Invicta Fighting Championships, an all-female mixed martial arts promotion led by former Strikeforce executive Shannon Knapp, will hold its first event on April 28th at the famed Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas. The debut card is headlined by a bout between Marloes Coenen and Romy Ruyssen.
Knapp, who serves as co-owner and vice president of the new company, spoke exclusively with MMARising.com on Thursday and outlined her plans and goals for Invicta’s immediate future. The promotion is expected to stage at least three events in 2012, with fights contested in five weight classes.
Invicta FC will serve as Knapp’s first experience in leading a promotion that showcases women’s bouts exclusively, but she brings a wealth of knowledge into the new venture from time spent working for many of the top mixed martial arts promotions in the world. During her lengthy tenure in the sport, Knapp has been employed by King of the Cage, Sportfight, the World Fighting Alliance, the International Fight League, Affliction and even the UFC itself.
Most recently, Knapp served as a matchmaker and talent relations manager for Strikeforce prior to its acquisition by Zuffa subsidiary Forza, LLC. In the weeks following the purchase, Knapp received her release from the company. She began to shift her attention from the men’s divisions, where the majority of her matchmaking duties has been focused in the past, to the fledgling women’s divisions that were slowly attracting more attention in promotions all over the world.
Together with business partner and Invicta FC matchmaker Janet Martin, Knapp began to forge a plan to develop one strong women’s mixed martial arts league that would provide female fighters with a platform to showcase their skills under one promotional banner. Earlier this year, Invicta Fighting Championships was born and the date and location for its first event were determined this month. Knapp’s primary goal for the short-term is to address and overcome the lack of depth among female MMA fighters today; an issue often noted by UFC president Dana White.
“A lot of people criticise Dana White for what he says about how there’s a lack of depth in these [women's] divisions,” Knapp says. “Some of them claim that Dana hates women. I can tell you right now that Dana doesn’t hate women, and a lot of what he says about the lack of depth in women’s divisions is absolutely true. I agree with what Dana says and back him 100%. Without him, none of us would be where we are in the sport today. He deserves a lot of respect for that and I can understand where he is coming from there when he says that [about depth].
“I can tell you that, 10-12 years ago, there was still a lot more depth on the men’s side then than there is on the women’s side now. Right now, you’ve got girls who are moving up and down in weight just to get fights. You’ve got other girls who will fight [in one country] but nowhere else. You’re not seeing the depth because it doesn’t exist. There isn’t a platform that displays that depth in one place so that it isn’t scattered all over the place.”
Knapp believes that one of the biggest keys to creating that much-needed depth on the women’s side of the sport is to establish strong divisions where fighters can stick to one, optimal weight class and are not forced to move up or down just to secure a fight. As such, catchweight bouts will not be permitted in Invicta FC. Fighters will compete in professional bouts in each of the five major women’s weight classes ranging from 105 to 145 pounds. Fights at weights above 145 pounds are a possibility for the future if a division can be established with a sufficient number of competitors.
“One of the problems with the women’s side is all of these catchweight fights,” Knapp says. “It’s hard to solidify a weight class when you’ve constantly got girls jumping up and down [in weight] and fighting catchweights. This happens because the girls just want to fight, but it’s really kind of sad. I understand why these girls make these choices – it’s a lack of opportunity – but one of our goals with Invicta is to build that platform and establish these divisions by giving [the fighters] that opportunity.”
At present, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is the world’s premier mixed martial arts promotion for male fighters. Knapp strives to one day build Invicta FC into the premier promotion for women, but she understands that doing so will not be easy. She adds that Invicta’s goal is not to try to compete with the UFC – Knapp notes that she remains a big fan and supporter of UFC events – but rather to strive to become the best platform available for female fighters.
“One of the most valuable things that I think I took away from my time working with the UFC was a standard of professionalism,” Knapp states. “Every promotion that I have ever worked for, I’ve held to that [UFC] standard because that’s the way that I feel that they should be run. They [UFC] run a tight ship over there. If we can provide a platform that is professional and provides the fighters with the opportunities they need, we’re going to be happy because we will have fulfilled what we set out to do.”
Knapp feels that a primary selling point for Invicta FC in attracting fighters will be that it caters to women. Whereas many promotions provide female fighters with a single hotel room for both the fighter and her coach, Invicta FC will provide separate rooms for each. Even small details will be covered, Knapp says, such as having female staff on-hand at events to braid fighters’ hair prior to competing.
In keeping with the goal of providing the best opportunities possible, Knapp will work in partnership with other promotions to ensure that fighters are able to stay busy. Knapp states that Invicta FC fighters will all be paid a fair market value, but given that her promotion will likely stick to four events per year, she understands that that may not be enough to get every fighter the fights that she wants or needs.
“This is a platform that belongs to [the fighters],” Knapp says. “It’s not about me or my business partner, or about either of us getting rich or famous. It’s about them and providing the opportunities and equality that they deserve. If everyone gets involved and puts their shoulders under it, I think that we can do something big here to change the perception and landscape of the [female] side of the sport.
“I have been in this sport for a long time and I have helped out a lot of [male fighters],” Knapp continues. “A lot of the guys that you see now fighting in the UFC or Strikeforce, I worked in promotions where those guys were just having their first fights. Looking at [Invicta FC] and knowing that this is going to be a lot of work is very gratifying to me. I am going to embrace this and apply myself to really make a difference, just like I’ve done with the men, because that is why I got into this business. I wanted to make a difference and help to move the sport forward.
“If I can teach these girls one thing, it’s to get out there and fight for what they believe in.”
Knapp then turns her attention to Invicta FC’s inaugural event, which will take place in familiar territory.
“Home base is pretty much Kansas City for me,” she says. “I’ve always had two places because I usually have to work on the west coast, so I’ve never really done anything in my hometown. I think it was just a couple of years ago that it was sanctioned here for pro MMA bouts. We’re having the event here because I can be very hands-on here in my back yard and also because I really like the arena [Memorial Hall] that we’re having it in. It’s a great arena and I have a lot of community support here.
“On Monday, we will be putting out an official press release that provides details on who will be on the card and reveals some of the matchups that will be taking place. I think that some of the names will make people very happy and others will really be a big surprise to some people. However, because [MMARising.com] has been so supportive for the female side of the sport and [its] contributions have been astounding to me, I can tell you today that our main event will be Marloes Coenen versus Romy Ruyssen from France.”
Following her release from Strikeforce this past year, Coenen announced that she had signed a deal with the North Carolina-based BlackEye Promotions organisation. However, she remained under a verbal agreement with the promotion only, and when she and BlackEye were unable to come to terms on a deal, Coenen instead signed on as the first official member of the Invicta FC roster.
The headlining matchup between Coenen and Ruyssen will be contested at 145 pounds. Coenen handed Ruyssen the only pro loss of her career very late in the second round of their August 2008 bout in Switzerland and Ruyssen has earned first-round submission victories in each of her four fights since. If Coenen is able to defeat Ruyssen for a second time, a rematch between Coenen and another former foe, Belgium’s Cindy Dandois, is a possibility for later this year and may be contested for the inaugural Invicta FC 145-pound women’s title.
“I can’t provide all of the details just yet, but I can promise everyone one thing,” Knapp concludes. “No matter where you are in the world, you will be able to watch these [Invicta FC 1] fights.”
Invicta Fighting Championships 1 takes place on April 28th at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas.