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Grantland Q&A: Fallon Fox

The trailblazing MMA fighter talks about being a trans athlete, her battles with Joe Rogan, and whether the UFC will ever (finally) let her fight

She stands 5-foot-6, but 39-year-old Fallon Fox has had to stand taller than that as the first out trans athlete in professional mixed martial arts. After her gender reassignment surgery in 2006, Fox took up MMA in 2008, made her debut as an amateur in June 2011, and came out publicly as a transsexual woman shortly after winning her second professional fight in March 2013. The subsequent attention to her career — especially the mounting questions about why she has not yet been invited to compete in the UFC despite her 5-1 record, and the flak she’s taken from UFC commentator Joe Rogan — have kept her in the public eye as she continues to compete.

I’ve known Fallon since she came out, aided by the fact that we both live in the Chicago area. As friends, we’ve frequently talked about the challenges she faces, the nature of being trans, relationships and friendships, other trans athletes, and media coverage. We’ve also just gotten together with our partners and her daughter to grab drinks and a bite, at home or out on the town. But after a couple of years of those kinds of conversations, we thought it made sense for us to have one on the record. So, over the holidays, I drove out to her place in the suburbs and we just got into it: her career as a fighter, gender, sexuality, society, and where those things intersect.

Christina Kahrl: Maybe we should just start with this: Your record is 5-1. So why haven’t you gotten a call from the UFC?

Fallon Fox: [Laughs.] I suppose that would be a question for the UFC, right? There are fighters with less experience who are getting signed by UFC promotions. We all work our asses off, spend our whole lives training to try and get to the UFC, but if someone with little or no experience gets the job instead, what does that say? It waters down a sport that’s supposed to be the best of the best. I think people are thinking about my transness, that some people might complain — and complain loudly — and they’re full up on that. Or it could just be a matter of their own personal feelings about me fighting. [UFC president] Dana White has said that he “doesn’t believe in it,”1 and that I was not on the same level as other, cisgender female athletes in the sport.

CK: So instead of arguing you have a competitive advantage by being trans, he doesn’t believe you’re good enough for the UFC?

FF: I’m unsure. It seems like he said I had a competitive advantage, and that trans people have a competitive advantage.

CK: You’ve written about this notion of “competitive advantage” for trans people in sports. Most people readily assume that it exists. I don’t know about you, but after 13 years on hormone replacement therapy, I can’t even open a jar.

FF: [Laughs.] Before transition, I thought I might have a competitive advantage myself, right? Because I was just ignorant of the issue, and some trans people are still ignorant of the issue. Until you get to a doctor, and until you get on hormones, and then it starts affecting your body, and then you’re like, “Holy cow.” And then you learn that everything you were warned about by doctors is true. Average everyday people are a million miles away from this issue, claiming they understand it. They don’t.

CK: Did you do any martial arts before you transitioned?

FF: Never. I did wrestling in high school; that helped, as far as technique goes. So I kind of had a basis to start from as far as ground fighting. I know how to take people down.

CK: Did you get anything from basic training in the Navy?

FF: We didn’t do much of that in the Navy. [Laughs.] We tried to come up with a wrestling team, but it didn’t happen. So every once in a while they’d lay down some wrestling mats and in between the jets, at night, we’d just be on mats, wrestling in the hangar bay. Which is kind of cool, until you [slip] off the mat and your face is on the non-skid deck and you’re like, Eeee-owww! But that was the level of my experience before transition, years ago. The last time I wrestled was 1999, I think.

CK: The reason I ask is because it’s been eight, nine years since you transitioned — have you noticed there are things you haven’t been able to do as an athlete that you might have taken for granted 20 years ago, wrestling in high school?

FF: Oh yeah, my speed has been reduced significantly. I’m very, very, very fast, but before I was extremely fast. I was in the top tier as far as speed goes; I recognized I had great quick-snap reflexes — nothing to do with being trans, nothing to do with being male-bodied, just my genetics from my mother and father. But after transition that dropped significantly, and my endurance dropped significantly. Being able to cut weight for fights is hard, and it got harder.

CK: So power moves you might have had in wrestling, you just can’t do them anymore?

FF: I can’t do them as quickly or with as much force. But as far as jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai parts that make up MMA, I’ll never know because I never did them before. I wasn’t the most proficient puncher in the first place. I kind of knew how to throw a punch before, but my striking was abysmal. I was not a boxer. So I don’t know if I can hit harder now.

CK: But as has been shown in videos, there’s great evidence that some cisgender women throw a punch as hard as — and some, like Lucia Rijker, with perfect execution and even harder than — some men among the pros.

FF: [Laughs.] I wonder if that’s the advantage of the female frame, or a mechanical advantage of the female frame.

CK: But one of the arguments that has been used against you is that you have this lifetime of experience with fighting and sports simply because you grew up as a man. But your training as an MMA fighter and [in] fighting has all been since transition.

FF: And [my one year of high school wrestling] doesn’t even matter. The techniques that you learn as a male fighter are the same techniques you learn as a female fighter. It’s like saying I learned math before, and learned math after, and because I was male-bodied before, that automatically makes me smarter than other women. I mean, what the fuck? That’s so misogynistic, you know? It’s just full of misogyny. It’s not a matter of that — it’s a matter of who taught me, and my ability to retain what I learned.

CK: And all of your training happened after you transitioned.

FF: Yes. They’re just using smoke and mirrors to try and make people believe there’s some type of advantage for male-bodied people.

CK: But maybe that’s where we need to get into your friend, Joe Rogan. The things that he’s said about you and your fighting2 — it almost sounds like Joe Rogan thinks, despite his lack of training, that if he threw on a dress, he’d have an advantage. He doesn’t consider the experiences you’ve had, the impact of going through medical and surgical transition, and that you only trained as a fighter after transition. What are your thoughts on Joe?

FF: Yeah, what is that, some type of jealousy or something? [Laughs.] Maybe he wishes he could transition. In one of his videos, he proposes this question: “Look at my fist, look how big it is.” He was talking about his fist and if he transitioned and what would happen if he went into the cage and fought a woman. And he talks about the physical advantages of men — when I’m not a man. They keep inserting the man-man-man framing around me, around my body, around transgender people in general. And they fail to recognize the obvious — the reason why all of this is a story in the first place — I have a female body. And he’s the commentator for the UFC.

CK: He seems to revisit this topic a lot, going after you and why he thinks you shouldn’t be allowed to fight. One expert he trotted out, Dr. Mark Gordon, didn’t seem to have knowledge of trans-related health issues, as you broke down in November. If you’re trying to educate, shouldn’t you do a better job of explaining what’s involved? Or, if you’re representing the UFC, shouldn’t you be talking about this far more seriously?

FF: Some of the MMA journalists and some of the fighters in MMA and some of the personalities within the business sound very conservative. When I sit back and look at it, it’s sort of like the climate-change “debate,” where they don’t like what doctors A, B, or C said, so they search for fringe guys, and they find them, to say climate change isn’t happening. Meanwhile, we find out, for fuck’s sake, climate change is happening. [Laughs.] It’s the same kind of thing. And then the media takes both sides of an issue, and holds them up as two equal sides of an argument. That’s exactly what is going on with me, it’s what a lot of these MMA reporters have done, what I believe Joe Rogan has done, and what people who fight transgender people’s interests do.

CK: It has to be frustrating to have a comic [without medical training] treated as a credible source on this subject for the MMA audience.

FF: It’s incredibly frustrating. It feels like I’m in high school all over again, where the popular kid gets to tease and get away with it. And the nerds, the kids who aren’t considered cool but know everything, they’re ignored by an audience full of bullies.

CK: At the UFC level, there have been fighters who have said they would fight you, and others who have said some pretty stupid things. Bec Hyatt (now Bec Rawlings) has said you are “a full-grown man, with man muscles, man bone density,” and that she wouldn’t fight you, while Matt Mitrione earned a suspension for calling you “sick.”

FF: It’s hit-or-miss, hit-or-miss. I remember when I first came out, it was like half and half, half the female fighters were like, ‘I understand why she did it, and I’ll fight her,’ and half said I shouldn’t be in the cage and said horrible, horrific transphobic comments about me. And there are those who are absolutely silent, and who knows what they think? Behind closed doors they’re nice to me, at least, and tell me that they support me, but can’t say so publicly. They might think it might hurt their chances of advancement.

CK: Has there been any kind of effort to make sure fighters don’t support you publicly?

FF: I haven’t seen any evidence that the UFC has been prompting anyone, but a lot of fighters who are in the UFC have said horrible things and are still saying horrible things.

CK: Who are your biggest supporters within UFC?

FF: Liz Carmouche came out and gave a public statement of support, which was awesome — it made me cry.

CK: Is UFC getting into this territory where they’re picking fighters for their looks, and not for their skill? It’s supposed to be a serious sport, not Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling …

FF: [Laughs.] … That’s the thing, though, right? There’s this mentality in MMA, where the statement is that, yes, we’re a serious sport, but you have to have a look if you’re a female MMA fighter. It’s not openly said, but you kind of know, when you see certain fighters who have excellent, excellent skills, top 10 in the world, and they’re not on the list. They just don’t get the job.

CK: Has this always been a problem in mixed martial arts?

FF: I’ve always felt pressure, from within the industry, to show a little skin. I don’t mind that myself. That’s just the person I am. I’m very open. But I’m not thinking about myself, I’m thinking of other women who might not want to do something like that. I’m thinking of my sisters, cisgender, transgender, whatever. And the men don’t have to do that. It’s disproportionate.

CK: And it should be irrelevant.

FF: Of course! Can you think of any other sport that does that today? A real, legitimate sport, where the outcome is not fixed, they’re there to play to win? I can’t. It should be about, “Can you knock this person the fuck out? Can you choke them out? Are you the best?” And I don’t see that happening, not to mention the fact the UFC just brought in someone from the WWE — a guy who has never fought. [Editor’s note: Phil “CM Punk” Brooks.] If you’re a sport that wants to promote legitimate fighters, you don’t grab someone from the WWE who has never fought an amateur MMA match, has never trained competitively for MMA, and just put him in the cage. It just shows what our sport is starting to become. It’s getting extreme, and it’s getting out of hand.

CK: So it’s becoming more exhibition-oriented, going back to the days of Kimbo Slice?

FF: Yes, yes, yes! But hey! Kimbo Slice fought in backyards, seriously [fought] with people. At least he had some amount of skill, fighting real fights beyond just training in a gym. And it gets to me, actually, because some of the same people who are complaining about me being a freak show brought in to sell fights, some of those same people are clapping their hands that a WWE wrestler who has no experience is now in the UFC. I’m a legitimate fighter who trained for years for this and I’m good, but suddenly, just because I’m a transgender woman, I fall into the category of “freak show.”

CK: It also seems like there’s been a lot of superficial slighting of women in the UFC for being mannish — people trashing someone like Liz Carmouche because they don’t think she’s pretty enough, never mind her record. But is that the audience, or is that the sport?

FF: I believe it’s the way some of the fighters are presented. The industry has the power to set the framing, to set the standard. They’re the ones who say this is what fighting is about, and “Look what we have for you, we have a pretty fighter!” So when I’m a fan sitting in a bar and watching Liz Carmouche fighting Ronda Rousey, and half the people who see Ronda Rousey go nuts, going “Oh yeah, she’s hot!” and then Liz Carmouche comes out, she’s a lesbian, she’s this awesome fighter, and people say, “Who’s that mannish bitch?” People boo her and cheer Rousey, not because of her skill but because her opponent looks prettier in their eyes, because she’s the one that fulfills that American standard of beauty.

CK: Is that about men running the sport and an audience of men? Does MMA have a problem if they want to double down on pretty?

FF: That’s a looooong question, because you’d have to get into talking about this patriarchal system that we live in, and how the mentality is there to oppress and keep women framed as sexual objects. That’s what it is, at its heart. I think some people — especially men in a hypermasculinized setting — would like to take a chance and get out of that trap, but they’re afraid of what people will think. If they put a tough and realistic picture of women who are athletes out there, a lot of pressure is on them. They ask themselves, “What are people going to say about me?” What happens if people look at an athlete and say, “Oh, she’s not hot”? It takes pressure from the outside for that to change. But I’m tired of going to movie theaters or reading comic books or attending fights where the representation of women is overly sexualized, there are characters who don’t know how to fight, or heroes who have totally unrealistic body shape and style for what they’re doing.

CK: I’m thinking of this CollegeHumor segment where the guys get a nice helmet or a nice breastplate, and they get to the woman and the armorer offers her a chain mail bikini, and she points out, “This doesn’t work for me.”

FF: And then they wonder why women aren’t engaged in more aggressive activities and sports.

CK: Do you think the problem of sexualization in sports is part of the reason why people have rejected seeing you in the UFC? If they’re sexualizing fighters, and there you are in the ring, is that freaking them out?

FF: Yes! But guess what! If you set up a system where fighting is about “I want to fuck the person in the cage,” what happens when I’m in the middle of the cage? They can see that, “Hey, she’s as hot as that other person in the cage, but if I say that I like her, that means I might be gay!” And that’s because they don’t understand what transgender is. They think I’m a man. So this whole time they’re watching with a beer, they’ve got this stream of transphobic crap in their heads because they don’t understand.

CK: You’re in a blood sport, and you walk into a ring, and you have hundreds, potentially thousands of people shouting some pretty hateful shit at you. To what extent does that impact you?

FF: That is the nightmare. You go up onstage and you’re hoping that people are going to like you, and they start booing and throwing stuff at you.

CK: But folks aren’t just booing.

FF: No, they’re not. I’d completely understand if it was just booing. It’s a completely different thing than people screaming transphobic things at you. I like to say: Imagine people said something about any other minority in the cage, if they were called horrible, horrible racist, misogynistic, religious names or whatever. Security would be called, and they could be ejected. But with me, nobody did anything. Nobody cared. … If people say, “Kick him in the balls” — or worse — people should turn around and ask, “What the hell is coming out of your mouth?” But once I came out, there was no love for Fallon Fox.

CK: That loss to Ashlee Evans-Smith in Miami, was that especially harsh in terms of the atmosphere and the event?

FF: It was. And the way the media played it up, and the way it was covered in the MMA media made it worse. All of that stuff used to bother me, but things started to change at [my next] fight at the UIC Pavilion, and I expected the crowd to be like it had been in Florida. I came out to my fight song and nobody booed, which was surprising. I had been expecting it; it was in my head. And when I did that first round and I sat in my chair, and I could still hear all kinds of awful things going around in my head … but I didn’t hear those things from fans. Instead, I heard people screaming and cheering. And I got it back! It was only a matter of seconds when the next round started that the fight ended.

That helped build my confidence, it made me realize there are people out there who actually cared. That was important, because I felt like I didn’t have anyone. I mean, people said they supported me, but nobody showed up at the fights. And then they did, and it’s like: Those are my people. That’s who I’m fighting for. So this last fight, against Tamikka Brents, when the whole crowd came out and said horrible things, things that were worse than the fights I had in Florida, it was like I was a fighter in another country, fighting a battle on someone else’s soil. And I didn’t care what the hell they said. I went there to do my job. I wasn’t trying to be my enemy’s friend anymore, because that takes a lot out of you. I just wanted to be back on top.

CK: Was it a positive incentive for you? The fact that Tamikka said so many negative things, saying you were getting attention for being trans instead of your talent and that you’re setting women’s MMA back while simultaneously claiming to be an LGBT advocate.3

FF: Profoundly so. [Laughs.] Because she said some pretty transphobic things. That was a motivator, and it put her further away from me as far as wanting to be her friend or caring about the person on the other side of the cage. Which is too bad — I like to have those fights where there’s more respect involved. But I think it was a good thing to experience, because it made me realize she wasn’t a competitor, she was an enemy. Which allowed me to unload, which I want to take into my next fight, whether they’re my enemy or not.

CK: In that sense it’s a big learning experience, getting into that headspace. But six fights into your career, you’re still learning a lot about what you have to do when you’re in the cage.

FF: That’s right. This last year has taught me a lot. You have to remember, I had three amateur fights and then went straight pro. Tamikka Brents, the last woman that I fought and beat? She had a billion amateur fights — her amateur record is crazy, and then she went pro. [Editor’s note: Brents’s amateur record was eight wins and one draw.] And she’s 2-2 because I defeated her. That’s a stark contrast to me. I’m still at the amateur level mentally. I’m just now through nine fights total. I know amateur records are “just” amateur records, but that time in the cage, that experience, that counts. So in the grand scheme of things, I’m doing really well.

CK: You’re 5-1. Say you get to 6-1 or 7-1 — at what point do you just think that the UFC is just never going to call? How many fights does it take? Can somebody go 20-1 and not get an invite from UFC?

FF: There are a few. There’s India Gomes. Butch fighter, she’s butch as hell. She’s got an amazing record — why is she not getting the call? She should be there, and I’m quite sure that if she got the call from the UFC she would take it, you know what I’m saying? There are a few others who should be there who are not there. There are a lot of fighters at Invicta FC who could be there.

CK: What are your thoughts about media coverage? Has it made your career more difficult? If Joe Rogan is the floor of the worst possible coverage, what’s the best, and what would you like to see more of?

FF: A lot of the media from outside MMA has done really well, like Nancy Hass wrote an article for GQ that was outstanding, the New York Times article was outstanding, the Out article was outstanding, HBO Real Sports did a very good job. There’s a lot of good, good media outside of MMA. I think that recently, inside MMA, the Bloody Elbow is getting the thumbs-up from me. They actually allowed me to come on and write my piece, including three op-eds dismantling Joe Rogan’s arguments on competitive advantage. And they said that if, in the comments section, if anybody said anything horrible, they’re getting deleted. They’re doing exactly what they said, they gave me respect, they gave me a chance to say something, which I’d like to see a lot more of.

CK: One of the things we’ve talked about is how trans people become accidental activists. You’re dealing with all of this pressure in MMA. But outside of all that, you have a huge number of trans people who love you for what you’re doing — and you’re pulled into these things that have nothing to do with the MMA or your career. Is that just unavoidable, or is it something you welcome?

FF: It’s totally avoidable. I could disappear, just focus on MMA, and not say anything ever. But [change] has to come from outside, the outside has to come in and infiltrate MMA. There has to be pressure from the outside world. Trying to fight some of the MMA’s mentalities is hard. Some things that some people might consider petty, like transgender issues, they’re not petty to me, but they have an impact. Like the argument about people using slurs like “she-male” and “tranny.” I’m tired of being called “she-male” and “tranny” in the cage, so let’s try and stop that everywhere. That’s one example.

CK: Teaching people which words are slurs: You didn’t sign up for that, but do you just have to do it?

FF: Yeah, you just kind of have to do it.

CK: Being an out trans person in that space, are you forced to teach them something just so that you can interact? In your environment, have you run into many aggressive misunderstandings, or passive-aggressive “I don’t get it, and I don’t want to get it” situations?

FF: Yeah. I have to do that with promotions — with people in MMA who have never met me. But as far as people at my gym, people I know, people who have worked with me? Remember, I was a submission fighter, a jiu-jitsu fighter, Pan Ams, Muay Thai, all these things — people knew my capabilities. And they didn’t see me as a man before I transitioned, so when I came out, I didn’t have to say much to them. They used to say, “She used to be a man — what?” But what they understood is that now I’m a woman, and they didn’t see anything other than that and I didn’t have to explain much.

Also: It wasn’t like I just walked into the gym and said, “I’m trans.” I’ve talked to some fighters who know me, and they’ve said they’re so glad to know me, because if I’d just walked in and they’d never met me before, they would have been totally against me, they wouldn’t have touched me. Instead, they’ve been able to see me for who I am, and they didn’t have these preconceived notions about me — they actually got to know me.

CK: Doesn’t that get at how some of your critics have responded to you? They depersonalize the situation and “other” you, and treat the whole concept of transness as something alien to their perspective and impossible to understand. So that you wind up with Joe Rogan talking about himself in a dress, and not talking to the actual trans fighter who’s out there and exists.

FF: Because I’m not a person to them. I’m an image on a screen, you know, I’m a rumor, I’m a clip of a video, of someone they don’t know. And I’m not even human. I’m like a cartoon or something. They’re not even thinking that I’m a person.

CK: If Joe Rogan ever wants to sit down and talk, are you going to take that call?

FF: It would depend on the setting. If he was actually curious and wanted to learn, I would totally sit down and have a beer with him and talk. But if he wanted to debate, it would have to be in a public forum, a heavily moderated public forum, with equal time, and not him controlling the mic and hanging out with a bunch of comedians where he could poke fun at me. It would have to be evenhanded, and actually be serious, talking about the issue.

CK: Because you’re not a punch line. Anything else we should know about?

FF: I’m looking forward to the Game Face documentary I’m in coming out in early spring, waiting for that. And I’m looking forward to more fights, maybe three or four more this year if I can. And doing the things I’m doing, my advocacy work, speaking engagements. Unless of course the UFC gets smart and picks me up, or Invicta picks me up. I’m looking at fights in other countries — Canada is an option. Pretty much anyplace is an option. Me? I just love to fight. 

This piece has been updated to remove a footnote that erroneously stated that Ashlee Evans-Smith played “Dude Looks Like a Lady” before a match against Fallon Fox. Fox says it was Allanna Jones who played the song. The original piece also stated that Joe Rogan is an “ex-comic”; he continues to perform as a comedian.

Filed Under: MMA, Fallon Fox, Joe Rogan, UFC, CM Punk, Dana White, Matt Mitrione, Lucia Rijker, Bec Rawlings, Kimbo Slice, Liz Carmouche, ronda rousey, Ashlee Evans-Smith, Tamikka Brents, India Gomes, Grantland Q&A

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for She is also on the board of directors of GLAAD.

Archive @ ChristinaKahrl