Guest Post – A Husband’s Point of View
Below is what turns out to be a nearly 10,000 word essay on feminism and female fighting. These are just my evolving views, sometimes strongly stated. They are meant to get us to the point where the way we discuss female fighting gives female fighters themselves the chance to be the very best they can be.
As the husband of a prolific female fighter my brain runs up against the wall of a lot of talk which I can only characterize as ideological. This post is an attempt to wrap my head around some of the talk that surrounds generalized conversation about females as fighters, and my personal answer to those that again and again gravitate towards an essential female inferiority. On the internet the meme-ish pervasiveness of coded terms like “bone density”, “natural advantage” and “natural testosterone” or “muscle mass,” serve as a kind of ideological strong hold. I’d argue that these concepts of fundamental differences between the sexes are a stand-in for fundamental inferiority of women as the weaker sex. That these differences are very commonly advertised as “Natural” is also I believe a stand-in for moral correctness, how things should be. With a rhetorical slight of hand biological differences that are actually not clear cut and uniform (only population distributions) become categorical, and because they are natural they are thought to be a communication of morally correct distinctions. Bottom line, the argument goes like this: Because men are naturally, statistically, on average physically larger (or stronger), they then become categorically, regarded as an entire group, a class, superior. Never mind that this man over here is weaker than, and could not fight this woman over there, he is not an interesting example. Men generally are assumed to have a certain quality in comparison to women, and this generality becomes a value. The consequence of this line of reasoning which lies beneath a lot of the talk about gender and fighting, is a sense that when women are superior to men (whether through biology, training or technical experience), they are somehow violating the Natural Order…ie, the way God intended it to be. Something is just not right. Fighting women are positioned one way or another, even when celebrated, as moral transgressors.
You don’t really have to believe in God at all to participate in the power and meaning of the word “natural”. It is just a fundamental way that we in the west frame the ethical landscape and make judgements about the world. It is found in common dichotomies like natural <> unnatural, or natural <> artificial. In our modernity, supposedly naturally occurring states are thought to be generally “good” and alternations in these states are concerning, and potentially harmful. A a natural sweetener is preferable to an artificial sweetener; a natural act is less suspect than an unnatural act. There is a moral sheen to things thought to be “natural”, it’s how our language works. So when female capabilities as fighters are qualified as inherently “weak” or “weaker” by Nature there is an unspoken picture being painted, that of the un-naturalness of female fighting.
Now, I think there are very good reasons why these kinds of arguments about female fighting and talk of natural male superiority (called “advantage”) are floating around right now, in our time. I believe this has to do with the real social and economic shift in power for women in societies, and therefore with what fighting itself means, as a form of entertainment and as an art – primarily for men. It makes good sense that the rise of the female fighter image coincides with a backlash against the female fighter (often couched in terms of concern… for her safety). I’ll get to this towards the end, in much more detail, but for now I just want to frame the entire discussion in ideological terms. Sexism hiding in scientific code words like “bone density” and “natural advantage” are signs of a much deeper conversation going on, one that is at work trying to figure out just what the Female Fighter image means… to all of us.
Let’s Face It – Female Fighters Are Just NOT That Good…Yet
If we are going to discuss the potential capabilities of female fighters properly, we really have to start at the other end of the spectrum: the reality of where women are right now. As a loving husband of a seriously devoted female fighter, I cannot be biased. I have to come right out and say it: female fighters are just not that good…yet. In fact, because I am her husband and I champion her passion to be the best she can be, I HAVE to say this. We who want women to succeed have to embrace the reality of how things are if we want to change it. Let me be very clear, the reason for this is a much more limited opponent pool, and differences in real world opportunities and experience for women, nothing more.
Let me be very clear, the reason for this is a much more limited opponent pool, and differences in real world opportunities and experience for women, nothing more.
Now, what do I mean when I say they aren’t that good. Well for instance when you take the very best examples of female fighters in any one fighting sport, and yes, that includes Ronda Rousey, they simply have not reached the level of expertise that the very best male counterparts have. The best female judoka on the earth is not equal to the very best male judoka (I will assume). The very best female boxer, the best male boxer. The best female Muay Thai fighter against the best male Muay Thai fighter, and the best female MMA fighter (although admittedly a much younger discipline). By this I don’t mean “Who would win if the best of each sex fought each other?” and all the other silliness about weight differences and bone density. What I do mean: If you were growing up and you want to take someone as the absolute goal of your possible skill limit, the model of what is possible to physically achieve, these acme examples would be men. Yes, I understand that there are internet debates about whether Joanna Jedrzejczyk is the “best striker” in the UFC, or if Ronda is the best fighter in the world. But let’s be real. Even a very fine fighter like Joanna struggled against a once highly regarded Thai counterpart and neither of them are anything close in skill to top, male Lumpinee fighters, for instance.
Depth of Technique
Another reason or way to say that women aren’t yet “that good” is that aside from ideal examples, on average the understanding of technique, the knowledge of the art among fighters, is much lower when divided by the sexes. Of course this would depend on the art chosen, and how you frame “average”, but you know what I mean. Both in terms of acme examples and mean capabilities, women are pretty far behind at this point in history. An important aspect of this is what one could call “depth of technique”. Women can often succeed against other female fighters in a more limited opponent pool, even dominate, through a kind of shallowness of technique. This means really two things, though I want to concentrate on only one of them. Speaking generally, and when compared to male fighters, female technical knowledge (under pressure, in real fights) is both narrow and shallow. It is not broad in that they may be very, very good at doing a limited set of skills that is quite successful in fights – perhaps this is chaining punches together, or having a very strong overhand right or lowkick, or a little technical clinch knowledge – but also they are not necessarily deep in that technique either. There are two dimensions of expertise: breadth: having a great variety, and depth: having deep or profound knowledge of your narrow focus.
An important aspect of this is what one could call “depth of technique”. Women can succeed against other female fighters in a more limited opponent pool, even dominate, through a kind of shallowness of technique. This means that they may be very, very good at doing a limited set of skills that is quite successful in fights…but they are not necessarily deep in the technique.
This means that women can and will win fights, possibly a great number of fights against opponents that do not have an answer, but because they are not facing technically fluent opponents the shallowness of knowledge is not exposed. Now, this certainly is also the case for men as well. You see the very same issue of shallowness of technique when even successful western fighters come to train in Thailand and are tossed about in the clinch, or otherwise owned in the practice ring, by smaller Thais. The illusion of fluency in the shallowness of technique does not just apply to women, of course. I can remember few years ago in the amateur circuit where we lived you would see one gym or another clean up because at the time they taught the basic “Thai Plumb” in the clinch which is not an advanced technique and pretty easy to counter, but against someone who doesn’t know how to, it can be a fight-ender – other gyms at the time had just not caught up yet. There was a fellow who trained in earnest at Sylvie’s gym in Pattaya boasting over 50 fights in Europe and some renown, but in the gym ring seemed outclassed by even Thai boys who displayed greater awareness and comfort level. When he fought on Max against an older Thai, the disparity was visible – though he may very well have been quite successful in other contexts. But I think it is safe to say that generally, despite male examples, success with more shallow technical knowledge is wider spread among female fighters, and this is simply because as a group female fighters are less experienced and knowledgeable than their male counterparts, and they fight in a smaller opponent pool – this is leaving out the cultural contexts and attitudes toward aggression.
A shallow technique is one where the deeper principles beneath the technique or techniques are not digested, so they work only in more narrowly defined circumstances, including often when opponents do not know countermeasures.
By analogy, if you are a chess player in the right pool of opponents early on you might look like a really good chess player beating everyone by a beginner’s Fool’s Mate. And then at an competition level several orders higher, you might be beating everyone with the Queen’s Gambit opening or another memorized/practiced opening. But in the full art of Chess itself, in terms of your own expression of yourself through Chess, you don’t really “know” chess at a deep level, getting at the significant patterns and principles of what it is.
the case of clinch in Thailand
You can win by simply knowing a few “tricks”, or with more experience a subset dimension of fighting the opponent does not know. Even in a much larger female opponent pool like that that of Thailand – and here Sylvie has literally 100s and 100s of possible opponents around her skill level and weight instead of maybe 10 to 15 in the rest of the world – the same subset effect happens. So Sylvie’s success in Thailand is a good example. She has it as her passion to develop fluency in Muay Thai, basically the fluency that Thai males have, but she is not near this yet. Instead, in order to defeat often more knowledgeable Thai opponents, opponents raised in the art, she has turned to clinch fighting. A few western women have had success with this as well. At the time of this writing World Champion Teresa Wintermyr, Northern Champion Sylvie Charbonneau, and Chantal Ughi all have had great success taking advantage of the fact that while Thai female fighters excel at limited combination striking and balance – a kind of point fighting – they are largely underdeveloped in clinch fighting (which is coded as “male” in Thailand, with rigorous training generally reserved for boys).
Clinch fighting is not easy or quick to learn as a westerner in Thailand, but knowledge in the clinch can go a really long way. A good clinch fighter can beat a good striker quite often, so in a kind of trick of technique, Sylvie is able to force a fight on her terms, narrowing the playing field. This results in a lot of wins, even against what some may call more “talented” (or rounded) Thai opponents who are even larger than her. It comes from very hard work in the gym, and one is learning of a kind of “minor” fighting style generally called muay khao, itself an art form – but its a way for western women to cheat the years of advantage many Thai females have on them, as many have been training and fighting since early youth. This is a legitimate fight strategy, and rare Thai female clinch fighters use it too, but what victories alone can obscure what is a lack of technical depth, which may in fact for Sylvie take 3 or more years to develop. This is something we can maybe call The Ronda Rousey Effect. Ronda was able to use her narrowed high-level expertise in Judo and the arm bar in particular, to take the fight where she wants it to be, to tilt the playing field, often against opponents that had very little knowledge of where she was taking them. It produced wins, but it also bought time for her to develop more of her game. And while Ronda’s striking has improved, there is nobody who would confuse the depth of her knowledge of boxing with the depth of her knowledge of arm bars and Judo.
This is something we can maybe call The Ronda Rousey Effect. Ronda was able to use her narrowed high-level expertise in Judo and the arm bar in particular, to take the fight where she wants it to be, to tilt the playing field, often against opponents that had very little knowledge of this particular field.
A counter-example to the shallowness of technical knowledge comes from former Lumpinee champion Sakmongkol. When we were in Colorado, just before moving to Thailand a little over 3 years ago, we visited Cat Zingano’s gym so Sylvie could take a few privates with Sakmongkol. One of the most interesting things was when I sat down with Cat’s now-passed husband Mauricio, a BJJ black belt, looking on at Sakmongkol. He was in awe of Sakmongkol’s skill and knowledge. He said that oftentimes when in the practice ring with him he would try to take Sakmongkol down, just to see if he could. Sakmongkol has decades of Muay Thai experience, and more than a decade of Karate experience, but as far as I know zero ground experience. He has no “take down defense” in a technical, trained way so to speak. Try as he might he could not take Sakmongkol down, Zingano told me. This is what I mean by depth of knowledge. You could know all kinds of Muay Thai clinch tricks, moves and positions, but if you don’t have depth of knowledge you would not suddenly be able to defend a BJJ blackbelt trying to take you down. Sakmongkol’s ability came out of his strength of stance and balance, a very deep understanding of stand up and Thai techniques. He did not have to practice MMA takedown defense to have that, they were buried in the Arts he studied and fought with. Seldom do we see this kind of depth of knowledge in female fighters, which extends out beyond their native discipline. To anecdotally mention an example: Germaine Randamie, The Iron Lady, is considered by many to be the very best female Muay Thai fighter the west has produced. I believe she was a perfect 40-0 as a Muay Thai fighter, and would just overwhelm opponents with beautiful Dutch striking and natural aggression. I will be the first one to say I don’t know the Randamie transition story in detail, but she has struggled to achieve such dominance in MMA in the more than 5 years she has applied herself to the sport. I suggest that isn’t because Muay Thai is not an easy or adequate transition art to MMA, but rather because despite being arguably the best female (western) Muay Thai fighter in the world, the depth of knowledge in the art that was necessary to become a very dominant 40-0 was perhaps not deep as we thought. It was not as deep as say a Thai Lumpinee champion.
In fact, I think successful Muay Thai fighters from the west on the lower end of technical depth, can struggle when facing opponents “off-script”. Muay Thai in the west generally has an aesthetic where each fighter stands in front of the other, relatively in range in a somewhat linear style. You hear western Muay Thai fighters at times plead that their opponent “stand and bang”, which basically means “…fight the fight in the narrow band of where my comfort and techniques lie”. It’s all said in the spirit of toughness, “be a real man!” but it’s more “don’t expose my limits”. Top Muay Thai fighters of Thailand have no real problem with fight variety, because they have a deeper understanding of the techniques they know, all the principles of timing, balance and control of space, that underwrite them, not to mention tremendous fight experience. They don’t need more favorable circumstances to express themselves beautifully. Of course all fighters have holes and weaknesses, but shallow Muay Thai technique tends to have a narrow band of success – it requires that your opponent stand and act about as a pad holder might. You can look really good with your opponent right in front of you, with little head movement, firing off fixed combinations. But move from the script and you can be a fish out of water. It goes for both men and women, but due to smaller opportunity and experience pool, I think it can be exaggerated among female fighters.
This is not to disparage any of these fighters. Everyone is trying to be the best that they can be, and working their asses off to do so, putting themselves at risk in the ring. But it’s important that we draw lines of distinction between true fluency and piece by piece performance that is dominant in a certain pool of opponents. If we were talking about a language, let’s say Italian, there are native speakers, and then there are people who in a small number of contexts have a vocabulary and enough grammatical knowledge to get around. Both may, to the uneducated ear and eye “speak Italian”, but only one group really does. If we love the art of Muay Thai, or other fighting arts, we aim for and celebrate the fluency of language. Female fighters want to be fluent.
The Origin of Inferiority – Opportunity and Experience
All this talk about how female fighters aren’t that good has got me down. But we have to start with where we are, in reality, if we want to make very real changes in capability. It does us some good to celebrate, and even inflate the capabilities of top female fighters because this inspires us. It provides a shining light on a hill, where there was no light even 5 years ago. In this for instance Ronda Rousey is invaluable. But for real fighters wanting to make real improvements we have to look at the nitty-gritty of why female fighters are not that good. And all the distracting ideological talk about “bone density” and “natural testosterone” gets us nowhere. The fighting arts are a skill and a culture. The entire point of the fighting arts – from their pragmatic solutions on how to strike and not get struck, to their esoteric meditations – is about surpassing and transcending physical differences. If fighting females are not that good then it’s about how skills and culture are acquired – nothing more.
We’ve had a very unique experience of being around the young Thai female fighter Phetjee Jaa for over the last year or more. For those that don’t know, she’s a 13 year old Thai female fighter phenom who as an 11 and 12 year old became famous for fighting and beating boys on National television in Thailand. She very likely could be the best pound for pound female Muay Thai fighter in the world, and certainly is in terms of quality. We were up close and personal with her family, with Sylvie training there 6 days a week and traveling and fighting with them for several fights.
For those that don’t know, she’s a 13 year old Thai female fighter phenom who as an 11 and 12 year old became famous for fighting and beating boys on National television in Thailand. She very likely could be the best pound for pound female Muay Thai fighter in the world, and certainly is in terms of quality.
What makes Phetjee Jaa such a unique and beautiful example under the question of female fighter quality is that she was raised and trained almost identically to how boys are in Thailand. The presence of her older brother, who became her constant training partner since she was 7, insured that she would miss out on so much of the natural sexist cultural shaping that would perhaps limit her potential as a fighter. Now at the age of 13 she probably has over 100 fights and many of them against boys. She has the fight experience that is absolutely necessary to acquire a depth of technical and tactical knowledge, as a young girl – an opportunity that is unique to Thailand, but is usually afforded only to boys. Beyond this though, because she was raised in parallel to her fighter brother Mawin, she has undergone the 1000s of hours of clinch training that establishes a deep knowledge of the technique. At 13 she is loaded with experiences which make up the possibility of a high quality fighter.
Beyond this, it’s even more interesting. While in the west females when they are young may encounter messages of discouragement, undercutting achievement or possibilities, in Thailand Phetjee Jaa became a family star. As her fame spread the family’s economic future depended on her success, so she received lots and lots of reinforcing and encouragement. Her brother on the other hand, who is actually quite skilled, has grown up a little in his younger sister’s shadow. While she is praised, he is often criticized, and it’s been very hard on him – enough to retard his growth at this point, I would say. For many years the family raised money by putting on fight demonstrations between the two of them (videos of this has been mistaken as real on the Internet), where they would perform elaborate semi-choreographed moves that grew out of their training together, but in which he would always lose, often before large crowds. Her confidence grew, his I think at times waned.
In the example of Phetjee Jaa, who my wife considers her hero, we have a girl who largely was exposed to the very same kinds of physical experiences that a young male Thai fighter would have, but not only that, she had the emotional buoyancy of being celebrated by her family as well as her community at large. In fact in Thailand, through gambling, a young fighter becomes a money-earner not only for the family and the gym, but for all those extended family members and those in the neighborhood that believe in her. Before each fight money is gathered from the extended circle for the foundation bet, the dern pan. She has had a celebration circle of real income making from a young age. The wealth of her talent became communal wealth. There is perhaps nobody in the world like her: a young female fighter with an enormous amount of experience and wide-spread affirmation, but who has trained exactly as a male would in parallel with a brother, since a child. And she fought against boys, whose own male pedagogy advantages were met by her own similar training experience; by fighting against other girls, now, she is matching against opponents who have the disadvantage of disequal access to the training and treatment boys get. You can see the almost physical appearing differences in confidence and comfort in the fight video below.
But already her future is changing. Almost two years ago now she was banned from fighting boys on Thai television any longer (because it was not appropriate), and since that time she’s been relegated to fighting inferior female opponents. Below you can see her beating Buakaw Lookboonmee who is regarded by many as the best 100 lb fighter in Isaan, and Jee Jaa was giving up 8 kilos, which is an enormous amount – more than 20% of her body weight, and in terms of maturity, her opponent is perhaps 3 years older than her:
In the video above you can practically see the difference of a “male” pedagogy of experiences vs. a “female” pedagogy of experiences, facing each other, but both in female bodies. Buakaw is from a top flight gym in Isaan, a region that is considered to be the bed of Muay Thai fighting in Thailand. Indeed they are even famous for being one of the rare gyms that produce excellent female clinch fighters. Sylvie has fought National Team member Loma Lookboonmee and thus far she is the only female fighter she has faced who had superior clinch technique. But Phetjee Jaa owns this fight against the much acclaimed Buakaw, and she is able to make it visibly evident despite an 8 kg difference in body weight, a very difficult thing to do. Size differences alone can create illusions of dominance. It simply is a matter of a difference in experiences.
The Regime of Experiences
French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, in order to explain how important regimes of experiences are on the body and on identity made an at-first-blush obviously false statement:
In this sense there is a greater difference between a race horse and a work horse, than between a work horse and an ox
– a thousand plateaus
We like to found identity and our capabilities on anatomy, and with good reasons. Shared anatomy platforms generally can be assumed to have similar experiences, they’re categorical. Generally. It’s how we assume that we all as humans share a family of experiences, that we are all part of one world. But Deleuze is pointing out that regimes of experiences, the real ways our experiences are shaped by politics, discipline, policed and coded behavior, over-writes anatomy. And that in real ways the experiences shared between a work horse an and ox are greater than the much more anatomy-similar bodies of a race horse and a work horse. It’s not just that a race horse can run fast, and a work horse can pull. It’s ALL of the experiences each is pushed through.
With human beings, because so much of our culture is founded on gender distinction – it’s a fundamental binary – we have taken rather slight anatomical difference, really often almost purely symbolic differences (visible sex organs), and created vastly different regimes of experiences for each gender. For fighters, male and female, even the very fight-friendly culture of Thailand, these regimes start to really diverge around the age of 13 – even though they were more subtly divergent before this at earlier ages.
While male prodigies like Sangmanee, who became the 105 lb Lumpinee Champion at the age of 15, would at this point in their development be entering the Lumpinee and Rajadamnern fighter pools, facing more and more difficult opponents from all over Thailand, each small prodigies in their gyms, towns and villages, Phetjee Jaa has been forced into the “minor leagues” so to speak, to face less skilled, and less cultivated female counterparts. Already her potential as a fighter is being systematically diminished, day by day. There simply are not the opponents available, nor the milieu of opportunities, to challenge her to grow and expand at the rate that a Thai boy of her skill and experience would face. She will not face the adversity that will truly stretch her. She no doubt will become the best female fighter in Thailand and thus very likely the world, but her ceiling has changed.
What Phetjee Jaa Tells Us – What is Natural
The example of Phetjee Jaa is instructive. It shows how much of a female fighter’s possible capabilities are shaped and determined by social construct and real world opportunities. Sylvie can tell you from a year of sparring and clinching with her that she’s the real deal. There are no shallow techniques in her dominance, no tricks, no “moves”. There is genuine fluency, taken to a point. We see from her what happens when a young girl is surrounded by male-like opportunity, right up to the point where she was barred from fighting male opponents. We see the arc.
What is interesting is that when her fights against boys found the internet there was a nice round of “but when that boy hits puberty she couldn’t beat him” conversation. I can’t emphasize how misguided this kind of conversation is. Everyone gets wrapped up in the Who Wins, the boy or the girl, talk. So much so that the champions of the inherent superiority of men are forced to imagine future fights when the boy suddenly grows bigger as a result of physical maturity. The natural right of men over women will be proven in a future moment when the female will fight a male who outweighs her – ignoring the fact that each would be in a different weight class at such an imaginary moment in the future. All that matters is that the natural order be restored.
There is a long western history of framing a state of things, or a quality of something as natural, in an attempt to ground it in Natural Law: the way things are naturally, are more or less the way that God intended them, before man (hey, that word) messed things about.
It is here that I want to discuss a little bit about male “Natural Advantage” and all the talk that surrounds transgender and mixed-gender fighting. References to “bone density”, “muscle mass” and “natural testosterone” I suggested are code words for sexism – or the subtext desire to re-establish the natural superiority of men as a category of beings. This is because of how the word “natural” operates. As mentioned in the first paragraphs, there is a long western history of framing a state of things, or a quality of something as natural, in an attempt to ground it in Natural Law: the way things are naturally, are more or less the way that God intended them, before man (hey, that word) messed things about. By framing anything as natural you draw a fence around it, giving moral charge to any attempt to change or surpass it. What is happening, rhetorically, when people argue about the Natural Advantage men have over women is the attempt to make the perception of strength and capability that comes through fighting, and is owed to men, to some degree off-limits to women. Women, due to their Natural Dis-Advantage (insert code words: bone density, muscle mass, etc), are categorically second class citizens as fighters. There is a natural anchor on just how good they can get.
But this is a rhetorical trick that comes from using powerful words like “natural”. We all know that not every women is physically weaker than every man, but our appeal to Natural Order categorically creates an illusion that is kinda so – aside from the a very vague feeling that statements like “women are weaker than men” are true, it leads to proviso ideas like: “all other things being equal, the male has the advantage”. Why is this so important when talking about female fighting? It’s because of the place that fighting itself has in our modern/post-modern culture. Fighting has grown into a symbol of proto- personal power and agency. I would argue that the rise of fighting entertainment coincides with (a largely white, male) social de-centering and dis-empowerment. Commentator Joe Rogan claims that the UFC was born out of a single fight, Forrest Griffin vs Stephen Bonner, “crazy white muther-fuckers are beating the shit out of each other on Spike TV” (minute 51, JWP podcast #714) Fighting, in its MMA medium, is expressing the core agency of middle and lower-middle class males, it is deep down about the dignity of men who by class and kind feel that they are assailed or disenfranchised. For a long time the fighting sports were the dignity expression of the underclasses of society (in American boxing: Jews, Italians, Blacks). But I suspect that the reason why MMA is so White (thus far), is that as a form of entertainment it is the preservation and escalation of middle male (white) dignity, in a quickly shifting world. Of course so many other people can be inspired by the symbolism of fighting, but the numbers are pushed from a core constituency.
For men it can be the reclamation of lost or threatened dignity, as the world changes against them, against their “natural privileges”. For women it can be a primal celebration of new dignity and agency afforded to them, as the world changes for them.
What is worth following about it all is that women have been on the come up for some time now. In the past few decades there have been wide, sweeping changes in the economic and legal agency of real women in the real world – a freedom of movement. For many women they largely see female fighting as an expression of this new social power. For women and White men there is a natural tension about what fighting entertainment means. For men it can be the reclamation of lost or threatened dignity, as the world changes against them, against their “natural privileges”. For women it can be a primal celebration of new dignity and agency afforded to them, as the world changes for them. They can do what men essentially or even naturally can do…fight. Female fighting potentially puts male viewers in a contradictory state. It is the celebration of traditional or more primal values: the physical and willful exercise of power over another, values that undercut more politically correct namby-pamby values of assumed equality or the diversity of a future world; but at the same time female fighting presents, in the code language of primal values, the signal of the rising female power. It’s schizophrenic. This schizophrenia is one reason why it is necessary that fighting women remain “hot”, or “badass and hot”. Their relative symbolic autonomy must be recaptured and consumed as objects of a sexalized male gaze, one of the most essential male/female psychological economies in the world.
Sexy-hot not withstanding, it is no wonder that there is ideological backlash at times because at stake are the very definitions of gender and displays of power that underpin our identities as persons. This is big Narrative stuff. Of course there are going to be popular appeals to the essential Natural Advantage of men, something woven into their very biology, their genetic code. And talk about this Advantage (Superiority) it going to gravitate to Natural Law, and feel like categorical judgement. And yes, this is often going to be a conversation couched in terms of protecting the female. A cis-woman can’t conceivably fight a transgender woman, or even worse, a male, because of real scientific differences: bone density and testosterone… not because she won’t win. It’s because of her safety. Note how the concern becomes paternal, protective. The way we envision a female’s arc of potential power, the power of her body, is curbed.
It should be noted that the bodies of women are a shore on which many ideological and very real physical battles are waged. Not only are female bodies highly policed as aesthetic objects, a constant surveillance that women experience in an onslaught of voices and eyes, including internalized self-policing, there is quite frequently a very persistent threat of physical safety. This is something women become accustomed to navigating, and it is something men just are not aware of. Being the smaller or less authoritative body in many settings makes you the subject of possible and sometimes very real physical attack. My wife was the subject of male violence at a young age, she writes about it here. But “subject” is the right word, because the bodies of women are not only subjected to violence, they are subjects of violence. They are born through it. If violence is the world of fighting, in many ways it is they, and not men, who are the fighters of the world… other than the fact that they are culturally systematically taught to not fight back. This is what is revolutionary about the female fighter, caught in the new media world of fighting entertainment. They are doing what they cannot, and should not naturally do.
In terms of composition, a female is more fragile and less powerful than a male. Despite the fact that this is something that is expressed with great variety over populations, it reads as a categorical and natural argument, something that essentially places female fighters in a separate and inferior class of beings.
I take issue with the concepts of bone density and muscle mass and how they are used to shape the discussion of appropriate limits. The idea is that women are simply composed of a more fragile nature, something expressed by their natural biological profile. They do not have the bone density of men, nor the natural occurrence levels of testosterone and therefore muscle mass. In terms of composition, a female is more fragile and less powerful than a male. Despite the fact that this is something that is expressed with great variety over populations, it reads as a categorical and natural argument, something that essentially places female fighters in a separate and inferior class of beings. This is the interesting thing. Asian men too, by population, tend to have less dense bones (some studies have shown) and less testosterone than Caucasian men. But in contemporary society you never see people arguing that Asian men have a Natural Dis-Advantage as fighters when facing Caucasians. I say “in contemporary society” because these kinds of arguments indeed were the basis of all kinds of racist generalizations about Asians from the west not long ago (and maybe to this day among some), that they are naturally more feminine, etc (the motion picture figure of a potent Bruce Lee helped challenge this wide assumption). And you never see people saying that Caucasian male fighters should not be fighting Black male fighters due to the Natural Advantage Black fighters have on average, in bone density or testosterone. No, that argument would backfire against the Natural Order rhetoric that naturally occurring physical advantages connote essential superiority. This is how you know that the bone density, testosterone argument is at its root an ideological argument – it is selectively applied to women now, whereas it at one time variations of it were selectively applied to other races. It is the attempt to underpin categorical difference in Nature.
Thais have no problem at all characterizing westerners as physically larger, more powerful… denser. Willingly western men can be all Dragos, walking around ripped to the gills. A pleasure of Muay Thai for Thais is that Thais can easily beat physically bigger, more muscled and powerful westerners (and others), through skills and IQ in Muay Thai.
Muay Thai and the Natural Advantage
Aside from the general distaste of racist overtone talk, there is a reason why people don’t refer to the Asian body composition of 34 year old Saenchai while he is putting a whooping on the western Muay Thai fighters who often have 5-8 kilos on him. Nobody is calling up Natural Advantage testosterone or bone density arguments when Thai Muay Thai greats face western opponents. There’s a simple reason for this. It doesn’t make that big of a difference. In that such advantages exist, in populations as a whole – and let’s say they do – they are not determinate. As long as we are speaking ideologically, we should embrace a fundamental nature of the celebration of Muay Thai in Thai culture. Thais have no problem at all characterizing westerners as physically larger, more powerful…denser. Willingly western men can be all Dragos, walking around ripped to the gills. A pleasure of Muay Thai for Thais is that Thais can easily beat physically more powerful westerners (and others), through Muay Thai. It is both the magnificence of the Art, and for many the essentially-Thai genetic relationship to the Art that makes any Natural Advantage of other peoples null and void. And these physical advantages far exceed any you might statistically find between men and women, in general. You can see this play out in Thai Fight, a televised fight promotion that has very strong Thai nationalism tendencies, where you see some of the very biggest talents in Muay Thai (all more or less past their physical prime) fight and defeat very aggressive, often physically larger western opponents. Nobody is talking about the Natural Advantage of these westerners set up to lose to Thai superiority. The reason is, such a difference is indeterminate when posed against technique or experience. Thai superiority consists of the knowledge of the Art. If you have any doubts about this, watch the moderately elite Krongsak beat all-time western great Rob Kaman, giving up 19 lbs on the scale…and maybe close to 30 lbs in the ring. Nobody is thinking about bone density & testosterone in the match up of this fight.
This ability to defeat giants is perhaps no more evident than in the fame of Kaoklai Kaennorsing, a Thai fighter who was named the Giant Killer when he defeated the enormous kickboxer Mighty Mo. Here’s Lawrence Kenshin’s breakdown:
This was taken to absurd proportions in this spectacle fight between Kaocklai and Korean Hong Man Choi:
Where are the morally tinged outrages about bone density and testosterone in Kaoklai’s fights? Their absence in such absurd physical “advantage” circumstances and their presence in fights involving women is how you know that there is a strong ideological component to the naturalism applied to female body composition.
Thais on the other hand celebrate these differences. Physical advantage becomes the sign of a less developed opponent, one who is not artful. It is one reason that in their own ideological struggles generally the lower-class Isaan fighter (darker skinned, from an agrarian subculture to the Northeast) is depicted as just a very strong, brute beast power fighter (a buffalo), whereas the more artful, sophisticated femur fighter of the city is seen as cultivated, clever, superior. This ideological picture holds, despite the fact that most of the very best Muay Thai fighters in Thailand’s history come from rural Isaan, a cradle of advanced techniques. While the Thais keep the distinction between power vs art among themselves, you can see this same distinction between (western) size and technique also played out in one of the great martial art fight scenes in movie history: the Big Bear vs Tony Jaa scene where this time it is rural Boran Muay Thai that comes to crush the physical aggression and size of Australian rage (and spouting insults about Thai inferiority to boot!):
This, above, was very likely the holy-shit scene that actually caused Sylvie (who is a physically small person – 100 lbs at fight weight), to fall in love with Muay Thai.
If fact the ideology of Muay Thai superiority through art over western power goes far back into Thai history, back to the very first record of Thai vs westerner fighting, a match between a French fighter and a royal Thai champion in 1788. The story tells of how the Thai used his characteristic retreating style to frustrate the much more aggressive European, so much so that the Frenchmen’s older brother jumped in to help, and fisticuffs ensued:
Mün Phlan and white opponent entered and saluted the king. They both stood up and were ready to box each other. The white man reached out to seize Mün Phlan and break his collarbone. Mün Phlan raised up his arm to prevent that and struck out at the white man while moving backwards. The white man was hit but did not fall, and kept reaching for Mün Phlan, who kept stepping backwards while hitting. Thus the white man could not get at and seize him. The white man’s elder brother saw this, leapt up, [and] went over and pushed Mün Phlan so he could not backstep any further and avoid his opponent. At this, the king’s younger brother, the Heir Apparent Kromphraratchawang Bawon Sathanmongkhon, became angry. He said they were fighting a wager one to one, and asked why the other should help, making it two on the other side. The prince quickly jumped off the platform, brought his foot up and kicked the elder white man, who tumbled down. The referees there rushed in and began fighting with the two white brothers. Both brothers were badly hurt. Their subordinates carried them back to their ship.
You can read more about how this record and other historical Muay Thai stories fit into modern Muay Thai mythology in Peter Vail’s Modern Muai Thai Mythology
Aside from the comical extreme, the frustration of the more aggressive western fighter who relies on power/size against a retreating Thai still plays out to this day 227 years later in stadia across Thailand.
Muay Thai Superiority and Female “Inferiority”
So to recap: there is a vague general argument out there that female fighters are at a categorical physical disadvantage when compared to male fighters. The very body composition of each makes fights between them not only unfair, and dangerous, it makes them almost unimagineable; and when they happen certainly transgressive. At the same time Muay Thai itself, as a marital art and cultural artifact, is celebrated for its ability to overcome perceived physical advantages. This not only has showed itself through the telling of history, dating back to the 18th century, it continues to this day as the top named fighters regularly defeat larger westerners. Bringing these two together: even if we assume that each and every woman has in her body composition a fundamental disadvantage when compared to a male counterpart of the same weight – this is factually not true, but let’s ride with the most extreme claim – these physical advantages are nowhere near the kinds of physical advantages Muay Thai regularly overcomes, in its practice. What we have on one side is an ideological picture of fundamental female inferiority (often couched in paternal protectiveness) and on the other side real world Muay Thai efficacy, regardless of body composition estimates. The difference between how these two things are talked about reveals just how weak the argument about essential female weakness is.
So what’s the real problem here when we think about what would happen if a woman faced a man of the same weight in a fight? Why is it that we naturally cringe at that? The reason is that even those of us who celebrate female fighting are in the tight lens of our ideological goggles. Even as we champion female fighters, we cannot help but be colored by the dominant assumption that women are essentially composed of different stuff than men. This is a complete and utter myth, but just because its a myth doesn’t mean it doesn’t have real power over our perceptions, experiences and judgement.
So what is the fundamental difference between when we look at Kaoklai Kaennorsing vs Mighty Mo, a difference in size of enormous proportions :
and when we look at a fight between one of the all time great female fighters Lucia Rijker vs the unexceptional male fighter Somchai Jaidee.
This is how we know we are looking with our ideological goggles. One is a spectacular attempt to show how brilliant Muay Thai is, against all odds, against a huge opponent. The other makes us feel differently, and look for some kind of essential, fundamental…natural difference between men and women to explain the outcome (Rijker loses, and is overpowered). But it is more than this. The reason why Lucia Rijker is not comparable to former Rajadamnern champion Kaoklai Kaennorsing is not the stuff of their bodies. It’s the depth of their technique and experience. As good as Lucia Rijker was, and she is a historically great female fighter, an all time great worthy of esteem, her knowledge and experience was nowhere near Kaoklai’s, and in fact no woman who has ever fought has been – and Kaoklai himself was not an all-time great Thai fighter. Kaoklai could overcome distinct, huge physical differences through the sophistication of his technique and his experiential savvy, developed through the endless process of Thailand’s champion making process, something only males have access to from childhood on. As this is with the case with Lucia Rijker, it is even more so the case with others less accomplished than her.
For female fighters, this is where we have to start. As Sylvie said in a recent Facebook post, the only thing that separates the quality of the female fighter from the male fighter is their exposure and experiences. Raised in the same manner as a Thai boy might be, and filled with similar fight experiences there is no reason why Lucia Rijker could not take on an opponent with very distinct physical advantages… that is the very nature of Muay Thai. But those opportunities simply do not exist in the world, not even for someone has special as now 13 year old Phetjee Jaa in Thailand.
What is sad is that the real world differences that do keep female fighters from gaining a depth of technical knowledge and experiences, which would make them so much more capable as fighters, get erased when people talk about male Natural Advantage.
What is sad is that the real world differences that do keep female fighters from gaining a depth of technical knowledge and experiences, which would make them so much more capable as fighters, get erased when people talk about male Natural Advantage. We are all tricked, in a slight of hand, from looking at the real reasons of opportunity and training, as well as social support, and instead come to assume that female “inferiority” is the stuff of stuff, what females are made of. It keeps us from going about and changing those opportunities for young girls, offering that support and encouragement, and instead has us protecting the natural feminine material. It keeps us from witnessing the real power and development of real symbolic virtue and agency, of women who can and want to fight. Petchrungruang Gym, where Sylvie trains, is a prime example of this. Upon coming to the gym it was a perfect opportunity for Sylvie to learn clinch because the gym is full of young boys and early teenagers. Their size and development meant that culturally and physically she could work with them. Many of these boys were smaller than Sylvie when we first came to the gym and over the past 1.5 years all but one have grown bigger than she. More than the size difference, the change from “early teen” to teens who are becoming young men has greatly complicated and put at risk this perfect training scene. Sylvie is naturally quite strong for her size and is, in fact, stronger than a number of these bigger, male training partners. But because of this belief in female physical inferiority, she is sometimes disallowed from working with them – for her “protection” of course, but surely to her deficit. If as the boys get older and stronger she is no longer given the same opportunities, how can she possibly keep up? This belief in inferiority is self-fulfilling; it’s put into practice across the board by categories of sex, rather than by ability – the boys who are less physically strong than Sylvie are not left out of training with the stronger boys, but are rather purposefully thrown in with them in order to develop their weaknesses, to make them men.
The Importance of Champions and Examples
So, if the real difference in the quality of fighter between genders is that of opportunity, how do we go about enhancing those opportunities, especially for young girls growing up? This is where the outliers of opportunity can make a huge difference, by simply changing what we are able to see when we look at a female fighter through their example. Some females indeed were exposed to the training, fight experience and social support that gave them a unique depth of knowledge of technique, even if it is still narrow when compared to the best male fighters. Ronda Rousey had the incredible drive of and opportunity of her fighter mother since a young age, and the competition opportunity to learn Judo at a high level. The depth of her technical knowledge, especially in contrast to many of her later MMA opponents, provides a platform of female fighter excellence, something that breaks the illusion that females are made of fragile or dis-advantaged stuff, or that they are essentially less competent. A Muay Thai fighter like Iman Barlow , daughter of a fighter also (below), who has been fighting since a child, and who spent some of that time fighting boys, has the rare experience of early exposure that brings a depth of knowledge to technique and performance. Someone like Muay Thai fighter Valentina Shevchenko claims to have fought or competed in over 500 matches/fights, is another leader. There is no substitute for this kind of experience base.
As these unique women, given origins in fighting, exercise and grow their fighting prowess, their success in the ring becomes a rising tide that floats all boats. The image of female fighter becomes altered through their fluency, ideology starts to melt in the light of performance. Then there are female fighters who may not have begun with fighting at a very young age, but have a background in martial arts, fighters like Tiffany van Soest, or Caley Reece, or Julie Kitchen perhaps, fighters who reached a respected level of skill and relative fluency, whose careers arc out definitively as champions and examples. These are milestone setters that change the landscape what is imagined as possible, both in the ring as out. They are women who have carved, or are carving out new images of success, changing the way we measure what is possible.
Among the image-changers are also Thai female fighters who have the gift of being raised in the very source of technique: Thailand. Thai female fighters as a group have a real base fluency in the art that does not exist in the west. Their high fight totals and their exposure to high quality technique and training practices produce a quality of female fighting that is nowhere else in the world. And still, when compared to the base of male experiences, female fighters here are still wading in a far more shallow pool of technique fluency, challenging opponents and opportunity. Yes, they face their own societal hurdles in regards to their gender, but Thai female fighters carry the “Thai” in Muay Thai, the values that make it what it is. As supporters of the future of female fighting we need to work to recognize and promote Thai female fighters, their capabilities, their careers, adding their image to what is possible for women who fight. Their particular fluency makes the language of Muay Thai, and the language of all fighting, more accessible to women the world over.
And lastly are so many passionate others. My wife Sylvie comes to mind, and Teressa Wintermyr, but there are so many others who came to Muay Thai late, and did not have a childhood or youth in it. But women like these have fought a lot, and brought a burning reality to the possibility of female fighting because they tap into the meaning of female fighting as empowerment and expression. Any and all women can fight.
If women don’t have visible technical examples of other women fighting, even non-ideal examples, it is harder for them to map themselves onto future selves.
Together the sum of all female fighters lift the expectation of what happens when a female puts on gloves. They document a change in gender. But it is more than this. Very passionate and visible female fighters, many of them top champions, help produce a sub-culture of female fighting. Even though women still have to most often look to men for acme examples of in-fight technique, the women who have fought and achieved such personal development in the contexts of their own more limited opportunities, shaped by being female, provide vital anchor points of identification, where the drive and will to succeed, to perform at the highest level possible, meets up with technique. Each woman shows other women “this is how you can win”, “this is how you can be” in a very real sense. Julie Kitchen for instance showed tall women the world over that you can fight very successfully out of a particular style, Caley Reece demonstrates how potent clinch fighting can be for women. These identification points with technique and styles used by women are so important because young fighters need to map onto visible examples of fighters they feel are “like them” to a great degree. A young girl might look at Buakaw (the man) and say: I want to kick like him! But when she sees Iman Barlow kick and win fights, kicking just opens up in a different way.
This unfortunately is one of the minor tragedies of the absence of video of most of the top female fighters in the Muay Thai world, and is one reason why Sylvie made a big commitment to put all of her fights, and much of her training up on YouTube, flaws and all. Instead I know some female fighters have actively hidden their fight videos (for fight advantage, or perhaps at times because of performance), and sometimes fights are never widely seen because of paywalls or guarded promotions – for instance, who has seen the Iman Barlow loss to Anissa Meksen? Or the Chomanee Sor Taehiran loss to Caley Reece, these bouts featured perhaps the 3 of the best 6 female fighters in the west, and very, very few people have seen them. These are potentially iconic bouts, lost to obscurity. This is short term gain at long term female fighting cost. If women and girls don’t have visible technical examples of other women fighting, even non-acme examples, it is harder for them to map themselves onto future selves.
Natural Advantage and the Politics of Sex
Lastly I want to return to the meaning of fighting itself in our contemporary age. Why has it suddenly exploded in popularity? As I suggested, there have been real economic and cultural shifts which threaten to disenfranchise previously privileged groups. This is no small thing. Cultural foundations which serve to orient us and keep life full of meaning are being tugged at and in some cases un-moored. Fundamental dimensions of our psyche: aspects of gender, race, class, nationality are all in transition and have been for some time. Recourse is to essential symbols of agency and self-determination are what lead to the celebration of the fighter. As he fights, we fight. The thymotic urge to preserve oneself, even to ascend, when the world becomes destablized does more than appeal to us, it affirms our existence, our right to be. Fighting becomes both the signature, and the erasure of our impotence. For white men like myself, I believe it transcends all the talk and commotion, with a purity – almost a beauty – as it invokes very deep values of dignity and code. But this power to transcend is the very thing that also makes it appeal to others who are on the ascent, are gaining real liberties of movement and choice. Women are fighting more than ever before because they want to be a part of that transcendence, and they want to express in a powerful, non-verbal way their new capacity for freedom. The highly policed shells of their bodies become vehicles for an artful violence that defies the stuff history has attempted to tell them they are made of. Instead they are forging new “stuff”, stuff that endures, operates and executes… in a kind of poetry. Given our time in history, as women and girls gain access to this art form, the real fighting art forms that involve real fights with real risks, it is natural for men to feel conflicted, and for all the old essentialisms about female-kind to pop up, even with a kind of virulence. Women are embracing universal old time values of bravery, courage, endurance, but in doing so are signaling change. With some irony, the deeper women reach into the fighter values of the past, the culture of fighting, the further they are flung into the future of possibilities of what they can be.
Where the Art of Muay Thai and the “natural” inferiority of women touch, is a leverage point of hope, a profound truth that throughout human history has always served to save the moment. Technique – and technique is a technology – forever can sew the soul to new wings and possibility, and as women strive all over the world for deeper and deeper knowledge of technique, the brute expression of it, this is the most natural evolution of our kind.
Below, a short Al Jeezera AJ+ piece on Phetjee Jaa