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.
"I jumped into the fire," Knapp says. "I always loved it. I really feel like this is what I'm supposed to do." She worked for several fight groups over the next few years, including the International Fight League, the UFC, King of the Cage, Affliction and Strikeforce. And she built strong ties with the athletes, who found themselves oddly vulnerable in her presence.
"I'd actually make the boys cry," Knapp says. "They used to say that I was so mean because I'd do an interview with the athlete, and before you know it, he's crying. I was a mom then, too, so maybe it was more of a maternal thing where they opened up. But that's what the IFL and other companies saw: that connection that I could make with the athletes, which would be valuable to them."
Knapp worked her way up to executive roles in more than one company, but as each of her employers folded or was sold, and she started over in a new league, she found that she had to prove herself all over again.
"I know what it feels like to be held back," Knapp says. "Every time I climbed to the top — hard work, honestly — the boy got the job because I'm a girl. But when they failed, they always brought me in to fix it."
It was a frustrating process but one that helped her understand the fighters themselves.
When UFC's parent company, Zuffa, bought Strikeforce, in March 2011, several women fighters called Knapp. Strikeforce had promoted women's fights alongside men's on Showtime, but there was no sign that Zuffa shared that vision. The women were afraid for their futures. Their conversations with Knapp led to the genesis of Invicta.
Around that time, Knapp met Janet Martin, who was working as a matchmaker for a fight group in North Carolina and had written a paper in college about the obstacles that women face in the sport.
"It lit a fire," Knapp says of reading Martin's research. "I couldn't even wrap my mind around it. I've been in every one of those gyms, but no one ever disrespected me. Not once." What she had seen, doing her own matchmaking work for Strikeforce, was pressure to book women's fights.
"Everything I'd always heard was, 'We want a girl fight, hot chicks,' " Knapp says. "Until I got to see Gina Carano, Cris Cyborg, Marloes Coenen — true female athletes — then it changed my mind."
Now Knapp has embraced the art of fight promotion, with an approach that puts her athletes first. "This is going to sound weird, but if you've ever fought for me, you're my athlete," she says. "I'm always going to watch over you. I don't invite them to my house, and we don't hang out, but I always have that connection with them that if they need anything, I would help them.">hr />
A fight club of all women isn't a new idea. Evansville, Indiana, promoter Jeff Osborne began promoting women-only cards in 2001, and Japanese fight organizers had been doing so for nearly two decades before that. Knapp compares those early attempts with weekend gardeners.
"It was really going to take someone to get in there, roll up their sleeves and really tend to the garden to make it grow," Knapp says. (Osborne gave up on that particular garden bed in 2010.)
Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer says Invicta has sparked serious interest. More people want to read about Knapp's club, he says, than want to read about the No. 2 men's MMA company, Bellator. "That's a feather in their cap," he says, "and a feather that people are interested in women's MMA."
Ottavia Bourdain, wife of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and noted MMA fan, calls Knapp's impact on the sport "huge."
"For years I've been hoping for something like this to happen," Bourdain says in an e-mail. "The first event took place last year on my birthday; I couldn't have wished for a better present. She took a big chance that no one wanted to take, and it's definitely paying off. She has been putting up amazing events, and I know they'll only get better.
"I know many people watched the first event as a novelty, but then they realized that women not only can fight, but they always bring it," she adds. "Maybe the skill level of some of them is still raw, but they always seem to come ready to fight, instead of trying to collect points to win."
Even with a mainstream attraction like Rousey, though, the sport is still struggling for acceptance. Knapp likes to say ours is a society of "GI Joe, not GI Jane." And she knows that a gender-sensitive culture takes time to change.
Bellator play-by-play announcer Sean Wheelock says it's happening. "I'll sometimes hear from a fighter or a trainer, 'Oh, I just don't like seeing a woman get hit in the face' or 'It bothers me when I see a woman cut,' " he says. "But you're hearing less and less of that inside the industry. I think fans, fighters, trainers, people who work in MMA, hardcore fans, they want to see a good fight. If they're well-matched and the skill level is there, they're going to appreciate it."
A landmark in the road of women's MMA to the mainstream came in August 2009, when Santos fought Carano.
Santos won with a first-round technical knockout. Carano left the sport. The landmark became a roadblock.
"That's one of the things that really surprised me, how big that fight was," Meltzer says. "And then I saw Cyborg's next fight, and people just weren't that interested."
Rousey's March 2012 fight against Miesha Tate broke through. (Rousey won with her patented armbar submission.) "I was texting Dana [White, UFC president] that night, and we were going back and forth, and it was just like, there's something here," Meltzer says. "He's not a dummy. He knew it, too."
Still, some experts expected Rousey's matchup against Carmouche to fail. Women's MMA, they said, wasn't ready to headline a pay-per-view.
Those experts were wrong.
"I thought it was going to do all right," Meltzer says. "But I didn't think it was going to do big until a couple of weeks before the fight, when I could kind of see it picking up."
The fight was everything that Bourdain had hoped for.
"It wasn't such an easy win for Ronda this time," she writes. "Carmouche put up a good fight. No one wants to see Ronda keep arm-barring opponents in 10 seconds. After a while it gets old. The fact that Carmouche managed to put Ronda in an uncomfortable situation makes me look forward to her next fight, because maybe Ronda's win is not such an obvious thing anymore."
In a sport built on such rivalries, the next big-money fight in women's MMA would be a showdown between Rousey and Santos. Meltzer calls it "inevitable," and Santos' manager, former UFC heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz, wants to set it up for this New Year's Eve.
"There will be so much interest and money at stake," Meltzer says. "What kind of numbers are we talking about? We're talking about giant numbers for that fight and because of that, it's going to happen."
Of course, Rousey and Santos have to keep winning. And they have to keep their focus on the sport rather than on entertainment. Because the biggest threat to women's MMA right now is Hollywood. The sport's first marketable star, Carano, left the game for the movies and starred in Haywire, a spy flick directed by Steven Soderbergh. And Rousey has signed with the William Morris Endeavor talent agency.
"The offers are going to come, and they are coming right away for Ronda because she got all of that publicity," Meltzer says. "You get to the point where you don't really want to get beat up, and the movie people don't want you to get beat up. It's going to be an issue for women's MMA. There will come a time, whether it's age or she loses interest or whatever and she's not the top girl anymore, you better hope there's people around that can fill that void, or it'll go down."
More women than ever are training in MMA gyms, hoping to keep that void filled, but it's a grind that requires mastery of multiple disciplines. Wheelock says the current crop of female fighters coming up reminds him of the men who fought in the mid-1990s.
"Everyone was really, really good at one thing and then really deficient at other things," Wheelock says. "The top fighters in women's MMA right now are extremely well-rounded. But when you get to that A-minus or B level, for me, that's when you're seeing someone who is a great kickboxer, but they have no ground game. Or they're outstanding grapplers, but their striking is limited. Or they have great hands, but they don't have kicks. Or they have jiujitsu, but they have no wrestling."
UFC's Dana White called Knapp to arrange a working agreement: Santos would sign a UFC contract but would fight for Invicta upon her return from suspension.
"It was a good deal for me, too," Knapp says. "They were actually going to promote our events — give it some PR."
The deal fell through. Knapp began negotiations with Santos and Ortiz a week later.
"It's always the most respectful thing to do," Knapp says. "An athlete will change their mind. Maybe what was wrong in the nighttime looks great in the daylight. I gave them time to change their minds, and then I approached."
Santos signed a three-fight deal with Invicta — making her, Meltzer says, Invicta's biggest name. "There's intrigue behind her," he says. "She's very controversial, obviously, by the way she looks and the way she fights. She's an exciting fighter."
"I have faith in her," Knapp says. "Every fight she had for Strikeforce, she was tested. We didn't do it. The commission did it. Am I worried that she's going to show up and fail one of my tests? No.
"It can destroy our sport," she says of steroids, "so I'm very anti." Invicta will test for doping a day before the April 5 card. Santos and her opponent, Fiona Muxlow, also will be tested after their bout. "Because of Cris and what has happened to her in the past, it's a requirement," Knapp says.
Meltzer says steroids in women's MMA could be the sport's undoing. He advocates for unannounced tests once a month.
"Really, the testing in women's fighting is far more important than in men's fighting, and it's important in both," Meltzer says. "If the public believes that it's a drugged sport and it's women all hopped up, I think it'll lose popularity pretty quick. For their growth, they have to be more vigilant about the steroid issue than even men's MMA."
Knapp runs Invicta from her home in Overland Park, employing six full-time workers and, during fight weeks, numerous contractors.
"It's not a 9-to-5 job," she says. "You wake up [early]. You go to bed late. I like the hustle of it. Maybe that's my fight. We have growing pains. But we haven't even been in business for a year."
Knapp says the goal, as with any startup business, is to keep overhead low without compromising the product. That means Invicta events are likely to remain in Kansas City, at least for now.
"This is our home," Knapp says. "I would definitely say that we are going to promote out of the state at some point, but this is where we're building our foundation."
It's also home to Knapp's 19-year-old daughter, Chace, who attends a junior college here. (A single mother, Knapp was divorced in 2004.) "This is the first time that I've gotten to be home in years and years and years," Knapp says. "When my daughter says to me how proud she is, after all of the sacrifices that she's made over the years with my time, to me it's worth it."
This weekend's fifth edition of Invicta marks the promotion's second attempt at Internet pay-per-view. January's card was set for Ustream, but a failure kept paying fans from accessing the content. The snafu made the night even more hectic for Knapp, who made the call to pull down the paywall, offer the fights for free and refund all the customers' money.
This time, she has purchased satellite time, allowing the fights to stream in HD. But IPPV has its limits. "You're not going to create new fans on an Internet pay-per-view," Meltzer says. "You're only going to get the super-hardcore fans, whatever that's going to be, whether it's 500 or 3,000. You're not going to get 30,000 or 50,000 or 200,000 people buying an Internet pay-per-view at this stage or perhaps anytime soon."
Internet pay-per-view isn't a money-loser. But it's not a moneymaker, either. Invicta's future, Knapp knows, hinges on the right broadcast deal.
"If you want to make money with a company, you've got to get TV-rights fees, and then you can springboard with the merchandise or whatever else you can do and become a cool thing," Meltzer says. "Without it, you can't grow. Can women's fights draw TV ratings? I think we've already proven that it can. You can't even debate that now. It's proven it can."
Meltzer has floated the idea of a UFC partnership with Invicta (or an outright purchase of Knapp's company). He says the UFC's promotional machine would yield more opportunity for the fighters to gain experience — and get more exposure for Invicta.
Knapp says she's open to a working arrangement with MMA's biggest organization. But she doesn't sound like someone ready to sell, and she says Invicta's own TV deal may not be far off. (She's also working on a potential reality-TV series.)
"I just haven't went out there and aggressively attacked it," Knapp says of a broadcast contract. "A lot of people are depending on me to make good decisions that affect their future. So it's not something that I jump into very hastily."
In Knapp's vision, Invicta becomes an internationally known brand that reaches a generation of young girls. Her Invicta of the near future, she says, has a broadcast partner that's more than just a larger entity throwing money at a project. "I promise you, we've already got stars," Knapp says. "We just need that platform, that broadcast partner."
Knapp is already planning Invicta 6, featuring Marloes Coenen against the winner of the Santos-Muxlow fight for the 145-pound championship.
"I just love the sport," Knapp says. "I would fight for it, and I do every day."