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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

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

Some of the folks from Church Street have suggested that it would be really nice if we could film some rounds with their women sparring so that they can see the action and possibly help in identifying and correcting any deep mistakes. And while this seems like a very interesting idea, there are a few pitfalls or problems to deal with in implimenting it. What we were thinking was that we (Kevin) could film specific rounds – rounds only with those who would like to be filmed – and they could be posted privately on a YouTube account just for the group. YouTube has a setting such that only “friends” can view a video. Read More »

Terrie Schauer writes a blog, Way of the Warrior Queen, that is half self-help advice and half female muay thai/kickboxing. While the self-help and positive thinking is something I only dabble in, she has amassed an impressive array of interviews with top female fighters (including my friend  Sylvie Charbonneau who fights professionally in Chiang Mai). She recently wrote on our sparring circle, spreading the idea to other women so that groups might start up anywhere.  Part of starting this circle was to meet our own immediate needs, but also there is the sense that in general women fighters are a resource to each other. We have trained hard and achieved some degree of skill, and could only benefit from building a community, something to enhance our experiences at our gyms and with our trainers.

The Clinch and Knees

It has been suggested by some that we incorporate knees into our sparring, as well as clinching; two things that are not often worked on enough.  In adding knees to the sparring it is advised that we use kneepads (what they do at Five Points), something that I do not have first-hand experience with, so those of you who practice with them could better describe what this would really look like, exactly what kind of pads are used, etc.

As for clinching, I personally think it’s an integral part of sparring and should absolutely be included, but we should decide as a group how we will incorporate it.  I know some gyms keep clinching for the end of sparring practice, mostly because it’s so exhausting and often occurs the end of fights.  However, I would rather not have clinching relegated to later rounds as a rule, but rather have each pair decide whether or not the clinch will be included in their rounds together at any time in the rotation.  This way, each of us can choose whether we want clinching to be in every  round,  saved for later, or left out all together. In general, partner to partner, round to round we decide what we are going to do anyway. If we’re vocal about it, a few times through the cycle and we’ll all get a sense of what is happening.

Intensity

Another issue that perhaps can be talked about is the intensity of sparring.  I believe that part of the importance of training with sparring is that it simulates, to some degree, the discomfort and pressure of a fight.  That said, sparring is not fighting and the true pressure and stress can only be vaguely approximated. It therefore should not be treated as a fight (we all know this).

It seems that when it comes to intensity of sparring there are at least two camps (perhaps others can jump in an say how they see it):

1) one should train how they want to fight and utilize high-intensity sparring in order to overcome the fear, hesitation and discomfort that come from inexperience  and, essentially, get used to being pressured, hit and hitting back.

2) sparring is part of training and is therefore intended to teach the employment of technique and combinations in a safe, low-intensity context where the student/fighter does not have to be distracted by the kind of discomfort and pressure of a fight that sparring approximates.

What’s nice about these two schools of thought is that both are completely managable within our group.  Both styles are absolutely legitimate and, being from camp 1 does not make one “tougher” than being from camp 2, nor does camp 2 make one “nicer” than camp 1.  Basically, I think we just need to communicate to each other what we want and don’t want out of sparring.  High-intensity sparring for a low-intensity opponent can be intimidating and downright infuriating, but only if it seems unfair that one person is going harder than another.  In general, high-intensity sparrers want to be hit back with equal intensity, so low-intensity sparring can be a little frustrating for them as well.  It’s important that we know what we’re aiming for in each round, so that we can either move up or down in intensity to meet one another at a common ground, or to avoid sparring with those whose intensity makes the experience feel stressful or unproductive.  We don’t have to spar with everybody.   But it’s really great when we’re all mixing together.

Again, this sparring circle is not a class.  We are the authors of its methods and outcome.  We should each get out of it only what we want.  In all, this circle is intended to be a resource for experience, variety, improvement and, of equal importance, fun.

But this is how I feel about sparring and clinching and knees. Please comment on what you think is best, what makes you comfortable or excited. Last Tuesday was really good, and we can only make it better by talking about what we want.

 

More than one gym (the Wat and Church Street, for instance) has expressed concerns over supervision. Is there going to be a trained professional there to make sure that there are no injuries, that the sparring is kept within a certain range of contact and intensity? Plainly and simply, gyms don’t want their potential fighters getting hurt. And who wants to get hurt? This raises really important points, and please do comment or email your thoughts on this. It’s something we all should come to consensus on.

Anecdote: I started sparring for the first time a few weeks before the WKA, down at the Wat.  I was sparring with girls much bigger than me and when I came back to my trainer – pretty stoked on the whole thing – he was upset by the big, deep bruise on my thigh.  He wanted to know “what were they doing to you?!”  I can see how, in the absence of my trainer having experienced the session himself, he was concerned for me in a way he would not have been had he watched the girls kick the hell out of my leg.  And I would never have learned to block, otherwise.

There are a few strains of thought that gave birth to the idea of a sparring circle. One was that, as we all have been trained with sparring and know how to do it, there’s no reason why we should not be able to take this practice out of the limited hours and (often) male-centric sparring at gyms.  We said to ourselves, Hell, we can even just meet up in a park and get some time in! It would be nice. Generally, there is the sense that a few isolated women here, and few isolated women there, if they all get together they make a different kind of group. So there is something to being independent of any ONE supervising person or buisness that makes getting together special, unique.  That said, it is wise to have someone with an eye for these sports watching out for us when we, in the ring and in the moment, may be unable to judge the safety of each fighter.

We have to ask ourselves, can we find the right level of contact and safety just though talking to each other, and giving each person what they want. We have boxers who want to come and just box, and Muay Thai women would have to just box with them. We have women who have an injury, so they can just kick spar. That’s great too. Some gyms spar very, very lightly, without headgear, so this too needs to be respected (though we require headgear, mouthpiece and shinguards). A certain level of responsibility falls on us, the need to respect both the person who is opposite you, but also the whole spirit of coming together.

But the ultimate question of supervision, as in having someone around, watching who is experienced and knowledgable, this is also VERY important. It can only be helpful to have knowledgeable eyes on what is going on. We can only speak of the location that we have picked for our first meeting, thus far Ardon Sweet Science. Greg Ardon will definitely be there, it is his gym – and he said he’ll keep an eye on us – and we can only assume that his calm, cool demeanor will pervade the entire place. Additionally, Sarah, over at Church Street Boxing has invited us out to Rockaway Beach where Chris volunteers to watch over the group. It would be really nice to spar outside in the Summer, I’m sure. So perhaps the answer is that each time we post the place we are meeting we can list the trainers that will be there, and each woman can make an educatated decision as to whether they would like to come. Also, why not come down, see how it feels, experience it, and then decide for yourself how comfortable you feel. What we imagine is that there is hopefully going to be continuous sparring, but that you can sit out anytime you like. Indeed there might be some girls you just don’t want to spar with (they spar too light, or too hard, or the vibe isn’t right), and you just take a break.  Watching sparring can be just as educational as experiencing it.

What’s important, I think, about the group as a whole, is that we are the primary focus and the thing itself.  Without any single one of us, the sparring circle is different, and, in a way, diminished.  The purpose of the group is to give us more experience – both more time and greater variety – than is offered by any one of the gyms we come from.  This is, however, still part of our training; therefore, having a trainer present is a good idea.  Having several present might even be better.  My main concern is simply that the trainers remain secondary to the group itself.  That is, that nobody feels restricted by which trainer is there, or that no woman is unable to attend because her trainer can’t come.  The sparring sessions are part of our training, but they are not instruction-centered.  As such, the presence of a trainer is one of precaution and safety, rather than a director.  This is not a class.  So long as we agree that any and all trainers are welcome – just as any and all girls are welcome – and that we as a group are respectful and communicative, regardless of our trainers’ presence.

To repeat my thought above, I contend that every time we set up a meeting, the post will include when, where and we will list what trainers will be there.  Because this is an important issue, please to give your vision of things, and if any trainers want to comment here, please invite them to do so too.

Update

We’ve had some very enthused responses (both from women we’ve talked to and gyms), and are close to posting all our initial options for our first meeting. Maybe in the next day we can put up photos, addresses and details of what is before us, and people can voice their opinion of what is best for them, or most interesting. It seems important though to just start meeting up, and not worry about finding just the right thing. Once the sparring starts everyone will have a better feel for what is going on and we can switch places if everything isn’t best. Once sparring starts also more women will join in, as it will be less abstract, a real thing.

We can say, right now Greg over at Sweet Science has been very generous and offered us his gym and ring at a convenient time (thank you Nicole for the suggestion), and we are exploring the availability of Church Street, Fighthouse and very cheaply rented-out studio space in lower Manhattan (Peelo, nice).

If anyone has more thoughts on when or where you would like to spar, please do post them in the comments, or email us. Also think HOW you want to spar, how important having a ring is, or having the room for continuous sparring is, how rotations should work, things like that.

More soon.