In a predominantly male sport, yet with equally talented females, it takes a person like Shannon Knapp to ensure all mixed martial artists prosper.
Following her work as an executive with the UFC, Strikeforce, Affliction, King of the Cage, the IFL and more, Knapp ventured out on her own and created the all-female MMA organization Invicta FC. Her role is unique in that there’s only one league of its kind and only one woman leading the battle from outside the cage.
Knapp’s years of involvement in MMA have provided her with the chance to deal with personalities she may have once idolized. She has also had the chance to travel, sit cageside through memorable bouts and shake hands with the who’s who of the sport. The Brown University graduate adapted to the glitz and glam incorporated with the lifestyle of an occupation such as hers, and even though the environment is a drastic difference from where she grew up, there is a striking resemblance in the female dominance she is still surrounded by.
“I came from a very small town, and my mother comes from a family of 14,” Knapp told Joe Rizzo on Rear Naked Choke Radio. “Where I come from, the women were way more rowdy than the men in the family. I come from a long line of very strong women. When we were growing up as kids, I think the reputations of my aunts and things like that — most people just kind of steered clear when it came to confrontation. It was one of those families where if you fight one, you’re going to fight them all.”
Knapp credits much of her morals and values to the way she was raised. Extending a hand to help someone is very much in her character, while criticizing and making foul-mouthed comments about others is not in her nature. She is not perfect by any means, but puts forth an honest effort to not judge people. The way Knapp puts it, as long as you’re not hurting the elderly, children or animals, you’re pretty much OK in her books.
The guidance that instilled Knapp’s beliefs also played into developing the ambition to conquer her current position in MMA.
“I was raised very Midwest foundation,” Knapp said. “We were raised to do unto others and be kind and that kind of stuff. I will always help people if I can. And the reason I got in this sport, back then, I had stars in my eyes. When you first start out, you’re naive — you have a lot of stars in your eyes about where you can go and what you can do. My whole entire purpose for getting in the sport was because I thought that I could make a difference. It was all about being an advocate for the sport and the athletes. I really believed, and maybe nobody else cared, but I really believed I was going to go in here and take care of these athletes. I’m still that way today. It’s the reason, the whole foundation of what got me into this sport, was how I feel about how I treat others.”
Knapp’s legitimate concern in how others were treated led to a fitting positing as fighter liaison in the now-defunct IFL. The IFL was a team-formatted MMA promotion that bred some of the sport’s popular names and employed some already solidified stars, such as Bas Rutten, Renzo Gracie, Shawn Tompkins, Pat Miletich and more.
While working with the IFL, Knapp forged relationships with various people, but none compared to the bond she formed with Rutten. Knapp described her friendship with Rutten as a big brother and little sister type of relationship. She and Rutten met when training in Krav Maga and their friendship grew stronger as they worked together over the years. They’ve remained close, which Knapp appreciates, since Rutten is such an authentic individual.
“Sometimes it’s hard to find people that have that genuine kindness where they want to be a good person but it bothers them if they’re not,” Knapp said. “He’s just a great guy. He’s amazing. He’s very entertaining, he’s hyper and I was always kind of like that, too. We have the same sense of humor. He thinks like 10 people in the room didn’t see what we did, that kind of thing. We’re honorary; we have that kind of honorary outlook. The glass is always kind of half full for us, it’s not [half] empty. We have a lot of similarities and certainly, like I said, it was an instant brother-sister kind of connection — ones that get along, not ones that fight, of course.”
A proper upbringing, the ability to cement meaningful relationships and an Ivy League education are components Knapp utilizes in her day-to-day duties as the president of Invicta. A caring person with a knack for business can wrestle with their heart when making decisions in a corporate role. However, benevolence vs. business is a fight Knapp controls to the best of her ability.
“It is tough,” Knapp said. “Being the owner of a business, it’s a lot of responsibility if you genuinely care. So, me, I think about that stuff. I think, ‘If I fail, what happens to the sport? What happens to the people that are depending on me?’ And I take that serious, so it’s very overwhelming sometimes. Every decision you make has a ripple effect and it affects something. Especially when it comes to athletes, you try. You do your best to always be fair. Like, I won’t give to one that I won’t give to another. I can’t base a decision on one when I have to take care of many. Those are just things that are easier when they’re packaged like that. I don’t just want to throw everything at one athlete and forget about the rest.
“I try not to get too involved in people’s personal lives, but if they come to me, I’m involved. I’m a sucker. I’m in. I can’t help it. If someone needs help, they can always call and I’m there. I’m always there for everyone. But otherwise, I don’t get involved in the drama stuff. I stay away from all that. I don’t even read it. I make decisions on individual’s characters, not what people say.”
Whatever the method is to Knapp’s madness, it’s evident she’s doing something right. Invicta FC 11, the promotion’s next show, takes place on Feb. 27 at the Shrine Auditorium & Expo Hall in Los Angeles, and marks the third consecutive time the organization steps outside Kansas City, where it first started. Invicta also has a healthy working relationship with the UFC. UFC Fight Pass broadcasts its events, and Zuffa is a company it is best to be on good terms with when operating an MMA promotion.
With four strawweight bouts on the eight-fight card, Invicta FC 11 showcases the rebuilding of the promotion’s 115-pound division, a weight class previously bought out by the UFC for The Ultimate Fighter 20. Without choosing favorites, Knapp is excited to see how Alexa Grasso does as she steps up in competition to face Mizuki Inoue. DeAnna Bennett matching up against late replacement Norma Rueda Center is another contest that intrigues the president. But the main event, as usual, is the spotlight of the night.
The event is headlined by Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino and Charmaine Tweet. Tweet heads into the bout on a two-fight winning streak, with both wins coming in the first round. Tweet owns a 6-4 record, including a loss to UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey in Tweet’s pro debut, and has only made it to the judges’ scorecards once in 10 fights. Cyborg comes into her third consecutive match under the Invicta banner on a similar winning streak, but can’t shake the bad reputation that caught her three fights ago.
Cyborg defeated Hiroko Yamanaka at Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Masvidal in December 2011. However, the victory was overturned to a no-contest following a failed drug test on Justino’s behalf. The former Strikeforce women’s featherweight champ tested positive for stanozolol, a synthetic anabolic steroid also known as Winstrol, and she was stripped of her title as well as her respect within the MMA community.
Though the signing of Justino was one that came with a lot of controversy, Knapp stands by her athlete and will defend Cyborg as long as the Brazilian stays clean.
“She tested positive for steroids. It’s not acceptable,” Knapp said. “She paid her dues, paid the price. She’s been out-of-competition tested — I drug test her — but there never seems to be any relief for her. It always seems to be this ongoing battle that she has to fight. I give her credit for keeping her nose clean, first and foremost, but for fighting a fight that really doesn’t exist as much in a cage as it does on her way to get there every time. It’s always something, right? People say things and call her names.
“For me, I believe everybody deserves a second chance. She knows how I feel, she knows what I expect from her and she knows the consequence if she doesn’t adhere to that.”
Along with signing the best talent, advancing the sport and expanding Invicta FC, Knapp has an obligation to observe potential future plans. After nine events in Kansas City, Knapp and crew took Invicta to Iowa, Texas and now California. Las Vegas is the fight capital of the world, though, and it can only be a matter of time before Invicta FC graces Sin City with its presence. Knapp said New Jersey is another state on the company’s radar, but New York, Jersey’s neighboring state and one of the biggest sporting markets in the United States, is not a place she will rush into if MMA becomes legal there.
“I’d much rather go after they worked out all the kinks,” Knapp said. “That can be a struggle. I don’t know, I’d have to take a look and if it made sense for us — the venue, financially and certain things like that — then, yeah, it’s something we’d definitely look at.”
As MMA has grown, so has Knapp. Her introduction to the sport was not at a time when women were a relevant force. She was one of the few that chose to be a part of the solution when the sport and athletes didn’t get the respect they deserved. She rode the waves until carving out her significant spot in MMA, and she doesn’t take any of it for granted. Therefore, she will always continue to evolve with the sport and do what’s best in the interest of it.
“This sport has been, um, I’ve really enjoyed it,” Knapp said. “It hasn’t always been easy for me. I remember working six jobs and not making hardly any money. So, it hasn’t always been easy, but it’s always been fun and very gratifying on many levels for me, professionally and personally. I’m very thankful for it. I’m going to continue to work hard and help it grow and be better and make changes that are positive and beneficial to all.”