IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Gina Carano a reluctant star with a powerful punch

/ Source: The Associated Press

BC-MMA--Carano's Convictions, ADV08,1294 Eds: This item moved previously as an advance and is now available for use. AP Photos By DAVE SKRETTA AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — The steel cage set up outside Madison Square Garden attracts hundreds of curious commuters hustling into Penn Station. Standing in the middle, bringing rush-hour traffic to a standstill, Gina Carano forces an uncomfortable smile.

She's graced dozens of magazine covers, her raven hair and piercing eyes making her a reluctant sex symbol. She was a star on the remake of American Gladiators, and has a role in the recent "Command and Conquer" video game. She's a rising star in sports, the new face of mixed martial arts, yet she still can't reconcile being the center of attention.

"I'm a huge dork," she says in a moment of brutal honesty. "I'll fumble words. I'm probably not a great public speaker, but I've stepped up and did it. It's brought me out of my box."

"We're all human," she adds moments later, going off on a tangent, as if trying to fill dead air. "Anxiety and nerves and pain and heartbreak happens to every single one of us."

The 27-year-old daughter of former Cowboys quarterback Glenn Carano has seen her share.

She wandered into a muay thai gym four years ago and was told by an instructor that she was overweight, lacked discipline, drank too much. A former star athlete at Las Vegas' Trinity Christian High School, Carano had somehow gotten off track, and fighting gave her a renewed sense of clarity and purpose.

She's undefeated in seven MMA bouts, but will face her most daunting challenge when she battles Brazilian star Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos on Aug. 15 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. They'll fight five rounds inside a steel cage like the one set up for a demonstration outside the Garden last month, and split $200,000 for the right to be the first 145-pound women's champion in the Strikeforce promotion.

Adding to the pressure, Carano and Santos will headline a card that includes three men's title fights, the first time women have had top billing on a mixed martial arts card.

"Look, these women are the best in the world," says Scott Coker, the CEO of Strikeforce, who has been routinely second-guessed for putting Carano and Santos in the main event. "I've followed women's boxing and kickboxing and MMA for 15 years and I can't remember an instance where there was two fighters who were so relevant."

Carano has been sequestered in a Las Vegas gym the last two months, her training interrupted only by the occasional publicity trip or interview, going through what she calls "one of the toughest things I've ever done." Among her trainers is former UFC star Randy Couture, whose team has gained a reputation for churning out champions.

During one recent workout, Carano was thrown into what's called the "shark tank," where she had to fight a fresh opponent every 60 seconds for five minutes. All of them were men, of course, all of them bigger and stronger, because there are so few women of Carano's caliber.

"You have to earn your stripes," she says, calling bruises and black eyes "battle wounds" that she wouldn't dare cover up. "You're not going to walk in there and think you're somebody. You'll go through good days, bad days, get your (butt) handed to you. It's not always easy."

It's often easier than what Carano has already been through.

Just a few years ago she was worn down by worry, watching her older sister Casey wage a terrifying battle with drug addiction.

College became a second thought, constantly shoved down Carano's list of priorities. She'd make trips down dangerous alleys and into run-down houses searching for her sister, her hero and inspiration. Whenever the phone rang, Carano would fear the worst. Whenever there was a knock on the door, her heart would skip a beat.

"We were insanely close and that's probably why it was so traumatizing," Carano says. "If anyone's had anyone who has fallen into drugs hardcore, and as tight as my family was, it really affected us. When I had no direction, that was kind of me taking a break from the previous five years I'd been through — the traumatic drug scene, watching the person I idolized almost lose their life. Afterward, I didn't know who I was. I was just in survival mode."

Fortunately, both of them survived, and Casey remains one of Carano's biggest supporters.

So too is their father Glenn, who spent part of his NFL career backing up Roger Staubach. Now a casino executive, he reluctantly shows up to see his daughter fight. He points out the stark difference between watching a child play basketball or softball, and watching them get attacked in a cage with thousands of people cheering for blood.

"I'm watching with very caring eyes," Glenn Carano says. "When you come close to a fighter and they're in the ring, if you're emotionally attached to that person, you're heart's in there with them. I think for every father, they cringe to see their little baby girl take a beating."

Carano has dished out far more beatings than she's endured.

She showed an adroitness early in her career at taking one punch if it meant delivering three. Like her beloved pit bulls, Gotti and Layla, Carano snarls when she gets in a fight, any pretense of playfulness cast quickly aside. In a sport in which women's participation is still too often considered taboo, Carano found a place inside the ring where she feels comfortable.

"I didn't have a direction, you know? I didn't have any ambition. Fighting screwed my head on straight," she says. "It gave me a dream, it gave me a focus. You train at something, get good at it and do it. You can take that philosophy into anything you do."

Carano eventually took that philosophy from the world of standup fighting to mixed martial arts, which incorporates elements of judo and jiujitsu in a form of hand-to-hand combat that has been mushrooming in popularity yet is still banned in New York for its brutality.

There are still whispers that Carano is just a pretty face, her popularity owed as much to her pictorials as her punching. She grows tired of it, the annoyance evident in her voice.

"I just would like people to take me and other female fighters seriously," she says, "so sometimes I get irritated when people get off track. If you've ever been to an MMA fight where there's a good female fighter, you leave there thinking 'Wow, that's a really good fight' — not 'a really good female fight."'

Her focus may be fighting, but Carano often finds herself wondering what comes next. She understands that a life spent trading blows doesn't last forever. She muses about returning to college, where she's one semester shy of earning a degree, or joining the Peace Corps.

Martial arts gave her a dream, she says, but she has others as well.

"It feels like I'm sprinting and I don't know how long I'm going to have to sprint for," she says. "I can't fight forever. I wouldn't want to fight forever. This is a very extreme lifestyle I've been trying to keep up with the last six years. We'll fight this fight and see how I do."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)