Shannon Knapp rides the elevator to the top floor of the Aladdin hotel, in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.
The president of Invicta Fighting Championships has been talking about the future of her women's mixed-martial-arts organization: a TV deal. The elevator stops. "It's going to happen," Knapp says as she steps out of the lift and into the hotel's sun-soaked, 16th-floor ballroom. "We're going to have a deal. How could we not?"
Knapp, the first woman executive of a sport dominated by testosterone and egomaniacs, calls herself a "girlie girl." The 45-year-old keeps her raven hair long, with bangs, and today wears jeans, knee-high boots and a button-down shirt under a jacket. In one hand is her BlackBerry. A deep bag hangs over her shoulder. In a little more than a week, her grouchy, hungry fighters weigh in here for the April 5 Invicta card at the Ameristar Casino Hotel.
"I feel like we're ready to just blow up," she says.
This weekend's card is the first anniversary of her fledgling promotion, which ran its April 28, 2012, debut event (and the three following it) at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas. Knapp's crossing of the state line makes her the Ameristar's exclusive MMA provider — a deal she says is already paying off.
"Our ticket sales are extremely good," Knapp says. "I've made more money already than I've ever made at Memorial Hall."
Knapp isn't just hyping April 5, though it's easily the biggest all-women's MMA event yet in the sport's history. The 13-fight card features two title bouts: Jessica Penne defends her atomweight championship against Michelle Waterson, and Barb Honchak and Vanessa Porto battle for the vacant flyweight championship. It comes on the heels of a sensational February fight that pitted UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey against Liz Carmouche, a veteran of the first two Invicta events. And it marks the return of Brazilian fighter Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos after a yearlong suspension for steroid use.
"She made a bad decision, for whatever reason, and I believe everybody gets a second chance and deserves one," Knapp says of Santos, with whom she worked in the now-defunct fight-promotion company Strikeforce. "I believe she's clean, healthy and good."
Rousey and Carmouche in that February UFC main event was, Knapp says, "a proud moment." Fans took note, with an estimated 500,000 pay-per-view buys.
"Look at Liz's career," Knapp says. "Liz was in Strikeforce, nobody paying attention to her, nothing going on. She comes over and fights for us, and guess what? She's the first one to fight Ronda."
Rousey is the face of women's MMA. But a star-driven sport needs more than just one star. Knapp knows it.
"Ronda Rousey can only do so much," she says. "She's just one. I needed something to show the world that there's more than just one. There can't be just one. And that was Invicta."
Knapp grew up in Rock Port, Missouri, where she dreamed of becoming a ninja. "My mom thought I was crazy," she says. As a girl, she read Soldier of Fortune, imagining herself attending the ninja camps that were advertised in the magazine. She pictured how she'd fight off would-be attackers.
"When I was younger, I was raped and assaulted with a knife," Knapp says. She was 14 at the time. "It's really strange. Sometimes I think about it, and it's like, this happened to you, and yet you ended up right smack-dab in the middle of all of these men who are rowdy and aggressive, and you dominated. There's something to be said for taking back the fear or taking back control. I sure did, didn't I?"
It took awhile. Knapp always loved combat sports and studied fighting techniques (eventually becoming a self-defense instructor, teaching the Israeli discipline Krav Maga). Her MMA career began around 2001, when she started working as a broadcaster, conducting backstage interviews.