June 26, the contract between WMMA’s most prominent champion, 145lbs. queen “Cyborg” Cristiane Santos (10-1) and the Zuffa-owned promotion Strikeforce expired. In the days since, many rumors have surfaced regarding her future and the reasons behind the promotion’s decision to waive their rights outlined in her championship clause. These rumors range from extremely likely, (Santos asking $150,000 a fight to continue with the promotion) to the believable if unlikely, (Zuffa wanting to focus on the more talent rich 135lbs. weight class), to the outright absurd, (Zuffa is run by sexist pigs bent on the destruction of WMMA). While these debates will continue until an official statement is released, and indeed, will likely continue after such a statement in the case of the Zuffa-hating conspiracy theorists, the real question is who really comes out as the biggest loser in this situation: Strikeforce for losing a huge draw and exciting fighter, or WMMA itself for seeing its undisputed queen expelled from the biggest stage in the sport?
“Cyborg” will undoubtedly feel the crunch as she loses big name Zuffa sponsors and the larger purses available with the organization, but the loss of her name recognition and wow factor will likely damage both Strikeforce and WMMA as a whole. The only question is who gets hurt more. For WMMA, “Cyborg” represents something that it desperately needs. She is a fighter that is brutally violent, exciting to watch, and unquestionably dominant. WMMA’s biggest detractors have always been quick to point out that, as a whole, WMMA fighters are less physically impressive and less skilled overall. These are both true not because of their gender but because of how far behind the men the women are in terms of growth as a mainstream sport. WMMA’s evolution is far behind that of the men and the fighters are less skilled overall as a result and their numbers are also far smaller. Much as MMA in the late 90′s had “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” Tito Ortiz (16-8-1) as an example of a skilled, powerful, and clearly dominant fighter amongst the wealth of fighters who couldn’t get work in a local barroom today, WMMA needs a woman in a position of visibility who can keep the fans excited about WMMA while the talent pool catches up to her. They still have a handful of skilled women in the 135lbs. class with Strikeforce, though none of which have the kind of vicious, crowd-impacting aggression and dominance of Cristiane Santos nor the name recognition that came from several years of hunting the ultra-popular “Conviction” Gina Carano (7-1). It will be a hard sell for WMMA to appeal to the fan base as a whole without a name to pin their convictions on and, unless “Cyborg” loses to Gina Carano outside of Strikeforce, Carano can’t be that name.
Strikeforce loses big in this exchange as well. While they are backed by the Zuffa promotional machine and still have a wealth of big names to push their ticket sales and Showtime ratings, they are losing one of those rare fighters who MMA fans as a whole, even those against WMMA, will stand and take notice of any time she fights. This will be a big blow to the niche appeal of their WMMA division, even if they focus on the development of the 135lbs. weight class. “Cyborg” was the gateway drug to the addiction of WMMA. The fans take notice because they hear about her fighting and then see her smash Gina Carano or practically eviscerate “Cuddles” Jan Finney (6-8) and it wets their appetite to see more of what the women of the sport have to offer. While the 135lbs. division has fighters like Sarah Kaufman (13-1) and Marloes Coenen (17-4) who are quite skilled, none of them evoke that visceral, hot-blooded excitement that the utter destruction of “Cyborg’s” hapless opponents does. It may not hurt their overall ratings that much but the loss of Cris “Cyborg” will force Strikeforce to either relegate their WMMA division into the Challengers Series or resort to a multitude of gimmicks, such as meaningless grand prix belts and cross class “superfights”, in order to keep the division marketable. Strikeforce is in the business of selling WMMA, and they just took down the signage on their store front.
In the end, the release of Cristiane Santos is a loss to all parties involved. Cris will lose a significant portion of her potential pay by fighting on lower level shows. Strikeforce will lose arguably the only fighter it has that brings new fans into the WMMA market. WMMA loses the basket in which it placed most, if not all, its eggs. The biggest loser, however, is WMMA as a whole. Strikeforce will only feel the pinch when it is stuck with no ready-made big fights to push with the men, an infrequent occurrence given its roster and the number of cards it puts on annually. Cristiane Santos still has a husband under the Zuffa banner and can sell out any show she goes to. WMMA, however, has lost the most legitimate fighter it had in a position to draw in a large number of new fans. Ironically, if it manages to avoid any further losses due to this incident, WMMA may actually come out the biggest winner in this exchange as well. The loss of “Cyborg” will force Strikeforce to dump resources into developing its WMMA divisions if they want them to remain marketable. As long as WMMA can continue to show worthwhile numbers in the ratings, they will receive a big boost in terms of legitimate growth in their 135lbs. talent pool. There is a light at the end of the tunnel here; WMMA supporters just have to hope that it’s the dawning of a new era and not a freight train slated to knock them back into the dark ages of the post Hook-n-Shoot days.