In the manner that high tides raise all ships, the meteoric ascension of mixed martial arts fighter Ronda Rousey has changed the professional combat landscape for many a professional female fighter. Now, when it comes down to quantifying exactly what it means to fight like a girl, the question isn’t who will watch but how high the final PayPerView numbers will be. In keeping with this change, more women are slowly emerging from behind the scenes as power brokers in Los Angeles’ tight-knit MMA and professional boxing communities. While their positions are just about as different as one could imagine, how they are changing the face of the sport is starting to make a real impact on the future of professional and amateur fighting.
MMA and Pro Boxing Fight Photographer
In the bombastic and violent world of mixed martial arts and the UFC, fight photographer Esther Lin is an unexpected alpha. When most summon a mental picture of one of the most respected photographers in the sport, a petite Asian woman isn’t necessarily what comes to mind. As for Lin, she stays objective on the subject: “I can’t tell if it’s that or also the combination of being a quiet Asian woman. I’ve always been like really, really afraid of being rude.” With 300-plus fights and nine years in the game, Lin struggles almost comically with her discomfort in publicly embracing her place in the sport. “It’s so hard for me to brag about my accomplishments,” states Lin, adding, “I never want to tell people I’m one of the top five photographers in this business.” But disrespect her and Lin comes out swinging. “Somebody said to me, ‘Oh you go this job because you’re a cute girl.’ And I’m like, no,” recounts Lin. "I’m the best.” With an ongoing contract with Showtime and her own SB Nation YouTube series, aptly named Focus, it would seem that those who count agree. While Lin enjoys her place as one of few with the power to visually shape the sport, being a woman in her position still has its alienating moments. “Donald Cerrone, a couple of weeks ago in a drunken rant said that Daniel Cormier fought like a fag. So we all called him out on it,” Lin says. However the victory turned bittersweet: “[Cerrone] apologized and he said, ‘OK, sorry. He fought like a bitch.’ And I was like, ‘OK, that’s not better.’” But for every loss — like Rousey's loss to Holly Holm — Lin sees a silver lining. “Ronda dominating that division made people feel like no other woman could fight.” says Lin. "[The loss] opened it up. It’s like no, no, no — there’s lots of amazing women fighters and they’re all really good; we just haven’t met them yet.”
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Professional Boxing Publicist/Manager
If Rachel Charles’ British accent and urbane demeanor make it seem like she’s too pristine to navigate what can be a wicked undertow when it comes to shepherding young talented fighters away from the slimy underside of the complicated world of professional boxing, she would likely suggest that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. One of Charles' formative memories is of a kindergarten teacher telling her mother that she was worthless: “‘She’s never going to amount to anything,’ the teacher at school told my mother because I was only one of a few black kids in the class at that time,” Charles recalls. “‘She needs to marry a rich guy.’ That’s what she told my mom — who the hell is this broad? I’ve looked for her. I can’t find her.” This experience, and Charles’ knee-jerk reaction to it make her job as top publicist/manager at Sheer Sports management a natural fit. “You get a do-over. You get to do it right,” says Charles of her drive when it comes to ensuring that her prospects — some as young as 15 years old — make it to the top of the sport unscathed and well paid. With a roster that includes current undefeated middleweight Jason Quigley, as well as promising featherweight Julian Ramirez, both of whom are signed with Golden Boy Promotions, Charles is very good at a job that hasn’t always been open to women. But as Charles’ deceased mentor, legendary boxing promoter Dan Goossen, always said, according to Charles: “‘I threw her into the ocean and she came back. I threw her out into the sharks and the sharks didn’t make it.”
Golden Gloves Champion, Boxing Trainer and Filmmaker
As a Golden Gloves champion who has made a career out of learning the hard way that the best way to achieve victory is often via your own unique path, filmmaker Jill Morley is dedicated to proving that fighting is a way many women and girls can find independence and self worth. “Kids don’t feel powerful for the most part. They have to answer to you,” Morely says, rehashing her own experience as a child who felt pressure from adults to prefer dolls over sports. Thankfully, these adults weren't her parents. “I was the only girl on the baseball team. I was always the only girl it seemed like. I think we can start young saying you don’t have to be the only girl,” Morley says. In her documentary film Fight Like a Girl, Morley chronicles her fraught quest to learn how to fight in top level amateur competition. She believes that simply being given the option to fight can be transformative when it comes to teaching girls that they are the masters of their own destinies. “Not every girl is going to want to box or fight or hit things,” admits Morley. Nevertheless for those that do, it can be life affirming: “when they feel this independence, there’s this physical feeling of release – which is why I think boxing is good as a healing tool.” With the rise of Ronda Rousey in the UFC, and Team USA boxer Claressa Shields winning gold in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, Morley thinks it’s about time that her concept is finally catching on in a big tangible way. “They told me no one wants to see women fight,” Morley says. "Now it’s becoming a thing and I knew it would be a thing. But I’m always just a little before the curve.”