Either Side of the Ropes
Something happens when a woman steps into the ring. It’s not universal and I cannot speak for everybody, but I’ve both witnessed this phenomenon on many occasions in other women and I’ve experienced it myself. Women who are fantastic in training – padwork, bagwork, shadowboxing all with really sharp technique – seem to fall apart in sparring or in fights. I’ve seen men do the exact opposite, looking pretty sloppy and borderline bad in training and then suddenly get it together when within the ropes of the ring. What the hell is this?
The most obvious and reasonable explanation (as well as how I experience it myself) is that it’s an issue of confidence. Fighters without solid technique can still perform really well in fights or in sparring because it’s their “heart” that takes over and the performance of fighting is far more beautiful than the broken down practice of its elements. But I haven’t seen this in women so much and I question whether it is further exacerbated by an unfair interpretation when watching a woman’s performance in the ring, by my own perception as well.
I suspect that other women are like me in that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform well in the ring. And I think it’s not simply a matter of being a “head case” in that we’re inventing problems for ourselves, but that there is a tacit burden placed on women in male dominated sports to kind of “prove themselves” and justify their place in a way that is not really placed on or felt by the average man in those sports. This burden manifests in a (perceived) pressure to look good in the ring, because if you don’t look good you’re just a chick, an imposter, playing at the sport and not really an accepted part of it.
It’s not that people are going out of their way to make women feel unaccepted or to consciously judge them, but I do feel that women are not inherently accepted in the same way that men are, simply for the sake of being a woman/man. Some guy in the ring doesn’t have to justify his being there the way a woman does by being skilled or aggressive or “good.” In a way it’s as simple as that a man can disappear in the anonymity of the fact of his masculinity whereas a woman is exposed by her distinction from it.
The other day I had just finished padwork when I noticed that the only other female in the gym was sparring with her boyfriend on the concrete outside the ring. I’ve been here 11 weeks now and I’ve never seen her sparring, so it was noticeable on a number of levels. As the ring had just opened up a bit with several of us finishing our rounds, the couple were invited into the ring to continue their sparring. This further highlighted an already well-spectated display and I was interested to watch them as they began their next round. This woman has very clean technique in shadow, on the bag and in padwork. The technique actually changes fairly drastically between each exercise and she sticks to the same combinations – clearly having practiced them for countless hours. She’s better than most of the western men at the gym and stands out for her skill and aptitude.
In the context of sparring, everything changed. I’ve never seen her fight, so I don’t know how she performs in that context, but she wins most of the time. In this one example of sparring, she never initiated the action and was easily interrupted by counters from her boyfriend. He’s heavier and stronger than she, but not so much so that she can’t hurt him back. More than his ability to actually disturb her technique, he was very easily and effectively disturbing her psychologically, to the point that every time he touched her – even if it wasn’t a clean strike or delivered with much power – she would back way off and express in her physical demeanor a high degree of frustration and seeming self-criticism.
At least that is what I saw because I know that I do this. I’ve felt it and it is a huge problem, especially for Muay Thai which is a sport in which the visible emotional composure of the fighter effects scoring. And I’ve seen it before. At my one and only boxing fight I watched my teammate defeat a much less skilled and far less elegant opponent by unanimous decision and then barely make it out of the ring before she burst into tears at her own failure. It was surprising because I hadn’t seen whatever it was she was feeling, but I completely understood it because I’ve felt it – and still feel it – strongly. Winning and losing take a far-removed back seat to the performance itself and wanting to perform in what one believes to be an objectively good performance is primary. And impossible.
Pass/Fail In Sports
What’s so insanely frustrating about this whole issue is that one’s performance is most affected by one’s self perception. If you go in confident and fight with emotional and psychological composure, you look good. If you are fighting yourself over every little technical mistake you look like you hate what you’re doing, regardless of how technically well you are doing. And I think many women have a hard time with this because of this perceived need to justify their place in the ring.
In a strange way it’s similar to the concept of “passing” in the world of cross-dressing. In Thailand there is a “third gender” of male-to-female transvestites and/or transsexuals called Khathoi or Lady Boys. Many of them are amazingly beautiful and have distilled the essence of femininity down to a graceful performance that is virtually indistinguishable from the performance of femininity that “hot girls” assume. In other words, they “pass” as women. And then there are those who ride the line in a truly fascinating way in that they are performing an exaggerated femininity/feminine sexuality while falling just short of passing so that there is an ever present underlying awareness that this is not a woman and not a man, but something in between. These Khathoi receive all the judgement and represent all the novelty from the social audience.
Female Muay Thai fighters are in a very real way cross-dressing, wearing the mantle of masculinity to perform a sport which epitomizes it. I don’t know that there are any women – and I mean that I believe there to be none, rather than that I simply can’t conjure an example – who “pass” in Muay Thai. We are all women doing Muay Thai and none of us is indistinguishable from the aura or esteem of a male fighter. This is my experience. So instead we are all this in between thing, the exaggerated or insufficient expression of something that no matter how strongly we feel in ourselves is not the inherent way in which we are perceived. And so our performance is judged on what we are trying to be; and far more than the physical movements themselves it is the fear of our gestures giving us away as imposters that can ultimately betrays us.