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.
“When women come to my boxing gym, for them it’s like falling in love with a boyfriend,” Lauryn Eagle 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.
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.
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 judgments 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 fulltime 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 bloodthirsty 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.”
Nickname: Eagle Eye
Fights out of: Sydney
Pro record: 17 fights, 12 wins (6 by knockout), 4 losses, 1 draw
Titles: 2012 WBF women’s super-featherweight world title, 2013 Australian female lightweight title.
Fave move: Left body rip.
Biggest regret: “Going professional early because I wanted to represent my country in the Olympics, but I wouldn’t take it back as I love where I am now.”
Worst criticism: “I’ve been knocked down, especially because of my career outside of boxing [modelling, TV presenting]. People would say fighting was a marketing ploy for me. It used to hurt me. Now I own a gym and I teach boxing every day. I love the sport.”
Nickname: Astro Girl
Fights out of: Sydney
Pro record: 7 fights, 5 wins (2 by knockout, 2 by submission), 2 losses
Ranks: 3rd Dan black belt in karate, and purple belt in Brazilian jujitsu, currently signed to the UFC.
Fave move: Spinning back kick
Surprising fact: “I have a science degree majoring in astrophysics and mathematics, hence my fight name, Astro Girl.”
Biggest lesson: “You learn a lot going through injury [Alex hasn’t trained in months due to a torn ligament]. It’s easy to get into a downward spiral, but you learn to focus on what you can do, rather than what you can’t.”
Fights out of: Sunshine Coast
Discipline: Muay Thai
Pro record: 25 fights, 24 wins (1 by knockout), 1 loss
Titles: 3x times Australian WMC Champion, Eruption Oceanic WMC Champion, Gold Medallist IFMA World Games 2015; Silver Medalist IFMA World Games 2014.
Favourite move: Push kick
Start in fighting: “I had a pretty rough upbringing. I lost Mum when I was eight, and I grew up with Dad, six brothers. I had to learn [martial arts]. My brothers are my biggest fans.”
The toughest part: “I was burnt out last year, travelling for work and training fulltime. I had to change my job, also to save my marriage as I was never home. My work-life-training balance now is amazing.”
LIFE LESSONS FROM INSIDE THE RING
body+soul deputy editor Lizza Gebilagin first stepped into an MMA cage to face her fears.
Now an amateur boxer, she shares what she’s learnt:
1. The biggest battle isn’t the actual fight, it’s the mental game. You learn to believe in yourself, and you back that belief up by giving it your all every day in training — even when you’re scared.
2. Training also teaches resilience. Whether you end up experiencing a loss or injury, you’re forced to look at what you can do to improve rather than wallow in self-pity.
3. Speaking of which, I lost my first fight. I was against someone who’d been fighting for four years, while I’d only trained for seven months. I’m never making that mistake again.
4. But failing is never as bad as you think it will be. In the end, boxing has given me so much: I’m the fittest I’ve ever been, made great friends, and met my fiance. It’s a win.
3 YEARS AGO: The first ever female match in the UFC: Ronda Rousey versus Liz Carmouche — Rousey won.
32: The median age of professional fighters in Victoria (Source: Victorian Department of Health & Human Services)
43 YEARS OLD: There are 11 women aged over 43 registered as amateur and pro fighters in NSW. (Source: NSW Office of Sport)
2012: The year women’s boxing became part of the Olympics. It was the last sport to remain male-exclusive.
34 per cent: … of amateur and professional female fighters in NSW are aged 28-34, another 18% are aged 35-43. (Source: NSW Office of Sport)
56,214: The record crowd who attended UFC 193 in Melbourne to watch former pro boxer Holly Holm knock out the undefeated Ronda Rousey in the main event.
Originally published as Women warriors deliver knockout blow