Why Aren’t There More Fight Clubs for Women?

Physical aggression is like a switch, and women need places where they can figure out how to flip it.

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Why Aren’t There More Fight Clubs for Women?

On May 26, police were called about a noise complaint on a residential street in Berea, Ohio, where they discovered what appeared to be an abandoned boxing ring constructed of milk crates, plastic wrap, and driveway markers in a backyard belonging to a man who hadn’t realized it was there at all. Also on the scene were stray beer cans, fighting gloves, and a styrofoam box of nachos. Fifteen people had already fled by the time police showed up that night, apart from one man who informed them he was there to see a match inspired by Streetbeefs, a backyard mixed martial arts fight club and YouTube channel. In the end, five men who attended the event were charged with trespassing.

Many of the fight clubs you can find across the country seem as sad and distinctly male as a styrofoam box of nachos. At the height of the pandemic, “Rumble in the Bronx,” a fight club in New York City, got busted for convening more than 200 people in a warehouse for a boxing match. Its 10 organizers—again, all men—were charged with unlawful assembly, health and alcohol violations, and participating in a prohibited combative sport. A year later, a group of Fort Collins, Colorado, teenagers began operating a fight club whose existence was communicated about on Snapchat. Some kids were caught and questioned by police, but no arrests for fighting were made because no member ever fessed up.

If you have the right licensing or sports promoter bonds and you don’t violate other state law (like injuring bystanders or illegally selling booze), you can hold above board fights for legal combative sports like wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and other mixed martial arts. But fight clubs less concerned with sport and more with spectacle operate within legal gray areas—the underground variety. It’s not impossible to maintain that kind of fight club insofar as its members consent and don’t obviously break laws (like trespassing in, say, a stranger’s backyard). Where men tend to flout the rules is when they fail to exercise caution (i.e. they post about it on social media in real time). Fight clubs in other parts of the world operate similarly—for better, but certainly for worse.

Under these circumstances, women usually aren’t invited—aside from scantily clad ring girls. And queer people? Forget it. One notable, and notably fictional, exception: This summer’s queer sex comedy Bottoms, in which two gay teenage girls form a fight club for their female peers under the guise of self-defense to get closer to their cheerleader crushes, who face the very real threats of stalkers, shitty step-dads, and sleazy boyfriends. Somewhere between all the bloodied lips, black eyes, and bruised shins, the fighters find that there’s a catharsis that comes from a fist connecting with flesh. Landing a punch, but taking one just as well, hurts so good.

When I initially saw Bottoms, a sort of caustic confession came from the other women attendees I spoke to afterwards: “I wish I knew of a space where I could go to just beat the shit out of someone.” But when the feminine urge to throw hands arises, why are spaces like this so hard to find?

When I mention this reaction to Bottoms to Dani König and Sarah Barakah, the former scoffs. “I’m wondering if you put these women after the screening in a gym or in a ring whether they’d back out, because I’m pretty sure they would. With women, the tendency is, we’re much less aggressive,” König said. “This is what Sarah and I have been working on for 10 years. Aggression can sometimes be a good thing.”

König, a German filmmaker, and Barakah, an American mixed martial artist, first met in Jordan, where König was filming a documentary about Jordanian women and Barakah was teaching some of them how to kickbox in 2016. Three years later, in the midst of rising feelings of unsafety amongst women in Germany, where the two lived, König had a proposal. “I think it’s about time to encourage more women to learn self-defense…do you think it would be a good idea to do a German city tour where girls can do a one-day or couple-hour workshop to get interested?” Now, the pair own and operate Chinkilla, which teaches women mixed martial arts and self-defense techniques in gyms across Europe.

Currently, they have the market cornered, as few spaces exclusively by and for women like Chinkilla exist. König credits this to scientific findings that men are inherently more prone to physical aggression and therefore, more likely to create places where it can be released with little to no restraint.

“Just imagine grown men when they were kids. They started to wrestle each other, to kick each other, to fight each other on the playground,” she theorized. “When they were children they learned what it’s like to fight each other, to figure out who’s the strongest, and this became normal for them.”

But women’s desire for it is at first trounced by a deep, developmental dread of our own strength, she said. “When we hold targets for a girl who has never done martial arts before, in the beginning, she will always say, ‘I don’t want to hurt you.’ She’s not punching strong, and she’s gaining confidence very slowly.”

Chinkilla is not a fight club in the sense that spontaneous scuffles break out or anyone is at risk of becoming seriously injured, but that’s not to say it can’t be terrifying. König told me about an exercise in which attendees are put into a circle one by one, and whoever happens to be in the middle must fight their way out as the other attendees “attack” them. This and sparring (the regulated kind) have been triggering for some women—those who are new to fighting, but more tellingly, those who aren’t, Barakah said.

“Some of the girls have just broken down crying because they’ve never been hit before…or they have,” she explained without elaborating on the latter. She didn’t need to. “I often get the question, ‘How do I get used to being hit?’ Well, you keep doing it, but also, if you’re getting traumatized by continuously being hit, then maybe this isn’t right for you.”

A number of the workshops’ attendees are interested in becoming physically stronger, but an undeniable population of them are there in spite of something or someone. Such is the case for Barakah.

“Truthfully, I grew up in a very violent household and with…let’s say, a family member who was quite violent,” she said. “I would see characters like Chun-Li or Mulan or any kind of fierce woman as a role model because they were able to fight. For me, all it was was getting beaten or getting things thrown at me, and not being able to do anything about it…just the frustration of that to the point where I asked if I could please take karate as a kid and it was like, ‘No, you’re not your brothers. We’re not putting you in that. It will make you violent.’ It’s like, ‘Well, I’m surrounded by violence, so that would be great because then I could deal with it somehow.’”

In Chinkilla-organized workshops and classes, women have to be taught to make their internalized anger actionable, which can be just as difficult as mastering mixed martial arts moves or self-defense skills. Aggression is like a switch, König said, and you have to learn how to find it.

Since 2021, Gwen Roote, a practitioner of jiu-jitsu, has organized Queer Fight Nights and LGBTQBJJ (LGBTQ Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) every month in Seattle for all genders, skill levels, and participatory goals. Roote’s very deliberate creation of a safe space was engendered by unsafe instances at gyms where queer people looking to learn the male-dominated sport of jiu-jitsu, among other combat styles, are treated as outliers.

“I’ve had experiences at a lot of different places where I’m the only openly queer person,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I’ve had some people be rather hostile.”

in the beginning, she will always say, ‘I don’t want to hurt you.’ She’s not punching strong.

In her experience, many people drawn to jiu-jitsu are women and queer folks grappling with either a traumatic history or a fear of a traumatic future. With the increasing threats against queer and trans people, Roote, a trans woman herself, is giving them a chance to arm themselves. Past Queer Fight Nights have advertised themes like “Become Unpinnable,” where participants are taught effective ways to escape an aggressor who’s holding them down. An instructor will first demonstrate with a consenting volunteer, then participants will practice with a partner. Developing the kind of trust required to allow a stranger to mimic potentially triggering movements isn’t easy.

“I think in a lot of spaces—in jiu-jitsu spaces—it’s really common to make some assumptions about your opponent’s body, and there’s also this kind of implied consent,” Roote said. “You sign a waiver at most places, but there’s also this unspoken idea where you’re actually going to try and hurt each other. You’re not actually going to hurt each other, but you’re practicing it. A lot of things go unsaid and they’re things that probably should be said, especially if we’re working under this paradigm of explicit consent and autonomy. That can be really easily taken away at the gym and in martial arts.”

Roote copes with this by encouraging perpetual confirmation of permission during demonstrations and exercises. “Questions are at the forefront as opposed to, ‘Learn this lesson, then try it, and then win, eventually,’” she said.

Ultimately, Roote explained, her space isn’t about dominating another person or demonstrating rage, and it isn’t about fighting to harm. It’s about encouraging a heightened awareness and a deeper respect for your body and those around you—a sort of mindful ferality.

On a Wednesday night in early August, 13 women gather in a one-room gym in the Bronx. A boxing dummy presides over the space, which is swathed in hot pink thanks to a series of fluorescent signs—including one in cursive above the mirror wall that reads “The Battlefield,” and another at the check-in desk with the name Johanna Edmondson christened this space with two years ago: “Female Fight Club.”

The women form two lines. Class is about to begin. This one, Kick Ass Honey, is Female Fight Club’s take on boxing. One woman adjusts a hijab, two others speak Spanish, another participant’s son is splayed out on the couch busying himself with a tablet near the entryway. The dummy, I learn, goes by Ike. “As in Ike Turner,” Edmondson confirmed. “We voted on it.” Then, a remix of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” starts blaring and the warm-up commences.

Not so long ago, this hyper-feminine studio was only a daydream, Edmondson told me over the phone days earlier. In 2018, the former preschool teacher found herself overwhelmed by stress, exhaustion, and severe asthma. Then, the pandemic struck. Because all of her usual outlets for physical, emotional, and mental wellness were shuttered, Edmonson and a few friends started working out in nearby Van Cortlandt Park. By June 2020, the group—all women apart from one man who they welcomed—was meeting every weekday morning for circuit training. Edmondson would’ve stayed, if only the parks department didn’t require a permit for as many people that started showing up. Until she found the studio space a year later, Edmondson convened a series of smaller groups for workouts in the park, one at a time.

Edmondson’s own unpleasant experiences in gyms where men are empowered to strut, sweat, and stare to their hearts’ content were motivators as she built out Female Fight Club’s schedule with anything from spin classes to kickboxing to zumba. She shared she was once followed home by a man after leaving the gym where she previously worked out. “Nothing happened, but it’s enough to make you uncomfortable,” she said plainly.

Female Fight Club is very clearly not a fight club in the literal sense. These women aren’t hitting one another—in fact, they’re barely making any contact at all. But the name alone, a reference to the notion of giving women a fighting chance, is enough to inspire the same swagger as members wage their personal wars.

“When you go into combat, it’s me or you. Here? It’s me against me,” one longtime member, Chareta, told me after the class ended. For Chareta, a former kickboxer, the fight is simply moving her body after an injury rendered her incapable of kickboxing. Another woman, Alexis, told me between bites of yogurt that she struggles with depression and the doldrums of a job she hates. The studio, conveniently near her office, is a daily saving grace. “I will stay in a shitty work environment just so I can come here,” she said. That Wednesday alone, Alexis had already attended three back-to-back classes.

As more members joined, the studio’s offerings expanded to include empowerment workshops, talk circles, and mammogram screenings. Instead of overt aggression, a sort of radical softness has been cultivated at Female Fight Club. “I feel like you don’t have to be a hard person all the time,” Chareta said. “This place shows you that.”

What women’s fight clubs aren’t is easy to identify. The two teen girls brawling outside of a Hollywood high school only to be broken up by Jonathan Majors? Not a fight club. White women bedecked in fringe halter tops and cowboy boots beating on each other in the bathroom line of a Morgan Wallen concert? Consent, it seemed, was about as non-existent as any common sense. A catwalk cum mud pit tussle at an Elena Valez show? High fashion, sure, but not exactly fighting with purpose. But when women and queer people try to define their version of fight clubs, they become almost undefinable. Some clubs operate above board, others hover in the legally gray areas. For some, these clubs are a test of athleticism. For others, proof positive of a strength that can’t be seen.

I think people do it because they’re seeking a strength—a physical strength, but also a strength of ego that you can protect yourself and you’re worth protecting.

In 2016, after the U.K. voted to withdraw from the European Union and former president Donald Trump was elected across the pond, Dr. Phoebe Patey-Ferguson and some of her more furious and disenfranchised friends wanted their own fight night in London named after Theresa May, the former prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party. So the Theresa May Smackdown, a semi-regular fight series presented by angry people in spandex and fraying fishnets, was born. It wasn’t choreographed, nor was it being performed by any professionals. And people actually got hurt.

Their fight club’s purpose was “express rage and devastation together,” Patey-Ferguson wrote via email. “Ideological violence was playing out in our lives and we were expected to have a rational response to it—so we hoped by looking at physical violence (played out in a safer space) we could draw attention to it, pull it apart and find ways to disarm it.”

The improvised frenzy of it all was precisely what made it so freeing for a time.

“I think there are two types of fight clubs. Ours was like an extension of a pillow fight at a sleepover, but we’re all queer adults who can strip off and do that in baby oil, with a massive sound system—it’s creating a show but it’s also a gloriously empowering, self-indulgent release,” she said. “The other kind of fight club is more vital now than ever—where queer women (and particularly trans women) can learn self-defense skills and feel equipped to deal with the violence targeted towards them.”

Heather Von Bandenberg, a wrestler, author of Unladylike, A Grrrls Guide to Wrestling, and organizer of the queer wrestling and cabaret show Fist Club, has her own interpretation. “I think people do it because they’re seeking a strength—a physical strength, but also a strength of ego that you can protect yourself and you’re worth protecting,” she said. Learning how to fight with the London-based wrestling group Lucha Britannia, even if some of it was exaggerated for performative emphasis, saved her after a life-altering assault.

When the definition of a fight club is allowed to be so fluid, perhaps it isn’t that fight clubs for women and queer people are difficult to find, rather that a number of us haven’t prioritized stumbling around in the dark searching for our aggression. Maybe some of us must first—in the words of König—find the switch.

In La Esperanza, a Nahua village in Mexico, women farmers believe the bloodshed of a good beating is beneficial to their crops. Across Europe and Australia between 2011 and 2017, a troupe of women known as Femme Fight Club hurled food at one another in public parks to make themselves laugh. Female-owned and -operated self-defense studios have thrived among young women in the Middle East in the last decade.

So, are there fight clubs by and for women? Kind of. Perhaps you won’t easily find one where you’re encouraged to knock someone out in a basement or backyard—though underground kinds exist. But maybe our kind of fight club isn’t about that anyway. Sometimes, the knowledge that you could beat the shit out of someone, within a community that knows it too, is catharsis enough.

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