A Woman’s Place is in the Cage – or in the Ring

Academics annoy me no end.

Especially ones like David Mayeda, author of Fighting For Acceptance: Mixed Martial Artists and Violence in American Society. And I quote the following article, published in the Herald-Sun:


To the University of Auckland sociologist David Mayeda, mixed martial arts is ‘unleashed hegemonic masculinity’.

“It resonates with people who seek a return to a traditional form of masculinity, secured in the expression of violence and, to some degree, sexuality,” says Mayeda, the author of Fighting for Acceptance: Mixed Martial Arts and Violence in American Society.

“MMA goes back to gender norms, where men are supposed to be intimidating and physically violent. Here, they can express that in a sanctioned space. That’s why it’s growing rapidly around the world.”

As women gain power in society, he says, men will increasingly seek niche spaces to assert their physical superiority. MMA is one such realm.

”Women are very much excluded from it,” he says, ”not by the rules but because it’s a space predominantly for men to watch other men express this form of masculinity.”

This, in my opinion, is complete and utter horseshit.

Here’s my number one beef with academics; most of them have never made a film that’s seen by an audience, never written a book that’s been published and, like this one, never really been in a fight. You know my history, and declaiming on the subject is going to be both soap-box preaching and boorish. I will say, however, that I have trained women, trained with women and been trained by women throughout the duration of my athletic career. I defy you to find a single sport – and it sure as shit won’t be AFL or any of those dunderheaded team sports – where as many women train side by side with men. I once trained Sophie Ruston, and Sarah ‘Missy’ Howett is a former training partner of mine. To that end, I thought it would be more authoritative (and interesting) if I asked them what they thought, apropos Mr. Mayeda and ‘unleashed hegemonic masculinity’ (ahem).

Sophie Ruston had her first amateur boxing match on Sat 31st March, winning by points decision. It was the first of many more, she assures me. Before she took up at the East End Boxing Gym, I was her trainer.

Do you think women are excluded from fighting sports?

“No, not at all. If anything, there’s not a lot of interest from a lot of women; it could be better marketed to women so they’re not scared to try. I definitely don’t feel excluded. When I was a kid I studied Tae Kwon Do, and my instructor was female. Most of the class was men. I also played soccer and rugby – no guys trained with us in soccer. Men and women did train together in rugby.

What were the guys like towards you, in terms of their attitude?

Men were accepting when they realised the girls could train with them and be just as good.

Do you think men and women should fight each other?

It should be an option if they’re the same weight category. I spar with men. Guys hit harder, but you can take it; you just have to train harder. A girl my weight can hit the same as a guy my weight.

Where do you train?

I train at the ‘East-End Boxing Gym’ in Croydon. My trainer is Brian Butler; he has 30 years’ experience. I’m the only girl.

What was it like, going in there for the first time?

The first time was really good. Really friendly. There were lots of young boxers. It felt like a family environment. They were really welcoming straight away; that’s what made me keep going back. They threw me in with the boys, I trained with the boys. I was treated the same. That’s what I want; I don’t want to be treated differently.”

Shortly after, Sophie sent the following text:

“And I forgot to mention… how can someone say we are EXCLUDED when 2012 is the 1st year women boxers are INCLUDED in the Olympics!”

Sarah ‘Missy’ Howett began her pugilistic career in Muay Thai and his since become a boxer of some renown. She also featured on the television show ‘Gladiators’ as Viper. Her most recent fight saw her pitted against Daniella Smith, the former IBF world champion in New Zealand. Sarah won by unanimous points decision. She and I trained together when I was at Joe Nader’s Powerplay Gymnasium.    

Do you think women are excluded from fighting sports?

“Definitely not. Not at all. They’re not given as much publicity and praise, but definitely not excluded.

What are the guys like towards you, in terms of their attitude?

I get a lot of respect. Nothing but respect. Last fight (against former IBF world champ Daniella Smith), we were the main event. There were lots of males there; all the fights on the undercard were males, except for one. [After the fight there were] people coming up to me saying how impressed they were with the fight and how entertaining it was. I seem to get that with most fights. One of the guys at Run For the Kids was talking to me, and he’s noticed that – and it’s something I’ve said for years – that females, when learning how to box, are far quicker to pick up the technique. Girls seem to focus more on the technique side of things, so they come to punch and kick harder, faster. I’ve never really come across anybody who’s said anything otherwise. It seems to be people who know nothing about it that seem to voice those opinions.

Do you think men and women should fight each other?

I… don’t. Years ago, I would have challenged males if it were possible. Only because there was a time there I felt invincible. And from training with guys I wasn’t intimidated, but having a few years being in the sport I don’t think that they should fight each other, simply for the fact that especially at the same weight a guy has a lot more bulkier muscle and it can do a lot more damage hitting a more fragile person. Maybe not on the scales, but everyone’s put together differently. It’s just turning it into male vs. female and I don’t think it needs to be done.

Where do you train?

‘Powerplay Gym’ with Joe Nader. An opportunity came up to teach female fitness classes at Powerplay, so I started teaching classes twice a week and Joe pretty much picked me up from there.

What was it like, going into a boxing gym for the first time?

Exciting. I had no idea what to expect and went in there with a friend of mine; actually, he was my boyfriend at the time. He ended up quitting after a month. I was advancing quicker than he was and he decided that it wasn’t for him!

5 Responses to “A Woman’s Place is in the Cage – or in the Ring”

  1. Here here!

  2. Relax. First of all, I have competed in combat sport, or “fights,” as you say, not at an elite level, but I’ve competed nonetheless, and if we met, I seriously doubt that you’d consider me a typical academician. Secondly, the SMH interviewer interviewed me for well over 20 minutes and published the more sensational quotes of mine in this relatively short piece, thereby decontextualizing them – a common media tactic that is difficult for interviewees to control, especially in long interviews that get presented in short form. Third, combat sports have and still do privilege males. I’m not saying this is always intentional. Often it’s a ramification of historical and structural circumstances. Women were just flat out not allowed to box or wrestle in the Olympics until 108 years after men (http://www.aljazeera.com/sport/olympics/2013/03/201338101417800153.html). We shouldn’t deny that historical disparities impact contemporary trends. With regard to the world’s top MMA organization, women existed only as ring card girls for the first 20 or so years until Rousey and Carmouche competed in the Octagon last month, and I doubt if women hold many UFC executive positions. Finally, women do experience discrimination in combat sport gyms, including gyms where they are welcome. Sometimes this comes in the form of aggressive sexual advances (see here — http://www.mymuaythai.com/archives/the-problem-of-not-sleeping-with-your-trainer/); sometimes this means women have to do much more to prove themselves to male trainers and students, and as I said here, sometimes this means combat sport gyms do welcome women but the lack of opportunity to compete means women are only seen as sexualized objects if ever (http://www.aljazeera.com/sport/americansport/2012/09/201293112324963375.html). I’m not saying this happens in your gym or local fight scene. I don’t know you or the dynamics of the places you work, but it does happen more often than us males would like to admit across various sectors of the overall fight game. It’s great the women you interviewed for this piece don’t feel they were ever discriminated against, but I wouldn’t say their experiences conveyed here are typical.

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for your comment. It is deeply gratifying when the person invoked actually comments on their roasting.

      That said, you’ve got to be honest; either ‘unleashed hegemonic masculinity’ is your phrase, or it isn’t. Regardless of the context, you either said or you didn’t.

      And see, this is the problem; what you look like and meeting you has nothing to do with it. As an academic, it’s all about what you’ve said.

      I have no doubt there are few women in positions of power in the UFC, but that’s corporate culture, not fightsports. Furthermore, sexual harassment and unwanted advances occur everywhere to members of both sexes (see the article entitled ‘Discrimination! Oppression!!’) It’s true that fightsports, along with most traditionally male-dominated sports like motor racing, have primarily featured women as card girls etc. But the point is that it is changing and I believe that fightsports are at the cutting edge.

      Most evidence in relation to this subject is going to be anecdotal. And as a former pro kickboxer who has fought – and trained – all over the world for almost two decades, a member of the editorial staff at International Kickboxer Magazine for five years, and a postgraduate degree holder from the arts faculty at the University of Melbourne who chose not to pursue further education because the faculty was brimming with hypocrites and idealogues who awarded favor based on one’s willingness to ape their prejudices, I reckon I’m qualified to speak beyond ‘my local fight scene’. Furthermore, I believe Sarah and Sophie’s responses are typical.

      As Ernest Hemingway said, boxing and bullfighting are elevated to the status of ritual because of the blood that is in them. Anyone with blood moving through their veins – male or female – will be spoken to by it. And things are changing. You need to do your bit to dissolve the prejudices, instead of prattling about things like ‘unleashed hegemonic masculinity’ which simply shore up the walls from the other side.

      But then, that’s how you get a grant, isn’t it?

      And as for telling me to relax – if you loved the sport, and had spent some time in a few gyms where men and women train side-by-side, you’d probably be irritated, too.

  3. All good. We’ll have to agree to disagree on a few things. I’d say at least in the media corporate culture of the most dominating fight sports organization hegemonic masculinity is unleashed, partly because of the ways Dana White presented the MMA culture after Zuffa took over and began marketing the sport more aggressively when things went mainstream in 2005 (please remember the SMH article under contestation was specifically about White; it’s titled, “Rage in a cage: the man who made it big”). The casual language, use of words like “biches”, and “pussies”, and “fags” was quite omnipresent across leadership, amongst fighters, and fans….obviously not all. As I note in my book, lots of fighters and trainers aren’t like that, but they don’t sell tickets so they often don’t get as much camera time. This media ploy unfortunately is part of the fight game.

    The UFC has had to change its public culture specifically because hegemonic masculinity was so unleashed, which justifiably led to harsh public criticism. White now refrains from using the word “fag” as much as he used to, and he comes down on fighters who use homophobic and/or sexist language (e.g., Miguel Torres). But hegemonic masculinity still sells tickets and emerges among those fighters who actively promote themselves in sensationalized ways (e.g., Chael Sonnen did this quite a bit before his rematch with Silva). Is the UFC every combat sport gym? Of course not. But it’s the most public and successful organization, and therefore, I feel it bears a greater degree of responsibility. (Also, the journalist used the “hegemonic masculinity unleashed” phrase based on on this blog entry I made – http://www.sociologyinfocus.com/2011/12/21/the-sociology-of-mma-hegemonic-masculinity-unleashed/ – which again, is very UFC-focused).

    As for female fighters training in gyms less impacted my big corporate culture, I’m working on a follow up book to the first one, though I’m 2nd author this time. The lead author is a female Muay Thai athlete and academic. We’ll have to see how the data plays out, but I will say this – it’s impossible for our research proposals/agenda to be corrupted by money. Trust me, no funding agencies fund research on combat sport. I lost money on the “Fighting for Acceptance” book, and we will undoubtedly lose money traveling around to do research on this next one. In fact, we’ll probably lose more considering there’s less public interest in women’s combat sport. This research doesn’t get me any fame and fortune, not by a long shot. We critique sport because we love sport, and we want to see it improve, period. From an athletic perspective, constructive criticism is not just good, but necessary, right? I’ll take that principal to my own work now, and I hope people holding power in the fight game are likewise willing to reflect on fight sport’s possible areas of improvement.

    • I appreciate that your responses here are, in some part, an attempt to re-focus an unfortunate phrase, but it remains the chorus in a tired old song. I appreciate that the phrase relates to the UFC, but the blog post it came from is entitled ‘The Sociology of MMA – Hegemonic Masculinity Unleashed’.

      That said, I do feel that your responses here are typical of the academic method – you take the information that suits you and cut it to fit the shape of your designs. I understand what you say about scholarship being less-than-lucrative, but I refer to the academic proclivity for privileging voices that are in accord with their own prejudices.

      Interestingly, you made the comment that you chose academia, while I chose fighting, and hence, we had to ‘agree to disagree’. I chose neither – I am still climbing the side of the mountain described by the film-maker Robert Bresson – ‘Make visible that which without you would never have been seen’ – by writing fiction and journalism. It amazes me how much of useful writing requires listening to and thinking about others, rather than just making your own noises.

      When I sent you the piece entitled ‘On Fighting’, a short newspaper piece intended to explain my own relationship to fighting and martial arts, you chose to say nothing. I can only assume this was because you didn’t read it at all. I delayed my response to your last comment by two weeks, partly in order to provide a proper amount of time for you to respond.

      The other reason is because I have had three magazine articles to submit. One was a retrospective on the death of Dutchman Ramon Dekkers, one of the greatest fighters of last century (who I knew personally), an interview with five-time heavyweight kick-boxing champion Semmy Schilt and a remarkable interview with Shihan Tony Bowden, Australian Kyokushin Karate luminary.

      As you can see, David, this blog turns a very broad circle. Keep reading and you may find something that will be of use to you.

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