Asian, female, Muslim MMA fighter tapping out stereotypes

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The stereotypical MMA fighter is a bald, sightly menacing, tattooed man, who thanks a Christian God for the win.

Time magazine's David Stout profiles a fighter who is not like the others. Ann “Athena” Osman is Asian, Muslim, and quite female.

“There’s an empowering element to women in Asia to see a strong, confident, fit female competing on a world scale, on a world stage, especially if you’re Muslim or if you’re from a Muslim country like Malaysia,” says ONE FC CEO Victor Cui.

Not many sports give women similar prestige as their male counterparts, but the growing prominence of female UFC stars such as Ronda Rousey, Liz Carmouche and Miesha Tate has almost given MMA that distinction. And with the meteoric rise of MMA in Asia, ever more women are taking up the sport, and breaking fresh ground as they do.

“Having a female fight in a Muslim country like Malaysia is going to be a first,” says Cui. “There’s a huge cultural implication.”

Malaysia may not be Saudi Arabia or Iran, but religious conservatism is increasingly prevalent there. In October, the country’s courts ruled that only Muslims have the legal right to use the word ‘Allah,’ sparking fierce protests from the nation’s Christian minority, who have longed used the same word for God.

Nevertheless, Osman, 27, says she’s has never felt ostracized because of her gender or decision to push boundaries. “I’m fortunate to not have felt any of that pressure about me being Muslim and a female MMA fighter at the same time,” says the Sabah native. “I’m very fortunate to have the support from everyone I know.”

According to Malaysian MMA pioneer Melvin Yeoh, Osman’s acceptance comes from both ONE FC’s assertive marketing in tandem with MMA’s official recognition by the Ministry of Youth and Sport, one of three such sports to have the state’s blessing.

“She’s a Muslim and people saw what she can do and then they thought, this we can also do,” says Yeoh.

According to Cui, it’s emphasizing narratives like Osman’s and playing off historical geopolitical rivalries like the one that exists between Singapore and Malaysia that is essential to MMA sinking deep roots into emerging Asian markets. “It’s Malaysia versus Singapore and those guys have a very, very extremely heated competition,” he says.

“Singapore says they have better fighters, Malaysia says they have better fighters, so it’s a never-ending debate,” explains Yeoh.

But its not just regional rivalry that is stoking anticipation, as these women can actually fight. Bloody Elbow nominated the third round of their previous encounter for the site’s “Round of the Year” for 2013.

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