Fightland Talks to: Invicta President Shannon Knapp

Fightland Blog

By Aurora Ford

Invicta Fighting Championship President Shannon Knapp has worked in MMA for over a decade. She’s been a broadcaster, a matchmaker, and an executive. She’s worked for the IFL and Strikeforce. A little over a year ago, when the female fighters in Strikeforce found out that their promotion was being dissolved with no female division in sight at the UFC, it was Shannon they looked to in a panic. Her answer was to build Invicta. A little over a year and five events later Invicta held the first-ever all female card pay-per-view card Saturday July 13 at the Ameristar Casino in Kansas City.

I was supposed to be shadowing Shannon during weigh-ins and on fight night, but it was not to be. I spoke with her for a few moments before her fighters started weighing in, but I obviously wasn’t invited to stand with her onstage with the live stream rolling. She was talking to me but only looking at me for split seconds in between long sweeps over the room, overseeing the procession of her sixth and biggest event. Shannon is a tiny thing, five foot three if I had to guess, and the classic combination of pretty and professional you’ll find in female executive types. But with that comes a sternness that is palpable while she’s working. If I were twice my size and three times my fierceness, I would still be loath to piss her off. Needless to say, when Austrian flyweight Livia Von Plattenberg weighed in eight pounds over for her fight, I did not envy her the look on Shannon’s face and the ferocious chewing out I expected would follow.

Things didn’t improve Saturday. Early fight night was one mess after another. Tamika Brents had stepped in as a last-minute replacement to fight Ediane Gomes when her original opponent’s visa into the country couldn’t be arranged. But less than an hour before that fight was to happen, Tamika went down hard on her knee while warming up and the swelling couldn’t be contained. The fight was cancelled. That made two out of four prelim fights that wouldn’t be happening, a situation that left Shannon and Janet Martin, Shannon’s partner and Invicta’s matchmaker, scrambling to fill up the time. They brought commentator/fighter Julie Kedzie backstage to conduct interviews on the fly and prayed people wouldn’t lose interest before the main card started. Fortunately for them, and for all of us who so dearly hope for Invicta to succeed, the main card was a huge success, capped off by Cris Cyborg’s dominating win over Marloes Coenen.

All of which is to say I didn’t really get the access I was hoping for, but I got a chance to catch up with Shannon on the phone last week to ask her about fight night, her beginnings, and the phenomenon that is Cyborg.

Fightland: Five years ago, would have you have imagined this is what you would be doing?
Shannon Knapp: No, absolutely not. Five years ago I was still working in men’s MMA. And it was such a battle always [for women] to be accepted in a mainstream sports kind of way. I was pretty protective of them. Five years ago when I would want to take a spot from one of the male athletes for a female fight the answer was always, “Oh no you’re not.” As a matchmaker, it wasn’t about finding the best fight out there between women that you could possibly put on; I was more or less told, “Find two hot chicks,” which inevitably resulted in disappointing fights. So I didn’t have a healthy respect for women’s MMA. But when I went to work for Strikeforce, I witnessed such amazing athletes--Gina Carano, Cris Cyborg, Marloes Coenen--I was like, wow. There really are women out there that train hard, fight hard, are talented, are above and beyond anything I could have imagined, which is something I’d not seen before because of all the terrible mismatches that were put on by promotions before Strikeforce. So yeah, I never thought that I’d be doing what I’m doing now.

I felt the same way until I saw the Sarah Kaufman/Alexis Davis fight. It changed my entire perspective of what a women’s fight could be.
Yeah, there really is greatness. And it’s a travesty that this greatness has never really been tended to, to help it grow and shine. That is truly why I got into the sport. I’m a huge advocate for the athletes and the sport itself. I always thought that maybe I could come in and make a difference, so this has been a dream come true for me to actually visually see the difference. I wanted to build a huge sports franchise for the female athletes. If we can have anywhere near the growth that [the UFC] has had, it will be great for them.

One of the things coming up in this business that was instrumental to me making the decision to do this for the female athletes, to try to provide this opportunity, was that if anyone knew what the struggles were for them, not inside the cage but the outside just trying to navigate in a man’s sport, a man’s world, it was me. There were times that I had six jobs just to make an honest living. So, I knew how to fight that fight. I knew that if the female athletes could change my mind, as old school as I am, I could help them. I had the tools to help them change other people’s minds, too.

How did you get into fights?
Honestly I was always kind of different. I guess the best way to explain it is that I was always a girly girl. If you looked in my closet you’d see all my clothes, hair stuff, make-up, all that stuff. But I had this other side. I rode motorcycles. I wanted to be a ninja. Girls around me wanted to be models and teachers, and I would try to convince my mom to send me to the ninja camps in the back of Soldier of Fortune magazine. At 14 I had a 1200 Harley Davidson. I couldn’t have the Sportster; I had to have the big-boy hog. I worked on it; I lowered the seat and the swingarms. I did things that average girls didn’t do. I remember lying in bed and thinking about, “Okay, if I hit someone like this, he’ll react like this, and then I’ll counter with this.” But I really was girly. Hard to explain. Kind of a strange combination. I just was always drawn to fights.

I’ve had a good life in this sport, it’s been a real joy. Plus, I can show my 19-year-old daughter that you really can do anything you want to do. It doesn’t matter that the mold says this is the way it is supposed to work; sometimes you just need to make a new mold. It’s been one of the most gratifying things to be able to show her that. I walked out of that divorce with her, a car, and $100 in my pocket. And this is where I’ve come. From there I have survived on my own in the right way. I don’t ask people for stuff.

Does your daughter like the fights?
She loves Invicta. When she was young I kept her separate from the sport because there’s a lot of crazy stuff that goes on. And this was my life choice and not hers. I didn’t want to influence her in that sense. I knew I couldn’t do my job efficiently if she was at the events because I would have been concerned about her. Invicta is not only something that’s exciting in my career; it’s exciting to be able to be home--to actually have a home and a normal life. Adjusting is hard, though. It’s been hard for me not traveling like I had been for years and years. I was always pretty much alone. I would stay in hotels, go meet with the athletes, form relationships with them, but I was on my own. And now I have to figure out how to live a normal life. Because now I have time. I can plan what I’m doing.

You’ve known Cris Cyborg for a long time now, could you tell me about her?
She is amazing. I’ll never forget this one moment in my career: She and Gina Carano were getting ready to fight and I was running around with the Showtime crew because I handled all the athletes. So, I head into her room, and she is beating the crap out of her then husband Evangelista. I mean, she was terrifying. I’m watching her and I know my mouth is probably hanging open because I don’t see stuff like what she’s doing from the guys before fights. I walk out of there and walk into Gina’s room and she’s very Zen, you know, she’s just doing some stretches, her whole room is very quiet, and then I walk into the Showtime office all wide-eyed thinking, “This is about to get real.” I mean, Cris is just different. But to know her and to know how loving and kind and religious she is, it’s incredible. All she wants to be is respected as an athlete and a human being. To me, she’s an amazing person, inside and outside the cage. It really irritates me that so many people are so eager to judge her because she’s a female and she made a mistake. She cheated. We can try to say it nicely, but she cheated. But she gets so much more grief than the men who have done exactly the same thing. I don’t get it. Because if you’re a male and you cheat at something it’s forgivable but if you’re a female and you do it it’s so much worse? She’s done her best to be very forthcoming and saying that she made a mistake. She is committed to doing this and proving to the world that she is steroid-free.

Her fights are hard to watch because they’re so one-sided. I’m always sort of trying to will the judges to step in long before they do. Is it ever hard for you?
Oh yeah, like with Jan Finney? Yeah. I come unglued. I came storming out of the back for that one. I mean, that doesn’t do any good for our sport. The thing is, these are just performances. You can go back and watch that fight and you can see Cyborg looking at us thinking, “Really? You want me to keep going when this person isn’t even defending themselves?” And you could see it in the fight with Marloes, who is an incredible athlete, by the way: extremely tough and skilled. But I kept looking at Cris going, “What are you doing? You know that the finish is there.” But I was talking to her later, and in her mind, she needed to make it go longer to “make good fight for me.”

I think sometimes she feels guilty when she hurts someone. It’s that kindness in her. I taught self-defense for many years, and there is a switch that you either have or you don’t. You’re kind until you need to be otherwise, and she has it. She’s very much in control of that switch. That’s what a true warrior is. She’s there to compete. She’s not someone that is some tyrant, street brawling, don’t-care-who-I-destroy kind of person. She wants to do her best to put on a good show. She is criticized, slandered; she has to work twice as hard as everyone else out there to build herself back up. But that’s what a fighter does: They keep fighting.

What’s different about working with just women instead of with the guys?
I’ve always had good experiences with the guys. I’ve never had one of them speak to me disrespectfully so I’ve been very fortunate in that aspect. The weight-cutting thing, though, that’s huge. It is so much harder on women to cut weight. I’ve worked with so many young athletes to try to help educate them, to help them learn about their bodies. If you’re a girl and a guy is helping you cut weight, he might be the best there is at it with guys, but with females it’s just different. We’re trying to teach them about that. I’d love to see girls fighting at the weight they actually are instead of cutting all that weight. Who knows what effect that will have on them when they’re older?

I see a lot more tears. A lot more. Honestly, I didn’t even know how to deal with it the first time I saw tears. I’ve seen the guys every once in a while break up a little bit but they get it together fast. The first time I saw tears with the girls, worrying they couldn’t make the weight, I was like, “Uhhh, I don’t do good with this.” [laughs] It’s just different because I’m not used to it. To me it’s like, if you’ve made it this far you can keep going. I just have to keep encouraging them, as long as it’s not so bad that they’ll keel over. But it was hard for me because you want to look at those girls and say, “Oh, that’s okay, don’t worry about it,” but you can’t. If you want to be in a professional sport, then accountability is imperative. I guess because I am tough I expect my girls to be tough.

Speaking of accountability, what was with Livia Von Plattenberg coming in eight pounds over?
I was mortified. Very embarrassed. I know athletes are going to make mistakes but that should have been handled. I should have been aware of it. We should have had a solution before she stepped on that scale. That was a situation, too, where she had a male coach and it wasn’t a co-ed sauna where she was cutting weight. So she goes in [alone] at 107 pounds, tells him she’s only taken a sip of water, but comes out weighing way more, so she actually drank a ton of water. It’s going to happen, but it’s less embarrassing for me and our promotion if we know about it beforehand and we have a solution before it looks like we have a problem. You’ve committed to this weight; this is your job. You can’t ask for the same equality that the men have in MMA if you can’t hold up your end of the bargain. I’m trying to break the stereotyping, part of which is that women can’t make the weight. Everyone made weight last time.

You went straight into Mama Bear mode when you found out about some of the more gross allegations by the Invicta fighters against Brett Atchley. How did that feel for you?
I’m a hothead, I’m not gonna lie. When it comes to stuff like that, I really am. But I was the same way with the guys. I was working once in San Jose and a fight broke out in the lobby of this hotel, and Brett Rogers is one of my athletes, and this guy was trying to fight him, and before I could even think what I was doing, I had stepped in front of Brett and said, “No, if you want to fight, you’re gonna fight me.” I was ready to take that guy out. You don’t mess with my athletes. I have this warped sense of size, like a little dog that doesn’t know how small it is. I stand there with the heavyweights, and in my mind I’m as big as they are. Until one time Tim Sylvia patted me on the back and I felt his hand cover one side to the other side of my back.

So, with Brett Atchley, when the sexual misconduct allegations came out, that was it. He’d been on my radar for a long time and I’d actually done things to try to limit his access before then, to sort of protect him from himself, so it wasn’t like I was on some power trip banning him from Invicta. I had had conversations with him, had cut access, limited interactions, but at that point it was something I couldn’t abide. It’s like if someone breaks into your houseand and wreaks havoc on your family. It’s my responsibility to make sure these athletes are taken care of, especially at my events. He went on a text message tirade at me after that, but I told him it wasn’t anybody’s fault but his. He feels like there’s been a lot of injustice done to him with all these accusations, and I don’t know what is true in all of that, but I do know that often, where there’s smoke there’s fire.

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