The Prejudice Against Women In Combat Sports
A few months ago, my boxing coach had planned a 3-week vacation to New York and told me that he would be leaving me in the good hands of one of his trainers. I was not too happy that he was leaving me at a time when I was already struggling with specific technical issues with my jabs and left hook and depended totally on him to work through the drills with me at each training session. I was even more nervous when I found out that the trainer he had assigned me to was a girl, Nurshahidah Roslie. I remembered wailing, “A GIRL?! You got a girl to train me?” That was it. I thought then that for 3 weeks, I might as well have taken a vacation myself, indulged in a diet of pizzas and ice cream, and waited for the coach to return. Of course my good sense took over, and I was assured by everyone who heard about my doubts that Shahidah was a national boxer who had represented Singapore in the SEA Games recently and came with extensive boxing experience. Moreover, she was also poised to be Singapore’s first female professional boxer when she makes her professional debut at the World Boxing Foundation-sanctioned event, Singapore Fighting Championship, on 20th February.
I could explain where my prejudice against women in combat sports came from. It was driven by past experiences when I had attempted to conduct interviews for my articles with female boxers and MMA fighters. Ego was often in the way. The female fighters I had encountered in the past almost always came into the ring with a chip on their shoulders. I disliked that, particularly when I often remembered the wise words of my boxing coach who very firmly insisted that we left our egos outside the gym at every training session. My experience with female fighters just ran contrary to that concept.
An example was an interview with an Asian female boxer who had transitioned to MMA in the past few years. When I contacted her for an interview, she dismissed me with responses like, “please talk to my PR people as I am busy” and worse, “you can get a glimpse of me training through my Facebook.” Subsequently, I was not sure whether to feel sorry for her or to feel relief that that story had not been written because she suffered a string of losses in a series of fights after that. Skills, talents, and experience often spoke louder than Ego.
Having been intimately involved with the combat industry through the fight photography and journalism work that David and I had been doing these few years, what was pretty obvious to us was that these fighters needed as much positive publicity as they could get, particularly when their fight opportunities were sometimes far and few in between. So I would get quite disillusioned when I watched fighters display the more unpleasant side of themselves across media. I have seen that with men, as much as with women in combat sports and idealistic as I might be, I was sure as hell that I was not going to have anything more to do with anyone in combat sports that came packaged with a ribbon colored by Ego.
Inspiring Women In Combat Sports
So when my coach unceremoniously dumped a female boxing coach in the ring with me, I bristled with worry that Shahidah would come into the coaching session with that chip on her shoulder I came to associate female boxers with.
On looking back though, and after getting to know Shahidah better, I was quite embarrassed by my prejudice. I reminded myself that I should not cast a cloak of judgment across the industry just because of a couple of bad lads and divas whom I had encountered. I should instead stand by my principles and my genuine intent to promote women in combat sports across my social media platforms and even in the articles that I wrote.
I particularly had a soft spot for those who had struggled through life and committed their energy and time to combat sports as a positive outlet to inspire young women and children. It was no secret that I was a big fan of Cris Cyborg in the world of Mixed Martial Arts. She had a 15-1 professional MMA record and in spite of the struggles that she had been through, had decided to use her talents to inspire young ladies to embrace a life of fitness by launching her Pink Belt Fitness program. Another inspiring female in combat sports that I admired was American boxer Mia St John who in her career had 22 out of 23 wins with 1 draw and was the WBC super welterweight champion defeating Christy Martin at the ripe old age of 45 years old. Who thinks age is a barrier in combat sport again ? In her own right, she was not only a successful boxer but also a model and businesswoman, proving to other ladies, that she did not define herself by the opinions of others and made her own way through life with her own bare hands, brains and a lot of tenacity.
So my prejudice was inexcusable.
First Singaporean Female Professional Boxer
The 3 weeks I spent with Shahidah as she meticulously worked through techniques, speed and agility together with me was an eye-opener. This unassuming lady who often sat quietly behind the counter at the gym was a dynamite in the ring. No one should be at the end of her extremely powerful jab and left upper cut combination. I would know, I almost had my jaw dislodged during a sparring session with her.
During our training, we discussed her dreams, her aspirations and her hopes. We spoke about her past, and how she had worked very hard to work towards her dream of representing the country in boxing at the SEA Games in 2015. We talked at length about each other’s fears, anxieties, and passions. I truly respected her humility and her dedication to the goal of always being better than her current self so that she could impart her skills and knowledge to others. I often heard boxers telling me that they wanted to garner that championship belt in a few weight categories in succession, be champions multiple times over, or be the "greatest of them all". However all Shahidah wanted was to be a better boxer tomorrow than she was yesterday so that she could be part of the talent development of young boxers.
When I told Shahidah about my experience with female fighters in the past, she said, “Before anyone thinks of picking up boxing, perfecting the techniques, garnering fame and glory, he or she needs to have an attitude that is heart-driven and powered by determination. This attitude is NOT driven by ego and greed. I am sorry about your past experiences but female boxers do need all the support that they can get. If they have the right heart-driven attitude, hopefully, the support for female boxers will start streaming in when people like you can see the struggles and sacrifices we have made out of our love for the sport. I am hoping to see more talented young female boxers stepping into the scene to represent Singapore. It can only happen if people like you give them as much support and publicity that they need.”
Just A Girl
When I started boxing, many friends and relatives thought I was suffering from mid-life crisis. I remembered a friend who said, “Joanna, you have been an over-achiever all your life. You want to do everything to prove something all the time. At your age, you have nothing to prove, so why should you start boxing now?” That hurt. I had lots to prove. I wanted to prove that life should never have limits no matter the circumstance. I thought objections would happen only to those who got into combat sports at a later age, like myself. However, Shahidah had her fair share of objections as well from her family. She was after all, “just a girl”. More than anything, they were worried for her safety but knew that their objections would fall on deaf ears. Shahidah took her family’s reservations in her stride, and instead of feeling dejected, she threw her energy behind her passion because it was a sport that made her aware of her strength, and was in awe of the discipline it had instilled in her. She even proved her family wrong about boxing being “a man’s sport” when she started embracing her feminity even more and became more aware of the fact that as a female boxer, she was inadvertently paving her way to be a role model for young up and coming female boxers too.
Life as a female boxer in general, was already not easy. It was even harder when one is a female boxer in Singapore, where fight opportunities for female boxers were limited. Shahidah spent hours training at the gym for the last 8 years, craving for as much fight experience as she could get. However, fight opportunities here were far and few in between. She prayed silently to be called up for matches and “just trained and waited, while bearing with the emptiness.” She was keen to get out there, push the envelope and raise that bar to develop her skills further but she often waited a very long time.
Another obstacle she had to overcome was money. Shahidah was practical enough to know that she needed to work to earn a decent living, mindful also that what she earned had to be enough also to cover any medical costs incurred in the event that she had sustained injuries during her fights. However, work sometimes got in the way of her training schedule so she had to strike a delicate balance between work, training and rest. That was one of her biggest hurdles.
The Big Break
Shahidah’s big break came when she was selected to represent Singapore in the SEA Games in 2015. I got another glimpse of her humility and down to earth attitude when she told me that all she wanted to do was to train very hard so that she would not let down those who had invested time and energy on her. She was keen on putting up a good fight. And her sportsmanship shone through when she said, “Whether I won or lost the fight, what was important to me was that I had given my heart and soul into putting up the fight of my life for my country. For a start, I felt honored to represent Singapore and that experience had shown me that the years of sacrifice and hard work was all well worth my effort.”
Training With The Best
Shahidah attributed the support she got on her boxing journey to our coach, Arvind from Juggernaut Fight Club. She had a lot of respect for a coach that stood by his proteges “as if they were family.” She said, “He was the only coach I know who would give more than100% to help his boxers. In the business of fight sports, he went through a lot of struggles, yet he found the means to develop athletes with his heart. There are times we do not agree with each other but at the end of the day, his heart had always been in the right place.” I resonated with that because I saw that with my own eyes with each of the boxers he had trained including the other national boxers Leong Jun Hao and Tai Jia Wei.
Easy To Pick Up, Hard To Master
My almost 2 years of boxing training had been a long and difficult journey. Many times, I wanted to run out of the gym, admit defeat and just give up. However, David, my coach, and my gym mates had always been my biggest critiques and yet my biggest supporters. When I shared that thought with Shahidah, she knew exactly what I meant. Shahidah’s experience with boxing was dotted with an equal amount of joy, tears, hardship, defeat and victory. In her words, the sport was “easy to pick up but hard to master.” Her learning was a continuous journey and each time she entered the ring, the bar would be set higher.
Ultimately, Shahidah hopes to be ranked in the world before she stops competing. She also hopes to be actively involved in the process of scouting boxing talent and training them to be better than she was.
Shahidah won me with her authenticity and her humility. I have developed a better understanding of the struggles and sacrifices that boxers make, particularly with female boxers like her. Not only do I have a lot more respect for females in combat sports now, I have even more respect for each minute I spent in the ring with my coach. It may be a long and hard journey for me, but it is even harder for boxers like Shahidah who are committed to making boxing a professional career.
Singapore Fighting Championship
Shahidah will make history as Singapore’s first professional boxer. She makes her professional debut at the second instalment of Singapore Fighting Championship on 20th February. The event is sanctioned by the World Boxing Foundation. For more information about the event, do visit https://www.facebook.com/singaporefightingchampionships/
Photo credits: All Photos accompanying this post were provided by David Ash, www.SingaporeMaven.com @SingaporeMaven
About The Writer
The writer of this blog post is a Marketing and PR professional for over 20 years. Due to her love for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), she is also a freelance sports writer on the side, contributing MMA-related articles to several sports media. She works in partnership with her husband, David Ash, who is an avid sports photographer from www.singaporemaven.com. She is passionate about Boxing and nurtures a dream to fight competitively one day when her coach stops making fun of her. She is also a psychic intuitive by birth and runs a consultancy that does tarot and numerology readings under her brand, Sun Goddess Tarot. This blog is affectionately called "The Crazy AngMo" as she is married to one, although she has not yet explained to THE Ang Mo that when translated, he has been labeled “the bloke with ginger hair”.