The UFC, Strikeforce and Bellator had the week off. Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson were scrapping in a featured boxing attraction on HBO. Baseball’s hot prospect, Bryce Harper, was stepping to the plate for the first at-bat of his Major League career. And where were the eyes of MMA fans focused? On Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan., where an upstart promotion called Invicta Fighting Championships was hosting its inaugural event.

Success in women’s MMA has always been measured in terms of single fights, not entire cards or promotions devoted to the ladies’ side of the sport. We’ve seen Gina Carano, Ronda Rousey and a handful of other female fighters—almost all of whom possess the looks to draw the attention of male fans regardless of whether they can throw a punch or nail a double-leg takedown—enjoy the spotlight with EliteXC, Strikeforce and Bellator. But last Saturday, April 28, we might have witnessed the point in history where all of that changed.

Can women’s MMA be successful, and can it lead to a profitable promotion that exclusively features female bouts? UFC President Dana White doesn’t think there’s enough depth to bring the ladies into the UFC. Previous promotional efforts have failed. Could Invicta Fighting Championships prove to be different? Could they do away with White’s arguments? Could they succeed where HOOKnSHOOT and Fatal Femmes Fighting failed? If Saturday was any indication, the answer to those questions could be yes.

Invicta’s president, Shannon Knapp, had previously worked for the UFC and Strikeforce, and she doesn’t kid herself; she admitted that depth is an issue within the female ranks. Yet, along with the promotion’s co-founder and matchmaker, Janet Martin, she has already produced a product that works around that lack of depth while also providing a place where further growth can occur.

Invicta’s first effort featured 11 fights, and just like any MMA event, not all of those fights could be instant classics. But the organization captivated an MMA audience with the perfect storm of a free streaming event on a weekend void of the MMA powerhouses, and delivered smart matchmaking, entertaining fights and a fighter- and fan-friendly approach.

Having an open weekend alone does not guarantee success. A promotion still needs to put together a quality card of intriguing names and match-ups. Janet Martin made that job seem effortless. She compiled a set of fights that featured several top 10-ranked ladies, an Olympic medalist and a number of underrated fighters, as well as some emerging prospects.

The surprise of the night was definitely Leslie Smith’s fight against Kaitlin Young. Everyone was expecting a Fight of the Night candidate from the two strikers, but going into the evening nobody would have predicted a possible Fight of the Year contender. Yet that’s what Young and Smith delivered. In fact, their war stole the show from the night’s headlining star, former Strikeforce 135-pound champion Marloes Coenen.

According to MMA Rising, viewership of the event’s stream peaked during the Smith-Young tussle with over 100,000 viewers (MMA Rising also reported that Invicta was only anticipating a peak viewership of 25,000 for the event). After the bout was declared a split draw, the promotion announced that both fighters would receive their win bonuses. Not only was the fight great for the event, but it’s also great for the promotion, which now has what should be a significant draw for a future card in a rematch between the two.

We learned from the show that even in the shallow ranks of women’s MMA, a world-class wrestler cannot steamroll her opponents. Olympic bronze medalist Randi Miller seemed poised to put on a wrestling clinic against Mollie Estes, but it was Estes’ knees and takedown defense that played major parts early in their fight. Eventually, through persistence, Miller’s wrestling and brutal ground-and-pound would prevail, but Estes’ performance cannot go unnoticed. Fighting for just the second time as a professional, she demonstrated that women’s MMA can gain depth if fighters like her are given opportunities. A number of the fighters on this card have less than five professional fights, but everyone has to start somewhere, and with Strikeforce and Bellator only interested in the cream of the crop, Invicta definitely provides the platform necessary for developing from a 1-0 prospect into a title-contending star.

The established stars of the show also came through, with Marloes Coenen defeating Romy Ruyssen in a rematch of their 2008 fight, and Liz Carmouche demolishing former pro boxer Ashleigh Curry. The show also provided a showcase for top 10-ranked Amy Davis and Jessica Penne, and again demonstrated the prospective of depth when Sarah Schneider, a largely underrated fighter who has competed against some of the best ladies out there, moved her record back above the .500 mark with an upset of another top-10er in Sally Krumdiack. Even in cases where, on paper, experience or skills seemed to largely favor one fighter, Martin’s match-ups proved to be surprisingly competitive—the only exception was Carmouche-Curry, in which Curry had no chance from the very start. Martin seemingly has a knack for realizing the potential in fighters like Schneider and match-ups such as Davis against Nicdali Rivera-Calanoc.

Beyond the number of viewers during the Smith-Young bout and the impressive matchmaking, another encouraging sign for Invicta Fighting Championships’ future came via Twitter. With the other sporting events taking place that night—and other topics in general often grabbing the attention of Tweeters worldwide—hardly anyone could have expected Marloes Coenen or Invicta itself to make its way into the trending topics list of the social media giant. While this writer didn’t spot Coenen’s name on that list, a surprising trio did pop up there throughout the night: Smith, Miller and Carmouche.

Out of the three, only Carmouche, thanks to her previous fights in Strikeforce, can be considered a high-profile female fighter, and even that is stretching it. Miller’s Olympic background warranted attention, but hardly the amount one would expect to generate a trending topic appearance. And Leslie Smith? Well, there’s no question that she earned that trending appearance with every punch thrown and taken. Yet it still takes plenty of viewers in the first place to generate that buzz. Smith and Young waged war, and over 100,000 people decided it was worth watching and, in some cases, tweeting about.

Invicta Fighting Championships’ success ultimately lies in its fans. They showed up, tuned in and spread the word. The MMA community embraced this event, with fans actively discussing the fights on Twitter. Invicta got involved too, with Knapp posting her own cell phone number on Twitter so that fans having trouble with the stream could inform her. She promised to work to correct any issues.

The broadcast crew on the stream must also be commended. Julie Kedzie, Mauro Ranallo and Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal did a fantastic job where lots of other streaming broadcast teams have failed. Their commentary was informative and entertaining, and they added to the professionalism of the event. Viewing enough streams with lackluster amateur production value and commentating, you learn just how much those voices in the broadcast booth contribute to making an event enjoyable.

Invicta Fighting Championships could have stopped there and called this a smashing one-time success, but instead it didn’t delay in setting up its next event. The promotion took advantage of the high viewership numbers and momentum to announce its next show, set for July 28 and also taking place at Memorial Hall. The stellar matchmaking will continue, as the headliner will feature Olympic silver medalist wrestler Sara McMann against Shayna Baszler. With Coenen calling out Ronda Rousey at the end of Invicta’s inaugural event, the potential for a Smith-Young rematch, Strikeforce’s apparent willingness to share female talent and the roster of fighters Invicta is amassing, it will be interesting to see the rest of the lineup that falls into place for that show.

Invicta Fighting Championships is on the right track to establishing itself as a thriving promotion. It put together an amazing first effort that drew in the fans, and it followed up by setting the stage for another success with a great headliner for its sophomore show. Although some might point to efforts like Fatal Femmes Fighting as reason to believe that an all-women’s MMA promotion is doomed, it must be pointed out that those efforts came before or during Gina Carano’s rise to fame, and well before Marloes Coenen, Sarah Kaufman, Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey captured gold under the Strikeforce banner. Invicta is launching its effort in a completely different atmosphere, one where women’s MMA is experiencing a surge of support and growth.

The promotion has already exceeded expectations. In order to continue doing so, Shannon Knapp and Janet Martin must remain focused on continued excellent matchmaking and commit to the development of new talent. If they can continue to strike a mix between established names and up-and-coming prospects, and the MMA community maintains the same level of support as it showed during the inaugural event, the future is quite bright for Invicta Fighting Championships and for women’s MMA as a whole.

Photo: Leslie Smith (L) delivers a kick to Kaitlin Young (Esther Lin/Invicta FC)

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