SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Jeet Toshi’s eyes glaze over as the blood flow to her brain begins to slow. She claws at the arm clamped around her throat but Nicole Chua’s choke is sapping her strength, and the rising panic in Toshi’s chest tells her she will black out in seconds.
Brutality is blind to gender in mixed martial arts (MMA).
While abhorred by its critics as a celebration of violence, MMA’s explosive growth shows no signs of tapering off. It does not shy away from its violent image but rather embraces it as the ultimate sporting evolution of hand-to-hand combat.
Male fighters enjoy the lion’s share of exposure and reward, and while women’s MMA does have a following, it struggles due to a shallow talent pool and poor financial backing.
Discrimination has also been difficult to overcome, and while the bias may be based on outdated notions of gender roles in society, some people just are not ready to see women fight.
Not so in Singapore, it seems.
Some 8,000 fans watched Chua become the city-state’s first female professional MMA fighter with her debut as part of ONE Fighting Championship’s recent “War of the Lions” event.
What Chua and Toshi lacked in polished talent and experience they made up for in heart, battering each other with kicks, knees and punches before Chua took the fight to the ground.
Slithering across Toshi’s body, Chua slams sharp elbows into the Indian’s forehead, then rains down a hail of punches forcing Toshi to turn onto her stomach to escape. Chua sinks in a rear naked choke and squeezes for dear life. Toshi taps.
Despite the risk of personal injury involved in MMA, neither fighter made much money. Neither fighter seemed to care.
Toshi walked away with $600. Her manager, Prashant Kumar, told Reuters that was three times the sum Toshi had earned for her debut with India’s Full Contact Championship in February.
“This is a passion, not a job,” Toshi said in an interview. “I‘m not doing it to make a living. If I wasn’t fighting I really don’t know what I’d be doing.”
Legs dangling from a pool-side chair that threatened to swallow her whole, the seven-times Indian kickboxing champion said MMA had given her the chance to inspire her countrywomen.
“I want to be an example for girls in India who don’t really participate in combat sports. I want to set an example so that we can spread awareness of the sport.”
Kumar was immensely proud of Toshi irrespective of the loss, and said he had a stable of willing women fighters in India ready to step into the cage.
“This was her first time out of the country and we were running around trying to get her a passport just before we came,” he said. “She’s such a young girl but she was so composed despite the fact she was fighting a Singaporean in Singapore.”
Chua’s story catapulted her into the media spotlight in Singapore, a bustling island hub more renowned for its safe streets and conservative values than a burgeoning MMA scene.
A full-time accountant, Chua convinced her company to let her train for the fight on condition she made up lost hours after the gym.
Sitting cross-legged on the Brazilian Jiu-jitsu mats at Evolve MMA Academy where she trained before dawn each day, Chua recalled the reaction when she asked for permission to fit work around her training schedule.
“My manager got a shock but he gave in eventually,” the muay Thai specialist said with a wry smile.
The pixie-like Chua said she too was not in MMA for the money. With several years of muay Thai fighting under her belt, she wanted to test her limits in the sport.
Part of the test was coming to grips with the vicious techniques of MMA. Her training routine with no-gi Brazilian Jiu-jitsu world champion Takeo Tani saw her practice kicking a grounded opponent’s head like a soccer ball.
“I hope I don’t have to do that,” she said with a nervous laugh, “but in a fight if I don’t hit her she will hit me. Inside the cage its competition, you win or you lose.”
Tani said Chua’s personality changed as soon as she stepped into the cage for sparring.
“I have to look at her like a man. You can see in her eye she is not a normal girl,” he added. “She’s a fighter.”
Chua’s manager and Evolve founder Chatri Sityodtong said women’s MMA was still in its infancy in Asia and that the financial incentive had to be there before women could make a career out of fighting.
“I don’t think women can train and fight full-time right now because the financial rewards aren’t there yet,” he said. “(But) MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world and it is only a matter of time for the financial rewards to skyrocket as it gains in popularity all over Asia.”
Earning a living is just as tough for women getting started in the sport in the United States.
Olympic judoka Ronda Rousey, who became the new face of women’s MMA after her stunning Strikeforce title win over Miesha Tate last month, said there had been little financial incentive for her when she made her pro debut last year.
“I made $800 out of it,” she told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“But it was a hell of a lot more than I made for my first three amateur fights because I got nothing. I was just happy I was getting anything from doing MMA after doing it without making a penny.”
Victor Cui, the CEO of ONE Fighting Championship, declined to put an exact figure on how much Chua and Toshi were paid for their fight, but said ONE FC stacked up favorably compared to other MMA promotions.
“Absolutely. And it’s not just about pay, fighters want to fight on ONE FC because we are an organization that treats them very, very well,” he told Reuters.
“The contracts include not only guaranteed fees but a win bonus, flights, accommodation for them and however many cornermen they want to bring in.”
Cui said Chua was a fantastic story and could encourage more women to take up the sport. While not everyone is sold on the concept of women fighting, Cui said anyone who stepped into the cage deserved the utmost respect.
”This is a sport of professionals that have dedicated their lives to it, put in decades of training in multiple martial arts whether it’s muay Thai, taekwondo, BJJ, karate or sanda.
“So the message that has to come across is that whether it is a male fighting or a female fighting, they are professionals and the very best of the best.”
Editing by Ossian Shine