Not so long ago, you never in a million years would have thought that a UFC event would be headlined by a pair of female fighters. Not so long ago, you never would have dreamed that there’d be female MMA fighters starring in feature films, or that there’d be an organization featuring only female competitors, or that a particular female UFC champ would command a salary greater than some of her male champion counterparts. No, back when the sport was so new it wasn’t even on SpikeTV yet, to even witness two ladies duking it out wearing four-ounces gloves in a cage was a rarity of almost “freakshow” quality.
If the birth of MMA in the United States can be attributed to the first UFC airing on pay-per-view in 1993, the birth of women’s MMA is a far more nebulous thing. Was the first female bout at a regional show called Extreme Challenge in Salt Lake City back in 1998? Was it at an Indiana promotion called HookNShoot? A Hawaiian event called Superbrawl? Since minor league MMA results were only sparingly recorded prior to 2001, no one really knows for sure – but almost everyone agrees the first best female mixed martial artist was Jennifer Howe.
The Utah native fought in auditoriums and casinos everywhere from Iowa to South Dakota and Florida to Alaska, and went undefeated for almost six years. She ran into a brick wall named Roxanne Modafferi in 2004, but until then, even though no organization was really crowning female champs, Howe was considered the best.
The first female MMA bout in New Jersey went down at a Reality Fighting event in Wildwood in 2002, and it saw a fulltime nurse named Laura D’Auguste beat a Renzo Gracie-trained jiu-jitsu purple belt. Two years and six fights later, she was doing the same to Modafferi, and the notion that the undefeated D’Auguste was the best began to get passed around by the ever-growing number of people who cared about that sort of thing.
By then, Japan – excited by MMA and the monster shows the now-defunct mega-organization PRIDE FC was putting on – had its very own ladies-only fight promotion, “Smackgirl.” D’Auguste flew to Tokyo and entered a Smackgirl tournament, and by winning it she left no doubt in anyone’s mind. A year and two local fights later, D’Auguste retired.
Meanwhile, two big sub-UFC organizations were going “all in” on female mixed martial arts. One, a promotion called EliteXC, had Gina Carano as its star; the other, called BodogFIGHT, had Tara LaRosa. Whereas Carano was fed opponents she could beat, LaRosa was facing the toughest, most accomplished fighters from all over the world. Carano may have gone on to become “the face of female MMA,” but when LaRosa won BodogFIGHT’s 135-pound championship belt, fans new who the real badass was.
“When I first got into the sport there were very few women, and they were scattered all over the country and all over the world,” says LaRosa. Her first bout was in 2002, at a HookNShoot. Since then, she’s amassed a 21-3 record. “At that time, Japan was the mecca – that’s where everyone wanted to go and that’s where everyone wanted to fight,” she says. “And Japan was also running all-female shows, so that was the place. When I got into the sport, I wanted to fight in Japan. That was kind of like the dream.
“I got a few fights in the Midwest, and [HookNShoot promoter] Jeff Osbourne was putting on all-women shows – which was totally revolutionary ‘cause nobody had done that and nobody even knew there were women in the sport. I became a part of those shows and got built up, but it was very difficult to find fights because there were so few women.”
These days LaRosa trains in Albuquerque, with Greg Jackson’s crew – a team that includes Julie Kedzie, a fighter who could very well be fighting in the UFC in the coming year along with champion Ronda Rousey and her first challenger, Liz Carmouche.
“I am so proud,” LaRosa says. “I am so proud of where the sport has come and what we have done. It’s been a collective thing. It took me a little while to come to that realization. Six or seven years ago, I was like, ‘I want to be the top dog, I want to be the best, I want to be the one who makes it big.’ But there’s a lot more that goes into it than being the best fighter. So it was cool when Gina came along and got so much attention for the sport, and then [Cris] Cyborg [Santos] came in and showed that there’s a level up, and now Ronda [Rousey] has come in and raised the bar even higher and brought so much attention to the sport. It’s my dream; this is what I wanted. It’s why I fought for so long to achieve – to educate people, from promoters to family to friends, to the general public. This is what I’ve been working so hard for.”
Click below for related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.