The Heart of Women's MMA with Legend Tara LaRosa

Shelley DevineContributor IMarch 7, 2011

LaRosa vs. Takayo Hashi  DaMMAge Fight League 2010
LaRosa vs. Takayo Hashi DaMMAge Fight League 2010

By Shelley Devine

Photos by Cathlin Daley

Heart, courage, honesty, passion, faith and kindness are just a few words that come to my mind. Of her 21 professional fights, spanning a career for almost a decade, I’ve been blessed to have seen her last two fights live.

For those of you who don’t know her, Tara LaRosa has been around women’s MMA long before names like Gina Carano or Cris Cyborg brought national attention to women in the sport.

LaRosa remains ranked in the top 10 female fighters 135 lb division, even though she has not fought in that division since her win against Kelly Kobold for the 135 lb BodogFight Batamweight Championship, or her win against Hook-n-Shoot’s 135 lb champ in 2007 in a non-title super fight against Cody Welchin.

She did take a catch weight rematch at 130 lbs against friend Roxanne Modaferri in what was awarded the best fight of the year at Moosin’s God of Wars last year, only to lose gracefully by unanimous decision as Modaferri clinched a chance to fight 135 lb fighter Sarah Kaufman on ShoMMA: Strikeforce Challengers.

What is notable, however, is LaRosa staying true to herself by fighting at what she considers as her more comfortable fight weight of 125 lbs. LaRosa has been passed over numerous times by goliath promotions such as Strikeforce and Bellator, who have ignored that division completely, but remains resilient as she carves a path all her own within the 125 lb weight class.

This past Thanksgiving Eve, 2010 in Atlantic City in the main event, she came back against a tough Takayo Hashi,   defeating her by unanimous  decision (49-46, 49-46, 48-47) after a five round war, becoming the first DaMMAge Fight League Women’s Super Flyweight Champion.

What I witnessed during her last two fights was a warrior spirit. A force so many women in our culture have had to draw upon for survival purposes, to protect and defend against right and wrong, or even fight to liberate or protect others, as well as their own family, even though it is customarily considered not to be a part of their constitution.

However, for Tara LaRosa, heroism, stoicism and self-sacrifice is a genuine part of her innate being, her soul, if you will, all to conquer her own ego and maintain a sense of control over her inner life.

Curiously, I have had people ask “why would women want to fight, get punched in the face or do this?”

I had an opportunity to get an exclusive inside view of the mind, heart and soul of a female fighter. I hope you will learn about what the attraction is to this sport and gain understanding as to why women are doing what they’re doing in MMA as we delve into the Heart of Women’s MMA with legend Tara LaRosa.

When I first interviewed Tara after her fight against Hashi, her answers to my questions, I felt, were right on. But for one reason or another, she had mentioned to a colleague that she thought a couple of her answers might have been lame. So I sent her the answers to look over before being published.

Timing is a funny thing in that, as I sent the answers for her to look over, she was on her way to the Laurel Highlands in Western Pennsylvania to make her second attempt at completing a 70 mile hike through the wilderness by herself.

The first time she attempted the trail back in September, she was forced off due to a knee injury, failing to complete the trail. So she was more so determined to complete it before the end of the year.

What unfolded next was completely unexpected and she was challenged far beyond what most of us endure in a lifetime. The first day on the trail, everything was normal 30 degree, sunny weather. But a front from Lake Erie came into Pennsylvania on the second day, bringing with it snow and a temperature drop of 10 degrees.

Tara was wet inside and out, due to sweat and not being prepared for the snow. There were 45 mile per hour wind gusts and it was getting harder and harder for her to stay on the trail. She pushed on under shear will and eventually made it to a lean to shelter, which offered very little protection. She stripped down out of her wet clothes and put on dry ones.

She tried to make a fire, but was unable to because of the wind, which was very frustrating to her because she is a problem solver, but this was out of her control. Her core was warm, but she was worried about her fingers and toes, so she got in her sleeping bag and charged up her phone.

There was no reception, so she texted her mother, who got help on the way. Rangers Mike and Andy located Tara by the signal of her cell phone, she was taken to the ranger station, then onto the hospital to be treated for hypothermia.

Tara thought in those moments of life and death, “If I do die tonight,  I’ve lived more in my 32 years than most people do their entire lives,” as she noted all the amazing things she had been a part of historically and seen.

Thankfully, family, friends and fans were relieved to hear that she had been found and was recovering safely at home. After a week of rest, I finally had chance to reconnect with Tara to review her initial answers to the original interview.

Along with her recent scare in the wilderness, Tara shared her frustrations with being a very successful female fighter. She had been running out of opponents that were challenging because the fighters that were available were either under contract elsewhere or international.

As with all things, a time comes when we begin to question what it is we are doing, as well as search our soul for something more. My guess is that’s why she took on the 70 mile hike, to challenge herself.

I wanted to know more about who she was and why she was doing unconventional things by what our society would dictate for women in general. Being a female MMA fighter, after all, is not for the faint hearted. One thing I had to ask her to get the ball rolling was: “How did you get the nickname Tara ‘Mother Fuckin’ LaRosa?”

Not that I’m a prude to four letter words, but mainly because of the harsh profanity and why this country girl would use it as her nickname.

Tara laughed, “Ok. It’s an interesting story, actually, it started out in BODOG. I was really nervous before a fight one time and one of the guys back stage was giving me this little pep talk, and they told me, they were like ‘Yo! What yah got to be nervous about? You’re Tara “Mother Fuckin” LaRosa!’ and everyone went crazy and laughed and you know it was a big song and dance!

"And another time, down in Costa Rica on location with BODOG, we had a fight and they were doing these interviews and it was an impossibly long day, it was HOT and we were all just upset, and tired, and miserable.

"And they asked me some question saying ‘Why should the fans vote for you? Or why should the fans watch you?’ and everybody was giving these cookie cutter answers and I just looked straight into the camera cause I was pissed off and tired and I said ‘Cause I’m Tara Mother Fuckin LaRosa!’ and THEY USED IT in a commercial and then it got out to the whole rest of the MMA world and ever since then it’s been a thing! It stuck!”

Another thing about Tara that was interesting to me was what she wore before each fight. Was it symbolic of anything? She wore all white at Moosin and at DaMMAge, and she was sporting a cowboy hat.

“So what’s Tara saying here, other than I’m Tara ‘Mother Fuckin’ LaRosa?”

Tara: “I started wearing all white after I lost to Jen Howe. Before I lost to Jen Howe, back in May 2003, I used to fight in all black. I was a fighter, a bad ass. After I lost to her and when I came back, I wore all white and I’ve been wearing all white ever since. It just stands out. It’s different. I like being the good guy. I like to think I’m respectful to my opponents, I don’t fight dirty, I’m a purist in the sport. I’m the good guy!"

“So the cowboy hat, that’s about being the good guy, like the John Wayne of MMA?”

Tara: “The cowboy hat, I don’t know where the hell that came from. I just got this wild idea to do it. I think it was back in 2006. I’m from South Jersey. We have a rodeo, we got some rednecks. I think I was fighting Hitomi Akano. I came out with a big American flag and my white hat, I was the good guy.”

“At Moosin with Roxanne Modaferri, you both had that yin and yang thing going with you all in white and Roxi in black, was that planned?”

Tara: “No, we’re friends. We were just putting on a little performance to show people who we are. Basically your entrance, and what you’re wearing, is the only thing that sets you apart, and of course your actions, from everybody else.

"You don’t have a mike, you can’t express yourself in words and you can’t say anything as you’re walking out. It’s a visual thing! I love it when fighters do that and try to represent themselves a little bit. It gives the fans more of a story and tells them a little bit about yah.”

“Did you watch PRIDE when Genki Sudo came out?”

Tara: “Yes. I absolutely love it! And when Sakuraba came out as a Super Mario, it was awesome! I’ll never forget when B.J.  Penn and Jens Pulver fought for the first time in UFC 35 up in Connecticut. BJ Penn came out to ‘In the Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins!

"I swear to god, that is like the greatest entrance that I have ever witnessed. It was for a title, it was sick, it was so cool! He lost, but it was so awesome. So I think your entrance says a lot about you as a person. I pick my music, I don’t just randomly put anything on.”

“I noticed at your last fight at DaMMAge, your walk out sweat shirt you had
Adrian ElizaldeJan 30, 1977 – Aug 23, 2007, a 30 yr old fallen Sgt /Fighter.

I didn’t realize it then, but he was your boyfriend. I also saw an interview you were giving the day you found out. How did you keep it together? Can you tell us about this?”

Tara: “It was the day after, I was up at Bodog to do a commentary for their season six shows. I don’t know how I did it, I was numb, you just deal with it. It's life…shit happens and you deal. I’ve worn it ever since, except for Moosin, when I had all kinds of sponsors. I had a walk out t-shirt. I won’t do that again, I’m wearing my stuff and if sponsors want to put something on that, then great.”

Tara later shared that during that time, when Adrian was on duty overseas, he was disappointed that she had moved without him. He wanted her to wait till he got home to help her, but she told him “you’re not always going to be around to help with things like that.”

Initially, she thought nothing of it because she was of the mind that she was responsible to take care of herself, but in hindsight, it does define her and who she is now.

After her fight against Takayo Hashi with DaMMAge MMA, she expected to be defending the belt this past February.

“Right now, we're lookin' at whoever is out there who wants to take a chance on a little farm girl from South Jersey. Although, I’m not contracted to DaMMAge, it was a one time deal. I’m a free agent and open to any opportunities that arise. But nothing has been set for February, nothing has been discussed since the last fight.”

But as February drew closer, it became apparent that defending her title may not happen in the time they had hoped. She was so stoked that they were totally all about bringing someone in from overseas for her last fight, because that was a problem for her.

“Most of my opponents right now, who are high level chicks at 125 lbs, are all international. Unfortunately, it's tough, that’s a lot of money for a small promotion to put out. The flights for my opponent and her corner alone probably exceed the purse. I was very appreciative that DaMMAge did that.”

With this constant frustration to have a fight, I wondered what she would like to see happen with women’s MMA?

Tara: “What I’d like to see for women’s MMA, which currently is developing so well I gotta thank promotions like StrikeForce, who have really opened people’s eyes. They brought up the 135 lb Division, they continued with the 145 lb Division. I think that’s so awesome! And that’s great and Bellator’s got the 115.

"The next thing I’d really like to see is the 125 lb Division opened in a mainstream organization that gets a little bit of attention to date and worldwide.”

“When you look back at how the Gracie’s started bringing the UFC into the mainstream by challenging all martial arts systems by claiming they had the best system in the world. And you’ve been in the female fight world for a long time, having been a part of the evolution of MMA in general, what do you think it would take to bring women’s MMA up to being seriously recognized or equal to the men?”

Tara: “I don’t know that it actually is ever going to be possible, within our particular culture and the way our society is seen. It’s tough for women in sports, in physical type endeavors,  because men are looked at as being physically superior. So women really have to break through that barrier and become something really super, super extraordinary above and beyond what anybody expects.

"Somebody that I would think is close, at least from what looks like from a power perspective, would be Cris ‘Cyborg’ Santos. She’s a true inspiration to a lot of people. She has a wonderful physique, she has a great attitude, she has incredible skills in the cage. She is a great person to look up to within our sport, as are a lot of women in a lot of different sports.

"There were girls from soccer several years ago, girls in basketball, girls like Sarah McMahon in wrestling, in the Olympics. People look up to her, I look up to her. She’s a terrific, amazing athlete that has done so much and now she’s coming into MMA. Which is even more exciting! So there are a lot of women to look up to out there, but a lot of people will always have that stigma. You just gotta get out there and do it! You know?”

“What was it like receiving your purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu from Royce Gracie? I thought it was cool you being an American female being ranked at that level alongside the originators of the sport.”

Tara: “I’m a forth stripe purple under Royce and Royler. It’s definitely a privilege to be ranked by one of the Gracie’s. They are the originators of Brazilian jiu jitsu. They adapted the art from another art and have been instrumental in spreading it to the rest of the world.

"There are a lot of black belts out there now that are second, third and fourth generation who are pretty far removed and do not claim their lineage. So instead of being someone who has their black belt under Joe blow, I’m under one of the originators. I hold a lot of value in that, especially looking around and seeing what others do, not to say that someone who isn’t under Gracie is no good.

"I just really like the nostalgic feeling of being ranked under a creator of the sport from that era.”

“What do you think upcoming female fighters can do to build a strong fan base? Besides the winning…”

Tara: “Winning's good, but it’s tough, you just gotta be visible. I was never one to self-promote. I didn’t put up pictures, I didn’t run around town saying ‘Hey! look at me, look at me!’ I just kinda quietly did my thing and people caught on. People noticed me. Because I would win this, I would win that, on and on.

"I really think, stick close to your hometown! When you’re coming up, if it’s possible, if there are small organizations around your hometown and in your home state, try to get the promoters to put you on their shows so you can get a home fanbase and then branch out from there. The word will spread and that’s honestly how I think fighters should do it.

“The other thing with female fighters is you really have to travel. If you’re an amateur fighter and you’re looking to debut, you’re going to have to possibly travel! Most likely you won’t have an opponent in your area. If you’re a novice pro it’s even harder, you’ll probably have to go across the country or something.”

“Or you’re bringing someone in from Japan!”

Tara: “Yah, Strikeforce seems very focused on the 135 lb and 145 lb division. Scott has said yah, yah we’ll do 125 and I seem to be first in line for it, but I just don’t think that is something their focused on right now.

"They have a lot of other things they are dealing with right now. They’ve got on their plate before they can even think of adding another women’s division. I understand the delay in that, I think he would love to do a 125, I just think he’s got a lot going on right now between the men and struggling to find opponents for the women. It’s just frustrating.”

“As for Bellator, even though they had a great 2010, who knows what’s happening for the women this year?”

Tara: “They remind me of BODOG out for two years then fold up."

“What would you say has made you successful in the sport?”

Tara: “I can’t limit myself to teaching others and helping others while I’m fighting because I can’t spread myself too thin like that. I’ve seen it happen to so many other people. They think they can open up a gym, and they can take on all these jobs and start managing or start coaching while they're still fighting and it hurts their career. They do not focus enough on themselves.

"I’m not going to make that mistake. I look at the patterns of the people around me and see what works and what doesn’t and based on that, I try to be successful in the sport. I’ve watched others stumble or mess up and say 'alright, I’m not going to do that.’ So I think smart, really smart.”

“When you started fighting, what did your family think of you being a fighter? How did they support you?”

Tara: “They hated it! They were totally against it. I got absolutely no support from my family whatsoever. Once I started to prove that I was kinda good at it and once I got on TV, they became a little warmer, a little more receptive to it. And now everybody comes and supports me and it's great!

"But as soon as I got out of the cage and I was hugging them, they would say don’t do this no more, don’t do this again. My sister's crying and she’s saying ‘STOP! Please, will you stop!? This is enough, just open your own place and teach people, don’t fight no more!' So I still get it, but we all gotta do what we gotta do!”

“Ok, so with no family supporting you, then, who were your best supporters or role models?”

Tara: “I relied a lot on myself. I’m not really an affectionate person. I don’t reach out or have super tight friends. I mean, I do have some friends in the sport that I’ve developed over the past couple of years,  but in the beginning, I was kinda on my own. I had this desire, this dream and I chased after it, come hell or high water.

"My grandfather, he was cool. He wasn’t into the fighting aspect, per say, but he was like, if you believe in something and you really want it, then go for it. He supported my idea.”

“He believed in you.”

Tara: “Yes, I lost him in 2006, it was real tough.”

“So, what was the dream? Or focus? Have you accomplished it yet or are you still working toward it?”

Tara: “My dream when I got in the sport was to fight in Japan. That was the mecca. Back in 2001, I had only one amateur fight. I had been training for a year. That was it! That was where the Smack Girl organization was, who was putting on all women fights. There was really nothing in the US except the UFC, and then there was also Pride and other organizations, like King of Pancrase, that were putting on shows for men.

"I just wanted to fight in Japan, that was it. I never wanted to be the best or one of the best, I may have wanted to be among the best chicks in the sport, but I accomplished my goal pretty early on. I got to fight in Japan twice in 2005. That was pretty awesome! From then on, whatever happens now is icing.”

“What would you say is at the heart of most women who are female fighters…what is that gets you to go in the cage, that keeps you coming back to compete?”

Tara: “Hmmm, I don’t know, I really don’t know. There’s a lot of reasons. It’s not for anybody else. Cause its hard, this just sucks, my nerves get so bad. I get really terrified. I get scared. As a child growing up, I had a fear of fighting, I always have. So it’s a personal thing. I fight for myself!

"Every time I get in that cage, my bigger fight is with myself, not my opponent. Of course, I have some extremely tough opponents who are wonderful, but the biggest fight I have is with me. And getting the stones to actually walk up in the cage and accept the next fight and to keep going. It’s something I’m terribly afraid of, so you know I think I do it to conquer my own fears.”

“Wow, I didn’t expect that, this is such a great answer, it blew me away!”

Tara: “Yah, I was always afraid to fight. When I was a kid, I would never stand up for myself. I would avoid a lot in grade school. I would just take it and I would never stand up for myself. I hated confrontation. I avoided it at all costs. I was afraid to fight.”

“Not anymore! You have had 19 wins in your career and only two losses all against some seriously skilled competitors. Is it always the same fear that you are trying to conquer when you’re getting in there to fight, or different ones?”

Tara: “It was a fear of failure. I do not handle or accept failure very well.”

“Yah, but you did in that fight against Roxi. You told me after that fight ‘you learn more after your losses than you do your wins.' That’s what you told me.”

Tara: “That’s true, but this hiking trail, to me,  that’s a fail. I failed big time. If it were not for the aide of other people, I might have died. That means that I would not have been able to sustain myself, which means survive. I can’t handle that at all.

"I’m fighting with myself right now! Not to just get better gear and go back out there and try it again, right now! I got nothing happening. I got all the time in the world. So I’m trying to keep myself under control and hold myself to a higher level. I have a very high standard for myself with high expectations. So failure is not an option, yes, I learn from my mistakes and yes, I learn from my losses, but that’s who I am.”

“I have a question for you. Your boyfriend, Adrian, died a few years back, he was out there fighting for our country. And you were recently in a position where you were on your own against nature’s elements in a life threating situation. You didn’t know that that was going to happen, but it did. And you were in the woods alone and you’re looking at that as a failure…”

Tara: “He was also a hiker, he use to rock climb for real. He was an outdoorsy guy, camping, hunting, hiking, climbing, stuff like that.”

“You made it a mile away from the end of the trail in unforeseen severely bad weather and you did survive, people came in and pulled you out, but you did survive. But there have been people who have done similar hikes on trails that have died. How did you keep going?”

Tara: “When I was walking, I remember thinking, Gosh! I just wanna sit down, I’m so tired. I’m so tired, I’m so cold. What if I just pull out the emergency blanket, wrap myself up in it and try to make a call?

"But I knew that wasn’t going to be it. I’ve seen that on TV before, on different shows and I’ve read about people that have done that. Half the time they die, or lose fingers and toes due to frost bite. I knew what I had to do, I just had to will myself to do it. I’m a survivor! I’m not going to lie down and give up! I’ve never given up on anything in my life, ever!”

“But you’re an athlete and you took your body to an extreme. You took it to a monumental extreme by being a woman alone in the wilderness, I mean you do this sort of thing in the cage, but now you are doing this in nature and your body could only take you as far as it could go. Nature won the battle on the Laurel Highlands trail, winning battles against the human spirit over and over again. So, from my perspective, to look at that as a failure makes me think this is worth reexamining.”

Tara: “I didn’t complete the task I had set out for myself, so that’s where I failed. I had set out to hike the entire seventy miles of that trail, bottom line. I did not complete that. I did not make it to Johnstown, so to me that’s a fail.”

Chuckling, she says, “Regardless of the fact that I didn’t die. I’m grateful I’m still here, I’m very thankful that the Park Rangers and the EMS system and the dispatcher found me. And I’m very, very thankful I have all my fingers and toes. But I still, STILL have that task that I set out for myself, because this time, with everybody watching, because I put it up on Facebook and Twitter, I failed in front of people.

"So now I’m like what the shit, I’m going to complete that trail! I’m going to go back out in the spring and I’m going to do it. I know that I can physically, not a problem, even with a 40 pound pack! I can do that, I just wasn’t prepared correctly, I guess.

“I failed myself. Failing me is what it is. That’s what bothers me, the need to know that I can survive in any given situation. Could I have survived that storm through the night? I don’t know. I’m not sure, I don’t want to come out and say ‘yah, I could have.'  Because now I think to myself, maybe if I had done this or maybe I could have done that, but really when it comes down to it, I don’t know, I have no idea.

"I sure am tempted to go try, but I think my mom really would kill me this time, though.”

“I think I would if I were her too. I’d be like NO, you’re NOT GOING!”

Tara: “I fight myself, all the time. Whether it be getting in the cage, whether it be walking a trail or facing my fears. I used to be afraid of thunder and lightning, I was afraid of storms. I had to force myself to go running in a storm to get over it. To prove to myself that nothing was going to happen, that I was being silly. I got over it.

"When I was a little girl, like most kids, I used to be afraid of needles. I would suck it up, whenever I had to go to the doctors or hospital. I would force myself to watch them stick the needle under my skin to give me a shot or draw blood, and again, I got over it. It’s just been a theme throughout my life. My whole life has been based on overcoming my fears.”

“I think it’s a universal theme to overcome fears,  but most often people do not take it to the depths you have in testing your will to move yourself beyond those fears. How has this sport helped you evolve as a fighter, and as a woman?”

Tara: “I don’t know, I’ve really tried to think about that and carve out my own niche. I’m not perceived as a real girly girl. I’m not into hair and make-up or designer, trendy clothes and shoes. I look ridiculous, and I think it’s a waste of time. I spend the majority of my time sweating and taking care of little cuts and bruises, mishaps and injuries from being in the gym.

"I live in spandex and sweatpants, so silk and linen doesn’t have a future place in my life. I like to feel like a woman and be a women, but I don’t have to go above and beyond to prove it to people. There have been people on the internet and other fighters, other woman fighters, who wanted to point to me and say that I was a man. That I was masculine, maybe my outward appearance is, but I’m not.

"I’m a woman who happens to be athletic, physically fit…"

“who can kick ass.”

Tara: “…woman who doesn’t pretend to be something I’m not. Biologically, I am not as strong or as fast as a man. That’s a biological fact. I do not try to compete with men in MMA. In grappling,  yah, that’s a little bit different, technique can overcome size in some cases. But I’m not going out there trying to fight men, or to even cross dress or be a transgender, I’m just an athletic woman.

"Although, I really can’t stand the color pink either. But I love white! I’m not terribly affectionate, I’m not real frilly, I don’t sugar coat things, I call it like I see it. If I feel a certain way about something and strong enough, I’ll let you know and you will never have to worry about where you stand with me because if I don’t like it, you’ll know about it.

“Life’s short! Life is short and you only get one shot! Guess what, it’s my life! I’m calling the shots, I’m making the decisions and I’m doing it my way! Cause I’m the one who has to live with it in the end!”

“Awesome! You are a born warrior, girl!”

Tara: (she chuckles) “Some would say I’m a bitch!”

“Awe, no you’re not! You’re just a warrior like an Amazon. You’re just the full expression and embodiment of a female warrior who knows the toughness of her own will and spirit, who is determined to be unbreakable and to fight to the death!”

Tara: “Well, yah, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

“Good! I’m glad! I’m glad there are woman like you out there!”

Tara ‘Mother Fuckin’ LaRosa (19-2-0) will get her wish! A long awaited fight with top 10 ranked 125 pound fighter Carina ‘Beauty but the Beast’ Damm (15-5-0).

Promoter Brent Medley of Shark Fights 14 made the announcement official that LaRosa vs. Damm would be the co-main event, as there had been much anticipation about this 125 lb professional MMA matchup and whether or not it would happen. The two contenders will face each other in Lubbock, Texas on Friday, March 11 for fight fans to view live on HDNet.

Damm is coming off of two straight losses, against 125-pound fighter Cat Zingano and a loss in the first round of the Strikeforce 135 pound tournament against Hitomi Akano.

Tara lives in Woodstown, New Jersey and fights out of Philadelphia Fight Factory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Carina who is a native of Brazil is now living in St. Louis, Missouri and training at Finney’s MMA. Both fighters are BodogFight veterans. This should prove to be a very exciting matchup!

Tara wanted to thank the emergency services and the people of Somerset County, PA, because without them, she was a goner. Specifically,  “thanks to Mike and Andy, you guys rock!”

I’d like to thank Tara for the wonderful interview she gave and sharing herself and her experience with us all,  and a special thanks to my sponsor FIGHT SOAP for making this interview possible.

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