Viewpoint: Sex Education

By: Tristen Critchfield
Mar 11, 2013
Fallon Fox’s revelation shook the MMA establishment. | Photo: Keith Mills/Sherdog.com



It was only Tuesday that female mixed martial artist Fallon Fox revealed to SI.com’s Loretta Hunt that she is a transgender athlete. Considering the passionate debate surrounding Fox that has occurred since that revelation, it feels like it has been a lot longer than that.

It was only a few weeks ago that seeing two women featured prominently on a Ultimate Fighting Championship event poster was a groundbreaking occurrence, and one of them, Liz Carmouche, was openly gay. At the time, it seemed like pretty good progress.

Not everyone thought so. There will always be people like OnMilwaukee.com contributing writer Dave Begel, who, along with dismissing mixed martial arts as a whole, said in the aftermath of a successful UFC 157 card that female fighting “pandered to our basest beliefs.” By basest beliefs, Begel means pornography and latent lesbian fantasies. One can only imagine what an old-school scribe of Begel’s ilk would have to say about a woman who used to be a man fighting other women in a combat sports arena.

On second thought, I’m not so curious. Begel’s reaction would be typically shortsighted and negative. Fox coming out as a transgender athlete shortly after her 39-second knockout of Ericka Newsome tends to elicit a knee-jerk reaction from nearly everyone, whether you are paid to cover sports for a living or not. Take Newsome herself, for example.

“I felt that the information should have been disclosed to me ahead of time,” Newsome told CNN. “So we are aware and able to be better prepared for the situation -- just knowing [what you’re getting into].”

Newsome does not project the persona of a bitter opponent during the short clip. In fact, she also makes of point of saying that “it didn’t matter that [Fox] fought me.” Perhaps it did not matter. Newsome’s bout against Fox was her second as a professional, and the result of her debut was much the same -- a knockout defeat inside of 30 seconds.

Still, as one of the uneducated masses when it comes to transgender athletes and MMA, I was initially skeptical that Fox was competing on the same level playing field as her female opponents. Since she was formerly a man, it seemed only logical that Fox would retain some natural physical advantages even after becoming a transsexual. A pre-operation photo of Fox as a male released by TMZ certainly did nothing to dissuade my thinking. Sensationalistic as that might be, I’m only human.

Fortunately, thanks to the in-depth work of Hunt and others, there was plenty of opportunity to be enlightened. Numerous medical professionals and experts seem to believe that Fox does not have a competitive edge over her female-born counterparts. In reality, they say Fox will have to work harder than her peers to maintain muscle mass, strength, weight and speed. The details are more complicated than that, of course, but if transgender athletes have the stamp of approval from the International Olympic Committee, then that should be good enough for me.

Still, fighting is different than track and field, tennis or golf -- all sports in which transgender athletes have competed. In an MMA cage, there are matters of head trauma and other serious physical injury to consider, and it would be understandable if athletic commissions and prospective opponents chose to err on the side of caution when addressing the Fox situation.

You can have the pledge of doctors, experts and other transgender athletes that Fox will be no better off than her opponent if and when she steps into the cage again, but for some, there will always be a seed of doubt. Others, like Strikeforce veteran and current UFC talent Julie Kedzie, will fight when called upon.

“My personal opinion and philosophy is that I will fight whomever I am asked to, if they make weight and pass commission standards,” Kedzie recently wrote on Facebook.

A fighter’s spirit is his or her greatest asset. It separates a unique group of athletes from the rest of society. While some women might be hesitant to face Fox, some might relish what they perceive as an added challenge; as far as I know, no one has actually said this yet. Others, like Kedzie, simply view it as another day at the office. For Fox, the task at hand involves more than just finding her next fight. She must educate the misinformed, in part, because her MMA future depends on it.

“The medical community stands behind me in that there is no unfair competitive advantages,” Fox said in an interview on CNN Newsroom. “... I think that some people have a tendency not to pay attention to science in general, which is the way we find out about the world around us. I think for the most part the reaction has been positive. It’s just [that] some of society doesn’t get it yet. This is what we’re trying to do now is inform people and let them know about transgender athletes.”

Fox has stated she would like to eventually compete for larger promotions such as Invicta Fighting Championships and the UFC. As a 37-year-old fighter with victories over two opponents with a combined 0-5 record, reaching her goals will require more work inside the cage. If that were Fox’s only concern, then life would be much simpler than it has recently become.

Instead of just honing her striking, wrestling and jiu-jitsu, Fox must also work to break down barriers and erase preconceived notions. Perhaps someday there will be a transgender female fighter with a Rousey-esque skill set whose path to the Octagon will not be so difficult, and perhaps she will have Fallon Fox to thank.

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