Sarah D'Alelio: A Phoenix Rising Up The Ranks Of Invicta FCOn January 5th, bantamweight standout Sarah “The Monster” D’Alelio took another big step towards the top of the 135-pound women’s division. The jiu-jitsu specialist dominated fellow Strikeforce veteran Amanda “Lioness of the Ring” Nunes in a featured bout at Invicta Fighting Championships 4.

D’Alelio has won three of her four fights for Invicta FC and is the only fighter to have competed on each of the all-female promotion’s four cards to date. Invicta FC has provided bright and timely opportunities for D’Alelio and the charismatic fighter intends to continue her rise up the ranks this year.


While growing up in Belfast, Maine, D’Alelio (7-3-0 MMA) was surrounded by other children at all times and took an early interest in sports. In addition to her large family of brothers and sisters, D’Alelio had no shortage of other kids to interact with. Her mother babysat for neighbourhood children and one boy took karate classes at a nearby school. He often showed off what he had learned and D’Alelio was intrigued, but financial limitations meant that martial arts training would have to wait.

At age 14, D’Alelio’s family moved west to Olympia, Washington, where she remained active in soccer and basketball. The urge to seek out combat sports training never went away and years later, on August 17, 2007, D’Alelio had her first jiu-jitsu class at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu of Olympia. Kickboxing classes were also available on an infrequent basis and D’Alelio learned the basics, but the ground game became her bread and butter.

In 2009, D’Alelio entered the world of mixed martial arts. After a handful of amateur bouts, she turned pro on February 20, 2010 and went on to fight five times before the end of the year. Her first four fights ended in stoppage wins, including notable submission victories over Colleen Schneider and Raquel Pa’aluhi.

The impressive winning streak propelled D’Alelio into a December bout with experienced veteran Julie Kedzie in Albuquerque, New Mexico. D’Alelio would lose the fight via a competitive decision, but she learned many valuable lessons in the process. Her cardio was not where it needed to be – especially for fights at altitude – and the dreary weather in the Pacific Northwest had left her battling a persistent cold and flu for close to two months prior to the fight. A change was in order.


Making The Move

Following the loss to Kedzie, D’Alelio relocated to California to train at the Combat Sports Academy in Dublin. The gym was home to skilled strikers, including featherweight contender Elaina Maxwell, and D’Alelio began training under Kirian Fitzgibbons to continue to develop her overall MMA game.

As her skills progressed at her new gym, D’Alelio received her biggest fight opportunity to date when Strikeforce came calling in early July 2011. The promotion matched D’Alelio up against current UFC champion Ronda Rousey at 145 pounds. D’Alelio had just five weeks to prepare for the August 12th fight, which would air live on Showtime in front of a sizable audience.

The bout with Rousey was brief and controversial. The Olympic medallist judoka jumped into a flying armbar early in round one and used it to pull D’Alelio down to the mat. D’Alelio let out a small cry in pain as she worked to escape the hold and referee Steve Mazzagatti intervened to stop the fight, declaring that D’Alelio had verbally submitted. The contentious loss was disappointing because D’Alelio had been unable to show off any of her new skills, but what followed was even more discouraging.

Strikeforce kept D’Alelio under contract in the months following the loss to Rousey, but failed to offer her any fights. D’Alelio was training full-time, but not making any money as she was effectively benched by the promotion. To make matters worse, an injury in training forced her to pull out of a small-show fight opportunity in December. D’Alelio rehabbed the injury and resumed training, but she was reaching another crossroads in her career.


A New Beginning

As her frustration continued to mount, things changed for D’Alelio in early 2012. An upstart all-female promotion, Invicta Fighting Championships, formed and announced its first event for April 28th. Despite her two-fight losing skid, D’Alelio received a chance to compete on the inaugural Invicta FC card. It was an opportunity that could not have come at a better time.

“It was a light at the end of the tunnel,” D’Alelio says. “A light in the darkness. They saved my career.”

D’Alelio’s debut for the promotion came against BJJ brown belt Vanessa Mariscal, who had earned submission victories in each of her first two fights. Some observers felt that Mariscal’s ground skills would prove to be too much for D’Alelio, but D’Alelio had other ideas and she was not about to let a golden opportunity slip away.

What followed was one of the most lopsided fights on the Invicta FC 1 card. D’Alelio overwhelmed her opponent on the ground with submission attempts and strikes until Mariscal finally tapped out to punches midway through the second round. The impressive win got D’Alelio back on track and established her as one of the bantamweight division’s top female grapplers.

Three months later, D’Alelio was back in the Invicta FC cage and she was once again the underdog. D’Alelio’s opponent, highly-touted Brazilian veteran Vanessa Porto, was a decorated BJJ black belt who had won seven of her past eight fights. D’Alelio had just received her BJJ purple belt, but she appeared to be at a disadvantage on paper if the fight went to the ground.

Once again, D’Alelio silenced doubters with her slick skills on the ground. She took Porto down to the mat and avoided her opponent’s submission attempts before transitioning to back control. Porto tried to scramble out and D’Alelio trapped her in a fight-ending reverse triangle armbar to earn a first-round tapout win and a share of the event’s Submission of the Night bonus.

Motivated by being an underdog, D’Alelio was quickly becoming a top contender.


Another Lesson Learned

In October, D’Alelio made her third straight appearance for Invicta FC in what was billed as a possible bantamweight title eliminator. As in her past fights, D’Alelio was matched up against a fellow grappling specialist in Shayna Baszler, who was renowned for her vast array of submission holds.

Baszler kept D’Alelio on the defensive in the opening round and finished the fight with a rear-naked choke early in round two. The loss was tough for D’Alelio and she knew that she could have done better if she had stuck to the game plan and instructions from coach Kirian. A loss, yes, but also another learning experience. D’Alelio returned to the gym determined to come back stronger. She would not lose again.

CSA’s partnership with respected trainer Cesar Gracie has allowed D’Alelio to cross-train with fellow bantamweight standouts Alexis Davis and Leslie Smith. Together, all three fighters were in action earlier this month when Invicta FC returned to Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas for its fourth event. The teammates were determined to go 3-0 in their fights for a shutout and they did just that.

For the first time in her Invicta FC career, D’Alelio was matched up against a striker. Fellow Strikeforce veteran Amanda Nunes, winner of six fights by knockout, stood across the cage from D’Alelio, who again reprised her role as the underdog. This time, however, D’Alelio had listened intently to the plan set forth by her coaches and teammates and she was confident that she had Nunes’s number.

Over the course of three rounds, D’Alelio completely nullified any and all offence from Nunes, who was forced to fight off of her back throughout the 15-minute affair. A frustrated Nunes lost a point in round two for an illegal upkick and went on to lose the bout with scores of 30-26 across the board. D’Alelio had hoped to secure her third submission win for Invicta FC, but she was happy to get the victory.

“I wanted a finish,” she says. “I wanted to finish her and I thought I was going to be able to submit her on the ground, but her survival instincts are good. I was looking for submissions, but she saw them coming. She’s good off of her back.”

D’Alelio’s teammates went on to win their fights in impressive fashion in the next two bouts on the card. Smith decisioned Raquel Pennington and Davis choked out Baszler in the night’s co-main event. It was a good night for the CSA/Gracie Fighter allies.


Trust In The Team

A tight-knit bond has been formed between D’Alelio, Davis and Smith, who state that they will never fight each other even though all three currently occupy top spots in the women’s bantamweight rankings. That rule also extends to multi-time Muay Thai champion Miriam Nakamoto, who made a successful MMA debut in September and is currently one of D’Alelio’s primary training partners.

D’Alelio has worked with Nakamoto to develop the elite striker’s ground game. In turn, Nakamoto helps D’Alelio with her ever-improving standup. Sparring with Nakamoto has allowed D’Alelio to become much more comfortable on the feet, but she admits that she still has work left to do.

“People say that once you get it, it’s simple. I haven’t gotten to that point yet,” D’Alelio laughs. “I’ll grasp it for a little bit and one day my sparring will be on. Like, I can stand with Miriam for a minute and I’m okay. Other times it will be terrible, so I really go through waves with the striking. I haven’t gotten to a point where it’s natural just yet, but hopefully that will come this year.”

Training with Davis, a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Japanese Jujutsu, has also humbled D’Alelio at times, but she knows that training with the best is preparing her to fight the best when she steps into the Invicta FC cage. By weathering the storm of submissions from Davis in the gym, D’Alelio is then better prepared to adapt to her opponents’ actions when competing in a fight.

It took time for D’Alelio to become comfortable with her current teammates and surroundings, but she attributes that to her own complex personality and speaks glowingly about her time at CSA. Coach Kirian is always honest with her about her strengths and weaknesses, which has built up a strong, trusting bond. Having teammates to watch her back has also been instrumental in developing D’Alelio’s career.

“There’s that whole trust thing,” she says. “You don’t realise how paranoid you are until you find someone you can trust. Then it’s like, ‘Oh, this is nice.’ You know that they’re not going to go out and tell anyone your weaknesses or anything like that.”


Reaching The Top

The CSA and Gracie Fighter faction currently has a stranglehold on much of the Invicta FC bantamweight division, but D’Alelio may be left as the one to challenge for the promotion’s inaugural 135-pound title. Davis has eyes on a move to the UFC to face Rousey, while Smith is considering a drop to 125 pounds to challenge the winner of the April Invicta FC flyweight title bout between Barb Honchak and Porto.

For D’Alelio, competing for a title would be nice, but her focus is the same as it was when she began her career: Testing herself against the best fighters in the division and proving that she belongs at the top.

“At this level, with the girls that [Invicta] is bringing in, every fight is a title contention fight,” D’Alelio says. “The girls are good. They’re really good. So I think that we’re all in ‘title contention’ right now. If there’s a belt, that’s cool, but if not, that’s cool, too.”

D’Alelio welcomes bouts with former Strikeforce champion Sarah Kaufman, as well as unbeaten rising stars Cat Zingano and Sara McMann, and she has set goals for this year that she hopes to achieve in her upcoming fights.

“No more losses,” she says. “That’s my goal. Another goal is to open up a bit in my fights. I want to show more than just, ‘In this fight, Sarah’s a wrestler. In this fight, Sarah’s a ground fighter. In this fight, Sarah wants to box.’ I want to go in there and be like, ‘In this fight, Sarah wants to box, wrestle and jiu-jitsu you.’ That’s my goal for this year in my fights.”

D’Alelio may have a chance to showcase her all-around game in April when Invicta FC travels to her adopted home state of California for the first time. Invicta FC 5 is scheduled to take place on April 6th in Irvine, California, and D’Alelio’s teammates Smith and Nakamoto are likely to be on the card. D’Alelio hopes to continue her streak of fighting on every Invicta FC card, but she has a plan in place if she can’t.

“Even if I’m not on the card, I’ll still be there. I’ll be there early,” she says. “I’ll find [matchmaker] Janet [Martin] and make her put me to work.”

It’s clear that D’Alelio has a deep respect and appreciation for the opportunities afforded to her by Invicta FC. The promotion’s logo, a fiery phoenix rising from the ashes, mirrors the phoenix that is tattooed on D’Alelio’s left shoulder.

For the promotion, the bird represents a new beginning for female fighters in MMA. For D’Alelio, it symbolises a new chapter in her career and one that has led her to become one of the sport’s premier female competitors.



(Photo Credit: Esther Lin, /

  1. Wow! This is awesome Robert! I love this post! Thanks for sharing!

  2. What a great article. I am looking forward to see what 2013 holds for Sarah.

  3. She is very strong, I was impressed with her takedowns.