A woman-led women's fighting organization goes mainstream.

Shannon Knapp and Invicta move to conquer women's MMA 

A woman-led women's fighting organization goes mainstream.

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"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."

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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."

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