The sport of mixed martial arts has become so big and popular that you can make a valid argument that the fighters today are a bit spoiled. They are spoiled because you can literally throw a rock and put a hole through the window of an MMA gym anywhere in the United States and in other counties too.
Don’t get me wrong, that is a very good thing as today’s MMA fighters have a surplus amount of opportunities to receive the best training possible on their quest to championship level superstardom but it wasn’t always this way.
It’s for that reason why these new kids on the block so to speak should be appreciative of all of the old school veterans that helped pave the way for them back in the dark days of the sport.
Tara LaRosa is one of those seasoned competitors that paid her dues and fought tooth and nail for acceptance back when few people supported her. If you’re a young athlete in this sport, regardless of your gender, you should respect LaRosa for helping pioneer not just Women’s MMA but MMA in general.
Once considered by many insiders as the top ranked female mixed martial artist on the planet, LaRosa makes her debut for the Invicta Fighting Championship this Saturday night in Kansas City at Invicta FC 3 against BJJ ace Vanessa Porto.
On this edition of Phoenix Rising, we take a look at LaRosa’s storied career as told by her leading up to this exciting matchup.
Bullied as a kid, inspired by martial arts icons
Born January 8th 1978 in Woodstown, New Jersey, LaRosa wasn’t an ass-kicking machine straight from the get go. She grew up on a farm in South Jersey where she attended a very rich private school and needless to say she didn’t exactly fit in.
“The school I went to was like this rich-snobby private school because my parents wanted me to have the best education so they sent me to this school and it was all these doctors, lawyers and senators kids. Then you have me and I literally grew up on a farm so I was a little bit different [from the rest of the kids],” LaRosa told BJPenn.com
“I was bullied and picked on a lot growing up. I don’t want to say I was a fat kid because I wasn’t but I was kind of like the chunky kid and the farmer’s daughter.”
If you attempted to bully LaRosa today she would in all likelihood rip your arm off and shove it down your throat before you could finish your sentence but this wasn’t the case in her childhood. As she explains, she absorbed all of the harassment and unleashed her anger through a different outlet.
“I was kind of afraid to fight because I would get picked on and I would just take it and come off the bus every day crying when I got home. I never fought back, I never said anything back but I learned how to take my emotions out through sports,” LaRosa said.
LaRosa played field hockey from fifth grade until her senior year in college before earning a scholarship for Catawba University in Salisbury, North Carolina to play. However, as talented a field hockey player as she was, she would later find out that her real niche was fighting and it all started from watching classic martial arts films.
“I was always captivated with these heroes like Chuck Norris or Steven Segal, I loved these characters and I was like ‘man, I just want to learn martial arts, that would be awesome’,” LaRosa said.
“I was really into the whole Zen type of thing where you’re really calm in your everyday life but when you had to turn up the juice you could kick major ass when the time came for it.”
The Journey begins
After getting kicked out of school sports in her senior year in high school for, as LaRosa describes, “a really ridiculous situation”, she started taking karate lessons in her cousin’s dojo.
“I had nothing else to keep me occupied so my parents let me [take karate classes] and then once I got into college I started training in Judo,” LaRosa said.
“I drove all over the freaking Midwest and East Coast for tournaments and stuff until I was introduced to NHB because back then it was No Holds Barred, it wasn’t MMA yet.”
It was at a grappling tournament where LaRosa was approached by members of Team ROC, a Royce Gracie affiliated school in Fayetteville, NC to train. She started working with them in September of 2001 and competed in her first amateur fight shortly thereafter.
“My first amateur fight was one 10 minute round so that’s how far back I go. We weren’t even regulated for rounds, weight classes and [expletive] like that.”
From bully victim to professional ass-kicker
LaRosa’s heart and passion for the sport really was magnified under the tutelage of Greg Thompson, a black belt under Royce Gracie. She also received mentorship from Royce himself who later awarded LaRosa her purple belt in 2005.
On April 13, 2002 LaRosa made her professional debut on the first all-female fight card in North America at Hook N’ Shoot: “Revolution”. She forced her opponent, Shelby Walker to submit from punches in the first round in less than three minutes…. (Continue Reading On Page 2)
… As LaRosa recollects “I am the only female fighter still fighting that was on that show, I’m the only one left.”
First loss leads to 15-fight unbeaten streak
LaRosa would go on to win her next two bouts before taking her first of only two career losses, a lopsided defeat at the hands of Jennifer Howe in 2003. They say the true measure of a warrior is not what they do in victory but how they recover from the turmoil of defeat and LaRosa recovered in a big way winning 15 consecutive fights without taking another loss until 2010.
“I think that first loss definitely light a fire under me. When I fought Jen Howe I was still a rookie and she was like the top chick in the sport at the time. She had the most fights and I had no wrestling or real standup training, I was just pretty good at jiu-jitsu and Judo,” LaRosa said.
“I took that fight on two weeks’ notice and the weight cut was tough. It was all experience and if had went to the ground it probably would have been a different ball game but it was all experience. She just knocked me down and knocked the [expletive] out of me repeatedly and I would just get back up. I didn’t have the ring savvy that she did so I learned a lot from that loss.”
Learning is an understatement, LaRosa evolved into a wrecking machine after that fight. She dominated and beat some of the best fighters in her division back then including names like Hitomi Akano, Julie Kedzie, Shayna Baszler and Alexis Davis to name a few.
Multiple insiders began ranking her as the top pound-for-pound female in the sport but she was overshadowed by another female who was emerging into a superstar.
The Gina Carano Era
In the summer of 2008, an upstart organization known as Elite XC promoted the first primetime MMA event with a major television network on CBS. On that night, women’s MMA was introduced to a new audience as Gina Carano captured the hearts of every male in the crowd and those watching at home.
A devastating Muay-Thai specialist, Carano was certainly a talented fighter but LaRosa wasn’t fond of the way she was put in the spotlight due to her good looks and marketing.
“Oh yeah, in the beginning [of the Gina Carano era] I was definitely frustrated because I was like ‘oh my God, I’ve been working so hard at this for years and now all of a sudden this chick decides to pop up and she has a famous dad and she’s with this big company that can market her and I was like what the hell? What about me?’ I was pretty disgusted about it because everybody overlooked me and all of a sudden it was the ‘Gina Carano show’,” LaRosa said.
“When I would go to places and people would find out that I do MMA, and this is in like Wal-Mart and places like that, people would go ‘oh my God, are you Gina Carano?’ or ‘oh my God, do you know Gina’ and it was ridiculous.”
Carano’s popularity as the face of women’s MMA angered LaRosa for quite some time but eventually it became an extremely positive thing for female fighters across the globe.
“It took a little while to get used to but it actually became great for all of us because many women were starting to emerge into the spotlight with Gina and people started to realize that it’s not just one person, there’s several of us so it worked out for the best,” LaRosa said.
“Then Cyborg came around and ended Gina and she was the [expletive] and now Ronda has popped up and she’s the [expletive] so people are now understanding that there are lots of chicks in MMA.”
Stay tuned for part II with quotes from LaRosa about Invicta FC, upcoming matchup with Porto and moreTags: featured, Gina Carano, invicta fc, invicta fc 3, Phoenix Rising, Tara LaRosa, Women's MMA