It’s easy to take a site like Awakening Female Fighters for granted. There are so many sites out there, and so much of information on the internet is for free. It feels like just a big salad bar of content for us to enjoy. It would be easy to miss how Awakening is radically changing female fighting, quietly while few are looking, and the tons of thankless hours they are putting in to do so. It could be argued that there is no more important digital process at work than the creation and maintenance of the Awakening database, especially for female Muay Thai fighters, by far the largest database of female fighter records and careers in the world with over 10,000 athlete profiles. This is a site that will impact decades, if it is maintained and grown. Nothing is more important than history. In order for us as female competitors and fighters to be doing something, we have to be making history. And that means someone has to write it down, compile it, preserve it. That’s what Awakening has been doing.
So I sat down with Ashley and Rew via Skype and talked to them about their project. I wanted to know more about this unassuming team that is quietly changing the face of female fighting. They are pretty awesome.
S: So, you’ve been doing Awakening for much longer than many people are aware of, for sure, because it takes so much work. From the impetus to start it to now, what were your original goals and what are you working on now, how has it changed?
R: The idea first came in May of 2012, and we did a lot of things kind of in the background, coming up with how we were going to go about supporting female fighters. And then what we decided – what the community needed – was fighter profiles. Specifically for Muay Thai becuase we find that, um… well, this is my personal opinion, that one of the reasons that Muay Thai isn’t as big as MMA is because fans don’t get a chance to find out about their favorite fighters. So, with MMA fighters there’s obviously profiles – tons of profile sites – and it’s very easy to keep track of who your favorite fighters are. But with Muay Thai, that just isn’t the case. We would do it for male fighters as well, but we just wouldn’t be able to do that [with our current workload] but we felt that female Muay Thai needed some kind of platform, something people could go and check out. So that’s part of how it started.
For the future, what we’re going to do is – we’re constantly evolving the database to include more things in it, and essentially what we want to do is host events. Muay Thai events. We feel that there’s not room for MMA events anymore; Muay Thai we feel that there’s room for it and we’re in a great position of not being affiliated to any gyms. We’re very proud of the fact that we’re not corrupted and we’re not corruptible, so that’s a good standard to have, I think, something like that is needed in Muay Thai in the west. So that’s coming.
S: How did you and how do you keep track of female Muay Thai? Because it’s insanely hard. I’m incredibly specialized in that I’m only really looking at women in Thailand, but it’s happening everywhere and there are different rules and different categories… what is your way of keeping track of it and putting order to it all?
R: Yeah. We split the database into sections now, because it was becoming too much. Ashley controls, now, all the input of the Muay Thai data. But we know that we’re only finding a fraction of what’s happening.
A: A bunch of what we find happens retrospectively. If we are to find out about things before they happen, Facebook is usually it. Following athlete pages, or Rosey’s page [Female Muay Thai on Facebook] is really good for folks like yourself sharing about other athletes. But a lot of the time we’re getting information retrospectively with athletes giving us the back-history of all their fights with a photo or something. But it’s hard when you know you’re only skimming the surface [laughs], but it’s just really exciting when you find something, like if you find a Muay Thai promoter and you can get them sending me in the results. And if anyone else wants to send in information, please do! We’re just trying to get information from all these different sources and compiling it all together. Just doing the best we can.
S: How do you deal with, not only the language difficulties – because you guys are looking at tons of different countries – but then also the difficulty of transcribing names from different alphabets. Like Japanese and Thai names, you just have to try to sound it out and the spelling is so rarely uniform. It’s not like taking Valentina’s name, which is hard to say and read, but at least it’s still in letters you can figure out. How are you trying to unify that?
R: Essentially, at the moment we are just using Google Translate and the websites that are posting. So we’ll go to the Japanese sites and they post that information and we just post what we can get from there. But eventually, the long-term goal is to have a Japanese translator, a Thai translator, Spanish translator… so that’s the slightly longer-term goal for when there’s funds. But there’s no funds.
S: Well, that was one of my questions. You have some serious financial challenges, so can you just go into some of those? There are so many of them, but just how are you dealing with it and what are those main challenges?
R: Well the main challenge is that it’s just become such a beast. We have over 10,000 athletes now and we’re adding on average 200-300 every month. And then we’re also updating about 800 other profiles every month with updated information. A profile on average will take – depending on how much data we’ve got – will take anywhere from an hour to…
A: … so many hours…
We have over 10,000 athletes now and we’re adding on average 200-300 every month. And then we’re also updating about 800 other profiles every month with updated information. A profile on average will take – depending on how much data we’ve got – will take anywhere from an hour to…
R: Yeah, Valentina took maybe 2 weeks because we had to research all of that information. So that’s two weeks’ worth of work. And so you multiply that by the number of athletes that you’ve got and it’s a lot of man hours. There are 5 of us: there’s myself (Rew), there’s Ashley – who is a student -, and there’s Andy who is the technical director and makes sure everything works, and now there’s two data-entry ladies. And so I have to pay the two data-entry ladies, I pay Ashley, and myself and Andy don’t take any money, because there is no money. I’m doing three jobs, I’ve got a full-time job and two part-time jobs, so I can pay for the database to keep moving. So that’s the main challenge. Essentially what we’re going to do is, we feel that the event side of things will start to pay for the upkeep of the website. That’s if the first event is successful. But that’s our route to making it sustainable.
S: This event will be local to the UK, correct?
R: It’s going to be in the UK, but we think we’re in a unique position of having an audience already so if we can increase the promotion level and stream it, that will cost a few thousand already to do that, but we feel that if we start off looking at where our main audience is – in Europe – and start there, so we’ll have probably 16 UK fighters and then some fighters from Spain, Germany, Portugal, Italy, etc. – so we’ll start locally in Europe and, hopefully, their audience in those countries will be interested in streaming it and we’ll just keep growing. That’s the goal.
S: You said already that you guys are not strongly affiliated with any gym, that you guys are independent, but you do have strong, I guess, relationships – not in any kind of nefarious way – but I remember Julie Kitchen was featured very strongly when you first started our. And she’s moved, so I haven’t seen as much of her lately, but so how has that relationship changed and additionally your promotion through female fighters, like working with female fighters who are high-profile? Julie came before me and had a much harder time in terms of social media [laughs] but now that that’s such a big part of combat sports, how do you use those relationships and how has the relationship to Julie changed?
R: That’s a tough one. I would say, and Julie would be fine with us saying this, she’s the only female fighter we “used” and openly she said to use her name to try to get the word out more. We haven’t done that with any other female fighters. But what we do find is that fighters like yourself and Maureen Riordon, Caley Reece – there are some big names out there that are great on social media and they will put the word out, without us even asking. We’ll do some graphics for them or we’ll do a video for them and then they just push our name, which is great.
S: You put together the Awakening Awards, so you’ve done 3 years now. I follow female Muay Thai – I don’t follow women’s MMA as much, but I’m aware of the big names that pretty much anybody who pays even moderate attention would know – and it’s actually really hard to do those awards because people’s awarenesses are just so all over the place.
S: But it’s gotten better each year in that I can say, “okay, I kinda know who these people are,” and then we can go to your database and read up on them. So Awakening is already working the way it’s supposed to with the database, in your experience doing these annual awards and it being pulled from the audience who is attentive to female fighters, how have you seen a change in those 3 years? And what are your hopes for how it progresses?
R: Well, to start with the amount of people getting involved grows each year. For the first year there were lots of people who were confused when X, Y, and Z people weren’t included and really X, Y, and Z should have been included. But the next year was a better pool of names, and this year was even better. We do think that moving forward we might have to change it slightly. Up until now we haven’t added anyone that wasn’t already nominated, so next year because obviously we’re inputting all the data, we would probably be among some of the best people to be putting the names in. We’d still leave it up to people to nominate, but we’d put in some names as well, names that we feel should be in there.
A: And we’ve already started that this year, trying to take note as we go along as well, checking each file and as the year goes on taking note of things. It’s always hard as well to have end-of-the-year awards because you remember things from the end of the year and it’s really easy to focus on recent fights and things that people have just seen. You can see that in nominations as well, things that get nominated from September but then something from February was actually really amazing as well. So, hopefully just try to keep track and have a really good spread over the year as well.
R: There is a problem with the Muay Thai Awards in the KO and Fight of the Year. They’re obviously going to be the ones that people can watch, so it’s going to be Lion Fight or Enfusion –
A: – yeah, those stream to people…
R: – yeah, so we would like to be sent videos, really of fights that people think, throughout the year, where people think they are contenders. And then we can post them. Because unlike MMA, Muay Thai doesn’t have the same copyright restrictions, so we would be able to post most of those fights. But, yeah… it’s definitely a challenge.
S: It’s brilliant the way you’ve created this database so you can actually go and look up a fighter, because women – I guess I’m saying mostly in MMA because that’s a much wider stream of media, so that’s where these names are coming from – a woman will come on scene and it’s like she came out of the woodwork. And out of nowhere, all of a sudden she’s the “best striker” that anyone has seen in WMMA and there’s no information anywhere. But being able to go and look at someone’s record and see where they’ve been fighting and all of these things gives a better picture. People who follow me – there are people who have been following me since I was in Master K’s basement, which was a long time ago and it was a very small number of people, and then there are people who started following me yesterday and I have this collection of media and fights on my website; and the difference between a girl training in Master K’s basement and a girl coming on 140 fights is immense. So, if I came out of nowhere to somebody with 140 fights I seem like this bizarre thing, like “how did Sylvie come to be?” But people who have followed me from Master K’s basement have watched that whole process as it’s happening. So in your database people can retrospectively go see how these things happen. So for your promotion and being able to promote women who will be fighting on it, the database – which you created – is incredibly useful in giving biography and context to these fighters who might otherwise be coming out of nowhere, so to speak. How do you see those working together, your promotion and your database of biographies, which really lack in female fighting?
R: Yes. I’ve already decided that for a fighter to appear on the Awakening show they need to have a complete profile. So, a lot of times we’ll ask a fighter to give us their fight history and a lot of times they’ll go, “ah, I can’t really remember.” But they could if they just sat down and thought about it! But it really makes a difference because then those fights can be added to all the other profiles [with two people in a fight, you’ll see cross-reference] and that helps the whole thing. So, that’s just going to be a rule, they need to sit down and fill out the questionnaire, kind of thing, in full so that we have full details and I think that’s just all-round good for the whole of female fighting, not just Awakening.
A: For Muay Thai especially, because I still help with the full profiles of what’s sent in for MMA, and the difference in detail we get sent for some fights is… I mean, yours is one of the best ones to follow along because you have included so much detail and different media – lots of fights, but all the info – and sometimes I’m happy if I can just get a year and which country it was in, and maybe whether it was a win, loss or draw. Just some of the most basic things, or even just creating a framework to work backwards from. There’s been a few times as well where we’ve done a fighter who has fights from a few years ago and then we slowly get the info from the people they fought, and then we can move those over and it starts to all come together. So it’s getting a bit easier [as it gets more complete].
S: You’ve worked with a few female fighters, I’ve seen you go and do photo shoots or whatever, how is it for you working with female fighters and the challenges of promoting women vs. promoting men?
R: Well, I’ll be honest: I don’t know anything about promoting men. I honestly, I… I’m not that interested when I go to a show. Whenever I go to a show I’m taking note of how promotions are doing it and I’m just feeding off of that information. But when there are male fights I just kind of am usually backstage taking photos of handwraps and stuff, so I don’t know really much about the male side of things. But for me promoting female fighters comes naturally, I don’t really see it as a challenge, it kind of just happens; people are interested in it.
A: Rew and I are obviously together and we were together a few years before this even came ‘round, and he said he’d decided to promote female fighters and this is where [he] wants to go with it, and I had no Martial Arts background at all, but I’d played Rugby and was always for women in sports but this is a whole new world. I never intended to be a part of it, really, I was just like, “yup, you go do that, that’s your thing,” but then it just worked on me. I’ve seen the ladies and I’ve seen the world that opens up to people and the opportunities and what people were achieving so I just kind of tagged along with a couple of things and now, a few years later I’m trying to help make it work.
R: And she’s also does Jiu-Jitsu…
A: Yeah, and I started doing stuff myself.
A: I actually love it.
S: Do you see patterns at all in how women are promoted? Like, in the US there’s this push for “the hot woman who can kick your ass,” and that’s basically how women are promoted, wholesale… or you can turn Cyborg into a villain, but those are basically your two options. Do you change at all over time the way that you’ve promoted women, or seen what sticks and what doesn’t, or just go with what comes naturally to you?
R: We haven’t really done any spotlights or any photo shoots really in quite a while because we’ve been inundated with data entry. But I generally just gravitate toward those who have a slightly more exceptional story. Julie Kitchen was – not only has she got an exceptional story – but she’s got a big name, so she was great at helping to get the word out to start with. But we were criticized in the first year by Kate Jackson, who we’ve worked with and who we love, but she’s a British MMA fighter and she said, “Do you only work with Julie Kitchen?” And it made me think, ah, we have done a lot of Julie Kitchen. So that was at the end of 2012 and, since then, I’ve tried to just grab onto anything that was an interesting story.
A: And try to change up the country and styles, to really show the broadness and the amount out there. That’s one of the things I’m constantly amazed by, is there are all these fighters and they do X, Y, Z and they’re completely different from this other fighter…
R: Yeah, my passion is photography, that’s what I did at University, but I haven’t done it for probably 8 months and I’ve kind of left that behind a little bit now because the database has just become such a monster. Bu tit’s definitely looking much better, every month that goes by. Now we have Eva and Evalyn on it, it’s really picking up now. We don’t have any more broken links and a lot of the Thai people who you’re kind of bringing to our attention, they now have more than just one fight. So yeah, that’s just brilliant.
S: Is there anything else that I didn’t ask that you’d like to bring forward about Awakening. Because people are more familiar with it now but there are people who had no idea this was going on and when they see it they know it’s amazing.
R: Yeah, the only thing I can think of is – I mean, it’s just the nature of the internet – but every so often someone will share one of our pages and there will be comments that are nit-picky and generally incorrect. But these comments will just kind of dismiss the entire website based on these single pages they’ve been sent and that’s, uh… I mean, I need to grow a thicker skin, but that kind of upsets me a little bit because of the amount I spend, what, about 1,200 dollars per month on upkeep. And I’ve been doing that for, what, three years now? Maybe 4 years. So for someone to just go, “er, that’s rubbish,” that’s got to – that’s a little bit offensive. But with these people you’re never going to be enough, I just need a thicker skin.
I spend, what, about 1,200 dollars per month on upkeep. And I’ve been doing that for, what, three years now? Maybe 4 years. So for someone to just go, “er, that’s rubbish,” that’s got to – that’s a little bit offensive.
S: Are you still thinking of starting a forum on the website?
R: Yes! We’ve got – I know I mentioned it to you over a year ago – we’ve got half built, we’re also going to be doing a shop with a small range of T-shirts and things to start with. And then I’m still going to push to try to get some sponsorship. We get a lot of traffic and there’s got to be some company out there that sees the benefit of working with us and a female combat audience. I don’t know, health drinks or something. It’s just the case I need to find the time to do that.
If you haven’t checked out what Awakening Female Fighters produced, take a look at a profile like Caley Reece’s profile. There are 10,000 profiles in their database. If you are a female competitor/fighter and you’d like to be added, go here to add yourself.
You can also find my Awakening Profile here, and the interview that Rew and Ashley did of me too. I’ve been cheering for Awakening Female Fighters pretty much since they launched. If you see their interviews or spotlights of fighters give them a share to create some reach, and get the word out.