Gina Carano is not your typical MMA fighter.
Then again, the typical woman doesn't beat up other women for a living, either. On Saturday, Carano will continue treading where few -- if any -- women have ever gone.
Carano, a 24-year-old Las Vegas native, will participate in the first women's MMA fight for Elite Xtreme Combat in that group's debut show in Southaven, Miss. EXC will air live on Showtime, which is also a first for that network.
For Carano, being a female MMA fighter usually means that people will judge her not just for her fighting skills, but for her looks.
"I think by this time in my life, I am pretty used to it," Carano said. "Everybody's got their own opinion. As long as I am eventually loved by one person, then I am okay."
A comment about her appearance was the spark that lit the fire for Carano to start training for Muay Thai and MMA fighting. She went to Master Toddy's Muay Thai Academy with her then-boyfriend to watch him do some pad work with his trainers. Master Toddy's assistant, Master Chan, introduced himself to Carano in a way she will never forget.
|Gina Carano puts up her dukes at the EXC press conference Feb. 8. (Tom Casino/EXC)|
In the past, if Carano's friends or family tried to persuade her to get fit or lose weight, she never thought much of it.
"I always blew it off," she said. "But when [Master Chan] said that to me, I was like 'Oh yeah, I'm getting some lessons, I'm gonna get my ass in gear, and I'm gonna get in shape.' So it was perfect, really."
Once she began training to fight, Carano found out quickly that she was a natural athlete.
"I was athletic, so I just started losing weight automatically," she said. "Four to six months later, I was fighting."
As one of a select few female MMA fighters, Carano has chosen an unusual career path. While she never considered herself a future fighter growing up, Carano admits that, looking back, there were probably a few warning signs.
"I was a tomboy for a lot of my growing up, and still have it in me," Carano said. "I've always just wrestled around with all the guys, arm wrestled, had a few fights outside of the ring."
Carano's adjustment to the fight world may have been a little easier once she made peace with the idea that she had it in her to beat people up professionally.
"I'm just an aggressive person, I guess," she said. "Which I'm having to come to terms with, because I never really saw myself like that back then."
Carano hopes to bring her best effort on Saturday when she faces Julie Kedzie, a 25-year-old Muay Thai and jiu jitsu practitioner with an MMA record of 8-4.
"I'm looking forward to an extremely tough fight," Carano said. "I've heard she's a well-rounded fighter, she's got good standup, good ground game, [and] she's a jiu jitsu instructor, so I'm just really trying to polish myself up and get as 'in shape' as possible, because I know it's just gonna be a battle."
"I am just so happy to be here, to be part of fighting the first women's fight ever on Showtime, along with Julie Kedzie," Carano said. "I am so honored to be a part of it and to be a part of the whole women's movement in MMA. I should just pay to be on it, you know? I'm just super excited for the opportunity."
While MMA gains momentum on the heels of UFC's rise in popularity, there are still a lot of people resistant to the idea of women's MMA. The reactions have been mixed at some of Carano's fights.
"Half of the people are fascinated, and then half the people are just kind of judgmental about it, most of those being guys in the sport," Carano said. "But I've found that once you train with them and once they see ... most of the gyms I've walked into have been male-dominated, besides Master Toddy's gym. There are a lot of females that train over there. But for a while there I was at Master Toddy's, and I had to find other places to train. They were all male-dominated."
Training with men is not a problem for Carano. The problem, she said, is proving to some of those men that she belongs there.
"At first they look at you kind of crooked, like 'What are you doing in here?' They almost want to be like 'Do you really want to do this? Let's see if you really want to do this.' So you have to go through the pressure of being the new person, also female. Once they see that you're serious and you've actually got some skill, then those people's opinions change. It's really a beautiful thing, because they see it more as a sport, and not just a female trying to fight."
In Carano's opinion, the idea that women are the "weaker sex" has given some men the false impression that women are in more danger than men are when they step into a cage or ring for a fight.
"Guys are just real protective over females for some reason," she said. "At least some of the guys I know. Here's what I think: I don't think they can handle the pressure of not being able to save the female. She's got to fight her own battle, you know?"
While some still apply a double standard to female fighters, Carano acknowledges that there are also benefits that come with being a successful woman in sport known for alpha males.
"I can't say that being a female has been completely just, 'Oh, it's been so hard,' because it's given me a lot of opportunities and exposure that a lot of male fighters that have been in the sport for so long haven't gotten, because my situation is unique," Carano said. "There are positives and negatives that come with it, and I am willing to take both of them."
It's probably inevitable that after Saturday's fight, a lot of the chatter about Carano will contain some discussion of her attractiveness. She'll take that, as long as those people also recognize the talented fighter that lies beneath the surface.
"I'm a person, and I want that to shine through more than anything," she said. "Whoever appreciates that is who I want to surround myself with."
After the fight, Carano will also have the chance to reacquaint herself with her "children," a pair of pitbulls named Layla and Gotti that are in her mother's care while Carano trains for her big fight.
"They're just great dogs," Carano said. "Pitbulls get such a bad rep, and they're really some of the best dogs and most loyal dogs that you can find. They're just blessings in my life."
Whatever happens at the EXC debut show, Carano is in the fight game for the long haul. Win or lose, she hopes to contribute to the sport of MMA for years to come.
"I see a lot of fighters out there, and they're not making money, you know, but they're doing what they love," Carano said. "I want to be in a place where I can eventually someday sponsor a fighter or help other female fighters. I don't know if that's going to be five or ten years from now, but I want to be in a position to be able to help somebody, to support myself, and to be an inspiration."
The question isn't whether Gina Carano will still be involved in MMA many years down the road. The question is what role she will assume as her career, and the sport, evolve together.
"I'm trying to figure that out right now, and I feel like I have to jump on it now instead of waiting until later," she said. "I hope to have established myself in this fight world, and be a lot stronger, and still be fighting, hopefully."