There aren’t a great number of professional female Muay Thai fighters in the west and fewer still in the USA. I came across Roxy “Balboa” Richardson just as she was preparing for her retirement fight this past year against Elaina Maxwell in Lion Fight Promotions’ “Battle in the Desert 4.” I’d fought on Lion Fight Promotions “Battle in the Desert 3” and probably a year earlier had interviewed Elaina Maxwell (who fought Gina Carano in the first female MMA bout for Strikeforce in 2006) for Alias Fight Wear’s newsletter. It’s usually only two degrees of separation in the world of female Muay Thai.
Roxy won that fight and retired to focus full-time on her own fighters and clients at her Function 5 Fitness gym in LA. Incidentally, I’d met Natalie Fuz right as she was preparing for her own retirement from professional Muay Thai fights in order to open her own gym, Chok Sabai in NYC. The similarities between Nat Fuz and Roxy Richardson are not many, but the movement toward teaching full-time and letting go of one’s own fight path in order to focus on the “next generation” so to speak is a strong connection. Both Nat and Roxy have visions about how to train female fighters, something I discussed with Natalie Fuz in an interview I did with her in 2009 and that Valerie Worthington covers in more detail with Roxy in her interview here: “Training Muay Thai Women: An Interview with Fighter-Coach Roxy Richardson, Part 2”
Women, Motivation and Ego
I had strong reactions, in two directions, to Roxy’s responses regarding how to train female fighters in specific difference to training male fighters. In Roxy’s experience, women don’t respond well to the “suck it up” approach to motivation that she finds works well with men. Her description defines this difference as one of motivation, that women are not motivated by ego as men are:
Most female fighters are a bit more aggressive and type-A than most girls. They have a fire in them and I can be a bit rougher with them. But female fighters are generally not motivated by ego, so you can’t attack their ego in training to make them work harder. They are motivated by a desire to not let the team and coach down. Praise and guilt make female fighters work harder.
I reacted strongly to this statement as one of great truth. Just a week ago I was having a hard time in morning training because of how I perceived a difference between a male student at the gym compared to me. He’s a westerner, like me, and says he has only trained Muay Thai at Lanna and has not trained at all in two years since he was last here. I suspect he has a martial arts background other than Muay Thai – maybe Tae Kwon Do as a kid by the way he does some things – but either way, by his account, he has about 3 months Muay Thai training all together. He looks great in his padwork. He’s fast, explosive, deliberate and technically consistent. If I were to break it down into a single word, he’s confident. And that’s really what my realization boiled down to: that men have a gift of confidence and sometimes cockiness that looks good. This guy ended up having a fight a week later and as his confidence waned, his nerves began to shake, his technique and speed were no longer at the ready. He looked more like someone who’d only had a few months of training.
That confidence is a gift because it allows the person to perform in a way that is not necessarily in direct accordance to his actual skill or experience. And I think it’s easier or more natural for men to train from this place, from an inherent confidence that women perhaps lack. I talked about this in an earlier post, that women are working to justify their place in the gym because they are (whether outwardly stated or tacitly implied) not assumed to hold the same place that men do.
I recognize Roxy’s assertion on a personal level as well. I certainly don’t do well when I’m given “tough love” or my ego is attacked in training as a means to get me to go harder. I have a trainer here who likes to tell me I’m not strong anymore, that some visitor to the gym said I was good at Muay Thai and he corrected that person by saying that I’m not good, or to tell me he doesn’t understand why I can’t do something that he calls “easy.” It sucks. It does not make me hit harder to prove him wrong and it doesn’t make me feel energized to push myself to match his expectations. It makes me feel like shit. But I do respond well to someone telling me (often unexpectedly) that my technique is good or that they are excited to see me fight. And my husband uses the guilt card so much it’s actually faded around the edges, but it works.
The difference in how to motivate between genders is tricky especially for coaches who are accustomed to the criticism approach being a feasible means for training men. There simply aren’t a lot of women training in Muay Thai. Surely there are more now than there were five or ten years ago, but we’re still a significant minority and very few gyms have more than a few women training consistently at one time. In Thailand the number of females training in earnest to be fighters, rather than day-trippers, is very small. Expecting that any of these coaches have considered the particular needs or approaches to training women is unrealistic. If you’re going to fight like a man, you should train like a man, right? It’s beautiful to me that there are now more women coaching other women and understanding/developing these particular methods to get the best out of (and put the best into) their fighters.
Dating in the Gym
On a similar note, Roxy goes on to advise women not to date their teammates. I find this an interesting subject and one that I’ve written about before. In New York (and from contact with women around the country and world) I’ve found it quite common for women who are serious about Muay Thai/Boxing/MMA to be dating or married to their coach and/or manager. These relationships may be convoluted by which came first, the relationship or the dedication to fight. (My relationship with my husband started before Muay Thai, but Muay Thai has been a huge part of our relationship and life together. Due to issues of isolation, lack of teammates, and gender labyrinths in training as a woman in Muay Thai, he has also often been a training partner for me.)
I assume the frequency of women dating their coaches comes from two things: the first is that women who fight need a partner who supports and understands this passion and it makes sense that a coach or trainer would fully appreciate what it takes. (And some of these couples are absolutely amazing in how perfectly they align.) I’ve met women whose partners are not fully supportive and it’s a very difficult matter for both the relationship and for pursuing their love of the sport. The other point is that women need not only support but perhaps even an advocate in order to succeed in an industry or organization that sweeps them aside or shuts them out. Being in a relationship with your trainer helps in getting adequate training or being integrated into the gym with a level of authority. And in the case of a partner-manager, your best interests are certainly ensured by the person in charge of promoting you.
I’ve realized in considering relationships in gyms that there are advantages, but I tend to agree with Roxy that relationships in gyms are complicated – but fighting is an intimate thing so I can see how these relationships come to be. The power dynamic of coach and fighter is tricky. I can take a hit or be coached by a stranger or a trainer I trust but the exact same impact or advice from my husband (who is not my coach or manager) is filtered through our relationship and I’m not as receptive. I get angry.
And that’s why I find Roxy’s advice interesting in that it is deterring relationships between teammates, not coaches and trainees. The relationship between teammates should be equal in terms of authority, which is a little idealistic but we’ll go with it. But the emotional and psychological complication of training with (or against) your sexual partner is one that I personally have found to be difficult. Having witnessed a few arguments and fights between boyfriend and girlfriend in the gym out here in Thailand – arguments and fights that were in wording and subject about training but certainly wouldn’t ever take place without the context of their personal/romantic/domestic/sexual relationship – I know that I’m not alone in this experience. I’m not saying they should not have their relationship or that they should not train together (without each other they would not be in Thailand with this shared experience), I’m just saying that the combination is complicated… and wonderful.
The Things You Carry – In and Out of the Ring
This leads to Roxy’s advice to leave your personal life out of the gym, which is difficult to do when you are dating your teammate or coach. Her advice is directed toward women (the article is about training women) and, in its recommendation, I assume to be aimed at heterosexual relationships.
[L]eave your personal issues out of the gym and leave the gym out of your personal life. Easier said than done, but basically for female fighters it’s about getting in touch with your more masculine side in training and your feminine side in your home life or dating life. You can be an alpha female in the ring, on that mat, etc. but then when you get home flip that switch off. You don’t need to be asserting your dominance while cooking dinner and watching Breaking Bad.
I don’t agree with Roxy here, and to be fair it seems that she was likely speaking in much larger contexts here and it was edited down to be concise. But I’m speaking to what’s quoted. Certainly you don’t need to be competing in your regular life as one might in a gym space and I’ve mentioned before how the person in the ring has more freedoms or is permitted different choices from the person who maintains relationships or goes to work every day. But I don’t think you should “turn off” the “Alpha female” when you go home. I truly believe that what you learn about yourself and what you push yourself to become strong in at the gym should absolutely go home with you and carry over into your “real” life.
As a fighter you walk differently; you take up space differently. When I first started in Muay Thai it was a surprise to everyone who knew me. Maybe because of my size, my appearance and demeanor, the fact that I was involved in a violent, combat sport was viewed as a contradiction. Maybe some of these people had a more tomboyish image of female boxers or expected my quiet, calm and non-imposing persona to be at odds with what is required for matching someone else’s ill intentions in the ring. And a lot of that hasn’t changed. I’m still small, quiet and unassuming for the most part. But as my body changed and the way I move in a space became more deliberate, the shock of hearing I am a fighter became less and less until it was more, “that makes sense” than “what, like foxy boxing?”
And while I agree that women are getting in touch with their masculine side in the gym and that many aspects of combat sports are characteristically masculine or male-oriented, I feel strongly that it is incomplete to leave it at that. In its performance Muay Thai is an assertion and demonstration of masculinity and in many ways I consider those of us women who dedicate ourselves to this art and sport to be cross-dressing. I wrote about it in Act Like it: Confidence in a Performance Culture. But I don’t think that masculinity and femininity necessarily rest on opposite pans on a scale where the addition of one means the deficit of the other. Rather, it is a constant battle for balance in which the tipping of one scale leads to more being added to the other, so that the gains in masculine aggression mean a strengthening of feminine assertion as well. Stronger is stronger, no matter how you break it down.
I’m excited that Roxy Richardson is talking about these things and this blog post shares my thoughts regarding the subjects covered in her interview. You can read the whole interview here. But I’m interested to hear the thoughts of others. I hope it opens the discussion.