New Jersey’s Tara LaRosa wasn’t the first woman to compete in mixed martial arts, but without question, she’s been one of the most successful. On more than one occasion in a career that began in 2002, she’s been called the greatest female fighter of all time.

What has separated LaRosa from some of the other female fighters hasn’t just been her dominant grappling, but the way she has marketed herself. The 34-year-old’s trademark, all-white cage attire is a staple of women’s MMA. However, her reasons behind the choice in wardrobe are a story in themselves.

“I used to wear all black; like I was something special, some sort of Billy Badass,” LaRosa recalled in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “Then Jen Howe knocked me on my ass several times, so after that I wasn’t such a Billy Badass anymore.

“I took some time off, went to college, and when I came back, there were so many more women in the sport and everybody was wearing all black. I had to find a way to make myself stand out, grab attention and be memorable. I wasn’t willing to take my clothes off to do that. So I figured I would be the ‘White Knight,’ the hero.

“Also, it’s kind of gross, but I like to see my opponent’s blood all over me,” she quipped with a laugh.

LaRosa secures an armbar (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

While recent fans of the sport may be more familiar with the names of Gina Carano, Ronda Rousey or Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos, it was LaRosa who was paving the way for other women to get into the sport. Long before there was a Bellator or Strikeforce to host women’s fights, LaRosa was cleaning out the 135-pound division in HOOKnSHOOT and BodogFight.

In fact, despite spending the first seven years of her career at 135 pounds, LaRosa dropped down to the 125-pound flyweight division in order to find new challenges. What she didn’t anticipate was the difficulty finding fights in her new weight class—she has competed just four times in the last three years.

“It’s been incredibly difficult to find fights,” explained LaRosa. “My specific problem is that I have such a high record and so many fights, you can’t really match me up with just anybody. It looks bad when a girl only has three or four fights and she goes against someone who’s 21-2. She may be the next big thing, but it doesn’t look good [on paper].”

What has further compounded the problem for LaRosa is twofold: an overlooked division and fighters spread out across the globe.

“For some reason, 125 pounds has been missed,” she explained. “Strikeforce has 135 and 145 [pounds]; Bellator has 115. But 125 is kind of splattered, all over the place. We’ve got some really great Japanese fighters, some really great European fighters, and a bunch of us in the U.S. We just have not had a big show pick up our weight division. That’s all there is to it.

“Promoters that put on smaller cards usually don’t have a big budget, so they can’t bring someone over from overseas. It’s really tough to find opponents.”

If just finding a fight wasn’t frustrating enough for the fighter, even the ones she has found have failed to happen.

“Fights just keep falling through,” LaRosa said with an exacerbated tone. “I had roughly six to eight fights fall through, and a lot of them were last-minute notice. I had one fight where we had a contract and I was training for it, and they yanked the fight. Then I had a three-fight contract with Shark Fights and I was supposed to be the face of their 125-pound division. After I got done with the Carina Damm fight, it was like hold on a minute.”

LaRosa’s struggles with finding a fight temporarily subsided after Shark Fights folded, as she faced off with Kelly Warren under the upstart Resurrection Fighting Alliance banner. Yet, things were far from smooth sailing as nine of the card’s fighters failed to make weight, including LaRosa and Warren.

“It was the first time in 16 years of competition in combat sports that I’ve ever missed weight, but I got crucified in the media for it,” said the 23-fight veteran. “At one point, we had 12 people crammed into a four-person sauna. Every five minutes somebody’s coach had to open the door and tell their fighter, ‘just five more minutes, you’ve got this’ and then shut the door. That really cooled the sauna down. Most of us were sitting in there with a great sweat going, then freezing our asses off and shivering.

“They threw a shit fit because all these people were off weight, but that’s why so many people missed. I stayed in there until the very end. Weigh-ins were at 1 p.m., and Kelly and I were the last two in there. If I had another hour, I could have made weight.”

LaRosa celebrates victory (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

Unfortunately for LaRosa, it wasn’t just the media that chose to make barbed comments at her situation. As such, there was at least one public spat over social media, calling for the veteran to move back to the 135-pound division. But LaRosa is adamant that it was an isolated event and not indicative of the fight community.

“Generally, I’m friends with everybody,” stated LaRosa. “Everybody is really respectful of each other. We go through the same things. We struggle, we have injuries, we have to train with guys, we cut weight, we get our periods at the most inopportune time. We bond and talk about this stuff with one another. We are all friends and we try to help each other out, regardless of what weight class we are in.

“There are few genuine feuds in the sport, but there are some personality conflicts. Those few can go to their own corner of the sandbox and do their thing.”

Despite dismissing the incident, LaRosa wasn’t ready to rule out a return to the bantamweight division under the right circumstances.

“It could happen, but 125 is a much more natural weight for me,” explained the fighter. “If things don’t pick up at 125, I might move up to see what’s going on. But right now, Invicta is doing a great job of putting on the best matchups. We’ll play it by ear.”

With everything that LaRosa has seen in the sport, her excitement to be a part of Invicta was evident in her voice. Finally, a promotion is hosting the 125-pound flyweight division and giving her a place to practice her trade.

“It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?” she asked rhetorically. “The other all-women shows failed because the timing just wasn’t right. There wasn’t enough coverage for it to catch on. And you had some real dumbasses running shows.

“Now is the time. Invicta came around at the right time and it is driven by the right people. They know how things work and how things are supposed to be run. I’m excited.”

Standing across the cage from LaRosa at Invicta’s third event on Saturday, Oct. 6, in Kansas City, Kan., will be Brazilian Vanessa Porto. Like LaRosa, Porto is known for her grappling prowess, yet she was surprisingly submitted by Sarah D’Alelio in her last outing.

“I think a lot of people are discounting her and thinking should be some sort of an easy fight for me. That’s horseshit,” proclaimed LaRosa. “I’ve watched her last fight about 150 times and I thought she was doing really well; they went to the ground, there was a scramble, and she got caught. That shit happens.

“I’m definitely not discounting her skills. Just because she got tapped by Sarah, that doesn’t mean she suddenly sucks. It’s the complete opposite. She’s a very dangerous ground fighter. This chick is good at what I do. This is going to be a really tough fight because we match up really evenly.”

So how does she envision the fight with Porto playing out on Saturday?

“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” she said with a laugh. “I think she’s one of the toughest fights I’ve had in a long time. It’s not going to be an easy day. I would really like to win—that would be fun. We will just throw it in the cage and let the chips fall where they may.”

LaRosa’s honest and straightforward nature extends to every aspect of the fight game. And there’s even one area that someone as experienced as she is nervous about when she enters the cage: judging.

“If it does go to decision, oh god,” she stated with obvious concern. “The whole judging thing just scares the bejesus out of me. If it goes the distance, I have to make sure I was the most active fighter and I did the most.”

Hopefully for LaRosa, her first experience with Invicta won’t come down to chips falling into the hands of the judges, but at least one of the sport’s true pioneers has a promotion to call home.

Tara would like to thank Team Ivan Salaverry in Seattle, her training partners: Pete, Stephanie, Hannah, Andy and Jacob, and her sponsors: Anthony Hopkins at Fight Twisted and Tri-Coasta. Follow her on Twitter: @TaraLaRosa

Top Photo: Tara LaRosa (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

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