Olympic gymnast Nastia Liukin was honored at the Women's Sports Foundation's annual Salute to Women in Sports on Tuesday night in New York City. So was softball player Jessica Mendoza. Dozens of female athletes from sports ranging from basketball to skateboarding were lauded from the podium.
And Gina Carano sat in the audience, wondering if her fellow athletes even know that her sport exists.
Carano, maybe the best female fighter in the sport of mixed martial arts and definitely the most famous, attended the event not to be honored on stage but simply to watch from her seat. She told me today that while she was humbled just to be in the presence of Billie Jean King, who founded the Women's Sports Foundation, she also wished that the people who celebrate women's athletics understood how hard she's working to show that women can be professional fighters.
"It was such a beautiful thing, I was so inspired to be there and hear Billie Jean's story," Carano said. "I'm thinking, What she did is what I'm trying to do right now. At the same time, I was so hurt inside because I'm seeing tennis players and softball players and there was no mixed martial arts. I'm wondering, Why isn't my sport up there?"
King fought for close to half a century for female tennis players to get paid as much as male tennis players, and it was only last year that Wimbledon finally agreed to pay equal prize money to women and men. Carano understands that struggle: EliteXC paid her just $25,000 to win her last fight, while the organization paid Kimbo Slice $500,000 for his losing effort later the same night.
Carano isn't one to complain about her pay, but she acknowledged that "It would be nice to be compensated. ... I've had to go off what promoters think I should make, and that's been kind of irritating."
When King took up tennis, she had to deal with people who told her a tennis court was no place for a girl. By the time Carano was born, King had won the Battle of the Sexes, established the Women's Tennis Association and championed Title IX. But Carano still has to deal with people who tell her a cage is no place for a girl. Carano said that because of that, she thinks she had a greater understanding of the issues King spoke about last night than female athletes in more traditional sports do.
"If there was anybody in the room who knew what she was talking about, I did," Carano said. "I could relate to her in a huge way."
The good news for Carano is that even if athletes in other sports haven't embraced MMA, she knows that she's attracting female fans.
"I talk to so many guys that are like, 'I could never get my girlfriend to watch UFC with me but I got her to watch your fight and now she's hooked, and she watches it all the time, and she wants to take Muay Thai lessons," Carano said. "I get people saying, 'My daughter loves you and now she's got someone to look up to other than the actresses in Hollywood.' I get people who are like, 'My grandma loves you.' It's amazing what following your dreams and following your heart and doing something you're passionate about does. I think that's the best compliment ever, 'My grandma loves you.'"
Carano got into MMA because she enjoys the competition, not because she wanted to champion a cause. But along the way, she's found herself delivering a simple message about herself and the other competitors in her sport: "We're real athletes, in the gym busting our asses like everyone else."