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Part II.  [Part I here, Part III here]      Article by Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

[Part II tells the story of how Kru Natalie came to Muay Thai.  We touch on the difficulties in becoming a female Muay Thai fighter in the US and the  differences between amateur and professional in this country.]

Kru Natalie is perched atop a silver exercise ball, stealing bites of noodle soup between paced, considered strands of thought.  At times she raises the cup to her mouth in a gesture of taking another bite, but lowers it again immediately, placing the cup on the floor, as if the object in her hand hinders her speech as much as the food in her mouth would.  A practiced gesticulator, Kru Nat doesn’t speak with her hands full.

This up and down motion comes to illustrate Kru Nat’s experience in entering the ring.  As a female competitor in New York 10 years ago the options and opportunities for female fighters on Muay Thai cards was incredibly limited.  (In fact, her first opponent was not even experienced in Muay Thai, but was a trained Western Boxer.)  Her path into fighting was marked by these spikes in excitement and preparation, followed by the ebb and disappointment of cancellations.

I ask her about her experience getting into fighting:

Kru Nat: The first fight, the girl canceled before we were supposed to fight. It was less than a year since I started my training – I started June ’98, and that was April ’99. The girl canceled at the last minute, so I did an exhibition match with Emily Bearden, who is a colleague of mine and is much smaller… she had just gotten into Muay Thai.

So that was fun, but I was kinda disappointed; definitely. We tried again in August, I was supposed to fight somebody, again canceled.  I was, like ‘okay, this is not good,’ and then finally November ’99, that was my first fight. 

In the great big city of New York, where anything seems possible, it is still challenging for female fighters to find Muay Thai bouts.  The organization, preparation and execution of sanctioned and unsanctioned fights are still marked by limited opponents and frequent cancellations.  Muay Thai cards very rarely feature more than one female bout in any given event and the odds that one fighter will cancel remains high.  For many women, offers to appear on Muay Thai cards are sometimes empty gestures at the possibility of finding an opponent, rather than a likely outcome.  Kru Natalie fought 20 amateur bouts and has, to date, fewer than a half-dozen at the professional level.  Often times for female fighters in the US, going pro means even fewer fight opportunities.

This “American Pro Freeze”, for instance, is illustrated by the bifurcated paths of two fighters: Sylvie Charbonneau and Amy Davis.  Both women fight in the lowest weight class offered in the US, which is variably listed as under 107 lbs, which may help account for the difficulty in finding fights.  (I too fight at this weight and have experienced great difficulty in finding opponents.)  But the story goes like this: both women hail from North America and they fought one another very early in their careers; both went on to fight professionally.  Charbonneau moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand and Davis is in Idaho Falls, Idaho.  Both are top-ranked fighters in the WIKBA rankings of 2009.  However, Charbonneau has had just under 50 professional fights (in 2.5 years), whereas Davis’ has had 3 professional fights (having gone pro in 2008). 

There is an obvious disparity here in that Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand and fights are held every day; furthermore, there are more female fighters at this weight in Thailand than in the US, and fighting in either country is thought of very differently: in Thailand a fighter has opportunity and is encouraged to fight several times per month, as fighting is not a huge production but a fact of doing Muay Thai; in the US opportunity is less and our attitude toward fights is that they are big productions for which one trains exclusively, causing each event to be infrequent and a treat of doing Muay Thai.  On Charbonneau’s Facebook, she comments that she loves fights because it means she gets the day off from training.  She is able to fight several times per month because she is always training for a fight; in this country one must have advance notice of a fight in order to train toward this particular fight, so one ends up going up and down in training, peaking and resting at extremes.

It’s interesting to me that the US criticizes the now-just-changing attitude held in Thailand that women must not enter the Muay Thai ring because it was considered bad luck – and it’s a valid criticism. However, for a country that holds itself as having a better attitude toward women fighting Muay Thai, there does not seem to be more or even better opportunities for women to do so here in the US.

I ask Kru Nat about her transition from amateur to professional, if she experienced any unexpected changes from one to the other, or if the only difference is that one has a purse and the other doesn’t.  She smiles and says, “yup, that’s it right there.”

Kru Natalie doesn’t see a meaningful difference between amateur and professional, at least in the US.  She advocates for the adoption of a class system, which is used in Europe, which basically orders fighters in class A, B, or C according to experience, rather than capital-gains standing.

I ask her about her own movement into professional fighting:

Kru Nat:  [In the US] anyone can turn pro whenever they want; after their first fight they can turn pro. What does that mean? Nothing.  I had 20 amateur fights before I turned pro – for a reason. Because I knew that if I turned pro I couldn’t fight any of the amateur girls: that was it for me. There’s no turning back.   So thought to myself that I want to fight every woman I can possibly fight because already the options are so little for my generation. Now it’s much better, even at my weight class. But my weight class, at the time, was very difficult, so I wanted to capitalize as much as I could – and I did. It was a strategy for me, it was my strategy, I made my choices. I had a very clear vision.  So I did exhaust the list – I had a list of women I wanted to fight, I went through my list – and when the list was done, though it was not completed, not because I didn’t try, but because they didn’t want to do it, or it didn’t happen and I’m not going to wait around for years for one match to happen – I moved on to pro. The difference is: I fight, I get paid. Is it a lot of money?  Forget it. You still need to have a fulltime job, trust me. It’s ridiculous.

As Kru Natalie explains it, it’s pretty clear that professional Muay Thai fighters – in this country – don’t do it for the money; it’s simply not lucrative enough.  This is significantly different from Thailand, where children begin fighting at an early age and are often the providers for their families through Muay Thai fighting.  In this context, it makes sense to fight professionally as soon as possible.  But Kru Nat is quick to explain that Muay Thai is not a mainstream sport in the US and is therefore not going to result in the kind of money that Football, Basketball, Baseball, or even Western Boxing athletes can earn.  Yet Kru Nat is not advocating for the mainstream popularity of Muay Thai; she doesn’t want it to be mainstream.  She feels that the sport is a “big enough niche that there’s a ton of possibilities… a ton of growth possibilities, but… it’s never going to be a mainstream sport in the US; most sports are not.”

But her feeling that going pro in Muay Thai in the US is negligible does not keep her from noting strong opinions on the unequal pay to male and female fighters, as the subject arose in our conversation:

Kru Nat: Because we are women, they think it’s okay [to pay us less], because that’s the way of the world, but that doesn’t mean that we should be complacent about it, or just accept it. For me I need to push that glass ceiling up all the time, in everything I do. And now as a Kru going into the business and building my own team, it’s going to be men and women.  Lots of women because I know what every woman talks about, why having a female trainer is just more bearable because we understand each other; we are not a different species.

For women fighting Muay Thai in the US, there are usually a lot of plates spinning at once.  Kru Natalie is co-owner of a number of clothing boutiques in NYC and maintains this business while pursuing her Muay Thai.  Returning to the issue of finding fights and her early experiences with Muay Thai since she began her training and then decided to enter into fighting, she told me about how the difficulties lead her into teaching. 

Kru Nat: It was like pulling teeth trying to get a fight, and getting put on the card.   And whenever I had the opportunity, I kinda got discouraged because after a year and half I had more cancellations than fights; it was kind of a joke – it became a joke – I had to make humor out of it because, it really sucked.   I had a fulltime job. I had three stores in New York; it’s hard. It’s more than a fulltime job, and then I had to make time for training, and the fight gets canceled. I mean it happened to everybody, and yes, you get better and better every time, because training, no matter what you’re going to feel the benefits of that, that’s great. But every time to be canceled on, it was like ‘Why am I doing this?’ you know, what’s the point? There wasn’t money in it because I wasn’t making any money, which is good, I think, but after a while it was like ‘okay, I really need to rethink that’.

So that is kind of why I decided to become a teacher, because after a year and a half of that, [I thought] ‘No, I don’t have time for this’. [But] ‘I love Muay Thai’…I know there’s a calling here, so that lead to teaching, I was really curious about it. I went with Master Toddy in Vegas to get my certification, and then I found out about all those female Muay Thai fighters in England or in Europe before my generation, that were really ground breaking, but there was nowhere to find out about it.

So, in the US that feeling of being kind of a pioneer, it’s true. At the same time, I think because of that I really need to do something to catch it on. I need to help upcoming women to not experience the same thing I experienced, to make it better.

When she first began her training in Muay Thai, Kru Natalie didn’t want to fight.  Her background in Karate, Judo, and a great many other sports had equipped her with competitive experience, but she wasn’t interested in that aspect of Muay Thai.  This training was for her and she just wanted to have fun – something that she felt competition squelched, rather than quenched.

But when she tried Muay Thai in New York, she knew right away that she wanted to stick with it.  I know what this feels like, because I knew straight away that Muay Thai had fed something in me that I didn’t know needed nutrients, and it only got stronger.  I ask her what it was about Muay Thai that grabbed her I wanted to know what it was about Muay Thai that captured her heart:

Sylvie: And so the movements in your body just clicked in a certain way, or the aesthetic of it… what was it that really caught you when you first started doing it?

Kru Nat: Well, I thought it was very practical, which Karate is not. I always felt that [with] Karate I couldn’t really do anything with it until I was a black-belt basically –

Sylvie:Because of the katas and stuff like that…

Kru Nat: Yeah, it’s just that I loved Karate but after a while it’s just like ughh, you know, it’s not going to get me anywhere;, and I don’t know if I want to dedicate myself to get to the black-belt level. I just wasn’t in love with it as much [as I came to be] with Muay Thai, so I didn’t pursue it the same way. When I came back to New York I knew I didn’t want to do Karate again, but I knew I needed to do something. And my personal trainer at the time, Shauna was lik,e ‘Those guys upstairs, they’re doing Muay Thai kickboxing, you should really try it because I’m sure you would do really good with it’. And I was like ‘Okay, I’ll try’ and then that’s it, that’s how I got into it.

It’s interesting to think of why one martial art appeals to an athlete over another.  In a time when Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is at an all-time high in popularity, when folks turn on the TV and have a better chance of catching an MMA bout than a boxing match and are more familiar with an octagon cage than a traditional ring, it seems that the appreciation of one particular form over another is not really encouraged.  For instance, the MMA fighters in the WEC and UFC are often listed as having “strong Mauy Thai skills” for their stand-up fight, but one would be hard-pressed to find any good Muay Thai techniques in their repertoire at all.  So, practicality seems to an appropriate term for why one chooses a front kick over an axe kick or a Jiu-Jitsu hold over a western wrestling move (try using a wrestling hold when someone is allowed to punch your face!).  In MMA, moves are chosen based on practicality in a situation, rather than their place in one particular art form.

But Kru Nat isn’t talking about MMA, at all.  She’s talking about the difference in Muay Thai from the bulk of all other eastern Martial Arts, which is that one does not learn techniques in a regimented order, or advance from one stage to another, marked by colored belts or the next set of “katas”, or a specific set of moves.  Rather, someone like Kru Nat, who has practiced Muay Thai for over 10 years and continues to study will still be learning how to perfect her kick, her elbows, and knees.  One isn’t an expert in a shorter time than one studying other eastern Martial Arts, but one is certainly able to apply a battery of techniques and moves that are intended to hurt, stun, or dispatch an opponent without years of training.  Certainly one becomes more proficient at each technique, stronger, faster, more adroit in dominating an opponent – but, like Western Boxing, once you can throw a jab, you can control someone opposing you.

The word practicality alludes to the concept of practice, which, one could argue means that the practicality aspect of Muay Thai invites one to put the moves into  action.  The question becomes then, whether there is a difference between practicing moves, and putting moves into practice, ie. fighting.

I was curious to know how Kru Natalie made this transition to actually fighting.

Kru Nat:Simon asked me very early on if I wanted to fight and I really had to think about that. I mean, I was 32 years old first of all at the time, and I was kinda freaked out about it. I’ve had an old history of getting into sports since I was very young and because I was always athletic I usually did pretty good and I just wanted to do it for the fun of it. I never wanted to do it for competition. But again and again I was pushed into competition, and not asked if I wanted to – I was pushed, forced into competition. And it was a disaster, I never did well because I didn’t like it, I didn’t want it. I just wanted to have fun, you know? So when that happened, that was like… childhood trauma [laughing], I don’t know.  I was like, wow, okay, I’m an adult I can make my own decisions and yeah, why not, it can be fun. So …we tried to set up something.

Sylvie:  And did you get a taste for it, I definitely want to keep doing this, or was it still a hard decision –

Kru Nat: No, no, I was full-on. That was why I asked Simon for two weeks. I said, ‘I need two weeks to think about this and when I tell you my decision it’s going to be a full commitment, or no commitment at all.’ And so I was like, ‘yeah, definitely I want to do this.’ So my first fight was actually here, at Church Street gym.

Sylvie: Who did you go against?

Kru Nat: Colleen O’Brian, she was a boxer at the time, she had only experience boxing. It was a very good fight, I didn’t win… she got a split decision by one point. It was a really good fight. She was really hard and she was a very good boxer. It was the lightest I ever fought – I was, like, 140 or something, and I felt a little light on my feet, and in retrospect I think it would have been a bit different if I was a little bit heavier. So after that I actually decided I should fight around 145, just those extra pounds have made all the difference.

And since then Kru Natalie has been quite consistent.  She’s fought at her lightest 143 lbs and up to 149 lbs, a range of 6 pounds.  In a sport where competitors will drop 20 lbs for a fight, it is noteworthy that Kru Natalie knows her body well and even more so that Kru Natalie, as a woman, is confident and aware enough to maintain a fight-weight that she feels to be right for her own body, over time.  The pressure that women face just in daily culture to be conscious and critical of their weight, moving always toward the “lighter is better” ethic, is not excluded from the world of sports, where women are expected to be slight, rather than built and will exaggerate down to a weight class well below their walking around weight.  This doesn’t seem like a complicated issue in Kru Nat’s mind; she explains, simply, that “It’s just where my body is comfortable.

Part III here

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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