The NY Times: A Pioneer, if a Reluctant One, in Mixed Martial Arts

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Updated: May 10, 2013
Fallon Fox

By: Greg Bishop

SCHAUMBURG, Ill. — Fallon Fox climbed inside the steel cage, past the sign that read “The Beating Will Continue,” and onto a black mat. She followed right jabs with left hooks and kicks flung at imaginary kneecaps, safe, if only for a moment, from the questions and insults and the suffocating fame that descended overnight.

Inside the cage, Fox was free.

Outside, she was caged.

The past month had plunged Fox back into depression, after she became the first openly transgender athlete in mixed martial arts and the most prominent in a professional sport since the tennis player Renée Richards, in the 1970s. Fox did not control the timing of the revelation, which came in a Sports Illustrated article, and could not control the backlash that resulted, the harsh words from Hulk Hogan, the hate spewed by the fighter Matt Mitrione, the confusion voiced by the Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s champion Ronda Rousey.

In April, Fox watched the basketball players Brittney Griner and Jason Collins tell the world they were gay and receive what seemed like overwhelming public support. Collins’s announcement, Fox wrote in an e-mail, left her “proud and happy” and a “tad bit envious.” That was more what she expected in her own experience, and she lingered on the topic of reporters who dug into her fighting licenses and personal background, who asked what has become her story’s fundamental question: Should someone born a man be allowed to fight women?

At a restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, strangers approached Fox, recognizing her from a recent CNN appearance, and their words, which were supportive, only added to a discomfort that commingles with fear. On one hand, Fox does not want anybody to know where she lives or what her daughter’s last name is. And on the other, she has accepted this ambassadorship, even if it means she is less a sports pioneer than a symbol to be analyzed and debated, thrust into a spotlight that singes her psyche.

“I want the public to know how it feels, the fear of being scrutinized, of being outed,” Fox said. “The fear of what happens when you come out and the media puts you under a microscope. It’s crippling. You get lost.”

That was most apparent at a Panda Express restaurant last month near her training center, where Fox, 37, fought back tears as she tried to explain what she did not yet understand. She wanted her life back, but her recent declaration rendered that impossible and resurrected emotions she had for years tried to bury along with her past.

As music played softly in the background, a soothing blend of harps and whistles and violins, Fox pulled her green hat low over her eyes. “I don’t even want to talk about it, really,” she said. “I don’t want to. I never set out to do this. But I have to.”

She continued, “I’ll stand here, for my community, because I have no other choice.”

Her story, no matter how much she wanted to command it, was no longer her own.

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