from what which has created turmoil. She noted she’s spending more time settling fights out of the cage.

"Fights between talent and management, between management and management, there’s been a lot of drama," said. "I don’t know why that is but I’ve never dealt with that."

She said for the most part it’s the same as a men’s promotion, with the main differences being she sees women are more emotionally connected to what they’re doing, that overall they’re better at promoting themselves using social media, and on the flip side, she said it’s harder for women to cut weight. But she also said that overall, they’re more grateful to be there.

"I think they’re just happy to be here, they’re not divas yet," she said. "They’re just grateful to have a shot. With men, there are a lot more opportunities."

But she also said that may be just because the sport is in its infancy, as with experience, she said she can recall when she started in the sport, back in the 90s, the men more like that as well.

"I’m sure it’ll change," she said. "If you talk to some of these women, one of the biggest setbacks to their careers is that they didn’t have the opportunities."

For now, it’s all about keeping those opportunities open until garnering the type of television that allows them to be viable. Then it’s about producing once they get there. And after that, there will likely be others trying to enter the marketplace, and all the issues that come from that.

She’s either on the ground floor of creating the biggest platform women have ever had in the sport or Knapp will be in a situation she has familiarity with over the years: putting her heart and soul into building a promotion and a brand, and then, it goes away and having to once again start from scratch.

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