Fueled by a desire to be the best and a bit of bad blood, the top three women’s fighters Debi Purcell, Gina Carano, Tara LaRosa are on a collision course. Will we finally have an undisputed female champion?
Pundits and fans constantly debate which mixed martial artists reign supreme. As women’s MMA steadily garners more press clippings and television time, discussion over who is the “Fedor” of the female set continues to grow.
Leading the charge for this growing notoriety is a select trio of American women: Tara Larosa, Gina Carano and Debi Purcell. Larosa has won 11 straight and recently claimed the women’s 135-pound championship for BodogFight. Carano, unbeaten through four bouts and perhaps the sport’s most camera-friendly slugger, is the poster girl for EliteXC. And Purcell, widely respected for her well-rounded skill set, is on the verge of becoming the International Fight League’s marquee female fighter. Real Fighter spoke with MMA’s most marketable and skillful femme fatales about the prospect of facing one another.
“I’m probably one of the most nervous people in the sport,” confesses the 29-year-old Larosa. “I throw up, I hyperventilate and have anxiety attacks. I get the sh–ts—all kinds of stuff. It’s horrible. I’m like, Why am I doing this? This sucks. I don’t want to do this. There’s still time to pull out, I can still leave. Then I get in there, get hit and go to town. I do my job.”
Larosa, who grew up afraid of fighting, says her family repeatedly warned her she was wasting her time in the sport. Usually the last fighter in a room full of men to leave practice, Larosa says she continues fighting because she’s not nearly as talented at anything else. Her perfectionist tendencies are fueled by paranoia; she has a deep-seated fear of how hard her opponents might be preparing.
“That’s going to be who bumps me off, who’s going to give me my loss—the unknown chick who’s training, busting her ass right now,” Larosa says. “She is stronger, faster and gaining skills and she’s going to kick my ass when we meet in competition. But my goal is to be that chick. I want to be that person.”
Larosa predicts she and Carano will definitely meet in the ring someday, and isn’t buying into the Carano hype just yet. “Yeah, she has a little Muay Thai,” Larosa says, “but I’m not going to sit here and bulls–t you and tell you she’s the best fighter—she’s not. I don’t think she’s proven herself yet. From what I understand she has no ground. I really hope she’s busting her booty to get some ground game going on, because the competition is only going to get better. She’s going to have to be ready for it if they want to keep promoting her the way they do.”
Larosa has decidedly less to say about Debi Purcell, whom she sparred against in training several years ago. Without voicing why, Larosa was noncommittal and icy about whether that fight will ever become a reality. “I have no idea,” Larosa says coolly. “I fight whoever Bodog puts in front of me.”
Who can resist watching a woman whose looks can sweep you off your feet and whose hands can knock you on your ass? That is Gina Carano in a nutshell. Like Larosa, the soft-spoken Las Vegan is a proven winner, having prevailed in 12 of 13 Muay Thai matches before her foray into MMA. Perhaps no female in MMA has a bigger bulls-eye on her back than Carano, a trend that could be driven by envy and notoriety. Carano’s pretty face is easy to find these days. She has starred in nationally televised reality shows such as “Ring Girls” and “Fight Girls,” and is one of the featured fighters for EliteXC, which broadcasts fights on the Showtime cable network. She has also been featured in Newsday, Maxim and numerous other magazines and on a plethora of MMA’s most prominent Web sites.
Some have rushed to paint the heavy-handed beauty as an Anna Kournikova-type, a pro athlete coasting more on her looks than her skills. Others believe the stand-up specialist, despite a perceived weakness in the ground game, is more in the mold of pro volleyball player Gabrielle Reese—an awesome athlete who just happens to be a hottie.
Carano insists there is no need to handpick opponents to buy her more time to hone her jiu-jitsu skills. She pronounces herself ready to fight the best opponents now. “People used to laugh at me when I came in the ring, and then I’d kick their asses,” says the 25-year-old, whose father, Glenn, once played back-up quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. “I think I’d rather fight them now and, depending on how I do, fight them again if I have to. I’m honestly not scared about losing to a great opponent. I’m not scared about losing, period. You can choke me out on the ground, just as long as I give it everything I’ve got.”
Carano trains at Randy Couture’s gym in Las Vegas, where she receives pointers from the likes of Forrest Griffin, Tyson Griffin, Karo Parisyan and Jay Hieron, among others. She is quickly gaining a reputation, however, for meeting top fighters and having no idea who they are. One day Carano was training at Xtreme Couture and saw K-1 standout Dewey Cooper sparring with a fighter who was built like a bodybuilder. “Who’s that ripped motherf—er?” Carano asked. That guy, someone informed her, was Phil Baroni.
Carano, a la Tito Ortiz and Mike Tyson, often cries on the eve of her fights and views it as a valuable way to purge negativity from her soul. Then she goes out and transforms from nail-biter into butt-kicker. She is confident that EliteXC, Bodog and the IFL will eventually collaborate, pull the trigger and pit her against Purcell and Larosa. “I’ve asked for [these matchups] to happen already,” Carano says.
Debi Purcell may be one of MMA’s most resilient characters, as evidenced by a multitude of burdens she has shouldered outside of the ring. Over the past few years, she has lost her mother to brain cancer, a boyfriend to violence and close friend and trainer Jeremy Williams to suicide. She has also endured several ACL surgeries that have sidetracked her career. Like Carano, Purcell has had her fair share of the limelight, with appearances on MSNBC’s “Warrior Nation” and “IFL Battleground.” In the fight community, her reputation has been made by being the longtime protégé of Marco Ruas, a former UFC champion who is known for running one of the roughest, most high-contact fight gyms in the game.
It has been quite a ride for the Southern Californian nicknamed Whiplash because of her punching prowess. She turned pro in 2001 and triumphed in her first four fights, winning three of them inside of the distance. The powerfully built former gymnast took a sabbatical from competitive fighting for almost four years, then returned and lost a unanimous decision to Hitomi Akano, a top Japanese fighter whom Larosa has defeated. Purcell says she was hampered after tearing her ACL yet again during the second round of her bout with Akano.
After weathering another grueling round of therapy for her knee, Purcell pronounces herself as good as ever, and is eager to battle top fighters in a women’s scene that suddenly has a pulse with the public. Near the top of Purcell’s wish list is Carano, whom she respects but has been clamoring to fight.
“I am impressed with Gina,” says Purcell. “I think she’s good for the sport. I think she can fight well. She looks good. She speaks well. She has ‘it.’ She has the marketing behind her, and that helps. I’m not jealous. I think that’s great. Any of us would want that.”
According to Purcell, the IFL has tried to arrange the bout, but so far Carano’s handlers have not agreed. Purcell also says she can’t imagine retiring without first facing Larosa. IFL president Kurt Otto claims he has spent considerable effort trying to find someone to fight Purcell, to no avail. “I think a lot of women are afraid of her,” Otto says. “Debi’s not afraid to fight anybody, and I think she’s on a mission to prove she’s the best female fighter out there.” No woman has ever fought for the IFL, and Otto indicates he is interested in staging such fights only because he thinks so highly of Purcell’s ability.
As founder of the IFL, the first team MMA pro sports league, Otto has proven that he puts his money where his mouth is. He believes that both the public and the female fighters are ready for the spotlight, pointing to Carano’s fight from last February, when she beat Julie Kedzie via unanimous decision on Showtime, as the most entertaining match of that night. “The women saved that show,” Otto says. “The bottom line is, if you have top female fighters, they’re just as exciting as the men.” There’s just one problem: The number of female fighters pales in comparison to the men’s game, making it even more imperative that the biggest names in women’s MMA step up and fight each other in televised bouts.
Jeremy Lappen, head of fight operations for EliteXC, acknowledges that his organization was approached about a fight between Carano and Purcell, but is unaware of anyone rejecting the offer. Lappen predicts Carano will face off against Purcell and Larosa sooner than later. Similarly, Otto and Larosa believe the three organizations involved—EliteXC, the IFL and Bodog—should be able to broker a deal to make these intriguing fights happen, noting that there are plenty of precedents on the men’s side for “lending out” fighters to other organizations.
Anything short of making those female mega-fights, Otto says, will only stifle the progress of women’s MMA. “If they don’t, then what’s the point?” Otto says. “Then everybody will sit there and talk about who is the best. But ultimately you have to step in the ring and prove it.
“If they want to be seen as true professional fighters, OK, then fight.”