Queen of Swords
By Natasha Vargas-Cooper
Photography by Roger Erickson
"Don’t get overexcited,” trainer Joe Smith cautions Fallon Fox before slipping his sweaty palms into padded mitts. “I need you to focus,” he says. Fox grinds her left heel into the mildewed carpet below and unleashes 10 shin-cracking, rapid-fire kicks into Smith’s gloves, forcing the trainer to scuttle backward to absorb their intensity. “Nice!” Smith shouts over an electro remix of the Doors’s “Strange Days” blasting from the gym’s speakers. A $50 drop-in fee at an overcrowded LA Fitness center in suburban Miami has afforded the pair one last training session before Fox’s Friday night fight in three days at the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables, Fla., on May 24.
Later, booted from the mirrored weight room by an evening Zumba class, Fox and Smith squeeze into the only open space inside the clogged gym: at the lone punching bag by the bathrooms. Floppy men with pink skin, women shrink-wrapped in neon, and soggy teenagers dazed by their Apple gadgets on their way to the toilets have to leap and dart out of Fox’s way as she charges at Smith, hissing through her teeth, with a flurry of precise, thwacking jabs. A gaggle of pubescent boys, slick with sweat and sebum, clump together about 10 feet away from her, peering and whispering.
A ninth grader with a fake diamond stud in his ear: “She’s famous, huh?”
“Yeah, she’s, like, an MMA fighter from Colombia or something?” the friend responds.
“Her body is mad right,” adds Diamond Ear with a lewd smile.
They all exchange a questioning look, the silent shorthand shared among young boys for “Would you or wouldn’t you?” Their grins and nods suggest that, yes, they all would.
Fox bounces more punches off Smith, sweat pearling on her body.
“Banging,” one of the boys concurs.
Fox throws a brutal knee blow, the same one she had thrown at the Coral Gables arena in March, knocking out her last opponent, Ericka Newsome, after just 39 seconds. But that fight belongs to another life. That was before a reporter from the website MMA Junkie called Fox’s manager demanding to know if she was really a man. It was before the state of Florida put her fighting license under review for not disclosing the gender reassignment surgery she had undergone in Bangkok seven years earlier. It was before she called Smith, her longtime trainer, and told him she was not born a woman. It was before an ex-lover sold old pictures of her to TMZ, a shade of facial hair covering her chin. And it was before Fox, a 37-year-old single mother from Toledo, Ohio, who goes by the nickname Queen of Swords, came out as a trans woman -- the first and only one working as a professional cage fighter.
Her upcoming fight against Allanna Jones on Friday marks the first time in MMA history that an openly trans fighter will step into the cage. And it will be the second elimination round in the Champion Fighting Alliance’s all-female tournament. If Fox is victorious, she will go on to the final round and compete for a $20,000 purse, the highest bounty for which she’s ever fought. To some -- perhaps even to many -- Fox’s upcoming fight is historic in another way: It’s the first time in MMA history a man will be allowed to fight a woman.
“What gives me the advantage over my opponents?” Fox asks and grimaces, repulsed by my opening question. She picks at her late-night dinner of brown rice, vegetables, and overcooked white fish. Next to her, Smith sucks down his cola silently, keeping his eyes on his samosas. “I’m a better fighter,” she says. A slight pause, then her stony face cracks into a smile.
Finally, at 10 p.m. on this damp Miami night, Fox begins to thaw. Throughout an overpacked day of press calls, photo shoots, and pantomiming for a local TV news crew, she seemed tense and gloomy -- anxious about the energy spent off the mat educating reporters about the state of her genitals. Meanwhile, Jones, her opponent, was likely pummeling a stand-up bag, free from questions about estrogen levels and bottom surgery.
“At first, I thought my medical history was no one’s business,” Fox says. Instead of responding to MMA Junkie’s queries about the sex change, her manager offered Sports Illustrated the exclusive. But it was something Fox and her team felt cornered into doing. “I knew it was going to come out at some point, I just didn’t…” she trails off. The blow-by-blow of their reasoning for going public is something Fox doesn’t like to rehash -- sometimes it makes her go damp-eyed.
Fox’s announcement prompted the Florida State Boxing Commission, the regulatory body that licenses fighters, to put her under review. The MMA scene quickly polarized around Fox’s status, and that’s when things got grim.
“You can’t fight chicks, get the fuck out of here,” said Joe Rogan, the MMA color commentator, last March. “You’re out of your mind. You need to fight men, you know? Period. You need to fight men your size because you’re a man. You’re a man without a dick.”
Then, in April, NFL linebacker-turned–UFC fighter Matt Mitrione went on an unsolicited rant about Fox during an MMA Hour broadcast. “I haven’t seen a man beat a woman like that since Chris Brown beat Rihanna,” he said of Fox’s fight against Newsome. “That is a lying, sick, sociopathic, disgusting freak,” he continued. “And I mean that, because you lied on your license to beat up women. That’s disgusting. You should be embarrassed of yourself.” He then compared Fox to Buffalo Bill, the fictional pre-op trans serial killer from The Silence of the Lambs. (He received a temporary suspension for his comments.)
Elsewhere, Ronda Rousey, UFC’s first and current female bantamweight champion, added to the rabble around Fox in April, telling the New York Post that she had researched the topic extensively and concluded “[Fox] can chop her pecker off, but it’s still the same bone structure a man has. It’s an advantage. I don’t think it’s fair.”
“Male to female transsexuals have significantly less muscle strength and bone density, and higher fat mass, than males,” Dr. Eric Vilain, a geneticist and director of the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics, told Time magazine last May. Vilain helped the International Olympic Committee and the Association of Boxing Commissions compose their policies on post-op trans fighters. By their standards, which also inform state licensing commissions, Fox meets the criteria of womanhood: completed anatomical surgery on the genitals, including a gonadectomy and hormone therapy administered through a licensed endocrinologist for at least two years after the surgery. This would offset any male hormone advantage an athlete had, Vilain argues.
But what if Fox’s 30 years as a biological man made her stronger? She could be stronger, Vilain said, “but sports is made up of competitors who, by definition, have advantages for all kind of genetic reasons. And no one complains about it.” In other words, Michael Phelps is not disqualified from swimming the 100-meter because he has freakishly long arms. Professional sports are made up of one genetic anomaly getting the advantage over another genetic anomaly.
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