by Steven Marrocco – MMAWeekly.com
For Gina Carano, it’s a good thing that her next opponent, Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos, is the scariest fighter south of the equator. If she wasn’t, Carano would have a hard time getting into the gym.

On Saturday, history will be made in San Jose, Calif., when the two face off as headliners of a major MMA card in the midst of a headline-filled summer. Strikeforce, the sole second of the UFC, booked the fight for five, five-minute rounds to the objections of some of its fighters. The logic was that female fighters always steal the show, especially when one of those fighters is the first and only female to crossover on the mainstream radar.

It’s still a gamble. CEO Scott Coker says the company is tracking 10 to 12,000 seats sold for the event. The real question mark is how many viewers it will draw to the promotion’s broadcast partner, Showtime.

As the pre-fight storyline has developed, Carano has kept a sunny, self-effacing exterior, drawing further contrast with Santos’ intensity. The female MMA star acknowledges the stakes of the fight, and now more than ever, the need to focus on the fight, not the lights.

“This is all getting compounded by three,” said Carano. “There’s the title, there’s Cyborg, and there’s five (five-minute) rounds. So for me, mentally, these have been the things that focused me and bring back the passion I need to train, because when I have an awesome opponent to train for, I’m in the gym.”

Whether a lack of excitement or an unreasonable weight class was to blame for several fights in which she missed weight, Carano said those times are behind her. It will have been 10 months since her last competition, and a little under three since she began training in June. But 145 pounds is the weight, and she’s going to make it.

“I feel like it gives you a different mentality,” said Carano. “At the beginning, I was like ‘What did we ask for?’ But, now I’m happy with it and I think that (my preparation for extra time) could help me in the long run.”

Several sources around Carano’s camp said that after some initial speed bumps, she’s doing her job in the gym and will fulfill her promise.

Carano says her trainers have equipped her with strategies for dealing with Santos’ trademark aggression. She’s given glowing reviews of coach Randy Couture, who’s been tasked with outlining and enforcing the evening’s game plan.

“But it’s all going to come down to getting in the cage with her and work as hard as I can and keep my technique and my head straight,” said Carano. “It’s going be a tough match, especially for her kind of style, which is very intense. But I’ve faced just as intense opponents before, and I’m ready to face her.”

During an open workout on Tuesday in San Jose, the female MMA star said she would not be bullied inside the cage. She likes a fight and won’t back down from one.

“Her muscles might look bigger, but I am strong,” said Carano. “I know I smile and I joke around now, but when it comes fight time, I take it very seriously and know how to get down.

“I think Cyborg said it best – (the winner) is going to be determined by the person who makes the least amount of mistakes or the one who gets caught first.”

One of Carano’s former opponents, Kaitlin Young, is pulling for her in a stand-up war.

“I think Gina will win,” said Young. “She’s really good at being just out of range when you try and punch her, and landing that overhand right. She did it against me.”

She brushes aside the idea that she holds the key to the future of women’s MMA. There are plenty of other fighters to carry the torch. So far, she and her opponents have stolen the show. She’s one half of the equation: do female fighters deserve to headline?

Carano assumes Santos will come for war. She has a lot to live up to.

“We’re going to find out how I handle it,” said Carano.