Meet the Aussie female fighters who are smashing the gender stereotypes, and paving the way for a new wave of women to take up combat sports.
Photo: Nigel Lough/body+soul
‘‘When women come to my boxing gym, for them it’s like falling in love with a boyfriend,” Lauryn Eagle (pictured) says. “They’re in love with boxing. It’s not just because of the physical side, but the mental side and the effort and time it takes to learn.”
It’s not just the members at Lauryn’s gym, Eagle Fitness, who are embracing combat sports, either. Thanks to the rising profile of professional female fighters, including that of the 28-year-old boxer herself, the male-dominated domain has never seen so many Aussie women seriously competing. And the most interesting part? The majority of these women are taking up the aggressive and physically-challenging game at a stage of life that would be considered old in other sports: their 30s.
– 34% of amateur and professional female fighters in NSW are aged 28-34, another 18% are aged 35-43. –
Exclusive figures obtained by body+soul confirm the trend. In Victoria, the median age of women who are paid to fight in boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) matches is 32, according to the Victorian Department of Health & Human Services. A similar trend is seen in NSW, where 52 per cent of women registered with the NSW Combat Sports Authority as amateur and professional competitors in boxing and MMA are aged between 28 and 43. To put those numbers into perspective, only 43 per cent are in what many people would assume to be the prime fitness ages of 14 to 27.
Dr Alex Channon, author of Global Perspectives on Women in Combat Sports and senior lecturer at the University of Brighton, UK, says one reason for this is the growing visibility of women’s MMA and the introduction of female boxing into the Olympics in 2012.
Making a fist of the sport
“We’re moving away from the tired old idea that women only train for self defence or fitness-related reasons, and are tapping more into the idea of participating for the sake of competition, or simply the love of the art itself,” Channon says.
Alex Chambers agrees. The 37-year-old is one of our country’s first women to join the biggest international MMA organisation in the world, the UFC, after it introduced female match-ups in 2013. She competes in the strawweight category (52kg), splitting her time between her home of Sydney and training grounds in Florida.
“This period we’re in now is very different to what it was 10 years ago,” Alex says. “Thanks to strong women, like [UFC fighter] Ronda Rousey, women are now paving the way. That’s why we’re seeing these more mature women [entering the sport]. It’s become more accepted to participate.”
Could it be that these over 30s always wanted to fight, but now with more professional competitors – women such as Ronda, Alex and Lauryn – setting the example, they finally feel like they’ve been given the OK to do it?
“Exactly,” Alex says.
From left: Lauryn Eagle, Melissa Anderson and Alex Chambers. Photo: Nigel Lough
Weak? Frail? Nope, not us
The ring and octagon (where opponents battle it out in MMA matches) are the last few sporting realms that men have exclusively kept for themselves, according to some academics. Channon explains: “Female athletes have been challenging orthodox ideas about gender for a long time, especially those that relate to the body – that women are weak, frail and naturally less competitive.
“Because our societies have historically imagined combat sports as the epitome of masculinity – hence, boxing being the very last sport on the Olympic program to remain male-exclusive – women doing combat sports stands to shake orthodox ideas of gender to a much greater extent than, say, football.”
Interestingly, the lack of women in the sport has led to fight training becoming the ultimate gender neutral zone. Men and women are often forced to partner together and even practise fighting each other (sparring). “The key is getting to a place where [both sexes] see their training partners as martial artists first, and men/women second,” Channon says.
“From the men I’ve interviewed, having that realisation was often the result of getting outboxed by a woman in a sparring situation. Being physically overpowered by someone who you would imagine to be incapable is a great way to learn about the actual possibilities of each other’s bodies.”
“Of course, we would all need to be cautious of sparring each other when one is smaller, lighter and less experienced than the other, but those judgements shouldn’t be reduced to sex,” Channing adds. (This is also applicable when men spar each other; a pro heavyweight wouldn’t be matched up against an inexperienced lightweight.)
Over on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, Muay Thai world champion Melissa Anderson lives this out perfectly, even sparring regularly with her husband, Joel, a former state champ who used to be her trainer. “I met the man of my dreams doing the sport I love. Joel and I complement and support each other 100 per cent,” she says.
The 33-year-old has had to keep her full-time job in real estate, getting up at 4am every morning to train, as “there’s no money in the sport, compared to boxing and the UFC”. But she does it for the love.
And just like Lauryn and Alex, who both say that they don’t fight with blood-thirsty destruction running through their veins, Melissa says it’s all about testing out skill and outsmarting her opponent. “When it’s fight day, I’m happy. I have the best time once I jump over those ropes. For me, I’m not in any emotional state because I don’t think at all. I just get out there and do what I’ve trained my absolute arse off to do.”
So she doesn’t get into the ring wanting to hurt her opponent?
“No, I don’t think anything like that,” Melissa says. “After the fights, I’m always great friends with everyone.”
This article first appeared in the March 13, 2016 issue of body+soul.