One of the biggest nights in the history of women’s mixed martial arts came on Aug. 15, 2009.  Not only was Strikeforce holding three title fights on that night, but the main event was the highly anticipated title tilt between Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos and Gina “Conviction” Carano.  The Chute Boxe-trained Santos entered the cage that night with a record of 7-1, with her only loss coming in her professional debut, while Carano came in with a perfect record of 7-0 and a great background in kickboxing.  This fight was more than just the inaugural Strikeforce women’s featherweight championship fight, but a battle to determine who would become the face of women’s MMA.

In that fight, “Cyborg” lived up to her reputation and overpowered Carano with her brute power, earning the TKO stoppage with just one second remaining in the first round.  From there, Santos backed her performance up by taking on the next contenders, TKO’ing Marloes Coenen and knocking out Jan Finney in consecutive fights.  After spending a year off due to a contract dispute, the Brazilian came back and reassured her fans that she had not missed a beat when the referee intervened to end her fight against Hiroko Yamanaka just 16 seconds in.  Never had “Cyborg” looked so great and from there, fans and critics alike started to ask if she would ever be defeated.

Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos (Strikeforce)

It wasn’t until last Friday when things started to change for the champ.  The California State Athletic Commission, the overseeing body of her latest fight, revealed that Santos’ post-fight urine sample tested positive for stanozolol metabolites, an anabolic steroid.  As a result of the positive test, the CSAC has suspended Santos for one year, fined her $2,500, and changed the result of the fight from a TKO victory for Santos to a no-contest.

Because of this, UFC president Dana White revealed in an interview with ESPN Radio that “Cyborg” would be stripped of her title, despite her still being listed as the champion on Strikeforce’s website, and he added that the future of the division could be in peril as a result.  Scott Coker, Strikeforce’s CEO, also issued a statement which revealed that while the promotion had not yet seen the test results, they have had a long history of supporting testing performed by commissions.

A statement by Santos was released the next day on her Facebook page which cited that she was taking a dietary supplement due to having trouble from the weight cut for the fight.  Santos’ statement said:

“I would like to sincerely apologize to StrikeForce, the Zuffa organization, Hioko [sic] Yamanaka and my fans for my failed drug test.

I am ultimately responsible for everything I put in my body, and at the end of the day, there is no excuse for having a prohibited substance in my system. I do not condone the use of any performance enhancing drugs by myself or any other professional athlete, and willingly accept the penalties and fines that have been handed down to me by the California State Athletic Commission and those of the StrikeForce/Zuffa organization.

While I was preparing myself for my last fight I was having a difficult time cutting weight and used a dietary supplement that I was assured was safe and not prohibited from use in sports competition. It was never my intention to obtain an unfair advantage over Hiroko, mislead StrikeForce, the Commission or my fans. I train harder than any fighter in MMA and do not need drugs to win in the cage, and I have proven this time and time again! My only mistake is not verifying the diet aid with my doctor beforehand, and understanding that it was not approved for use in the ring. Unfortunately in the end I suffer the consequences and must accept the responsibility for my actions.

I will do everything I can to show my fans that I can still compete at the professional level without the use of any prohibited substances, and ask God’s forgiveness for my mistake.”

Historically, women’s MMA has struggled for legitimacy.  Women have never fought in the Octagon and according to White, they never will.  But the UFC president has said that this is not because of negative thoughts and beliefs about women fighting, but because he feels as though there is not enough depth to constitute a division.

The Strikeforce women’s featherweight division was a perfect example of the lack of depth, as all four women that Santos defeated under the Strikeforce banner have either left the division after the loss and dropped to 135 pounds, or have been out of the sport altogether.  Yamanaka was brought in from Japan and was given a title shot despite never stepping into the Strikeforce cage before and according to White, they were going to hold onto the division simply to feed the Brazilian more fights.

What could the future of the 145-pound division mean for Gina Carano? (Carlos Serrao/GQ)

With that, Strikeforce had been bringing up over and over again Carano’s return to action after her extended time off from the sport due her loss to Santos.  “Conviction” spent her time away pursuing acting and other opportunities, something that she may not have been able to do if she won the title in the first place.  But with the time off and her success in booking acting gigs, who knows if we will ever see her fight again.  It is no secret that she often struggled to weigh in at 145 pounds, and one can speculate the trouble she would have trimming off the additional ten pounds to bantamweight, should that division become her only option.

But simply because White said that the featherweight division will likely be disbanded doesn’t necessarily mean that it will, because the UFC president tends to say one thing and then do another.  Coker has said that he will try to save the division, and Carano may just be the cornerstone he needs.  It is no secret that one of the reasons that “Conviction” is as popular as she is comes from her sex appeal.  Considering her weight issues, Strikeforce would have to keep the division open in order to showcase her.

But in order to have Carano, Strikeforce would have to find a way to get the women who dropped to 135 pounds to come back.  Marloes Coenen, who had been released by Zuffa along with Alistair Overeem due to issues with Golden Glory, could be brought back to get some momentum for the division.  Perhaps the loser of the upcoming bantamweight championship fight between Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey could move up to featherweight, the way that the women moved out of the division after losing to “Cyborg.”  With the year-long suspension, the promotion could spend the time with a new outlook, where they try to build the division rather than find sacrificial lambs from various other places.  At the end of the day, the ratings will speak for themselves and Carano’s appeal is enough to get the ball rolling on keeping her and the division, but it is up to the promotion to keep it’s momentum.

This does not spell the end of women’s MMA in Strikeforce or in the other top promotions, however. At this past weekend’s Strikeforce event, women’s bantamweight champion Miesha Tate was on hand to promote her upcoming title fight against undefeated Ronda Rousey.  Bellator held a successful 115-pound tournament in its third season of action, crowning Zoila Gurgel as its champion.  While there has only been one women’s tournament in the history of Bellator, they have held bouts for women for quite some time now.  The third fighter listed on the website of the Pro Elite promotion is undefeated Sara McMann, who has already won a fight with Pro Elite and is scheduled to return to action later this month.

Where “Cyborg” goes from here will be unknown.  The steroid test will not likely mark the end of her career as a fighter, as Chris Leben, Stephan Bonnar and, most infamously, Josh Barnett have had continued success in the sport after testing positive of banned substance during their career.

Questions loom on the horizon though.  Will Santos be able to manage her weight in order to return as a bantamweight if featherweight is disbanded, and if she does, how will her biggest strength, her power, be affected as a result?  In recent history, we have seen Kenny Florian, Manny Gamburyan and Joe Warren drop weight classes with mixed results.

After appearing to not have what it takes to make it in the featherweight division, Florian dropped to featherweight and after his recent loss to champion Jose Aldo, the Boston native is reported to move back to 155.  Like “KenFlo,” Gamburyan fought five fights at lightweight only to move down to 145 pounds where he won three straight, but his future now looks questionable after dropping three straight.  Bellator featherweight champion Joe Warren entered into the season-five bantamweight tournament, only to be knocked out in just over a minute.

Considering how these fighters have done, it is difficult to forecast how “Cyborg” will do should she have to move down to bantamweight upon her return, but hopefully we will never have to find out because Strikeforce is capable of laying the groundwork to keep the division, and possibly strengthen it, in the absence of the former champion.

Top Photo: Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos at a press conference (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Brian McKenna
Staff Writer

Brian McKenna was born and raised in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. A sports nut from as long as he can remember, he came to be a fan of Mixed Martial Arts from a roommate watching The Ultimate Fighter while attending Westfield State College. Brian came to writing by starting his own blog, Four Down Territory, which focuses on Boston based sports, life, and of course MMA.