Saturday, Sept. 1, 2007 | 10 p.m.
Sitting in a restaurant booth across from mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano, a drop-dead gorgeous brunette who could if she chose drop me dead with a quick jab to the larynx, I'm taken back 30 years to an interview I did with her father, Glenn.
Glenn Carano was a stud quarterback for UNLV in the Ron Meyer-Tony Knap era who went on to earn two Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys. Glenn would have been a matinee idol had he been able to displace Roger Staubach as the Cowboys' quarterback, but in his seven years with the team his only national exposure came from holding a clipboard and the pigskin on extra points. At the time I profiled him, Glenn Carano was a breakout star waiting to happen, which is how one might now describe his 25-year-old daughter.
Despite just coming from a three-hour workout, wearing sweat pants, high-mileage bedroom slippers with teddy bears on them and not a hint of makeup, Gina is stunning. If ever there were a hot prospect for stardom in action movies -- let's say a white Cleopatra Jones from an earlier era, or a Lara Croft with bigger biceps of today -- then Ms. Carano is your girl.
Many women, and men who channel-surf in the higher numbers, probably already know that Gina is a featured player in the Oxygen Channel series ‘Fight Girls.' On that show she serves as a mentor to other young women who practice the discipline of Muay Thai and mixed martial arts. The ladies train under the watchful eye of a character named Master Toddy. (Think Mr. Miyagi from “The Karate Kid,” with a plus-size kimono.)
Her credentials on the show were earned from a professional fighting record of 16-1-1. Her one loss came early on, to a girl she says was “roided out … but if we fought today I'd beat her.”
Mixed martial arts incorporates the skills of boxing, kick-boxing and wrestling, and with a format of three five-minute rounds a fighter has to demonstrate a full tank of endurance and the ability to withstand serious pain. One minute these girls are throwing right hands and left leg-kicks, and the next they might be wrestled to the ground and engaged in full-contact pummeling. Forget any notion you might have about girl sports; mixed martial arts is bloody battle.
“I credit my grandfather (Jack Cason, a UNLV Sports Hall of Fame inductee for his many contributions) for teaching me how to be aggressive in sports, and how to be tough,” Gina says. “He coached my high school basketball team at Trinity Christian to a state championship and gave us a great work ethic.”
Gina was the star point guard on that Las Vegas team, which she boasts led the league in personal fouls. She says it was her team's steely aggression -- diving for every loose ball and body-checking the shooter -- that helped Trinity Christian win the title.
• • •
Carano was introduced to Muay Thai four years ago by a former boyfriend. On her first casual visit to the gym, an instructor named Master Chan told her straight out: “Girl, you fat. You need to lose weight. We show you how.”
“Had it been my mom or my boyfriend who got in my face like that, I probably would have responded with a one-finger salute,” Gina says, laughing. “But these words were coming from this incredibly fit and disciplined man, who was offering to help me. His message struck a chord. I told my mom that I wanted to do Muay Thai seriously, and she was understanding enough to give me the money for 20 lessons. She hugged me and told me to follow my dream.”
Incredibly, just four months after her introduction to the sport, Gina entered the ring in a San Francisco auditorium for her first professional fight. She had lost about 35 pounds to make the 145-pound limit, and despite her inexperience, she won decisively.
In another early bout, she entered the arena and asked the promoter whom she was fighting.
“He pointed across the room to a 6-foot-tall guy with his back turned to me,” she says. “‘You mean I have to fight him?' I asked.”
When the guy turned around, it was a woman.
“She was a really scary-looking creature,” Gina says. “But early in the first round I hit her with two strong right hands and two leg kicks. She just folded up and walked out of the ring and out of the gym. She'd had enough right there. It was at that moment that I realized I could do pretty well in the sport.”
A nationally televised brawl in February in Mississippi with a gutsy blonde, Julie Kedzie, which Gina won by decision, has been called by mixed martial arts fans a defining moment for women's participation in the sport. It was a close fight between two warriors, and they both showed exceptional sportsmanship. At one point in the bout Kedzie's contact lens came out, and Gina stopped boxing to let her know about it. (A far cry from biting off an opponent's ear when the going gets tough.)
People magazine called the Carano-Kedzie bout “The Fight of the Year” in martial arts.
Gina's next fight is Sept. 15 in Oahu against Tonya Evinger, who has a pro record of four wins and two losses. Like her last bout, this one will be televised nationally on Showtime and a victory would go a long way to pushing Carano even further into a national spotlight.
• • •
As the current face of Muay Thai and mixed martial arts for women, Gina is fielding several offers, including deals for a book and a possible movie based on her life. But under the counsel of Ultimate Fighting heavyweight champion Randy Couture, she's determined not to be distracted from her goal of becoming the best fighter she can be and performing with dignity.
“I try to pray for an hour every day,” she says. “My focus is to stay spiritually, mentally and physically strong, and always remember to keep the spiritual part first in my life.”
Carano's training and filming schedule is such these days that she says finding a relationship with a man is not a priority. She's had two long-term romances that didn't work out, and acknowledges that she can intimidate men.
“It bothers a lot of guys that they know I can kick their butt,” she says with a laugh. “I'm kind of an alpha dog, and a lot of men aren't comfortable with that. I guess a guy has to have a pretty good sense of who he is to get involved with me.”
Thirty years ago, the Carano name was close to being in the national headlines. It's much closer now.