Fallon Fox, the right to fight and the future of WMMA in the UFC and beyond

Photo courtesy of Championship Fighting Alliance

There's a reason we're talking about Fallon Fox. The questions raised by a transgender male-to-female athlete participating in women's mixed martial arts have a huge potential impact on the sport's future. The fact that bigots are coming out of the woodwork to embarrass themselves shouldn't drive the discussion.

We've taken a fair amount of abuse from some readers for the amount of coverage we've devoted to Fallon Fox over the past few weeks. Jonathan Snowden summed up that point of view very well

I'm glad Fox had the chance to tell her story and that she found such a gifted writer to help her tell it. But, really, that should have been Fallon Fox's 15 minutes of fame, at least on the national scale.

As an athlete, Fallon Fox doesn't deserve the millions of words that have been splattered across theInternet in the month since Hunt's feature. For a prospect she's downright ancient at 37. She has just two professional fights. Her opponents in those bouts? A combined 0-5.
I have nothing against Fallon Fox. She seems perfectly nice and I wish her well. But I hope I never hear her name again-and if I do it should be because of something she achieved in the cage, not just because of who, and what, she is.

That's a defensible view but a myopic one that's completely missing the forest for the trees.

There are two reasons Fox should matter to MMA fans:

  1. She's become a flashpoint that has drawn out ignorant and bigoted statements from people like Matt Mitrione and Matt Hughes and forced the UFC to take action and draw clear lines of acceptable conduct.

  2. Much more importantly, with the California State Athletic Commission indicating that there are more transgender WMMA fighters on the way and that they expect to license them, Fox's presence as a competitor in WMMA has serious implications for fighter safety, fairness and the future of WMMA.

I'll leave that first point alone in this post, just suffice it to say that forcing fighters to refrain from slandering a transgender is essentially the mopping up portion of the long war on homophobic and sexist behavior and remarks some of us have been fighting for years. Gone (hopefully) are the days of the sport's leading lights using words like f**got and c**t to refer to journalists, fighters or anyone else for that matter in high profile public statements.

The second point is the one I want to cover in this piece.

My SBNation colleague (and fellow UT Longhorn) Scipio Tex has a good piece today at Barking Carnival about competitive implications of a transgender male-to-female athlete like Fox competing in WMMA. First he introduces the social context of the discussion, one in which extremists on both sides have defined the debate:

Throw in a good number of idiots on both sides for good measure, a huge number of journalists and Twitter commenters who don't know anything about MMA but will opine anyway, and folks that just want to rant about "weirdos" different from them, and you have a dialogue marked by frustrating mutual incomprehension.

Then he discusses the reality that some credible medical authorities and WMMA athletes like Ronda Rousey and Rosi Sexton have very real concerns that Fox may have a significant advantage over non-transgender female opponents due to the 31 years she spent developing as a biological male, bone density, hand size and shoulder to hip ratios among them.

Then he sums it up nicely:

My perspective: free people in a free society have the right to do or be what they want as long as it doesn't hurt others. That last part is key. A societally broad acceptance of the transgendered doesn't guarantee a specific inclusion into competitive women's athletics, whose entire premise rests on the notion of same gender competition. Particularly ones in which someone is getting punched and choked. It's probably a case by case basis and I have no idea where and how to draw the lines.

Then he makes the proverbial "modest proposal:"

Let's end gender discrimination in athletics. Athletes compete against athletes. Male or female. And after women are run from almost all competitive sports, various advocacy groups who valued principle over reasonable application can turn on each other and wonder how all of this fairness and non-discrimination could have gone so horribly wrong.

It's this last point that I think bears discussion. The ugly spectacle of a roided-out Cris Cyborg demolishing first "face-of-the-sport" Gina Carano and then a succession of less famous, but equally over-matched opponents virtually killed WMMA in its cradle a couple of years ago.

If fans were repulsed at the site of a steroid-abusing but still genetically female champion battering less enhanced female opponents, how saleable will a wave of transgender athletes brutally battering their way to the top and leaving a litany of bruised and battered pretty faces in their wake be?

It was only the emergence of the charismatic Ronda Rousey that re-invigorated the sport. If indeed, as seems very likely, transgender athletes have a significant advantage over genetically female fighters in WMMA, the sport could quickly become a very un-level playing field that may have brief appeal as a spectacle but has virtually nil potential to become a mainstream sport.

I hope that athletic commissions will take a very cautious and conservative approach to licensing transgender athletes to compete in WMMA. People absolutely have the right to define their own gender and sexuality in this society, but no one has the right to fight professionally. That is a privilege reserved for those competitors who meet the licensing requirements of the ruling regulatory authority


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