Women’s MMA pioneer Tara LaRosa has been around for over a decade and has fought a who’s who of women in the sport. She’s been a champion in multiple organizations, fought in some of the biggest promotions and done things that most ladies in this sport only dream of in the future.

Most recently, she just fought in Japan against Rin Nakai at Pancrase 252, where she went up against the odds of weird rules, traditions and a company poster girl. Through social media, she has been very vocal about getting the story out about her experience with Pancrase in Japan.

“First off, I want to thank Pancrase for having me over for their 20th anniversary show,” LaRosa told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview. “In fact, everything that should have gone wrong went right and I had a great time. I knew coming over that I was going to be against the judges. Rin Nakai’s a champion and everyone there knows her. I knew I would have to finish her because if it went to decision, I wouldn’t win. I knew that going in, and I still took the fight.”

There have been stories of the oddities of procedures held by Pancrase leading up to its fights. Between different rules being utilized and other such things, fighters never know what to expect when coming into the Japanese juggernaut of a MMA promotion.

“There are a few things people need to realize before taking a fight with Pancrase,” LaRosa explained. “It’s a lot different from the U.S. You have to make weight, they are way more hardcore with it. If you miss weight in the U.S., you get a slap on the wrist and lose some of your purse.

“[There] they really try to stick it to you, like some of the horror stories you may have heard from Pride. If you miss weight, they see it as really disrespectful. They take it to heart, so don’t miss weight in Japan. They will fine you $2000, no matter how much you are making. Even if you are making $3000 to fight, they will take $2000. If you miss weight and you still fight, the best you can get is a draw. If you win definitively, like a tapout or knockout, the best you can still get is a draw. Of course, you can still lose though. If your opponent chooses not to fight because you missed weight, you get the fine and the fighter has to pay Pancrase back for his and his corner’s flights to Japan. Plus, you get a loss on your record. So you really need to make weight.

“They nitpick a lot of stuff too. They forced one guy to buy a pair of their spandex for 50 bucks because they didn’t approve of what he was wearing. Another guy had a regular jock strap, and the Pancrase officials said the cup needed to be a tie-on instead of elastic. They literally made him get a different cup. This was all right before the show started; they never checked before that. They questioned my shorts, but they okayed it because I wore some spandex under it.”

Between the strict weigh-ins and the wardrobe checks, it’s easy to see why fighters have been frustrated while fighting there. Losing a couple thousand dollars of a fight purse that may only provide a few thousand more is tough on the wallet. Plus, the odd and strict equipment checks just seem downright finicky. For LaRosa, though, it was a quick meeting right before the fight that was the weirdest part of her experience.

“For me, there was no official rules meeting before the fight,” LaRosa explained. “At weigh-ins, there was no official meeting. We had an awesome press conference where we all made statements and had a nice buffet for us after we weighed in, but there was no rules meeting. The next day when we got to the venue for the fight, the referee and officials came in to check my wardrobe and then told me I would be fighting under ‘Athena Rules.’

“I am still not clear on what those rules are, but I know there are no elbows in general. Knees on the ground, I am still not sure about completely. There were no slams or spikes, which was fine. But, there were no up-kicks. They made a point of this. So when you saw me in the fight on the bottom and she was standing over me, I couldn’t kick her in the face. I have never heard of that rule before.”

There has been some fishy business before with rules in a Pancrase fight featuring Nakai. Nakai, who is managed by Pancrase, has been the target of controversy due to various things such as same-day weigh ins, last-minute rule changes and suspect judging.

“We saw this kind of stuff with Danielle West, when they screwed with her before the fight,” LaRosa said. “They kept changing up the rules, made her weigh in on fight day and things like that. They have been doing this stuff for a while over there, and it’s not just Pancrase. I kind of expected some weird stuff like that to happen.”

LaRosa went into the fight looking better than she has in her last few outings. The former pound-for-pound queen, who is known for her crafty submission game and grappling prowess, focused on things in training camp to which she usually doesn’t devote as much time. It was part of a game plan that was designed to shock Nakai and beat her, hopefully via finish.

“A focus for my training camp at Jackson’s MMA was my stand-up,” LaRosa explained. “For being in the sport as long as I have been, my striking is not where it probably should be. So I wanted to really work on that, and it showed in my fight. We knew Nakai was a good wrestler and ground fighter, so I was gonna stay on the outside and hit her in the face. I did that for the most part.

“I thought I won the first round, because I punched her in the face a lot, hard. She must have watched the Vanessa Porto fight, because she was using a lot of leg kicks, which pissed me off. But I did a lot more damage. I thought I clearly took the round. The second round was a lot of the same stuff, but more clinch. At one point, we were in the clinch and she got my back on the ground. It was late, though, and she really didn’t do anything, so I still thought I took round two for taking most of the round. I would have understood a draw, though. So in my head, it’s either 20-18 or 19-18.”

Thinking that she was up the two rounds, LaRosa was still conscious that she needed a finish. She figured that the judges were still on the side of Nakai and that she could take away any doubt on the scorecards by notching a finish.

“In the third round, I thought I was winning until she got a clean takedown on me. With no up-kicks, I kind of just had to lay there while she hung on top of me,” LaRosa said. “In a normal circumstance, I would have just booted her in the face. At some point, she got over me and slapped on a kimura really quickly. So quickly, I couldn’t react. It was like the perfect kimura, the technique, angle and power.

“She actually ripped my shoulder out. It’s kinda like ripping the turkey leg off at Thanksgiving. There were only 40 seconds left, and I was thinking pretty much that the damage was done, just gut out these next 40 seconds. Luckily, I got my arm back. I think she let it go because she realized it wasn’t working. They probably gave her the round because of that, though.”

In her head, LaRosa figured that she had either won a 29-28 decision or scored a 29-29 draw. What ensued was one judge indeed scoring a 29-29 draw, while the other two gave Nakai the victory, effectively making it a majority decision win for the Japanese fighter, with scores of 30-28, 30-29 and 29-29.

“She got the majority decision, but I knew this was going to be controversial to fans,” LaRosa admitted. “I think I won that fight. I think I won the first and second round, but the judges gave a draw in the first round. Like I said, I knew that I would need a finish to win. I don’t know what the judges were looking for, but perhaps they take wrestling and ground more into account, because I dominated the fight on the feet. When we did go down early, I defender her attacks and she didn’t do much damage, but the judges still gave it to her.”

That kimura lock in the third round definitely did its intended damage. LaRosa was hurt, but she didn’t want anybody else to know that.

“After the fight, my arm was in agony,” LaRosa said. “The doctors came to check on me, but I played it off like there was no problem because I didn’t want them knowing I was hurt. However, the pain was so bad that after I cooled down I thought I was going to pass out. My shoulder was dislocated.

“I called my manager, Monte Cox, and told him I got my arm ripped out, looking for advice. He told me just to tell the doctors, because Pancrase has really good doctors. I guess Pancrase has a team of badass doctors, including a shoulder specialist, working the show. So he and his assistant came in and worked on my shoulder for like a half hour. They reset my shoulder back in the socket while I was laughing. I didn’t want to cry and look like a fool, so I was cracking jokes and laughing to cover up my pain. They then put me in a homemade sling that looks like it came from the ’60s. It looked like a field dressing in a war. They took care of me.”

With that damaged shoulder somewhat fixed, LaRosa believes she won’t need to go to rehab. In fact, she has some big plans before she heads back to the gym.

“I am taking some time off to see my family and go to Disney World, so I will be out of the gym for a while,” LaRosa said with glee in her voice. “By the time I get back, my shoulder should be tightened back up and fine. I know Miesha Tate made a big deal about her elbow when she got hurt and thought about hanging it up, but I’m not a pussy. When I return from my vacation, I will be back in the gym.”

Despite some of the odd procedures she saw while working for Pancrase, LaRosa was more than complimentary of the promotion. In fact, even though there were some quirks, she could see herself back there in the future.

“Pancrase treated me really well, and it was a great time,” LaRosa said. “They gave us per-diem money, paid for our transportation, they bussed us back and forth from the venue. It was just a really well-run organization. It was really cool. Knowing what I know, I would go back and fight for that organization.”

Of course, knowing that the Nakai fight was controversial and close, LaRosa is open to another meeting with the Queen of Pancrase.

“I would love a rematch with Rin Nakai, because I think my game plan worked,” LaRosa admitted. “I kept her on the feet for a while and picked her apart. I have been working hard on my stand-up, and it showed. If Pancrase wanted me to fight somebody else, I would do that too. If they wanted me to fight Nakai again, I would be down for that.”

Despite her desire for a rematch, LaRosa had nothing but great things to say about Nakai. Nakai comes under criticism for being in odd, provocative promotional videos. People who see these do not really take her seriously, even though she is ranked 10th in the bantamweight division in The MMA Corner’s women’s rankings. However, LaRosa is sympathetic and encouraging.

“Rin is a really nice person, and nobody knows that because of the language barriers and these crazy videos she’s in,” LaRosa said. “I talked to her extensively after the fight. I got the impression that people don’t see her as a serious athlete, so she feels she has to do the crazy costumes and sexy pictures to get attention.

“That made me so sad. My heart broke for her, because that sucks. She got emotional when I told her that I appreciated her and people in the U.S. appreciated an athletic build on a female professional athlete. It’s like nobody has ever told her that before, and I think it touched her a bit. Rin’s a really cool person, though.”

In her mid-30s and having over 10 years invested in MMA, LaRosa doesn’t seem to be slowing down. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. In hearing the enthusiasm in her voice, one has to wonder if she will ever consider retirement, given the outright love she has for the sport. Furthermore, suitors are calling her to bring her exciting brand of fighting to their shows.

“I have a couple things I am looking for and am excited about,” LaRosa confessed. “I’m glad to see Invicta has a show coming up in December, but I don’t think I will be on that card. I’m not sure when the next Pancrase show is, so I don’t think that’s an option.

“I have been contacted by another big show who is about to start promoting women’s MMA to do a show with them in January, so that’s a possibility. I have a couple of teammates in Legacy FC, but Holly Holm is there at 135 [pounds], so I don’t want to infringe on her there, so I would have to drop to 125. Plus, there are some smaller shows in New Jersey, like CFFC [Cage Fury Fighting Championships], as well as shows in Tennessee where I have friends. If possible, I would perform for the Jackson Series we put on here in New Mexico. So I have lots of options going forward. It’s finding somebody who will fight me.”

Some might be inclined to say that LaRosa is nearing the end of a storied career, but her words make it clear that the end is nowhere in sight.

Photo: Tara LaRosa (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Riley Kontek
Staff Writer

Riley Kontek is a Chicago-land native that has been an addict of mixed martial arts since the first Chuck Liddell-Tito Ortiz encounter. He has been writing on MMA for the last year and is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report MMA. In addition to that, he used to host a weekly radio show on MMA. Though he has no formal training in mixed martial arts, Riley is a master in the art of hockey fighting.

  • Peter

    Nice to read some comments from Tara regarding the fight and her experience in Pancrase. I know fighters who fight pretty regularly for the org (Japanese and foreign) and they all have nothing but good things to say about the org.

    Regarding the criticisms of Pancrase, reading the rules on their homepage would fix 99% of the problems.

    “then told me I would be fighting under‘Athena Rules.’I am still not clear on what those rules are”

    http://pancrase.co.jp/english/athenaregulaton.pdf

    Complaints from West are all addressed in the rules. Specifically, competitors who fail to make weight, weigh in on the day of the fight. West was not told at the first weigh ins if the fight was “on or off” as Pancrase were waiting for the final weigh ins before the fight, West weighed in officially “7.1 kg over the contract weight. That is little over 15 lbs”.

    Pancrase rules clearly state that a fighter whe misses weight cannot hold the belf for that weight and it goes to the opponent, Rin did not need to fight West at all. Being overweight automatically disqualifies you from the match unless your opponent decides to fight, in which case, 25% of the purse goes to Pancrase, West refused to pay the money and it was not because of a “bad fight”. She could have been faced with “disqualification, suspension, loss of purse, and expulsion” but Nakai and Pancrase obviously wanted to have the fight.

    Rules regarding attire, including spandex etc are also covered, Japanese MMA is very strict regarding loose clothing, hair products, moisturisers, gels, vaseline etc. Had the fighters read the rules they would not have needed to buy the other fight gear.

    I urge all fighters fighting in Pancrase, and other JMMA orgs to read the rules, they are freely available in English on their site and always have been, it will solve a lot of potential problems.

    http://pancrase.co.jp/english/athenaregulaton.pdf

    I like LaRosa and enjoyed watching her fight, having said this, checking out the rules and priority of scoring I think it is pretty clear Nakai won. Drawn rounds are very common when rounds are close in JMMA. 1st round was ruled a draw, 2nd round Rin got 2 TDs and control but LaRosa dropping her was enough for one judge to score it for LaRosa, the sub attempt and damage clearly gave Rin the 3rd round and ultimately the fight.

  • Gary Morris

    Tara’s issue with Japanese judges was no different to the issues Japanese fighters like Megumi Fujii had in North America. Meguni was the victim of a ridiculous decision against Zoila Frausto.