The year was 2005. The women’s side of mixed martial arts dwelled in obscurity. It would be more than a year before Gina Carano stepped into an EliteXC cage in front of a national audience to help put the female warriors on the map, and more than two years until Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos would burst onto the scene. Santos might not have been a star within the MMA community yet, but one of her fellow Brazilian fighters, Vanessa Porto, was definitely getting acquainted with the name.
In the headlining bout of Storm Samurai 9 in Curitiba, Brazil, Porto—just four fights into her career, with three victories—was standing opposite of Santos, who was competing for just the second time as a professional after losing her debut. Porto had started training in jiu-jitsu the year prior, and had been training in mixed martial arts for less than a year. In fact, Porto’s first fight—against Carina Damm just nine months earlier—had come five days after her first MMA class. Now, here she was, facing Santos, a woman who would eventually become known as the top female in the sport.
“It is my hardest and proudest fight in my career,” Porto said of her bout with Santos to The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview. “I showed my heart and determination in that fight. She was 18 pounds bigger than me, but I still accepted the fight because I wanted to challenge myself.
“I knocked her down and almost choked her out. In the end, it was a loss on my record, but it was still a win for me.”
Despite being outweighed by “Cyborg,” Porto hung in there for 15 minutes and even threatened to leave the future Strikeforce champion with a 0-2 mark through her first two professional outings. However, by the fight’s conclusion, Santos had managed to do enough to earn the unanimous decision. Since then, only one other fighter—Yoko Takahashi—has managed to go the distance with the dominant Santos. It would seem that such a performance would provide a case for a rematch between Porto and her more famous Brazilian counterpart, but there is that matter of the weight difference to consider.
“I fought her in her weight division last time, but if she can make 135 pounds now, then it would be a fight that I would be interested in,” Porto admitted. “The stakes are higher in my career now, so I want to fight only at my weight anymore.”
The victory for Santos was the start of an 11-fight winning streak, though the last fight in that stretch was overturned and changed to a no-contest following Santos testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. The streak led Santos to the EliteXC and Strikeforce cages, and she rose to prominence in women’s MMA.
Meanwhile, Porto soldiered on, competing primarily in Brazil. Through 18 professional bouts, she has notched 14 victories while suffering only four losses. Besides the defeats handed to her by Damm and Santos, both of which came via decision, the Brazilian has lost by way of TKO twice—to Strikeforce veterans Roxanne Modafferi and Amanda Nunes. The losses have all come at the hands of notable competition, and a 14-4 mark has been good enough to place her at No. 9 amongst the 135-pounders in the Unified Women’s Mixed Martial Arts Rankings. Yet, her name remains almost entirely unknown to U.S. fans.
“Brazilian shows don’t get exposure in the U.S., so it’s hard to be seen by U.S. fans by just fighting in Brazil,” explained Porto, who also expressed frustration at her difficulties in finding opponents with sufficient experience in her homeland. “I didn’t have anybody good to represent me in the U.S. before. But I signed with a new manager in February and I’m in the U.S. fighting in July.”
That fight comes July 28 at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan., under the banner of Invicta Fighting Championships. The promotion, which has received phenomenal support for pioneering a home for women’s MMA, had initially matched Porto with Kelly Kobold, but Kobold has since been forced to withdraw due to injury and was replaced by submission specialist Sarah D’Alelio.
“I’m not disappointed,” Porto said of her change in opponents. “I’m so excited to fight in Invicta that it doesn’t matter who they put in front of me.”
D’Alelio holds a 5-2 record as a professional, with four of her wins coming via submission. The Washington native holds a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, whereas Porto has advanced to the rank of black belt. It would seem that Porto holds the upper hand on the mat, but the Brazilian isn’t underestimating her opponent’s grappling abilities.
“Anybody that steps into the cage is a threat,” said Porto. “I’ve seen blue belts tap out black belts before, so I have to be on the top of my game, but I feel very comfortable going to the ground with her.”
Porto claims to be comfortable regardless of where her fight with D’Alelio takes place. The Brazilian is not one to make predictions, but she grasps the importance that this fight holds for the future of her career.
“I will be fighting for my life on Saturday, and I believe I will have a lot of new fans after Saturday night!” exclaimed the 28-year-old. “I will promise that I will be going for the finish for the whole 15 minutes. It’s just a dream come true to be here fighting for Invicta and in America, and I am going out there to take her out and make a great impression with the owners of Invicta so I can move up the ranks and fight for their belt!”
The Invicta FC 2 card is heavily stacked with fights in the 135-pound weight class, and any number of these warriors could make a case for participating in a championship bout when Invicta opts to put gold on the line.
“I’m interested in watching and keeping my eye on all the 135-pound fighters because they are potential opponents,” Porto explained. “I would [like to] have an impressive showing on Saturday night and fight the winner of the main event.”
That main event bout pits Sara McMann against Shayna Baszler. The winner could arguably be considered the top 135-pound female on Invicta’s roster, though there are a lot of other names on the card that stand out as well. And despite fighting for an altogether different promotion, Strikeforce champ Ronda Rousey always tops any discussion of significant fight matchups for the 135-pound women’s division.
“She is a great fighter and an even better opponent,” Porto said of Rousey. “My dream is to fight the best in America, and she is one of them.”
After years spent struggling to find fights and make her name known, it looks like the time has finally come for Vanessa Porto. A win on Saturday night will make fans take notice, and it could lead to future fights against the sport’s biggest names, including Baszler, McMann and Rousey. For Porto, the credit for these opportunities comes from one place.
“[Invicta] opened the door for women’s MMA and allows me to showcase my talent to the world and not just Brazil.”
On Saturday, the world will be watching, and Porto’s name will no longer remain unknown.
Top Photo: Vanessa Porto captures gold at Pink Fight 2 (Facebook/Vanessa Porto)