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Article by Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

I arrive at Five Points Academy a few minutes early for my interview with Kru Natalie Fuz.  After announcing myself at the front, I sit on a bench and have a semi-obscured view of Kru Natalie wrapping up a personal training session with an older man.  She helps him off with his gloves and wraps, wipes his face with a hand-towel, and then fans him with it, in long, vertical sweeps about a foot from his expressively fatigued face.

As I watch her in this gesture, I wonder if I would find it as charming in a male trainer.  I question my own gender biases, pondering if this kind of physical contact, though certainly not affectionate, is demonstrative of a level of care that feels intimate in a particularly female way.  

She coaches him in push-ups, which I can’t see him perform from behind a knee-high wall, so I concentrate on Kru Natalie, who is so focused on her client I am a little surprised when she looks up and acknowledges me.  I smile and wave, hoping she’ll know who I am and understand that I’m happy to see her in her element, rather than trying to rush her toward our appointment.  She understands, continues winding down her personal training session.  Her client stands and I see that he has impressive muscle definition in his arms – hard earned, I have witnessed – and a kind of confidence in his body that is not overt, but distinct: the confidence that divides trained and untrained.

Once her client has headed off to the locker rooms, Kru Natalie approaches me and gives me an enthusiastic smile and an equal handshake.  She invites me back to a studio in the rear of the gym, where she perches on a medicine ball and pulls out a tall noodle-soup, asking me where I train and for how long.  She strikes me as a very steady woman and her questions feel to me like a means – if unconscious even – of gauging me, figuring out my levels.  Levels of what, I’m not entirely sure – intelligence, honesty, experience – but it doesn’t feel like a test; more like tapping gloves.

I set up my recorder and take my turn at posing questions.  I wrote four pages of questions and only asked the first one as a direct inquiry.  All else was covered in the steady progress of discussion during our time together.  One can tell a lot about a person by how s/he answers questions; more so even than what they answer.  Kru Natalie answers with a thoughtful and casual honesty that encourages the succession of questions to be equally considerate. 

I read an interview with Kru Natalie in which she had said she’d always been interested in martial arts as a kid, but did not state whether or not she’d studied any.  When I ask her if Muay Thai was her first martial art, her answer sets our path for the rest of our conversation:

Kru Nat: Muay Thai was not my first martial art. I did karate and a little bit of Judo back in the day. When I had said that martial arts was an interest of mine since I was very little it actually really was, but my mother who is very gender-oriented didn’t think it was a girl’s sport so I was not allowed to practice.

I ask if she had to wait until she was out of her mother’s care before she was able to practice any traditionally male sports.

Kru Nat: Way past that. But my father – my parents were divorced since I was a little kid – my father was a Karate black-belt actually, a Judo brown-belt, so when I was on vacation with him the first thing I would do is put my Gi on and I would live in my Gi for the time of the vacation. And then I would practice stuff with my dad, so my dad was okay with it. My mother, no way; she just wouldn’t have it.  So I did a lot of sports as a kid, but I wasn’t allowed to do martial arts.

So when I was a teenager I tried Thai boxing actually, in France, back home. I didn’t really get into it because I was so into Karate at the time. I was obsessed with it, so I really didn’t pay attention. It was fun but nothing else. And it wasn’t until fifteen years later that I discovered Muay Thai, here, after I moved back to New York, and that’s maybe 12 years ago or 13 years ago. And, the first time I tried it here I fell in love with it. I took a general class with Steve actually, and I felt ‘I really want to do that’. I talked to Simon and said ‘I want to train private with you, one on one’ because I knew I just wanted to do it right, to get into it right away. So I didn’t even want to bother with classes. And so that’s it, I’ve been doing it since.

There’s a kind of quiet in the way Kru Nat relays these facts.  She does not sound condescending to or vindictive of her mother, or even pretend that her gender-oriented bias that kept her daughter from her interests is “old fashioned.”  She does not excuse her mother, but I don’t feel that there is any question of whether forgiveness is in order.  Maybe this is an American concept: the wounded child finding solace in adulthood by confronting and “processing” childhood trauma.  Rather, Kru Nat draws a direct line between her forbidden passion as a child and her fulfilled passion as an adult.  The question for her is not how she was stuck, but how she got out, how she made it here.  She hints at no inhibitions when she began at Five Points; instead, she was confident and focused and knew how she wanted to learn – one on one.

I find similarities in her story and mine.  My mother is not really gender-oriented, but my family is almost entirely men.  Growing up with three older brothers, I was expected to be able to keep up, but discouraged from blurring the line between me and “one of the guys.”  I was, and am, expected to be feminine, but never in a noticeable way – like, not wanting to watch football on Thanksgiving, unless it’s to help Mom in the kitchen.  When I came to Muay Thai, I began almost immediately with private sessions because that method felt right and I’m pretty sure this practice both feeds and comes out of obsession.

But Kru Nat is talking about 12-13 years ago.  We’re not living in a gender-equality paradise now, but Kru Nat was coming to this sport without ready names of female Muay Thai fighters.    It is not uncommon to be the only woman in a gym, even now, and even more unlikely that more than a few women at any gym will be very serious about the sport of Muay Thai.  But women now can look at Germaine de Randamie, Julie Kitchen, Angie Rivera Parr, Gina Carano and the other girls of Fight Girls, and Kris Cyborg.  Back in Kru Nat’s day there were (and still are) numerous women fighting in Holland and England, but they weren’t (and often still aren’t) really known in the US.  Funny thing, too: Kru Nat has fought Kitchen three times and knows Carano personally, from training with Master Toddy and was actually at Carano’s first MT fight.  Natalie Fuz is right there on the list of women of Muay Thai who have opened doors – or kicked them down, anyway.

 

When she first began Muay Thai, she just walks in to Five Points, takes a class, and then tells the trainers she wants to learn one-on-one; and when she’s there at the gym training there are very few women – and almost none who were there for the sport – and she’s just going for herself, because it wasn’t even in her mind to compete.  She says it was all guys sparring there at the time, and I get this automatic reaction in my body that feels like something between frustration and excitement.  For a while I was myself sparring only with men – always significantly larger than I – and I had to keep telling them that it’s better for me if they don’t tap me, to please just hit me harder so that I can respond and get some semblance of that pressure and rage one gets in a fight.  Without expressing any of this aloud, Kru Nat relays that she experienced the exact opposite, which she attributes to her size:

Kru Nat:  [B]eing a bigger woman… what I found is [that it’s] different when guys spar with smaller girls vs. women that are their size or closer to their size. They get very threatened.  God forbid you should have better moves or you should be in general better than them. This whole ego thing starts happening and they start hitting really hard. But with smaller girls they are much more cautious, that I notice right away. When smaller girls started coming around there was a different approach, they were careful not to hurt them, while with me they didn’t really [punching her own hand]…you know, full on. That’s the only thing, I thought ‘hmm, that’s kinda bizarre’, I said to myself ‘But I can take it, it’s good for me, it’s not going to get any worse than that’. You know, a 160 or a 180 lb guy is hitting me really hard, when I get in the ring with somebody my size, a woman, it’s not going to feel like anything.

The male vs. female sparring response is far more complex than just a size issue.  What isn’t taken into account by size alone is that the size-aesthetic of women who practice Muay Thai directly affects the hetero-male dominance factor of training Muay Thai in gyms.  Women training today have an aesthetic difficulty in that the “hot female Muay Thai” practitioner has become the dominant image for American audiences.  The female fighter is meant to be physically feminine and attractive to the hetero-male eye; her body is not judged by its ability to perform Muay Thai, but her ability to look good doing it.  The recent MMA bout between Brazilian contender Kris Cyborg and American icon Gina Carano is a lucid example of this disparity.  Both women are – simply put – big, fighting in the 140+ lbs weight class.  Cyborg came out looking incredibly built, with bulging muscles and a strong, square jaw; hair braided in corn-rows and an aesthetic that generally expressed strength.  Carano came out looking like she works out – toned rather than built – with curves and areas of softness, a heart-shaped face framed by pig-tails and an aesthetic that made me think she looked “cute.”  (That said I still wouldn’t get in the ring with her.)  Thing is, both women entered the ring wearing makeup – lipstick on Cyborg, mascara on both.  The fight was brutal and Cyborg dominated the whole thing, but I don’t know that if it had been reversed that Gina would be called a “beast” in the way that Cyborg often is.

Kru Nat does not groom herself to a heterosexual aesthetic.  She’s unmistakably strong and clearly puts work into her physique, but it’s one of usefulness – taking care of her body so it takes care of her in the ring – rather than one that is sexualized by a heterosexual male gaze.  I’m not offering that Carano does not train “right” or that she’s in any way wrong for her image; but I do suggest that if you put Cyborg, Kru Nat, and Carano in a ring with a group of guys for sparring, Carano would be hit the lightest, weather this is conscious or not.

Kru Nat is not unaware of the “hot girl” image of current female Muay Thai fighters.  She sees the difficulty in it, the unfortunate obstacle it presents, and acknowledges that she has not personally felt pressured by it.  But she’s not prepared to absolve sexualized women from all responsibility.  I asked her how she regards this problem in the story of female Muay Thai:

Kru Nat: It’s not going to be [easy] right away because it’s still a male dominated sport, and running into that whole spinning the sexy thing drives me absolutely crazy… I was really outraged the way we’re not taken seriously as athletes sometimes, and it’s still going on. I was just thinking, like, Gina is a perfect example… I know Gina personally. I saw her first fight in Vegas, when she first started I was training with her… it’s just like, you know, just so disturbing.  Or even Julie [Kitchen], I totally respect her, but you know, […] we can blame the men for doing that to us, but you also have to take responsibilities. Then they make a choice to be presented that way, you know, and there are repercussions, it’s not just about you, it’s about also all the other women around. I didn’t get that, not being put in that bag.  Because of who I am I think it’s a little easier, you know. I don’t fit the profile: young with long hair and make-up and all that. And my sexual orientation is different, I think that is a huge part of it. My approach is a bit different because, I’m just so tired of it, the fact that that comes first before a woman is a frickin’ great athlete – being a sexy girl.  There’s nothing wrong with it, but like, where are you drawing the line?

Part II here, Part III here

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4 Comments

  1. Good article/interview. Casting the encounter as a shared experience between two people seems very appropriate here — “it doesn’t feel like a test; more like tapping gloves.” The interviewer leads us into the ‘world’ of female Muay Thai fighters in the U.S. in the spirit of a newcomer carrying her own untried potential. This helps us to appreciate the courage and the importance of the interviewee: the pioneer, the heroine; and it lends weight to her remarks. It is the weight of a shoulder behind an arm behind a fist; it is also the weight of a welcoming embrace.

    I look forward to reading more.

    • “It is the weight of a shoulder behind an arm behind a fist; it is also the weight of a welcoming embrace.”
      What a beautiful description/metaphor for a woman fighter.

    • Patti Gassaway
    • Posted September 23, 2009 at 11:50 pm
    • Permalink
    • Reply

    This is really thought provoking, Sylvie. I very much enjoy the way you have introduced this fascinating woman, an athlete, through your own thoughts about gender and the sport of Muay Thai. Especially excellent beginning, that visual of the towel making long vertical sweeps as Kru Natalie fans her client (combs his energy), and the feel of its intimacy being more feminine than masculine. Is “Kru” a title for teacher or a word of respect? I look forward to reading more.

    • Kru means teacher, which is also respected, so it’s a word of respect.

      “Combs his energy.” That’s beautiful.


4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] New York Female Sparring Circle Contact First, Victory Second About NYFSCContact « Women of Muay Thai: an Interview with Kru Natalie Fuz (Part 1 of 4) […]

  2. […] missed it, I’ve been posting parts of an interview I did with Natalie, the first of which is here. « More […]

  3. […] III [Part I here, Part  II […]

  4. […] fight, a significant change in the life of Nathalie who I had recently met and interviewed for an article, it seemed that the event must be captured in some way; I could not let it pass only as a […]

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