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Three take aim at glory as women's MMA continues rapid ascent

Although women's mixed martial arts has seen more growth in the last eight months than in its first decade, the vast majority of female fighters are still no closer to reaping the financial rewards enjoyed by their male counterparts.

This may be changing, though.

The recent swell of support for women's MMA can be traced back to March, when the loquacious Ronda Rousey claimed Strikeforce women's 135-pound title in dominant fashion, then tipped into mainstream consciousness and skyrocketed to sports stardom just like her predecessor Gina Carano did before her.

A month later, the arrival of Invicta Fighting Championships, an all-women's promotion, turned the industry on its ear when the online stream of its debut event drew a staggering 233,580 unique visitors, shattering the previous notion that MMA fans preferred women's fights in small, select doses.

Viewership numbers in 2012 suggest that the fans' tastes might be shifting. The Ultimate Fighting Championship's landmark television deal with Fox Sports Media Group has created an abundance of free MMA content this year, but stretching its product thin across multiple platforms has had a similar effect on its U.S. viewership. In comparison, women's MMA -- much like the way the men's side used to be -- is still compact and contained, making it much easier for fans to follow.

Invicta's second event in July scored even greater viewership numbers online than its first show, according to co-owner Shannon Knapp, which bodes well for the promotion's third event this Saturday in Kansas City, Kans. (4 p.m. ET, InvictaFC.com).

In various stages of their careers, Jessica Penne, Tara LaRosa and Jessamyn Duke are three women fighters whose paths will intersect at Invicta on Saturday. These women are part of the small, but growing army of female athletes who've committed themselves to an uncertain living in a combat sport previously reserved for men. And what follows are some of the challenges they've faced breaking through MMA's gender barrier.

Jessica Penne's alarm clock goes off every morning at 4 a.m. In those dark moments before the sun has yet to show itself, she feeds her pit bulls, Ludo Monster and Monsteress Chimaera, then leaves her Southern California home for the 30-minute drive to L.A. Boxing, where she teaches the 9:30 cardio kickboxing class.

Penne leads the housewives of Orange County through their monotonous morning ritual, but her mind drifts off to the one-hour drive she has next to Reign Training Center, so she can start her own workouts for the day around 11:30 a.m. After months of waiting, Penne finally has a fight coming up and it's the big one.

On Saturday, the 29-year-old Penne (9-1) headlines Invicta's third event, vying for the promotion's first atomweight (105 pounds) championship against Naho Sugiyama, the 105-pound titleholder in Jewels, a Japanese promotion that has been producing women's bouts since 2008. Whoever wins Saturday night will become No. 1 in the division's world rankings. This is Penne's breakout fight, the star-making turn she's worked toward for seven years.

Penne's come a long way in that time. When she first started fighting, the soft-spoken Penne kept her fights hidden from her Italian father because she feared he wouldn't approve. Today, Penne's lifestyle is built around fighting. She follows a regimented schedule to ensure she has the time and funds to train so she's ready to take a fight on a moment's notice. She keeps like-minded people around her, renting the extra rooms in the house left to her by her grandmother to other fighters. Male or female, this is the type of all-encompassing commitment it takes to be a successful professional fighter.

At Reign, the petite 5-foot-5, 110-pound Penne will put in the same grueling schedule alongside her male counterparts: two to three-hour training sessions twice a day (sometimes thrice a day with early morning strength and conditioning) covering the MMA basics (boxing, kickboxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu) with a meal and a nap in between, six days a week.

"Women [fighters] generally are not as strong and less explosive just because of the difference in the genders, but for the most part, when it comes to technique, you can see a large similarity. They train pretty much the same," said Reign's owner Mark Munoz, a UFC middleweight contender who coaches Penne and two other female hopefuls.

She might log in the same hours and drills as the men, but that doesn't mean Penne will be given the same chances afforded her teammates. MMA is far from an equal opportunity sport and strong-minded women need only apply.

Since MMA's emergence in America in 1993, there have been over 15,000 documented fight events in the U.S., and only 14 of them have showcased women from top to bottom. To say that women fighters have had less opportunities then the men would be a gross understatement, but getting into those few coveted slots has only been part of the battle. For a female fighter, the struggle often begins when she steps through the gym door.

When Penne transitioned from kickboxing to MMA in 2005, it took her time to find a gym where she felt comfortable, wanted and a part of the team. At her previous gym, Penne was the only female fighter and at the mercy of male teammates who thought she was neither tough enough nor deserving enough to train with them. Penne often ended up in the corner hitting the bags alone and left at the end of the night in tears with the nagging feeling that she wasn't as prepared as she could be for her fights.

Penne's situation wasn't an isolated one. Even Rousey, now the world's most popular female fighter, had to try out three gyms before she found the right fit.

"Most gyms weren't spending time on women fighters," said Rousey, a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in judo who started fighting in 2010. "Women's MMA wasn't exactly a budding industry."

It's not something lost on Penne's current trainer, Munoz.

"With women in this sport, they feel like they have to prove something," he said.

At Munoz's gym in Lake Forest, Calif., he encourages a safe environment for male and female fighters alike by following a couple of simple rules: no preferential treatment and no drama. Preferential treatment toward the women would cause dissension among the male fighters, he said.

"There are no qualms about women training in this gym, just as long as they train hard and there's no drama," said Munoz. "The male fighters actually love the work ethic [women bring to the gym]. Sometimes they'll stop to watch the women spar."

Penne has a few female training partners to spar and grapple with at Reign (a growing trend in MMA gyms across the country) or she can just as easily work out with the men. This keeps her motivated during the yearlong lulls between fights, because at least she knows she's improving in her downtime.

Because Penne fights in the lightest women's division, her pool of potential opponents is even smaller than most, which has led her to compete in multiple weight divisions, even if that means her opponent outweighs her by 10 or 20 pounds. Division-hopping is a widespread dilemma among female fighters that Invicta is currently untangling, and once it's sorted through and the promotion crowns champions in its five divisions, women's MMA will be even more accessible to fans.

Penne wants to be among those champions.

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.

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