Before he watched Amanda Nunes first step into a Strikeforce cage on a chilly winter night in Tennessee in 2011 and lay out the woman across from her in 14 seconds, Chris Vender just knew her as the girl who once picked him up from an airport in Brazil.
They’d met a year before. Vender, an MMA manager from New Jersey, had flown in to meet some fighters at a gym his then-trainer was running. When the 22-year-old girl with a lean 135-pound frame behind the wheel said she was a fighter, he humored her.
“Back then the skill level with women is not what it is today,” he says. “I think, yeah, I probably thought, ‘You’re a fighter. Good for you. ‘”
Then they got to the gym and Nunes put on her gloves and started making man after man tap.
“I’d never seen a woman fight like that before,” Vender says. “Never. You see very few true fighters; there’s got to be something inside. She’s beating up all these guys and I was just blown away.”
Vender returned to the States, and a few months later Nunes called him. She wanted to make the trip north to test the markets in the U.S. ... with Vender as her manager. Today, she's 7-2 in Strikeforce and people call her the Lioness of the Ring.
As he tells me this story, Vender, who talks like a small-town-Jersey high school football coach, is standing in a community-college gymnasium in Lincroft, waiting for a male fighter he manages to head to the cage as part of a minor-league MMA event. His hair is clipped short, his hands stuck in the front pocket of his black hooded sweatshirt. It’s a good show, but modest compared to the ones he's been to with Nunes and where he might go still with the five other women he’s since added to his stable. With few managers specializing in women fighters, Vender says girls started calling hoping he could help them replicate Nune’s success.
“I think there’s one guy with more women than I have,” he says. “If people consider me the king of women fighters, I’m cool with that.”
It’s a good time to be a woman in MMA. On February 23, Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche will become the first women to fight at a UFC event. Meanwhile, in Kansas, the first women-only promotion, Invicta, launched last year, drew more than 200,000 viewers for its last three events online without television promotion and is already being talked about as a potential successor to Strikeforce on Showtime.
The reason for this rise, in Vender’s experience, is because women’s matches are often bloodier and more exciting than those of their male counterparts.
“They’re just going for the finishers more and more where a lot of guy fighters are going for the win,” he says. “The guys are not putting themselves in serious danger as much. I don’t know the exact figure, but I know Invicta's fights, I think, like, 23 of them ended with finishers. I’ve been to two or three shows with them so far, and from the opening match to the main card they’re all just going for it.
“Right now they’re so hungry to prove themselves they’re fighting way harder than the men.”
The problem is that no matter how tough they are, Vender still has a hard time booking women fights if they can’t also double as ring girls.
“With a lot of promoters, you got to be pretty,” Vender says. “I have women fighters that are not pretty, but they’re good, and it’s tough to get a fight. With bigger promotions, you have to be pretty.
"It’s unfortunate because the men don’t get rated on their looks.”
Still, the King of Women Fighters is doing well. The only problem he has is seeing his fighters lose.
“It’s a little harder to see a women get beat than a man, than one of my guy fighters,” he admits. “I don’t know what it is. You take a liking to them. Not that I don’t like my guy fighters. I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it.”
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