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How Invicta FC almost ended up airing on Showtime

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Cris Cyborg (EL, Invicta FC)
Cris Cyborg egging on the crowd before an Invicta title defense in 2013.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Showtime was once in the MMA business and didn’t necessarily want to leave it.

The premium channel aired Strikeforce from 2009 until the promotion was completely folded into the UFC in 2013. A few months after Strikeforce’s extinction, Showtime went into discussions about bringing the sport of mixed martial arts back to its network.

Invicta FC and Showtime were nearly broadcast partners. At the very least, there were discussions underway. Showtime Sports executive Stephen Espinoza said as much earlier this month on The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani.

“I was interested in Invicta,” Espinoza said. “The reality is the UFC is very good at what they do. And for us to get back in the market — this is a conversation we’ve had ongoing — there’s gotta be a reason. Why are we back in the market? What are we providing that isn’t already provided?”

Invicta provided something special, Espinoza felt. It was the home for women’s MMA and Showtime had been ahead of the curve with the ladies. Strikeforce promoted the likes of Cris Cyborg and Gina Carano and later Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate. Showtime was fully on the bandwagon and airing Invicta would have been the next step.

“What Invicta provided was something unique, it was premium,” Espinoza said. “It was different. You know what you were getting. And it generates a lot of buzz for a relatively, at that point, small promotion. They generated way more attention than any company of its size and its age had ever generated”

Invicta FC president Shannon Knapp told MMA Fighting that she had a meeting with Espinoza in May or June of 2013, just months after Strikeforce ran its final show. The two met again in December 2013.

Ultimately, though, Invicta signed a broadcast deal with UFC Fight Pass, where it remains today. According to Knapp, Showtime dragged its feet because it didn’t love the idea of Invicta standouts migrating up to the UFC regularly.

“I get it, there’s this thing when you are a big broadcasting network, if you're going to be in business with someone, you want to be able to build the stars on your network and those stars are going to stay around,” Knapp said.

Knapp felt then and still feels now that her fighters, for the most part, want to one day be in the UFC and she doesn’t want to stand in the way of their dreams.

“I was just not in a position to wait,” Knapp said. “I needed to move and I needed to find a home for Invicta. That’s what the athletes all wanted anyway. What more could I have done for my athletes than put them on the very same network that the UFC fighters are on?”

Espinoza said when the UFC purchased Strikeforce in 2011, it created an issue for the network. The UFC began poaching some of Strikeforce’s best fighters to use in its own promotion and taking them away from Showtime. Espinoza implied he didn’t want to get into that situation again.

“At a certain point, you’ve got that many mouths to feed and different objectives, it’s gonna be difficult,” Espinoza said. “We weren't happy at the end of what we were getting out of Strikeforce. We were not getting the best matchups and they were looking to take some of the talent up to the UFC.”

Soon after, Knapp brokered a deal to send some of Invicta’s top strawweights to the UFC to compete on The Ultimate Fighter 20, where the first UFC 115-pound champion was crowned in 2014. Knapp completely understands where Showtime was coming from, but also had confidence in her and her team’s ability to find talent and turn them into draws. There was also talks of a docuseries with Showtime on the table, she said, that would have helped bring the fighters’ great stories to life.

“I was very confident I could build them quicker and build stars quicker than anybody else,” Knapp said.

Over the last four years, Showtime has fully committed itself to boxing and has become the leader in that sport. Last month, Showtime was the broadcast partner on Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor and in 2015 the network had Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao. Those are the two biggest combat sports events ever.

Invicta has done well on UFC Fight Pass with a steady stream of fighters moving over into major roles in the UFC, like Cris Cyborg. The Ultimate Fighter 26, which is airing right now on FS1, will crown the first UFC women’s flyweight champion and Invicta veterans make up a good portion of the cast.

Knapp said she has no hard feelings at all toward Showtime. Just the opposite. She’s a fan of its product and interested to do business with the channel in the future. Knapp’s Invicta women’s boxing promotion should be off the ground before the end of the year, she said. And Espinoza might be getting a call.

“I love Showtime,” Knapp said. “And with the boxing, I hope to knock on that door again.”