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From flag-stealing to fighting, Boston's Charles Rosa comes full circle

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As an aspiring hockey player growing up in the Boston suburb of Peabody, Charles Rosa was like countless other young New Englanders who dreamt of taking the ice at the TD Garden in the Boston Bruins' black and gold.

But his vision came with a twist.

"I wanted to play for the B's like every other kid growing up," the UFC featherweight told MMAFighting.com. "But in my head, I would end up at center ice, fighting one of the Montreal Canadiens with the whole crowd going nuts."

Rosa was serious about his hatred of the Bruins' ancient rivals, too. Asked about his favorite memory rooting for the local teams in person, the action on the ice was secondary to the action in the stands.

"I was at a playoff game between the Bruins and Canadiens when I was 18, up in the balcony," Rosa recalled. "Half my section was filled with these obnoxious Montreal fans, and the guy in front of me was waving a Canadiens flag all night.

"Then [Boston's] Marc Savard scored the game-winner in overtime, and I took the guy's flag and ran with it," he continued. "Ran all the down and out of the building, had him and his friends chasing me the whole way. They never caught me, I gave the flag to my uncle and he still has it as a trophy to this day."

As far as the the teenaged Rosa knew at the time, his mad dash from the balcony to the train station would serve as his life's TD Garden athletic highlight.

But seven years later, now based in South Florida, the American Top Team fighter returns home, trading in skates for four-ounce gloves in order to fight out on the center of the Garden floor.

Rosa will meet fellow New England native Sean Soriano in the opening bout of the FOX Sports 1 prelim card on Sunday night.

"It's been exciting," Rosa said. "It's been great to come home and take it all in. I've come a long way."

After moving to South Florida, Rosa still had a bit of the flag-stealing punk left in him when he showed up at Charlie McCarthy's American Top Team satellite gym. Though Rosa's uncle and grandfather were amateur boxers, he had nothing but youth karate classes under his belt and little knowledge of gym etiquette on his first day in.

"Everyone paired off to spar," Rosa said. "And I was the only one who didn't have anyone, so I went off and asked this tall, lanky guy who was off to the side and asked him to spar. He kind of ignored me and I took it personally. So I asked again with some attitude and he agreed."

The tall guy was Cole Miller, already an established UFC presence. The inexperienced Rosa took his beating and came back for more.

"It's not like everyone in the gym saw it, but when I came back to the gym next time, Charlie took me aside and explained a few things. It's a good thing he saw something in me."

Rosa caught on at ATT. It didn't take long for him to earn the nickname "The Boston Strangler," especially after he won back-to-back bouts by Peruvian necktie and an anaconda choke. Rosa won all nine of his fights on the indy circuit via finish as he waited for his crack at the big time.

The call came, as it happened, in a manner he never would have imagined. Rosa had traveled to the Netherlands to work on his kickboxing when he got the call to head over to Sweden and fight veteran Dennis Siver on Oct. 4 - on five day's notice.

"I had no hesitation at all," Rosa said. "I had to lose 31 pounds in a few days. It was one of the worst things I've ever gone through in my life. The kickboxers all thought I was nuts. I didn't care. I'm the type of person who isn't going to say no to an opportunity."

Given the circumstances, Rosa acquitted himself well in his debut. He lost to Siver, but went the distance and took home a $50,000 Fight of the Night bonus for his efforts.

Still, it took Rosa awhile to see the bright side.

"I hate losing," he said. "That was my first loss and at first, that was all I could think about. Then when I got home, people kept telling me they respected what I did, taking the fight on short notice, and I realized that I proved that I belong. I wouldn't want to go through it like that, but it was a valuable experience."

And it led to the opportunity to fight in his hometown, with a chance to represent ATT against the rival Blackzilians, to boot. Rosa lives in Boca Raton, within shouting distance of the Blackzilians gym. But the lengths Rosa went to in order to prove his loyalty to the Bruins back in the day should be an indication of how far he's willing to take a rivalry, and on Saturday, he wants to show he's ATT to the core.

"American Top Team made me," Rosa said. "I went into there with no experience, no real training, and they've built me up into the person I am today. The rivalry's legit, we don't like each other. I've gotten everything I could have asked for with this fight. I'm fighting in my hometown, fighting under all those banners, representing my team against the Blackzilians. All I have to do now is go out and get the job done."