Three take aim at glory as women's MMA continues rapid ascent (cont.)
Tara LaRosa's resolve has been tested by the sport many times during her 10-year fighting career. She made her pro debut at the first-ever all-women's event in the country in 2002 and reached No. 1 ranking in two women's divisions by 2009, only to learn that even this didn't guarantee any more job security.
If there were any sacrifices to be made to keep fighting, the 34-year-old, Woodstown, N.J., native has made them. When LaRosa graduated from North Carolina's Catawba College in 2000 with a degree in physical education, she could have become a teacher or later continued a lucrative subcontractor's job in the Modern Army Combatives program at the nearby Fort Bragg. But by then, LaRosa was fully immersed in the world of competitive grappling, one of the gateway disciplines to MMA. She made $600 cash for her first fight and never looked back.
LaRosa has lived in eight cities in the last 10 years to gain access to the best training available, supporting her lifestyle with a wide array of side jobs. She's been a bartender, bouncer, personal assistant, landscaper, and construction worker. This past summer, LaRosa was a driver for a medical marijuana dispensary serving the elderly, and cancer and AIDS patients.
During her leanest times, LaRosa donated plasma twice a week for gas money and food, rationing herself to only $40 a week for groceries -- whatever it took to ride it out until her next fight.
Over 10 years, the perseverant LaRosa has seen it all. Fights have fallen through the week that rent is due. Six-figure contracts with upstart promotions have proven to be nothing but mirages. And paying sponsors? Sponsors are a luxury that LaRosa has rarely experienced.
"I've had little sponsors, 500 bucks here and there to wear their logo, but nothing regular," said LaRosa. "I've never gotten anything like a monthly stipend or those other perks the guys get."
In that decade, LaRosa said she could support herself solely on fighting for about two years, when eccentric online gambling billionaire Calvin Ayre launched Bodog Fights during MMA's boom in 2006 and paid out some astronomical fight purses to a lucky few for 12 shows before pulling the plug in late 2007. LaRosa fought five times in 17 months for Bodog Fights and was crowned its first and only women's 135-pound champion.
At the tail end of the Bodog wave, LaRosa rolled the dice and dropped down to the 125-pound division on the promise that there'd be a steady stream of fights for her. She then watched as the 135- and 145-pound divisions gained momentum instead. At 125, LaRosa has only fought twice in two years. She's gone back and forth about jumping for the "dangling carrot" that is the women's bantamweight division, but knows that flyweight is truly where she belongs.
Like many female fighters, LaRosa has also wrestled with her image. She's had bouts with anorexia and bulimia, fueled by periods of over-exercising where she'd "just get on the treadmill and run for hours."
"All the girls getting attention are pretty and skinny," said LaRosa. "It doesn't matter if you're No. 1 in the world if you don't look a certain way."
Beauty and sexuality are touchy topics for women fighters. Most would rather fans concentrate on their abilities, but understand that abilities and a pretty face can take a female fighter farther. With quiet acknowledgement, women fighters are focusing on their appearance more now then ever before; a few of the more industrious ones invested in photo shoots this year and posted their glamour shots online.
On Saturday, LaRosa (21-2) meets Vanessa Porto (14-5), another veteran from Brazil who can only add to LaRosa's well-rounded resume. A good showing could cement LaRosa's name in Invicta's developing flyweight division, while she waits for a second promotion to fulfill the two remaining fights it contracted her for.
These are possibilities that make LaRosa optimistic these days. If women's MMA is on the rise -- and many signs indicate that it is -- LaRosa has certainly earned the right to prosper from it.
"I gave up my soul to be where I am," said LaRosa. "I gave up my family, friends; a steady, secure paying job; a career. I gave up my health for a time to get to the top. Being a full-time fighter, it has to consume your life."
Of the six women who fought at Invicta 2 in July and were invited back for Saturday's show, Jessamyn Duke (1-0) is the only undercard fighter among them.
Hailing from Blackey, Ky., population 120, the 26-year-old Duke discovered combative sports when she moved to Richmond with her mother seven years ago and wandered into a gym looking for a hobby.
Duke had never been a serious athlete, but she'd grown to nearly six feet tall by age 16, so coaches tended to notice her regardless. Duke was started out in muay Thai and began competing locally within a couple of years. When she'd added enough ground training to her arsenal, Duke entered her first amateur MMA bout two years ago and pushed her record to 5-2 before word of her stature dried up the rest of her potential competition.
In July, Duke made her pro debut at Invicta 2, won her bout with a third-round stoppage and became an instant standout with fans. At 5-foot-11 with a 72-inch wingspan, Duke is among the tallest women competing in MMA today, and if she's able to fully master her reach in future fights, she will become a contender in the women's 135-pound division within a couple of years.
"She has that It factor," said Invicta's Knapp. "She has that little bit of mean that finishes fights."
Brett Atchley agrees. Atchley's Addison Sports Media currently represents 20 women fighters, including Duke. A former MMA reporter turned manager, Atchley signed his first client, Alexis Davis, in April 2011, and quickly found a niche as female fighters flooded the MMA space.
It's Atchley's job to find fights, negotiate the best salaries (he's gotten anywhere from a couple hundred to $12,000 for a fight) and chase down elusive sponsors.
"Fights fall through quite a bit, but sponsorship is the toughest challenge," said Atchley. "It's been difficult breaking through to that top tier."
Atchley said that the bigger companies sponsoring fighters prefer to stay exclusive to the UFC, which can guarantee air time in front of targeted demographics.
"The first question a potential [women's] sponsor asks is if the fight will be televised," said Atchley, "and only a small fraction of women's fights are."
Still, Atchley said this climate is quickly shifting, as the buzz surrounding women's MMA grows. Atchley was recently able to secure Duke a one-year sponsorship contract for $3,000 -- not the most he's gotten for a sponsorship, but one of the longer commitments he's secured among sponsors who've only felt comfortable negotiating single-fight deals in the past.
"It's all changing as we speak," said Atchley.
Invicta co-owners Knapp and Janet Martin can attest to that. Since their first show in April, Knapp said the promotion has received unsolicited broadcast offers from three separate cable networks, and new opportunities are being fielded weekly. Knapp and Martin are eager to get Invicta on television -- possibly by its fourth show in late January -- but they'll wait longer for the right deal if they have to. A 10-year veteran of MMA promotion, Knapp knows firsthand how lopsided television contracts can lead to an organization's early demise.
Paid event sponsorship is also up from Invicta's first event, which means that more money is slowly starting to move through the women's side of the sport.
In recent weeks, even UFC promoter Zuffa LLC. has signed additional female fighters to its secondary Strikeforce promotion to cultivate challengers for Rousey -- a big turnaround from its staunch opposition to promoting women's bouts in the past.
After more than a decade of challenges and sacrifice, it feels like women's MMA is finally on the cusp of something bigger, but its future ultimately lies in the fans' hands. Behind every Gina Carano and Ronda Rousey, there are fighters like Jessica Penne, Tara LaRosa and Jessamyn Duke, ready and waiting for their chance to shine.
Now fans just have to open their minds and hearts to them.