NEW YORK -- The steel cage set up outside Madison Square Garden attracts hundreds of curious commuters hustling into Penn Station. Standing in the middle, bringing rush-hour traffic to a standstill, Gina Carano forces an uncomfortable smile.
She's graced dozens of magazine covers, her raven hair and piercing eyes making her a reluctant sex symbol. She was a star on the remake of American Gladiators, and has a role in the recent Command and Conquer video game. She's a rising star in sports, the new face of mixed martial arts, yet she still can't reconcile being the centre of attention.
"I'm a huge dork," she says. "I'll fumble words. I'm probably not a great public speaker, but I've stepped up and did it. It's brought me out of my box."
"We're all human," she adds moments later, going off on a tangent, as if trying to fill dead air. "Anxiety and nerves and pain and heartbreak happens to every single one of us."
The 27-year-old daughter of former Cowboys quarterback Glenn Carano has seen her share.
She wandered into a muay thai gym four years ago and was told by an instructor that she was overweight, lacked discipline and drank too much. A former star athlete at Las Vegas' Trinity Christian High School, Carano had somehow gotten off track, and fighting gave her a renewed sense of clarity and purpose.
She's undefeated in seven MMA bouts, but will face her most daunting challenge when she battles Brazilian star Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos on Aug. 15 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. They'll fight five rounds inside a steel cage like the one set up for a demonstration outside the Garden last month, and split US$200,000 for the right to be the first 145-pound women's champion in the Strikeforce promotion.
Adding to the pressure, Carano and Santos will headline a card that includes three men's title fights, the first time women have had top billing on a mixed martial arts card.
"Look, these women are the best in the world," says Scott Coker, the CEO of Strikeforce, who has been routinely second-guessed for putting Carano and Santos in the main event. "I've followed women's boxing and kickboxing and MMA for 15 years and I can't remember an instance where there was two fighters who were so relevant."
Carano has been sequestered in a Las Vegas gym the last two months, her training interrupted only by the occasional publicity trip or interview, going through what she calls "one of the toughest things I've ever done." Among her trainers is former UFC star Randy Couture, whose team has gained a reputation for churning out champions.
During one recent workout, Carano was thrown into what's called the "shark tank," where she had to fight a fresh opponent every 60 seconds for five minutes. All of them were men, of course, all of them bigger and stronger, because there are so few women of Carano's calibre.
"You have to earn your stripes," she says, calling bruises and black eyes "battle wounds" that she wouldn't dare cover up. "You're not going to walk in there and think you're somebody. You'll go through good days, bad days, get your (butt) handed to you. It's not always easy."
There are still whispers that Carano is just a pretty face, her popularity owed as much to her pictorials as her punching. She grows tired of it, the annoyance evident in her voice.
"I just would like people to take me and other female fighters seriously," she says, "so sometimes I get irritated when people get off track. If you've ever been to an MMA fight where there's a good female fighter, you leave there thinking 'Wow, that's a really good fight' -- not 'a really good female fight."'
-- The Associated Press