When Girls Throw Punches in the Ring|Online Gallery



· 5月8日

In today's world, more and more girls walk into professional fighting gyms and practice combat sports.

BEIJING, May 7 (TMTPOST) -- Humans are essentially violent animals, and combat sports provide a rare vent to legally unleash violence in modern life. Traditionally "hard-core" combat sports have been "male-exclusive"—it was only when Zhang Weili won a UFC championship and Gu Hong and Li Qian won silver medals at the Tokyo Olympics did more and more people start to pay attention to female fighters.

In today's world, more and more girls walk into professional fighting gyms and practice combat sports. "There were hardly any female fighters before," says the manager of a fighting gym in Beijing. Founded in 2009, the gym opened up eight branches in Beijing over the past year, with trainees about ten times as before, mostly female.

In Online Gallery Vol. 120, we interviewed three female trainees who walked into the gyms for reasons such as stress at work and physical fitness, and eventually found genuine passion in the thrilling sports.

Throw punches to "relieve stress" from communicating with 30 flights simultaneously

Hands up, chin down. Punches and kicks are thrown rapidly against the heavy bags. The thumps echo in the gym. Jab, hook, swing, elbow, sweep... Following the coach's instructions, the trainees practice the combat moves again and again.

Wang Ziyu, 26, is a fanatic obsessed with these combat training sessions.

In 2018, Wang graduated from the Civil Aviation University of China and started her career at the Beijing Capital International Airport as an air traffic control specialist (ATCS) responsible for the orderly and expeditious flow of air traffic at Terminal 2 and Terminal 3.

Stationed on the highest floor in the control tower, she can see the whole airport and watch the sunrise and sunset through the panoramic windows.

Wang used to yearn for such a working environment, but she instantly and viscerally felt the heavy burden on her shoulder the moment she set foot in the civil aviation industry.

In her first year as an ATCS, the daily volume of flights at the Capital Airport ranged from 1,700 to 1,800—about 100 per hour and 20 to 30 per specialist.

"It was like communicating with 30 persons at the same time," Wang tells Online Gallery, "their names, positions, and destinations—I must memorize every detail, no room for any error."
Wang Ziyu at work in the control tower of the Beijing Capital International Airport

Wang Ziyu at work in the control tower of the Beijing Capital International Airport

In early 2019, Wang decided to have a go at the seemingly "stress-relieving" combat sports.

There are many combat sports: boxing, muay Thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Taekwondo, Sanda, kickboxing, mixed martial arts, etc.

After learning the basics, Wang chose to focus her training on muay Thai, a traditional martial art and combat sport that originated in Thailand. It is characterized by the combined use of fists, elbows, knees, and shins.

Each of Wang's group training sessions lasts for an hour, divided into three parts: warm-up, bag hitting, and a 1-on-1 target hitting drill with the coach.

"When you strike as hard as you can, all the frustration and stress are gone," says Wang.

Before practicing muay Thai, Wang tried skating and skiing, but these sports require some sort of equipment. "Only muay Thai requires nothing", says she, "it's a bodily art."

An ATCS gets two days off every two workdays. When off work, Wang always "indulges" herself in the gym—at least four training sessions a week.

"The ATCS profession can be remarkably stressful and mentally challenging. Getting into the ring where your opponent hits you relentlessly is also a test of your psychological quality," Wang tells Online Gallery.

At first, she often "lost composure" and "forgot all the moves", ending up being a human punching bag. Now, Wang's title "Valkyrie" is quite famous among the muay Thai practitioners in Beijing.
Wang Ziyu spars with her coach

Wang Ziyu spars with her coach

After the three-year probation, Wang started to independently direct air traffic last year. Her first independent conduct was on a snowy night. Massive delays were expected due to the extreme weather. Still, she responded quickly and secured the safe and smooth traffic of more than 30 planes simultaneously.

"Stay calm at all times and respond quickly," says Wang. It is one of the valuable lessons she learned from muay Thai.

From an art student to the "Blacklist Girl"

The 25-year-old Yang Xiaoxiao always stands out from the crowd. She stands 175 cm tall, above most girls. Wearing sports shorts and a black shirt with "黑名单" (blacklist) printed on it, she looks just like a professional athlete.

In her second year of practicing boxing, Yang beat the living daylights out of her opponents in every combat training session thanks to her excellent techniques and precise strikes. Some of Yang's fellow trainees secretly put her on a "blacklist"—they stopped people from sparring with her, dropped the session whenever she was present, or even left for another gym.

Later, Yang simply printed "blacklist" on her shirt. That was how she earned the title of "Blacklist Girl".
Yang Xiaoxiao in a boxing group training session

Yang Xiaoxiao in a boxing group training session

In fact, like many other girls, Yang tried combat sports in an attempt to lose weight and stay in shape. Yang admits that her current figure looks "overwhelming" to some people, but she's actually a soft, shy girl who loves green and pink stuff, bunnies, and plushies.

Ever since 2020, she has continued to train 3 to 5 times a week, 2 to 3 hours each time.

As her combat skills were improved, the initial "lose weight" goal became history. She holds herself to the highest of standards—"every move should look well-trained" and "genuine" are the minimum requirements. At the same time, Yang's obsession with "body shape" has disappeared. Her appearance has become diametrically opposed to that of an "art student".

"During my undergraduate studies, I weighed only 57 kg. I was tall and thin," Yang tells Online Gallery. She now weighs 66 kg, up almost 10 kg.

Yang is currently studying at the Renmin University of China as a second-year grad student majoring in applied psychology. Few people would guess that she once dreamed of an actress career and attended the Beijing Film Academy for her undergraduate studies.

Yang succeeded to pass the college entrance exams for art students and came close to fulfilling her dream, but she soon realized that the film industry is a cruel one. "The competition is way too fierce," Yang tells Online Gallery that due to looks and photogenic-ness, "the best role I could ever get was probably a supporting one."

During her sophomore year, most of her classmates joined a cast. Meanwhile, Yang made a choice uncommon among performing arts majors—to pursue graduate studies.

"When an approach doesn't go as I expect, I might take a change and find another approach that suits me more and provides me a better chance of success." After obtaining her bachelor's degree in 2019, she passed the graduate entrance exam.

More and more girls participate in combat sports, but Yang still suffered from a lot of cynical criticisms. Some of her relatives are worried that she can't find a boyfriend "because few men can beat her." They asked her to give up combat sports and get married soon.

Even her first coach, rather than encouraging her to further refine her skills, did not empathize with her, "what's the point of training so hard? It's not like you are going to become a professional boxer?" 

At first, Yang would try to explain, but she eventually came round. "Why should I care about what others think?"

Thus far, Yang participated in 4 amateur matches held by fighting gyms, with a record of 2 wins and 2 draws. For her, each match is a chance to learn more, test her skills, and most importantly, stand in the spotlight.

"Standing in the ring excites me. I enjoy the feeling when being surrounded by the spotlight. It disturbs me if I miss such a feeling for too long," says Yang. The short-lived actress career saddened her a great deal once. But she managed to find the light again in the ring.

A cancer survivor finds pure joy in combat sports

For the past six years, Pan Jie, 42, has been making a two-hour round trip from Haidian District to a fighting gym in Chaoyang District six days a week. She practices muay Thai, boxing, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu simultaneously.

When most women at her age worry about promotion, pay raises, and children's education, Pan lives an "untrammeled" life thanks to being single and her flexible working hours at a publishing company. "My life is simply between home, work, and the gym."
Pan Jie practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu with a partner

Pan Jie practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu with a partner

A dozen years back, Pan never imagined that "throwing punches" would take up most of her life. Like many young "Beijing drifters", Pan, in her twenties back then, had her whole heart set on making money and taking root in Beijing. She started out as an accountant and opened a photo studio and a restaurant later. Those days, as Pan puts it, were "very stressful" and "vexatious".

She did earn enough money—at the cost of her health. In 2008, Pan was diagnosed with cancer. After undergoing chemotherapy, radiotherapy, complete hair loss, and months of suffering, she began to look at her life from a different perspective. After recovery in the next year, she set off for Tibet, a place she had always wanted to visit.

She no more saved up money. Instead, she traveled around the world and tried things she had never tried before. After the near-death experience, her physical state was at the worst stage. She began to worry, "who's going to look after my parents if I fail to escape the jaws of death again?"

In 2010, she started to do physical exercise. Fond of the beautiful natural scenery, she took up hiking and trail running. A few years later, her knees couldn't take it anymore. Her exercise plans came to a hold.

In 2016, Pan took her first boxing class in a fitness club. "15 minutes in, I was about to throw up," recalls Pan. She signed up for a membership immediately after the trial class. In the fitness club, Pan practiced boxing for three years.

The boxing training significantly improved Pan's physical state. In 2017, Pan underwent surgery on her uterus. For six months after the surgery, she suffered "menopausal symptoms": feeble, irritable, and excessive cold sweating. The doctor advised her to stop working for six months.

In merely a month, Pan grew tired of resting at home and resume her training. At first, she was so weakened that she "couldn't even do five push-ups". Pan could only attend half a class each time. A month later, she found that almost all the "symptoms" disappeared—she could throw punches again as ferociously as before.

"Boxing has improved my health and, most importantly, makes me feel very happy," Pan tells Online Gallery.

In 2019, Pan joined a professional fighting gym. For the convenience of training, Pan has always kept her hair short. She even had myopia correction surgery so that she could get rid of the glasses.

Jab, hook, swing, kick... These combat moves, combined with catchy music, are arranged into a "bodycombat workout". Fitness gym chains such as SUPERMONKEY and Keep provide similar "bodycombat workout" classes. It has become one of the most popular exercise choices among white-collar workers. It also introduces combat sports to many females.

However, for "hard-core" practitioners, the most intrinsic and essential part of combat sports comes from its "competitiveness"—the actual combat. It is also why so many practitioners switch from fitness clubs to professional fighting gyms.

Facing an opponent that looks just like you, rather than a heavy punching bag, is when the true fun of "combat" kicks in. Combat sports are more than an instrument for venting. How to apply the skills you learned to actual combat is the first subject to be boned up on.

"Different combat sports can be dramatically different in terms of techniques and style," the manager of a fighting gym in Beijing tells Online Gallery.

In muay Thai, you "rarely dodge". Instead, you take the attack "head-on" with your body. Muay Thai moves may look slow and simple, but "each move may knock you out". Focusing on steps, boxing is more fast-paced, and boxers only attack the upper body.
Pan Jie practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu with a partner

Pan Jie practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu with a partner

In 2021, Pan started to practice Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a combat sport entirely different from boxing and muay Thai.

"Rather than standing during the combat, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a martial art based on ground fighting," Pan explains that Brazilian jiu-jitsu focuses on the skill of taking an opponent to the ground, gaining a dominant position, and forcing the opponent into submission via joint locks, chokeholds, etc.

Because of the high difficulty threshold and the need to practice with a partner, most Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners are true "fighters" who have more than six months of training experience.

"It has a high threshold, but it becomes addictive once you get the hang of it," Pan tells Online Gallery. "The sense of achievement is off the charts when you perform the moves splendidly and force your opponent into submission."

Pan has few plans for the future. She prefers "taking one day at a time". After dealing with illness for more than a decade, she has become more concerned about the present, for "you never know whether it is tomorrow or the accident that comes first". But as long as she still breathes, she will keep fighting until the last breath.

(The article is translated and edited with authorization from the author @韦嘎, please note source and hyperlink when reproduce. The original article can be found here.)

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