Should transgender fighter Fallon Fox be permitted to compete as a woman? Michael Kane and Justin Cascio respond.
Michael Kane writes: It is fair to ask whether transgender fighters could pose a risk to safety.
A couple of weeks ago, a mini-controversy erupted on Twitter as popular podcaster, stand-up comedian and Ultimate Fighting Championships color commentator Joe Rogan said on his “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast that post-operative transgendered fighters should not be permitted to fight women who are born as women and was critical of transgendered fighter Fallon Fox’s contests against women who were born as such.
The controversy was revived earlier this week when UFC heavyweight fighter Matt Mitrione appeared on Ariel Helwani’s program “The MMA Hour.” During the interview, he was permitted to comment on issues of the day. Mitrione went on to call Fox a “tranny,” “a man” and a “lying, sick, sociopathic, disgusting freak … because you lied on your license to fight women.” He was suspended for these comments by the UFC shortly thereafter.
In the spirit of disclosure, I am a big fan of MMA and Joe Rogan’s comedy and podcast, as well as a fan of David Lee Roth, with whom Rogan was engaged in conversation at the time. Values were in conflict and priorities were disputed, and the online response transformed into a free-for-all in which people planted flags for the value they viewed as most important, and criticized others for not sharing those prioritized values. With distance from Rogan’s original comments, it becomes clearer that things that are not politically correct or sensitive do not always come from a place of hate, even if accompanied by degrees of ignorance.
Some would say that Rogan referring to a post-operative transgender fighter as a “man without a dick” was offensive. I can see that. However, I would be more charitable, as the rest of the conversation made clear that he had no animus towards transgendered people. Rogan, however bluntly, set forth honestly what he saw as the core of the debate—is a post-operative woman sufficiently female in the characteristics relevant to a fair fight to safely and fairly engage all other qualified females? He voted no, and argued his point in detail.
Having announced and watched thousands of fights, Rogan put fighter safety as his core priority. Mitrione, in his interview with Helwani, also voted no, and was clearly upset by what he saw as a “chromosomal man” using a “gender change” to fight women. Whether his anger at these fights between Fox and women born as such is justified is a topic for another day. However, his expression of that anger was boorish, and his comments were not qualified with quite the same respect as Rogan’s were.
Whatever one thought of his presentation of his point, Rogan’s top value is at the heart of why jurisdictions have legal, regulated fights in the first place. The very sanctioning of boxing and mixed martial arts is a challenge to the idea that two consenting adults should set the parameters of their own contest. It is an acknowledgment that fighting—be it boxing or MMA—is different from other athletic competition and ought not to be governed solely by what the market will bear.
In the case of sanctioned fights, no great mismatches in talent, ability or performance can be permitted, however sincere the interest of the combatants. Without this sanction, the fight would be neither ethical nor considered legal in a jurisdiction that regulated prizefights. It would in fact be a criminal activity. Sanctioning mismatches—even if consensual and seeming like a way to fight discrimination—is to undermine that legitimacy entirely. It is exploitation.
Also, please keep in mind that MMA is still in its early stages in America. Most MMA fights aren’t promoted by Dana White, booked by Joe Silva and backed with mega paydays. Strikeforce did an admirable job bringing women’s MMA—with excellent contests between elite athletes—to national attention. There is a lot of promise there. After Strikeforce was acquired by Zuffa (the owners of the UFC), women’s champion and former Olympian Ronda Rousey became a superstar and a UFC champion. Other women will follow this path. Forgive my bias, but I think MMA has a chance to be the biggest sport on the globe. I’m not kidding.
My concern is for the less talented fighter who by financial necessity must fight on a poorly-promoted sub-regional card against a less completely transitioned fighter for a couple hundred bucks at a bingo hall. Our smug, distant satisfaction at “equality” does not temper or limit that exploitation. That is not a prize fight; that is violence.
As the duties of a governing body are to protect the safety of the participants and ensure the legitimacy of the contest, the burden of proof must be on the fighters to establish that they are not bringing exogenous advantages to bear. This goes for women and men who introduce exogenous testosterone or other substances to their bodies.
In this situation, the advantages are endogenous to the person, however they are exogenous to that person’s feminine classification. For example, if you were a 6’2″ man with a square jaw and 10″ hands prior to surgical transition, you will likely retain much of these dimensional characteristics, even as you gain body fat and lose muscle and some bone density while complying with your hormonal transition regimen. These remaining design advantages are at the core of Rogan’s argument, and he is correct here. You will retain leverage. As Rogan pointed out, you will retain larger joints and turning radii, allowing for more powerful punches and kicks. You will identify as a woman. All decent people and governments will rightly treat you as a woman for nearly all intents and purposes. However, fighting is potentially deadly and requires special pause to ensure true fairness. Even a desk jockey like me knows this much.
If there is to be crossover, we should identify metrics that enable us to establish fair fights. Until those metrics exist, too open a rule clears the way for the possibility that two financially needy folks could enter into a grave mismatch, legitimized solely by the weak markers of weight and personal identification. As gravity and force do not care, we must. Let us have enormous respect and love for our transgendered brothers and sisters, but acknowledge self-identification, surgical change and hormones as transition, not immediate transubstantiation. I am not saying to permanently exclude post-operative transsexual women from the women’s division. However, until a clear set of metrics and standards exists to determine which carried-over characteristics are out of bounds, such fights should not be sanctioned. Joe Rogan’s concerns may seem insensitive to some, but they are the right ones to have.
Justin Cascio responds to Michael Kane:
Excluding Trans Fighters Is Discriminatory
Michael Kane’s basic premise is that all trans women (trans men have not been considered in this argument) will have endemic advantages in sport: that there are naturally tall, powerful trans women, but that there are not naturally tall, powerful cisgender women. (“Cisgender is the accepted term for people who are not transgender.) Of course, this is incorrect.
He’s right that the sport needs to regulate, and that perhaps there is a need for more regulation beyond weight classes and genders. But to lay all this burden on trans athletes is missing two points: that variation among men or among women is greater than the mean difference between the two genders, and that in order to grant full rights to trans people, you can’t exclude them from competition with their peers in sport.
If you don’t think this makes sense, what if you substituted Black athletes for trans women? Both are stereotyped as hypermasculine. Is it fair to put a Black MMA fighter up against an Asian or White fighter in the same gender and weight class? Don’t Black fighters have “endemic” advantages—more muscular, faster, bigger bones, etc.? Now I sound like a Nazi, right? The truth is that while there may be some differences, measurable ones, on average, we’re still talking about individuals. Remember the piece on G-Money? He’s always going to be at some disadvantages, but we allow him to fight, because to exclude him is wrong. Each fighter chooses to enter, and the sport regulates their competition. To do otherwise is criminal. To discriminate against fighters for their status of age, handicap, religion, nation of origin, or transgender status, is also unjust.
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