Rosi Sexton didn’t exactly set out to be a professional mixed martial artist.
The whole thing was more of an experiment, really. After her own martial arts training had taken her up to instructor level, Sexton figured it was time to share some of her knowledge. To teach others, as she’d been taught herself, how to defend themselves. Her entirely reasonable plan ran into a bit of a hitch, however, when Sexton realized something: How can I claim to be teaching self-defense skills, she thought, when I don’t really know from experience that any of it actually works?
That’s when Sexton found out about this niche U.S. product called the UFC. And she figured she could give the MMA thing a go. Maybe a fight or two, you know, just to prove that she could do it.
One thing led to another and, yada yada, she didn’t stop doing it for another 12 years.
Quite an escalation, you might be thinking. But what Sexton has learned after 44 years living with her own brain is that this is just kind of what it does. Curiosities tend to escalate into full-blown obsessions and, before you know it, she has said yet another yes to yet another role. Sexton is now, among other things, an osteopath, a local councillor for the Green Party in the U.K., a Cambridge graduate with a PhD in theoretical computer science and a mom.
With passages through promotions like Cage Warriors, Bellator and the UFC, the latter of which would only allow for women to compete more than a decade after her debut, she also had a successful MMA career. And while that’s already a title that most people can’t claim for themselves, Sexton herself will tell you she’s since achieved something in many ways more difficult: a successful MMA retirement.
I caught up with Dr Sexton last week, more than seven years after her last MMA fight — a Cage Warriors encounter with future UFC champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk — to reflect on her dizzyingly productive path. We talked about how rabbit holes led her to careers in MMA and politics and what it means to be woman in these fields. We discussed the ways in which things have improved and the ways in which they can be better. We also went over the traps of MMA (un-)retirements, representing underrepresented groups, and her decision to publicly retract previous statements made in regard to retired MMA fighter Fallon Fox and trans women competing in sports.
Check out our full chat, lightly edited for length and clarity, below.
I’ve heard you say something about how fighting was a “self improvement project that got out of hand,” could you tell me a little bit more about that?
I’m the kind of person who will pick something up, it will start with “That looks interesting” and, before you know it, I’ve bought all the books on it, I’ve put myself in a course, I signed up to do lessons and I’ve entered myself in a bunch of competitions. Things just sort of seem to spiral. I’ve come to realize, after about 40 something years, that that’s just the way I am. That’s how I relate to the world. I’ll see something and then I’ll sort of dive right in and become completely absorbed by it and obsessed by it.
And martial arts was definitely one of those things. When I was a teenager, really, all the way through university and around that sort of time, I’d done a couple of martial arts up to instructor level and I got to the stage where I wanted to start doing a bit of teaching and maybe passing on some of those self-defense skills. And that’s when I realized that… actually I’ve not really had to use any of this. I know a lot of stuff, but I don’t know whether any of this works. Now how can I go out there and say to other people that this is good self-defense when I haven’t tried it? That sort of [sat] badly with me. I’ve always been someone to put my money where my mouth is. To walk the walk. I was sort of scratching my head, thinking “Well, I don’t want to go out and start getting into fights randomly.”
And that’s when I first heard about mixed martial arts. I think this was back in 1998 or 99. And in the UK, it was a really new sport at the time. We’d have the the UFC in the U.S., which was quite a niche thing — known within the serious martial arts community, but not much outside of that. And I saw a couple of documentaries about some events. And I watched it and I thought, “I want to have a go at that. I want prove that that’s something I can do.” That’s what it started with. It’s like, “I want to do that once or twice, prove I can do it, and then I can go back to the doing what I do and teach martial arts and all these things.” I suppose I didn’t realize at the time quite how deep the rabbit hole went, when I started getting interested in training. And remember, this was sort of the the late 1990s, the early 2000s. This was before we knew as much as we do now about mixed martial arts training. There’s a lot now that just seems like common knowledge and common sense that wasn’t back at that time.
First of all, when I started training, I realized that actually an awful lot of things I spent my time learning didn’t translate very well to the environment of a mixed martial arts fight. Obviously, that meant learning a whole new set of skills. I started out by doing some grappling competitions. I fought jiu-jitsu at the time. And there wasn’t really any women’s mixed martial arts going on in the UK back then. So when I first got the opportunity to compete, it was “I’ve got to seize this moment now, because I don’t know when the next opportunity is gonna be there.”
It wasn’t like these days when, if a fight doesn’t come off, something else will be around the corner. I had those first few fights, it was all sort of rushed and short-notice and I didn’t really get the chance to train for them in maybe the way that I would have liked. That’s when I started thinking, “Hang on a second. I want to do this properly. I want to to learn more about this sport. I want to learn how these pieces fit together. I want to see how good I can get at it.” And I came across this DVD of Hook ‘n Shoot Revolution, which was the first to do a woman’s mixed martial arts card in the U.S., I think. And watching that made me think “I want to compete with these women and test myself.” That was really the motivation for it all. I just sort of grew from one thing to another, which is what I mean when I say it was a self-improvement project that went rogue. That sort of spiraled into a 12-year mixed martial arts career that took me all over the world.
And you were studying at the same time?
Yes. Between 2005 and 2010, I’d gone back to University to be trained as an osteopath. I’d developed an interest in sport injuries, which then became something that sort of took over and that was something that I really wanted to see further and learn more about. That’s how I got into that. I also had a young child at the time; my son Lewis, who was born in 2005. So I was being a parent, and studying, and fighting, and various bits and pieces that were going on in my life at the time. Looking back on it, I have no idea how I managed it all, because the course itself was all pretty full-on, the osteopathy degree. So, yes, it was a hectic time. That seems to be a theme in my life (laughs). I end up saying saying yes to a lot of things and getting quite deeply involved in lots of things. I keep saying that at some point I’m going to have some spare time when I can do this other list of things that I want to do.
And ultimately, politics ended up becoming that for you, right? Yet another rabbit hole?
Again, that was another rabbit hole. That was something else that I stumbled across. I got talked into to standing for election at the local councilor. Our local Green Party, which I got involved with, they were looking for a candidate. Again, it’s this habit of saying yes to things. And then, once again, that took over a whole chunk of my life.
But it’s been really interesting. It’s been something something else that I think I’ve I’ve learned a lot from being involved with. I say I have a love-hate relationship with politics, because on the one hand it can be incredibly rewarding, when things are going well and when you feel that you’re actually making a difference. At the same time, there’s a lot of frustration. Sometimes it just feels like you’re banging ahead against brick walls. It can be very difficult to change some things because of the processes that are in place. And there’s a lot of tribalism involved in politics. And I don’t think I do tribalism particularly well. I tend to agree with people when I agree and I disagree when I disagree. I don’t tend to pick a group and identify strongly with that particular group. I would say there are lots of groups that I identify with, at least partially, and then there’s gonna be issues that I agree and disagree within that. And I think that, in politics, things tend to get very tribal.
There’s very much a feeling of “you’re either with us or you’re against us.” I think this is one of the problems with politics. I don’t think it’s necessarily particularly helpful for getting that problem to change and building a society that we all want to to be a part of. I think that’s one of my frustrations with it, but, at the same time, there’s a lot of good stuff there. And a lot of really rewarding moments.
You were a woman in MMA at a time — I mean, a lot has changed and improved — but you were a woman in MMA at a time when this wasn’t necessarily the norm, and now you are a woman in politics when it is, again, a lot better than it was 10, 20 years ago, but I would imagine there are still some hurdles very specific to that.
I think, certainly on the surface, things are a bit different. But I have come to learn that there are all kinds of (less obvious) barriers. And I think it’s almost more difficult, because people will say “We have equal rights now, women can do anything that men can do, what’s the problem?” And I think that sometimes ignores the fact that some of these barriers are hidden.
For example, one of the things that a lot of people experience is that women tend to take on a greater proportion of child-rearing and child-care duties. In many couples, it’s assumed that the woman will do more of this care. Whether or not you’ve got a woman and a man who are equally qualified. And, again, this is becoming less often the case these days. Things are changing slowly. But it’s still the case that, in a lot of couples, the assumption will be that the woman stays home and puts her career on hold to raise children. Men go back to work afterwards. And that introduces a barrier. It introduces a barrier in in lots of areas, but politics in particular. Again, it makes it a more difficult lifestyle for women. And some of the commitments that you have to make, for example, being a local councilor — a lot of meetings are held in the evening. So, you’ve got to be available for evening meetings. If you’ve got things like childcare, that makes it much more difficult to do that. And I know women who do, there are a few of my colleagues who balance having a young family — my son’s bit older now, so things are a little bit easier — but yeah, I think particularly when you have young children, it’s definitely an additional thing that you have to think about.
And then there’s things like the way people are perceived. You’ll be aware of all the studies that have been done that say that the same behaviors tend to be perceived differently in men and women. So when it’s a man, you might be labeled as a good leader and being assertive and being strong, positive things like that. And if it’s a woman we might label it as being bossy, or nagging, or talking too much. Sometimes the exact same behaviors can be perceived differently, and I think that might be particularly hard for women in politics. Sometimes the way people will relate to you — you know very well that that person wouldn’t be talking to you like that if you were a man saying the exact same things. At the same time, it’s much harder to call that into question. To call that out and to say to people, “Hey, this isn’t cool.” Because you don’t have those obvious things to point to. So it’s still a battle. I think a lot of that is going to be around normalizing that female presence in politics.
As I said, we are slowly getting there, we are slowly making change. Every time people point out the barriers that women face in mixed martial arts — and that is absolutely still the case — one of the things that will say is “Yes, but look how far we’ve come.” Go back to 2010, 2005. I remember a time when it was much, much more common to hear people say, explicitly, “women should not be doing mixed martial arts.” Nowadays, it still happens occasionally. But, usually, when people say it, they’ll get some immediate pushback.
At the same time, I think one of the real wins that we’ve had is that mixed martial arts is one of the few sports where women at the top level compete in the same organization, with the same rules, on the same cards as men. There’s not a lot of sports you can say that about. That in itself is something I’m incredibly proud of. Because that was my generation of female fighters. No one person achieved that, it was all of us. That’s something that, looking at where we are now, we’re further ahead than so many other sports.
I think part of that is that mixed martial arts is quite a new sport and we have the chance to fight those battles from maybe a slightly more modern perspective than some of the other sports coming through. The history of boxing, for example, goes back much further. There were maybe more barriers there to women being involved on the same level as men when you compare it with mixed martial arts, which is quite a new sport. And, at the time, mixed martial arts was just starting to grow. You had a range of other sports which already had some female involvement. You had muay Thai, you had things like Judo. Actually, in the UK, I think we’ve got quite a strong history of women in combat sports. We’ve got some top-level Muay Thai fighters there. Looking back to around when I was (starting) there were some role models in women’s judo and a lot of the other martial arts. So I think there was all of that to draw from, as well. I think that helped us out.
It’s interesting that you mentioned that, I often struggle with the topic. I hear that argument a lot about how much more progressive MMA in regard to women than other sports, and I agree based on a lot of what you just said. At the same time, I’m like “OK, we’ve come a long way, but we’re not quite there yet.” I know this is a broad question, but what do you think are maybe some of the ways in which we can still progress?
I think it’s important to acknowledge the progress that’s been made. I think we can hold those two things at the same time: We’ve come a long way, mixed martial arts is in a better place than some other sports when it comes to women’s participation and what women are able to aim for.
The fact that young girls getting into mixed martial arts nowadays can have the ambition of going on to fight in the UFC — again, that’s something I think is fantastic. At the same time, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that, there are those hidden barriers. Just like I talked about with politics, there are those hidden barriers in in MMA as well. Some of that is going to be in the way that female athletes are talked about and are regarded. Sometimes you go on social media or internet forums and you can hear — I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think you could find people talking disrespectfully about athletes of all genders — but in particular some of the things you hear about (women), I can understand why girls reading that might think “Actually, I don’t want to be in that position. I don’t want to put myself forward and have to deal with that sort of attention.” That’s a social issue. That’s not within the gift of of the mixed martial arts community alone to fix. That’s something that we’ve got to to look at more broadly.
And looking at the way that women are sometimes treated in gyms and when they’re training — I know that there are some some gyms and schools that are absolutely excellent, that you couldn’t ask for any more. And then there are other places where there are maybe more issues. I know we’ve had some cases in the BJJ community, in the mixed martial arts community, where female athletes had suffered from sexual harassment and potentially worse. I think that’s the sort of an environment which excludes women. It puts people off of being involved, if they’re worried that that’s something that they might have to feel with. Back when I was training, there was very much a feeling that “Oh It’s OK for women to train, but we’re not going to —” it’s almost as though was a privilege for us to be there. People weren’t going to make any allowances or treat people any differently. I think when I was younger, that was something that I was maybe less conscious of, less concerned by. I was at that age where when people would say, “Oh, you’re just one of the lads,” I’d see that as a compliment.
As I got older, and started to maybe understand some of these issues a little bit better. I’ve realized how problematic that attitude can be. And this idea that “Women are OK, as long as they behave like guys. They can come in, as long as they don’t expect any special treatment.” I think framing treating athletes respectfully, whatever they gender they are, I think framing that as “special treatment” is hugely problematic. I think how we look at these things has definitely evolved, how I look at it has evolved over time. And I’m hopeful that this is something that will continue to improve. I think we can’t assume it will continue to improve. It’s something that we need to be actively working toward, we need to be actively fighting for.
One thing I hear a lot from women who were sort of there at the beginning is that they felt like they were treated kind of like a novelty, like there were the “serious fights” and then the “girl fights.” And at the gym what I hear from some women, and also what I can feel from my experience in other fields, is the idea that you have to try harder to be taken seriously than a man would in that position. When you first started, how were you received in those spaces? Did you feel like maybe you needed to prove something more than your male counterparts?
I think there was a sense of feeling that I needed to prove something. I don’t know how well that tied up the external projection; whether people were actually think that, or whether it was just an internal feeling that I had. I think when you’re one of the very few women doing something, it does feel like there’s a responsibility on you to show that women can do it. Because you’re the only female fighter people have seen, or you’re the only female mixed martial artist that people know, if you’re no good, people won’t say “Oh, she’s rubble.” People will go “Women can’t fight.” So it’s almost feeling the need to represent women as a whole. I think that’s much less the case now, because there are so many more female fighters out there. And that’s a really positive thing.
This is something that I’ve talked about with other women who were around in those days and I think a few other people have said similar things, sort of feeling that you have to represent your whole gender every time you go out and fight. And you get a lot of people saying that women’s fights are often fight of the night, and I think there was very much that sense of “Every fight, you’ve got to put it all on the line.” You couldn’t just turn it in. Because it wasn’t just yourself. You didn’t want people to turn around and go, “Oh, women can’t fight. Women shouldn’t be doing this. They’re no good.”
With you, going back to even the final years of your career, when you were in the UFC: A lot of the way that you were promoted was not only as a woman in this space, but you had your academic accolades. That’s at least what I got from the outside, like this is a practitioner of the sport but sort of an ambassador, because of your background. I think a lot of it was the idea that you broke stereotypes of that sort of “brute fighter,” and I wanted to ask whether you felt that added pressure to represent all these other things that weren’t just yourself as a fighter?
That’s interesting, actually, because there absolutely was. I remember a time, and this was when mixed martial arts were still being talked about as cage-fighting in the media and every now and then you’d have some politician saying “Oh, it should be banned.” And there’d be some radio phone-in. I’d often be the person to get the call, like “Can you talk to so-and-so on the radio, they want to do an interview about this latest controversy.” I used to joke about it, I think I was often seen as the smartest person dumb enough to get punched in the face for a living (laughs). I say that with tongue certainly in cheek. I think one of the good things is that you’ve got so many fighters from all different demographics, from all different walks of life, that now there are lots of people you can point to that can prove that not all fights fit that particular stereotype.
I think the more people got to know mixed martial arts as a sport, the less that stereotype had hold.
I think that’s something that very much went along with the early days of the sport. If I’m honest, I think we did it to ourselves to a large extent. And by “we” I mean the sport as a whole, because when you look at how some of those early mixed martial arts events were promoted, a lot of shows would lean quite heavily on that “no holds barred” image. You know, the “this the closest thing you can get to a real fight” thing. And, along with that, I think a lot of those stereotypes and the idea that “Ah it’s bloody and barbaric and this isn’t something that civilized people should be supporting,” I think that a lot of that went along with it. The more that we’ve positioned ourselves as a regulated sport — we’ve got rules and we’ve got safety checks, there’s medical covering, being trained athletes — the less those stereotypes have been a thing. Now, I think we’re fighting a whole different battle. Times have moved on, which is definitely a positive thing.
As an osteopath and as someone who understands the human body in probably many ways that you didn’t when you first started out, do you look back on your early training or whatever and feel horrified?
Oh, absolutely. All the way through my career — because this is while the sport is still developing — even a few years in, we’d look back at things we were doing a few years ago and go, “What were we thinking?”
I remember, when I first started training, if you’d done a bit of Thai boxing and done a bit of Brazilian jiu-jitsu — and when I say “a bit,” I mean you probably knew how to throw an armbar from guard and that was about it. And then you sort of put those together and you pulled it good, you were like, “OK, I can do a bit of striking, I can do a bit of grappling, I’m a mixed martial arts fighter.” Happy days! (laughs) But then at some point it sort of dawned on everyone, “Hey, there’s this thing in the middle called wrestling.” I’m joking but I’m kind of not, because looking back now, it’s so obvious. If you look at the kids who are starting out now — my son goes to a local club and he does some training — and the way that he’s learning sports from the ground up is so different from the way that we picked it up at the time.
All of those established sort of techniques and training methods have been developed and we know what we’re doing so much more. And I think a lot of the early methods were sort of inherited from sort of old school martial arts and boxing and the way that things had always been done. There was a bit of a boot camp mentality about it and whole “no pain, no gain” thing. We didn’t really know much about sports science. Most of the people who were training in mixed martial arts were progressive in the sense of wanting to figure out better ways to do things. They weren’t stuck in the past. But I think so much of the received wisdom around training had been inherited from the way that things had been done before. It took some time to to work through a lot of that. So, absolutely, it’s been a process. And I think the fact that nowadays there’s so much more sports science involved, you see a lot of far more modern training methodologies.
At the same time, you still also see a lot of things around that are completely bonkers. I look at things that high-level professional fighters are doing and go “What on Earth are they thinking?” (laughs) So I don’t think we’ve eliminated some of the more old-school attitudes and approaches. But, as with all of these things, it’s a journey. There’s no fixed end point to reach. We’ll continue to head in that general direction, I think. And the thing with mixed martial art is that it will select the people who take an evidence-based, scientific approach. Because you’ve gotta be able to perform at the end of the day. If what you’re doing doesn’t work, you’ll get found out. So it doesn’t matter. You can talk a good game, but you have to be able to make that work.
How did your own experiences with you know injuries and your own body educate the way you you exercise your profession today?
I think you learn a huge amount by doing any physical activity at quite a serious level. By “serious” I don’t necessarily mean you have to be particularly good at it. I mean you’re spending a lot of time on it and really focusing on what it takes to get better. One of the things I noticed now is that, when I’m working with other therapists, there’s a big difference between people who have done — it doesn’t need to be a martial art or a combat sport — any sport, but who’ve taken that quite seriously. I think there’s a different approach there. I think there’s there’s an understanding of what the what the body’s capable of that I think is really helpful.
And the other thing is, obviously, having experienced some injuries along the way, I think that really helped to be able to identify and to empathize with the people I’m treating. For me, it’s never just been about just about getting people out of pain, although that can be important. It’s about getting people back to doing the things that meaningful for them. You can get somebody out of pain, but if, as soon as they go training or do anything physically active, that goes on again, you haven’t done your job, as far as I’m concerned. Because in order to live a fulfilled life, in order to get all those other health benefits that go along with physical activity, people need to be able to move. People need to be able to do things with their body.
That’s something that’s always been really interesting to me: How do we get people to be able to do X, Y or Z. I do work with a lot of combat sports athletes; I think people naturally gravitate towards me because they know that I understand what they want to be able to do. That’s a real selling point. But also there’s people who do other sports, or serious musicians, for example, or dancers, or people who do other things with their body.
I work with quite a lot of manual workers, as well, who have to be able to lift as part of their job. So I think whatever it is that you want or need to be able to do, the job of somebody like myself is to figure out how we get you there. And that’s all about training. It’s understanding that that process and that training methodology, and how do we get from A to B in a series of small steps. I think the experience to sort of try to figure that out when it comes to mixed martial arts, that transferred quite well. Because whatever we’re talking about, it’s like “OK, we’re at point A, we need to get to point B. Let’s figure out what those steps need to look like.” There’s a lot that I’ve learned along the way that I I apply everyday. And probably without even without really thinking about it. It’s just become part of who I am.
I read your “Life after fighting essay” from a few years ago. And, as an outsider, I think this is one of the most interesting aspects of MMA. We have this culture in which we immediately dismiss a fighter when they say they’re retiring, because that tends not to last. But obviously there’s a lot that goes into the decision to retire, whether it’s money issues or emotional aspects, such as losing the focus of a training camp, the adrenaline, the limelight. As someone who went through all of that, what were the most challenging aspects of retiring and did you ever get the pull to come back?
Oh absolutely. Somebody said to me, I think it was close to the time I retired: Retiring is easy. But staying retired is hard. And that is absolutely the case. I think there’s a few things. Like you said, there’s the financial side of things. But I think there’s also that real sense that something that’s been a huge part of your life for so long, that’s just (missing). And it’s something that’s hard to replace with other things, because there’s nothing quite like the buzz you get from training for a fight. For a long time, I felt like there was this huge gap in my life where MMA used to be. Even now, I don’t watch as much mixed martial arts as I used to and part of that is because there is still that pull. Every time I watch a fight with two women in my weight class, I watch that and I go “Yeah, I could beat them” (laughs). And then the more rational bit of my brain kicks in and goes, “You’re not putting everything down for three months to do a fight camp.”
But one of the things I’ve been really fortunate with is that I’ve had so many other things in my life, and so many other things that I wanted to do, that the gap that was there for a while got filled up pretty quickly. Over the last few years, I’ve accumulated more stuff. Between running the clinic and all the politics and everything else that’s going on, I have a pretty full life. I’ve had people contact me and say “Would you consider fighting on this show?” I have considered that. I thought, “Well, that might be interesting.” But then I think, “OK, well, what would it actually cost me to put everything down?” Because it wouldn’t just be a fight camp. I’d have to get in shape first and then do a fight camp and all of that. It’s not realistic. Which, again, is probably a good thing. Because while every fighter feels that they could come back anytime and they could beat anyone in their weight class, the reality is not always quite the same, should we say (laughs). I think the more realistic view is that I retired at the right time. I was fortunate to have good people around me who could give me good advice.
Which not a lot of people get…
It’s so difficult. And one of the things is, there’s no good time to retire. The way I’ve described is that it’s like when you go out for a drink. It’s always just “one more beer.” Just one more. And then, before you know it, you’re a bit worse for the wear and slurring your words and you realize you should have stopped a little while back.
If you lose the fight, you want to do it again so you can finish on a win. But then if you win a fight, you’ve got that buzz, you wan to do it again. It’s like “I want to feel that again.” And, then, “maybe if I win a few more fights, I could go for the title, or maybe I could go on a tear.” There really isn’t a good time to put it down and walk away. And the other thing is, people have short memories.
Every fighter knows: When you’ve been out for a few years, the new fans who come along, they won’t know anything about what you’ve done. And that can be tough. When I look back at MMA, there was a time when people thought about female mixed martial arts in the U.K., I was the first name to come to people’s mind. Not wanting to be arrogant about it or anything like that, that’s just the way it was, I was the first one there. Now there’s an awful lot of people in the mixed martial arts community who haven’t a clue who I am. And I’ve come to terms with that, I’m good with that now. That’s cool with me. But there was a time when it would just jar me a bit. I’ve seen other female fighters I know well who have done really well for themselves and they’ve had great results and everyone’s talked about how great they are and everything, and I’ll be really happy for them on the one hand, but it will be a little bit bittersweet, because there’s a sense of “I’d really like that to be me.”
It’s an adjustment process you go through. I think I’m immensely lucky in a lot of ways. I think I’ve managed to have a good a successful retirement. And I think having a successful retirement is harder than having a successful fight career, in many ways. Something I say to people now is that you’re going to spend longer as a retired fighter than you do as a fighter. So it’s really something that you should give some thought to, what comes after. I don’t mean that you should be spending all your time thinking that, because when you’re fighting you’ve got to give that 100 percent. You’ve got to be all in, or it doesn’t work for you. But, at the same time, you’ve got to give some thought to what comes afterward. What’s your life gonna be like? How are you gonna be — not necessarily successful, but fulfilled and happy when you stop fighting? People find different routes for that.
Some people go into coaching, some people stay in a different aspect of the sport, some people walk away completely. There’s lot of ways to go about it. But I think it’s making sure that you’ve got a full life. That you’ve got plenty of things that are meaningful. Whether that’s paid employment or something that you love doing, having those passions, that’s important.
It’s interesting because we often refer to MMA as a selfish sport, and I guess it has to be in the same way that being a high-performance athlete in anything has to be. You need to focus on yourself to be successful, and I imagine a fight camp is probably a time of profound tunnel vision. Outside things probably need to fall away a bit, or you’re not going to be able to give everything you need. I wonder how difficult it must be to sort of adjust to “real life” once that’s taken away, like maybe realizing you have to focus on your surroundings more. Is that a part of it too?
Yeah. It takes away a coping mechanism, in a way. I’m sure I’m not the only person to think this, but for some people fighting can be a way of escape. Because all of the stuff and all of the everyday things that you’re worried about don’t seem to matter quite as much. You put those all on hold, because you’ve got a fight coming up, and you can focus 100 percent on that and all of these other things seem much less important. Obviously, once the fight is gone, then suddenly you’ve got to deal with all the other stuff that you’ve been putting on hold. But, while that’s happening, it’s almost a way of not focusing on some of those other things. Sometimes you’ve got other issues and problems going on in your life, and it’s a way of not dealing with that.
I’m not saying it’s necessarily particularly healthy coping mechanism. But suddenly when you don’t have that, and have to deal with all those sort of mundane (tasks), paying the bills and other things, I think that’s definitely part of the whole dynamic. I don’t remember who said that, it will come to me, but it’s “Any fool can handle a crisis, but the day-to-day can really grind you down.” And I think that’s nowhere more true than for the MMA fighter.
What your relationship with MMA now? Are you still coaching, are you a fan of it, where do you want MMA stand in the year of our lord 2021?
I think we’re friends, but we’re not particularly close these days (laughs). I still watch the occasional fight here and there, but I don’t follow it in the same way that I did. Partly, that’s just because other things have taken over and I got busy. Partly it’s because, like I said, there’s a bit of me that still wants to be getting back in there. Before COVID came along, I was training jiu-jitsu reasonably regularly. BJJ is, I think, the bit that I want to carry on with. I’ve not properly got back on the mat since that. And that’s partly because of my job, I’ve gotta be particularly careful because I can’t afford to be passing anything on to the people I’m treating. I’ve been vaccinated and everything, but case rates are quite high around here. I’ve just been cautious, but I see myself definitely getting back into that and getting back on the mats and doing some grappling.
I think that’s good for me, because it allows me to sort of keep keep in touch with it. I think the bit that I used to really enjoy above and beyond everything else would be the jiu-jitsu. It’s something that I think is easier to do as you get a bit older, compared to some other elements of the sport. So that’s that’s something that I definitely want to get back into now. My son started getting interested in mixed martial arts. He wasn’t particularly, when he was younger, but I think it’s sort of just being a teenager. It’s trending. He started doing a bit of training and he started to enjoy it. I let him find his own way when it comes to things like that. I feel we all have to. Obviously, if that’s something he wants to be, if that’s something he wants to do, then I want to be able to encourage and support him.
Recently, you wrote an article about retired MMA fighter Fallon Fox in which you addressed some previous positions that you had on trans women participating in sports and how those views had changed since 2013, as well as an interaction you had with Fallon herself. What ultimately motivated you to sit down and put that article into the universe?
My view had changed before I bumped into Fallon. When I first sort of encountered her, I hadn’t really thought much about the issues then, prior to 2013. And I think my initial response that actually quite similar to a lot of people’s initial response. It wasn’t well informed.
I did try to do some background research but, obviously, there was only so much out there that you could find. The internet being the internet, it’s very difficult to get context from looking online. You can get information, but it’s hard to see things in context. And the context I’m missing is I didn’t really know any trans people. I didn’t know anyone who had had that experience who I could talk to. I think at the time I didn’t recognize how important that was. That was my biggest mistake.
Since that time, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some wonderful trans people who I’ve talked to about lots of issues and who have help me to to understand their experience better. Now I’m never gonna completely understand what it is to be trans, I think there’s lots of aspects of that that I acknowledge, as a cis person, I just don’t get. But I can empathize with some of the intense discrimination and harassment and negativity that many of them face. In fact, when it comes to the interactions I’ve had on social media, some of the angriest responses I’ve had to anything I post have been around the issue of trans rights. And, again, I don’t think I was saying anything particularly controversial. And people have come back and said some things which are really horrible. Then I look at that and I think “Actually, that’s the sort of thing that my trans friends are having to deal with all time.” I can walk away from that debate. I can stop talking about it and it’ll blow over. They can’t, because it follows them around. And so suddenly realizing just what that must be to have to deal with that all the time and the effect that that must have on people.
That was the thing, really, for, me that made me realize that trans people are probably one of the last marginalized minorities who [are] seen as socially acceptable to demonize. I’d sort of come to this realization, and then I bumped into Fallon on a Facebook board. It was talking about something else, but she reminded me of that article that I wrote and basically said, “Well, have you changed your mind?” And we had a little bit of a conversation. I explained that “Yeah, actually, I don’t think this anymore. And I’m sorry that what I said was harmful to you, because it clearly was.”
Absolutely credit to her, she was really good about it. She didn’t give me a hard time, she was glad to hear I’d changed my views and that was that. Everything was cool. But I went away and I thought about it and I thought, “Actually, that doesn’t feel like enough, because I made those comments publicly. Really, I need to go back and set the record straight and say that this isn’t what I think anymore.”
So I got in touch with Fallon, I said “I feel like I’d like to do this. How do you feel about that?” Because, obviously, it could have been that she didn’t want to go back and revisit that. So I wanted to make sure that that was something that she’d appreciate. And she was very keen for me to write that article. So I went away and it took some time to to get it right and to figure out what it was I wanted to say. Obviously, I sent that over to her and asked “What do you think about this?” She was really happy with it and we went from there. I think that was the process. She didn’t put any pressure on me at all to do that. It was just something that I felt that I should do.
If I hadn’t done it, I don’t think there would have been any fallout. I think a lot of people had forgotten what I said back at that time anyway. It sort of l felt like I was making myself a bit vulnerable, by linking to what I said previously. I was wondering what some of the trans friend who I’ve met since then, who may not be aware of some of the things I’d said, how are they going to react to finding out that that was my view back then? But it just felt like it was the right thing to do. To be honest about that.
And, hopefully, as I said at the time, I don’t think that can undo the harm of what I’d said earlier, the impact that had. But I’m hopeful that by reading that, that if there are other people who are maybe unsure about the issue, or have reacted initially in one way, they might go back and read that and think “Well, actually it’s OK to go back and look at it again and to change your view on things.”
That was the message I wanted to get across.