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Queen of Swords

By Natasha Vargas-Cooper

Photography by Roger Erickson

"Don’t get overexcited,” trainer Joe Smith cautions Fallon Fox before slipping his sweaty palms into padded mitts. “I need you to focus,” he says. Fox grinds her left heel into the mildewed carpet below and unleashes 10 shin-cracking, rapid-fire kicks into Smith’s gloves, forcing the trainer to scuttle backward to absorb their intensity. “Nice!” Smith shouts over an electro remix of the Doors’s “Strange Days” blasting from the gym’s speakers. A $50 drop-in fee at an overcrowded LA Fitness center in suburban Miami has afforded the pair one last training session before Fox’s Friday night fight in three days at the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables, Fla., on May 24.

Later, booted from the mirrored weight room by an evening Zumba class, Fox and Smith squeeze into the only open space inside the clogged gym: at the lone punching bag by the bathrooms. Floppy men with pink skin, women shrink-wrapped in neon, and soggy teenagers dazed by their Apple gadgets on their way to the toilets have to leap and dart out of Fox’s way as she charges at Smith, hissing through her teeth, with a flurry of precise, thwacking jabs. A gaggle of pubescent boys, slick with sweat and sebum, clump together about 10 feet away from her, peering and whispering.

A ninth grader with a fake diamond stud in his ear: “She’s famous, huh?”

“Yeah, she’s, like, an MMA fighter from Colombia or something?” the friend responds.

“Her body is mad right,” adds Diamond Ear with a lewd smile.

They all exchange a questioning look, the silent shorthand shared among young boys for “Would you or wouldn’t you?” Their grins and nods suggest that, yes, they all would.

Fox bounces more punches off Smith, sweat pearling on her body.

“Banging,” one of the boys concurs.

Fox throws a brutal knee blow, the same one she had thrown at the Coral Gables arena in March, knocking out her last opponent, Ericka Newsome, after just 39 seconds. But that fight belongs to another life. That was before a reporter from the website MMA Junkie called Fox’s manager demanding to know if she was really a man. It was before the state of Florida put her fighting license under review for not disclosing the gender reassignment surgery she had undergone in Bangkok seven years earlier. It was before she called Smith, her longtime trainer, and told him she was not born a woman. It was before an ex-lover sold old pictures of her to TMZ, a shade of facial hair covering her chin. And it was before Fox, a 37-year-old single mother from Toledo, Ohio, who goes by the nickname Queen of Swords, came out as a trans woman -- the first and only one working as a professional cage fighter.

Her upcoming fight against Allanna Jones on Friday marks the first time in MMA history that an openly trans fighter will step into the cage. And it will be the second elimination round in the Champion Fighting Alliance’s all-female tournament. If Fox is victorious, she will go on to the final round and compete for a $20,000 purse, the highest bounty for which she’s ever fought. To some -- perhaps even to many -- Fox’s upcoming fight is historic in another way: It’s the first time in MMA history a man will be allowed to fight a woman.

“What gives me the advantage over my opponents?” Fox asks and grimaces, repulsed by my opening question. She picks at her late-night dinner of brown rice, vegetables, and overcooked white fish. Next to her, Smith sucks down his cola silently, keeping his eyes on his samosas. “I’m a better fighter,” she says. A slight pause, then her stony face cracks into a smile.

Finally, at 10 p.m. on this damp Miami night, Fox begins to thaw. Throughout an overpacked day of press calls, photo shoots, and pantomiming for a local TV news crew, she seemed tense and gloomy -- anxious about the energy spent off the mat educating reporters about the state of her genitals. Meanwhile, Jones, her opponent, was likely pummeling a stand-up bag, free from questions about estrogen levels and bottom surgery.

“At first, I thought my medical history was no one’s business,” Fox says. Instead of responding to MMA Junkie’s queries about the sex change, her manager offered Sports Illustrated the exclusive. But it was something Fox and her team felt cornered into doing. “I knew it was going to come out at some point, I just didn’t…” she trails off. The blow-by-blow of their reasoning for going public is something Fox doesn’t like to rehash -- sometimes it makes her go damp-eyed.

Fox’s announcement prompted the Florida State Boxing Commission, the regulatory body that licenses fighters, to put her under review. The MMA scene quickly polarized around Fox’s status, and that’s when things got grim.

“You can’t fight chicks, get the fuck out of here,” said Joe Rogan, the MMA color commentator, last March. “You’re out of your mind. You need to fight men, you know? Period. You need to fight men your size because you’re a man. You’re a man without a dick.”

Then, in April, NFL linebacker-turned–UFC fighter Matt Mitrione went on an unsolicited rant about Fox during an MMA Hour broadcast. “I haven’t seen a man beat a woman like that since Chris Brown beat Rihanna,” he said of Fox’s fight against Newsome. “That is a lying, sick, sociopathic, disgusting freak,” he continued. “And I mean that, because you lied on your license to beat up women. That’s disgusting. You should be embarrassed of yourself.” He then compared Fox to Buffalo Bill, the fictional pre-op trans serial killer from The Silence of the Lambs. (He received a temporary suspension for his comments.)

Elsewhere, Ronda Rousey, UFC’s first and current female bantamweight champion, added to the rabble around Fox in April, telling the New York Post that she had researched the topic extensively and concluded “[Fox] can chop her pecker off, but it’s still the same bone structure a man has. It’s an advantage. I don’t think it’s fair.”

“Male to female transsexuals have significantly less muscle strength and bone density, and higher fat mass, than males,” Dr. Eric Vilain, a geneticist and director of the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics, told Time magazine last May. Vilain helped the International Olympic Committee and the Association of Boxing Commissions compose their policies on post-op trans fighters. By their standards, which also inform state licensing commissions, Fox meets the criteria of womanhood: completed anatomical surgery on the genitals, including a gonadectomy and hormone therapy administered through a licensed endocrinologist for at least two years after the surgery. This would offset any male hormone advantage an athlete had, Vilain argues.

But what if Fox’s 30 years as a biological man made her stronger? She could be stronger, Vilain said, “but sports is made up of competitors who, by definition, have advantages for all kind of genetic reasons. And no one complains about it.” In other words, Michael Phelps is not disqualified from swimming the 100-meter because he has freakishly long arms. Professional sports are made up of one genetic anomaly getting the advantage over another genetic anomaly.

||

Fox turned up at the Midwest Training Center in Chicago in 2010 already a skilled female athlete. For seven years she had studied jiu-jitsu, winning a handful of local competitions. But jiu-jitsu keeps you on the ground, and Fox wanted to stand up. She was attracted to MMA because, in her words, it’s “three-dimensional.” In a street brawl, “a fighter would use the dimension of their body in any way they could.” Aside from the fact that fighters are fenced into an elevated cage, Fox considers MMA “the most realistic sport there is.”

From the start, Smith believed Fox could go pro. Aside from her wild punches, Fox had a formidable technique and an unflagging work ethic. “It’s a gladiator lifestyle,” Smith says. “We live like struggling artists, and Fallon has always been OK with that.” While many trainers become surrogate fathers to wayward fighters, Fox and Smith, only a few years apart in age, treat each other as peers -- sometimes razzing, other times politely distant. Smith can’t be too protective of Fox because she won’t allow it.

“For a while, guys at the gym would come up to me and say, ‘You know she’s a dude, right?’ ” Smith recalls. “I would just tell them to fuck off.”

When Fox came to the Midwest Training Center, she’d already undergone all her surgery. Since she went public, though, no one mentions it to Smith. “Fallon’s just Fallon to me,” he says.

Fox doesn’t identify as transgender. “That’s too broad,” she explains. “What happened with me is something specific: I’m a transsexual woman.”

To make an obvious, but necessary, point, mixed martial arts is probably the last place an athlete would turn to have a rational conversation about post-structuralist gender identity. MMA is an inferno of primitive machismo; a delirious orgy of knees to the mouth and elbows to the nose; a greasy parade of gladiators. It is, in the words of Joyce Carol Oates, a “romance of maleness.” Women MMA fighters are still a novelty side act: They don’t hit as hard, they don’t sell as many tickets, and they, ironically, don’t bleed enough. Fox’s own upcoming fight will be sandwiched between 15 male bouts.

“I’ve gotten so much support from the trans community and the media,” Fox says. “It just makes me feel like—there are bullies and bigots who are in MMA. I mean, that’s why some fans are into MMA in the first place: They want to see people get beaten up. But I’m just going to ignore them and keep winning fights.”

In Florida, the licensing commission for MMA fighters tested Fox’s hormones and approved her to fight in the women’s league. In just three months, she’s picked up seven new sponsors, made international headlines, and transformed from an unknown fighter with just two pro fights under her belt (both of which she won) to a marker of social progress. But, as Fox would learn Friday night, being a marker of social progress also makes you a target for all of those darker, if not downright medieval, forces of ignorance and reaction.

Fox, born Boyd Burton, was the middle child of three, raised in a bleak suburb outside of Toledo. Her parents were devoutly Pentecostal and kept her in line with their strict orthodoxy. She was held back a year in elementary school, then homeschooled by her mother with a superstitious, creationist curriculum while her father worked as a local factory hand. Fox skipped her junior year of high school and was plunked down in public school as a senior. She tried out for the wrestling team and thrived. “High school was just high school,” she says, adding that it was no less traumatic for her than it was for any other teen.

“I come from a place where you marry young and have kids early,” Fox says in a mock-folk twang. At 19, she got her girlfriend pregnant. She married, enlisted in the Navy, and worked to support her new family. “Here, want to see?” She reaches for her iPhone, which has been chirping and pulsating all night with well-wishing texts and Facebook pokes. A finger-swoosh and there is Fox, a beaming young man snug in an immaculate uniform. His arm is pulled tightly around his dad, who is also grinning widely at the camera. “Crazy, right?” She no longer speaks to her father.

In her mid-20s, Fox quit the Navy to enroll in college. After a short stint at the University of Toledo, she dropped out due to the anxiety and depression brought on by her gender crisis. Her hair was falling out from stress. She then learned through online research she could have gender reassignment surgery on demand in Thailand. “There,” Fox says with finality, “I found a name for this thing I had felt for years and years.” The decision was made: She would find a well-paying gig and save up enough money to have a sex change.

Fox worked as a truck driver for the next several years, doing 10-hour hauls out of Chicago, sleeping in grubby motels, atomized and silent in her rig. She consumed hours and hours of audiobooks on the road -- her favorite was Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great -- and tried to learn everything about her upcoming surgery, listening to accounts from other trans people. She checked out more books on science, philosophy, biology -- it was her first real introduction to the secular world.

“My truck was like my fortress of solitude -- I had all this time alone, just thinking, thinking, thinking,” Fox says, her eyes wide. “There were these long stretches where I was forced to deal with everything that was in my head.” Removed from the larger world, she doesn’t look back on the time fondly, but seems to regard her trucking era with a grudging respect; it was a formative period, a time of mandatory introspection, a long interchange between lives.

After four years of trucking, Fox earned enough money for her surgery and traveled alone to Bangkok, 7,000 miles away. There, she went straight to the hospital and, after her procedure, convalesced for six weeks with no visitors besides her doctors. She called her mother, who knew of the operation but hoped a miracle would intervene. “She answered the phone, and I told her I just had the surgery,” Fox says, recalling the anguished sigh on the other end of the line. “Then I realized that I don’t need to help [her] through this. That’s her own deal. I found peace, and I let go.” Fox no longer speaks to her mother.

Fox doesn’t have many memories of her stay abroad. She remembers using a walker to go to the bathroom, playing Xbox during her few hours of consciousness, and emailing with her daughter, now a teenage track star and honor student. Fox has full custody of her daughter and describes her as her “best friend.”

When she arrived back in the United States, Fox was only halfway done. “I didn’t feel like a complete woman until I did my facial surgeries,” she says.

Fox had her features feminized: Doctors pulled up her hairline, lifted her brow, and deemphasized her jawline. “I think it erased all doubt,” she says, then describes the other womanly sensations new to her body.

“I don’t want to be oversexualized,” she cautions. “That’s something that happens to so many female athletes.”

But it’s difficult not to sexualize Fox, because she is sexy. Like other female athletes, who by their own genetic makeup possess the most alluring characteristics of both sexes, Fox is a bewitching mixture of soft and hard. Hers is a body that defies circumstance. At 5-foot-8 and 143 pounds, she’s free of body fat. Handsome biceps and triceps rope around her arms. There are big curves up top and smooth, delicate thighs with scarred shins down below; sinewy abs bisect her petite stomach, and her face is wide like a housecat’s. Her exaggerated jawline is offset by the fullness of her lips; she has perfectly sculpted Kardashian brows adorning soft caramel eyes.

I ask if she gets a lot of male attention. “Of course!” she says with swagger. “It’s an ego trip, for sure.”

Fox’s trans beauty and sexual charisma fuck with some very primitive anxieties that riddle hetero men. “Ever since man emerged from the dominance of nature,” sexual historian Camille Paglia wrote, “masculinity has been the most fragile and problematic of psychic states.” Where is this fragility more exposed than in the dark sanctum of a fight arena?

As we leave dinner, a car comes screeching into the strip mall parking lot. It circles near us, idles, then circles again. Fox squares her shoulders, and her face turns to a hard mask with her nostrils flaring wide. She puts a hand out in front of me. The car circles again. Fox looks ready to brawl, then stops herself. “Let’s get the fuck out of here,” she says, throwing open the door of my rental car angrily.

||

For several minutes, she’s silent and doesn’t respond to my questions. “Yeah…it’s just… I’m from the hood, you know? We just need to be careful. Especially now,” Fox says grimly. “Keep asking me questions.” She gives directions, looking ahead.

I ask if she got her nickname from the tarot card the Queen of Swords. According to the card’s interpretation, the queen is holding a sword in one hand for self-protection, extending the other hand to protect others. The card is also meant to represent someone who has known sorrow.

“Nothing like that,” Fox says. The name came from a Facebook post. The transgender parent of one of her friends had recently been heckled on the street by a pack of men, and the friend posted that she was all right because she was “a queen of swords.” Fox didn’t know exactly what that meant, but it stuck. “That was like me in the ring,” she says. “I’m a Queen of Swords. I’m untouchable.” We drive on.

“Punch him in the gooch!” one red-faced, porky man bellows to the fighter pinned on the mat. A few of the man’s friends lean over the railing surrounding the cage to scream more instructions. The fighter on the ground can’t see. Blood is gushing from his opponent’s severely lacerated brow onto his face and eyes. We are still several hours away from Fox’s fight (her bout against Jones is announced as “the co-main event”), and the arena in Coral Gables is only one-third full with ticket holders still sober and chatting, paying little attention to the fighters grappling on the bright white canvas in a marinade of their own gore.

Fight night is date night. Aside from the roaming, boozy tribes of men, many of the spectators are couples. They’re the American-born sons and daughters of the Cuban exile community, a notoriously reactionary lot. Tonight the guys are gelled up and buttoned down in Express for Men shirts. The women are outfitted in Roman sandals, tight white denim, and flashy halter tops. They’re as tucked, plucked, snipped, and suctioned as Fox. They’re also the ones who will greet her with the greatest level of contempt.

“I want you doing the rear naked choke, triangle submission -- take it from the wrist to the arm bar!” coach Alex Trujillo barks, leaning in close to Fox. Trujillo, a former MMA fighter and the owner of the Midwest Training Center, arrived late last night to instruct Fox through the match. Fox sits on a stinky old couch in a bare dressing room. She’s concentrating so hard she looks like she could snatch a fly from the air. Trujillo, like some maniac shaman, has been holding Fox in a multihour trance. This is the ritual: Smith and Fox sit silently as Trujillo catalogues all of Fox’s strengths -- her ground game, round kicks, surgically precise jabs. Then they huddle over his iPhone and watch footage of Jones on YouTube, dissecting every move. They Google pictures of Jones to zero in on any physical flaws Fox can target. Jones used to weigh 200 pounds until she took up boxing several years ago. She’s a hard hitter, the group agrees, but she’s hopeless when forced on her back. Smith and Trujillo anticipate the fight will be over by the end of the first five-minute round.

“Be aggressive, squeeze, and breathe,” Trujillo tells Fox from his creaking metal chair. “You’re a better fighter, you know that! You’re in a whole different place. Don’t rush taking her to the ground. You’ve already fought better competition! You just need to—”

The door swings open, breaking Fox’s trance. A small man in a blazer enters. “Hi, Fallon,” he says, “I’m the inspector from the league. I just wanted to ask: Did you already take the pregnancy test?”

Lubricated by a heady mixture of booze and blood, the crowd, now doubled in size, starts to pay attention when the lights go down for the co-main event. Giant pixilated monitors play the perfunctory three-minute video introduction to the female fighters, a clip show of press conference footage and tight-zoom mini-interviews with the fighters. It’s pretty routine stuff until the words “transgender” and “gonadectemy” flash across the screen. Those who catch it start to gape. Others reach for their phones and frantically Google pictures of Fox. Sneers and looks of disgust begin to ripple through the crowd.

A baritone announcer calls Jones to the cage first. Each fighter gets to choose her own entrance music. Fox, a fan of industrial metal like Ministry, Otep, and Kitty, has picked a hard-edged dubstep remix of a song from her favorite video game, Call of Duty. Now, as the spotlight hits Jones, speakers blast “Dude Looks Like a Lady” by Aerosmith. The crowd roars -- they have chosen their warrior. When Fox emerges into the open arena stage, she is greeted by howls of execration.

“So she’s a guy who wants to beat up women? How fucked up is that?” one man shrieks. “He’s a woman who wants to fuck gay guys!”

A table of couples seated in the VIP section guffaw derisively, “Queen of Swords?”

“Fucking tranny freak!” another man shouts through his cupped hands.

The bell rings. Jones is quick on her feet and leads Fox around the cage. Fox can’t find an immediate opening, so she assaults Jones’s femur with a blitzkrieg of kicks. Jones, thick and stolid, seems unfazed. When Jones tries to kick back, she loses her footing. Jones blocks and dodges Fox’s jabs but eventually lets her hands drift down low. Fox bull-rushes Jones into a corner and lands two rapid punches to Jones’s chin and nose. As Jones’s head snaps back, the crowd grows into an angrier, threatening mass.

“Kick him in the balls! Kick him in the balls!” a swath of the front row chants.

The fight goes on much longer than Fox anticipates. It’s sloppy and slow, and Fox grows noticeably more and more frustrated. Jones has been on defense for two rounds, darting and avoiding Fox. When Fox is able to finally bring Jones to the ground after 10 agonizing minutes, Fox flashes a smirk, cast huge on the monitors. The crowd erupts in a paroxysm of boos.

“Nasty bitch!” screams one woman.

In the third round, Fox drives Jones into the blood-stained canvas, pressing her torso onto Jones’s chest. Fox slides her shin onto Jones’s throat, and her mouthpiece begins to slide out. She cuts off the blood flow to Jones’s carotid artery with her leg, and Jones’s face contorts in panic, her left hand slamming down twice on the floor. Fox wins through submission after 16 minutes of fighting.

As Fox takes her victory stride backstage, a father and his son ask to take a picture with her. They congratulate and high-five her. Two women run down from the stands to hug her. Other spectators stand up and give her a thumbs-up as she passes them. There’s a smattering of applause as Fox leaves the arena; it’s small, but it’s more than she started with.

Fox eases down into the metal chair in her dressing room, drawing her knees to her chest. She’s compacted herself into a dot. Trujillo and Smith are quiet. “Why did it go on for so long?” Fox asks softly, a little bewildered. “What happened?”

Trujillo and Smith walk Fox through the fight. They tell her she got frustrated by Jones’s lack of aggression and it muddied her technique. “You wanted a real fight, and she just wanted to survive,” Trujillo says, his manner softer now but still direct. I ask Fox if she heard “Dude Looks Like a Lady” before she went into the cage.

She flinches. “I did,” she says. There’s a tense pause. Fox takes a hard swallow. “That was cheap. I don’t—”

“It psyched you out,” Trujillo interjects, as though he’s been waiting to say it since the bell rang. “That’s what she wanted to do. And she succeeded. It fucked with your head.”

Fox does not disagree.

I pull Smith outside the room to talk privately. I ask if he noticed the crowd’s reaction. He did. What’s his reaction? I ask. “If she was crying, I would be crying, too, right now,” Smith says. “But she’s not.”

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