Peering down from the conductor’s seat of a locomotive, an obstruction on the tracks is unlikely to cause any distress. After all, what’s the likelihood of disrupting the journey of a five-thousand-ton train?

But, for a fighter playing the role of the obstruction against an opponent with the support of the entire promotion, there are only two options: derail the oncoming train or die trying.

For 35-year-old MMA pioneer Tara LaRosa, a derailment would be redeeming when she takes on undefeated Japanese superstar Rin Nakai at Pancrase 252: 20th Anniversary on Sept. 29 from the Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan.

LaRosa’s lengthy career is comparable to crossing a transcontinental railroad, but in recent years, the terrain has become treacherous and unpredictable. After years of dominating the bantamweight division, LaRosa ventured to flyweight and initially found success. However, the wheels started to come off over the last few years as she missed weight in consecutive bouts.

“In the last three years there’s been some weird shit going on with my body,” the unabashed LaRosa told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview. “I’ve had blood testing done. I’ve tried shifting my diet around. There’s just been a lot of stuff happening and I don’t know what’s up. My body’s just not cooperating.

LaRosa (Invicta FC)

“Maybe my body is changing because I’ve gotten older; I am 35 now. I was walking around heavy for both of those fights. I was around 150 [pounds]. Normally I walk around close to 135 or 140. For the [Vanessa] Porto fight, I had nine pounds to cut. I sat in the sauna for nine hours and it wasn’t coming off. It was crazy.”

Little did LaRosa know, but missing weight—and the fight—against Porto at Invicta FC 3 would lead to a new, unexpected chapter to her career, which dates back to 2002. Although the initial shock was hard for the New Jersey fighter to handle, it all worked out for the veteran.

“Honestly, missing weight at Invicta was one of the worst days of my entire career,” admitted LaRosa. “After Invicta, I went home to New Jersey and got up to 160 pounds dealing with some family issues. It was really not good.

“Then, in mid-January, I moved to Jackson’s MMA. I got down to 145 by April, and they announced The Ultimate Fighter for 135 pounds. I thought well, shit, I’m only 10 pounds off, I might as well tryout. I weighed in at 145 pounds for the TUF tryouts on April 15. I lost the weight for the elimination fights and I never went back up. I’m back to fighting and walking around at 135 pounds.”

With a record of 21 wins against just three defeats, many questioned why LaRosa would even bother trying out for TUF. Shouldn’t the trailblazer be given a shot without going through the arduous process of tryouts and the reality show?

“I could’ve been picked up a long time ago if I’d wanted to,” explained the fighter. “I could’ve gone into Strikeforce at 135. My manager, Monte Cox, has a good relationship with Zuffa. I could’ve gotten in if I would’ve been willing to fight at 135.

“That’s why we looked at RFA and Invicta. I hadn’t fought for a while—I was out of the gym for almost two years. The plan was to get back competing [at flyweight] and then maybe move back to 135. It just came a little bit sooner than expected.

“TUF is really good exposure. That was the biggest reason for me. I wanted the exposure of the show instead of just showing up in the UFC.”

Unfortunately for LaRosa, TUF turned from opportunity to frustration as she dropped her elimination fight to Sarah Moras by decision. Despite the career detour, the multi-time FILA Grappling World Championships gold medalist isn’t dwelling on what might have been.

“I have no regrets, and I would do it again,” she declared. “You learn from everything in life. Even my ‘Ultimate Fail’—that’s how I refer to it because that’s what I did.

“Some of us need a third round. I’m not going to lie; if you’ve ever watched me, I’m a slow starter. It didn’t hit me that I needed a more specific game plan for two rounds.”

LaRosa (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Personal disappointment aside, LaRosa is thrilled to see her lengthy trek in the sport has helped lay the foundation for women to enter the world-famous Octagon.

“For years, this is what we all dreamed of,” proclaimed the Jackson’s MMA product. “I think the UFC is picking up right where Strikeforce left off. They’re going to open up other divisions at some point. There are enough women for the divisions, but they’re going to bring it along slowly and not over-saturate it.”

With the UFC starting with only the 135-pound division, many fighters have moved up in weight to compete at the highest level. Having done the same thing for TUF, LaRosa can relate to this. Just don’t expect her to sympathize with anyone who falls short.

“It’s the UFC, the big show, our dream,” she said. “But it’s these girls’ choices to move up in weight. I said I’ve never go back to 135 and I did it for the opportunity. I declined EliteXC several times to fight at 140.

“It’s up to the fighter. The chicks at 135 are huge. The game has changed so much in that aspect. It’s a sport now. People cross-train, watch their diet, take supplements. It’s so different now. We are professional athletes.”

After spending a large portion of the past year training at Jackson’s in Albuquerque, N.M., LaRosa has experienced firsthand how far the fight game has evolved.

“It is so different,” the veteran expressed. “It’s a professional gym. You come in during the morning and spar, do your strength and conditioning during the day, then you come back again at night for more technique. There’s so many high-level people in the gym. There’s so many coaches to work with. It’s incredible.”

As the sport continues to bridge the gap between the male and female contingents, LaRosa isn’t ready to call it quits by any means. While her recent struggles might be reminiscent of a steam engine struggling to get over a mountain pass, don’t expect the fighter to give in before she gets to the summit.

“When I first got in the sport in 2001, my goal was to fight in Japan. I did that in 2005, so I’m good,” recalled LaRosa with a laugh. “The rest has just been icing on the cake. I’ve fought in other countries and traveled the world. I’ve won titles. I’ve done it all.

“This is what I do; it’s what I love. I’ve been an athlete since I was five years old. I don’t know what else to do. I have a college degree, but I don’t know if I could go be a gym teacher. Could you see me as a bank teller?”

Having no end to her journey in sight, LaRosa knows that her trip to Japan to face Nakai won’t be easy. But with recent hardships already in her past, all LaRosa can do is go out and play spoiler.

“The cards are stacked against me; it’s an uphill battle,” stated the veteran. “I’m small, walking around at 135. Granted, Rin Nakai is short, but she’s jacked. She’ll probably be cutting weight, whereas I won’t be. I’m not sure if everyone knows or not, but Rin is managed by Pancrase. I’m fighting an entire organization, refs and judges. Don’t look for me to pick up the decision, cause it ain’t happening. I’m going to have to knock her out or submit her.

“They’re not bringing me in because I’m ‘Awesome Tara LaRosa.’ They’re bringing me in because I’m the seasoned veteran who everyone thinks is on the downside of her career. They want to bring me in for her to beat up so they can legitimize her title and record. They’re not bringing me in because they want me to win. They see me as a stepping stone, and I understand that. I’m going to do everything I can to upset their plans.

“I have to go out there and perform or get run over. Right now, I’m standing on the tracks and, either way, the train is coming. I took the fight, now I just have to derail that train.”

Tara would like to thank everyone at Jackson’s MMA: her training partners and teammates, as well as her plethora of amazing coaches. Also, her home away from home between Albuquerque and New Jersey: Precision MMA in Johnson City, Tenn. Her sponsors: RevGear and Hot Yoga Infusion (owned by Keith Jardine and Jodie Esquibel). Finally, Julie Kedzie’s dog, Bailey, the driving force and unofficial mascot of the gym. Follow Tara on Twitter: @TaraLaRosa

Top Photo: Tara LaRosa (L) throws a punch (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)