Gina Carano: The Original WMMA Pioneer
Gina Carano is widely considered as one of the original pioneers of women’s mixed martial arts. Before there was Ronda Rousey and Amanda Nunes, Carano was paving the way for today’s generation of female fighters.
A lifelong athlete, Carano grew up playing softball, volleyball, and basketball. She took up her first martial art rather late, starting to train Muay Thai with her then-boyfriend Kevin Ross when she was 21 years old.
“In one night he just made the decision to stop everything that he was doing and start something that he always wanted to do and that inspired me to eventually sign up,” Carano told the Las Vegas Sun in 2009.
Carano said she got into the sport to stay in shape, but ended up getting more out of martial arts than she ever could have imagined.
She became Kevin Ross’ main sparring partner for as long as they remained a couple. Eventually, the pair decided to try their luck at competing in sanctioned Muay Thai bouts. Carano thrived, amassing an impressive Muay Thai record of 12-1-1 before taking her talents to the MMA world in 2006.
Carano won her MMA debut in spectacular fashion, scoring a TKO victory in just 39 seconds. Her second fight came against fellow WMMA pioneer Rosi Sexton, who Carano would also beat by KO.
Already making waves with these two stoppages, Carano was given the opportunity to fight for Strikeforce in the promotion’s first ever women’s bout. She won again, beating her former Muay Thai opponent Elaina Maxwell via unanimous decision.
Carano would go on to win her next four fights, all within the EliteXC fight promotion. Her popularity continued to grow at a time where WMMA was still vastly underappreciated. In 2008, “Gina Carano” was the fastest-rising search on Google and she was ranked fifth on Yahoo’s “Top Ten Influential Women of 2008.”
Bear in mind, it would still be another 5 years before the UFC would sign its first female fighter.
In 2009, Carano would get her biggest fight yet against Cris Cyborg. Cyborg was on a similar path to stardom, unbeaten in over 4 years. Their matchup was the highest anticipated female fight ever at the time. It was the first WMMA bout to headline a major televised card, and was Strikeforce’s first ever female championship fight.
Ultimately, Cyborg would get the better of Carano, scoring a TKO win late in the first round. This was Carano’s first loss in MMA, and she retired shortly after the fight.
Despite just a 3-year, 8-fight career from Gina Carano, her influence helped grow WMMA immensely. She was regarded as the “face of women’s MMA” throughout her career, a title that she humbly refutes.
“I am a recognized female in the sport, but I don’t think that I am the face of women’s MMA,” Carano told MMA Junkie. “It’s just a label. I’m Gina Carano. You can label me that.”
Carano has built a very successful acting career since her retirement in 2009. Most notably, she has made appearances in Fast & Furious 6, Deadpool, and Star Wars: The Mandalorian.