Jeet Toshi’s eyes glaze over as the bloodflow 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 because of a shallow talent pool and poor financial backing.
Discrimination has also been difficult to overcome and while the bias might be based on outdated notions of gender roles in society, some people just are not ready to see women fight.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. About 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 US$600. Her manager, Prashant Kumar, said 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. “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 poolside chair that threatened to swallow her whole, the seven-time 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,” she said.
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 jiuiitsu 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.