Women have a rich and storied history in fighting sports. In She’s a Knockout!: A History of Women in Fighting Sports, L.A. Jennings chronicles the stories of these strong and resilient women, including wrestlers, mixed martial arts competitors, and boxers, and the different issues they have encountered.
As far back as the eighteenth century, female fighters battled at varying levels, from county fairs to elite events. With new opportunities to compete in legitimate arenas – from the Olympics and the Golden Gloves to wrestling tournaments and Ultimate Fighting Championships – women are now able to fight in ways their predecessors never could. And though women today still often face the same derision their predecessors faced, their fortitude and determination has earned them respect from much of the fighting community.
Jennings’ book places these women’s stories in the culture of their time, revealing how women were often seen as objects of spectacle and ridicule before they finally achieved admiration in the fighting world. The women featured in this book include England’s Championess Elizabeth Stokes of the 1720s, American wrestler Cora Livingstone in the 1930s, and early MMA great Debi Purcell in the 2000s.
Jennings, a writer, scholar, and former fighter, is co-owner and coach at Train.Fight.Win. in Denver.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
My dual interests in academia and fighting sports emerged during my sophomore year of college. For many years, I wanted to train martial arts, but I was not very confident about doing so until, I admit with a bit of embarrassment, I saw the movie Kill Bill. The next day, I went to a local Chinese Martial Arts gym and started training, which eventually led to my introduction to fighting sports. My academic career truly began in earnest after several semesters of bouncing between majors and feeling miserable, when my parents asked me, “in an ideal world, what would you do for a living?” and I answered, “read.” I signed up for my first English course as a college sophomore and fell in love with literature in a new way.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I loved the physicality of fighting and, in the same way that I loved exploring literary and cultural theory, I loved learning something new.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
As a fighter, I trained with as many other fighters and coaches at my gym as I could, learning Greco-Roman wrestling, American kickboxing, Muay Thai, Chinese kickboxing, catch-wrestling and other martial arts styles. As an academic, I took a wide range of courses, finally settling on an interest in American and Cultural Studies.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I was consistently humbled by the experienced fighters around me, but encouraged by many to continue to train and compete. Many people did (and still do) find it odd that I would want to get hit in the face or choked by someone, but I have learned to ignore detractors.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I always knew my fighting experience would be short-lived competitively, but long-term in practice. As an academic, however, I constantly questioned the reality of a career in academia, but I loved my field so much, I was willing to face the realities of a dismal job market.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
For many years, my dream was to be a professor at a major university. However, as I built my MMA gym in Denver, finished my coursework in my doctoral program, and began writing my dissertation, I realized that writing could be a better course for my particular set of skills. Academia is in a difficult place right now, as the opportunities for those who are not tenured are almost exclusively in adjunct positions. I began writing articles about women in MMA using my experience as a fighter and coach in tandem with my academic training in theory and feminism. When Rowman and Littlefield Publishers contacted me and asked me to write a book on the history of female fighters, I saw my career path shift and point to a direction that would encompass my two loves of academia and fighting sports.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
The fighting world, while much more egalitarian and welcoming than when I first started ten years ago, continues to be conceptualized as a male-dominated arena. At an old gym, a certain UFC fighter came to do a seminar, and when I walked in, he made some very sexual comments about me, the only female in the room. Many of the men he spoke with were my coaches and training partners, and none of them stood up for me. It was humiliating, although not, unfortunate, an isolated incident. I think the most significant challenge for me was to find a group of people and a space where I could train without fear, learn without barriers and compete without extraordinary comment. Train.Fight.Win., the gym that I now own in Denver, Colorado, with my husband, Mike, is dedicated to making all of our members, male or female, fighters or fitness practitioners, feel welcome and wanted.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
In academia, we identify some of the underlying myths and social constructions that dominant our cultural discourse. And as a professor, I have experience working with students and discussing some theoretical concepts that may be difficult or confusing. My pedagogical experience has helped me as a coach and as a business owner. My husband and I wanted our gym to be an open and welcoming space, so we worked to foster an environment bereft of the typical machismo that is associated with MMA. Our gym culture is informed by my pedagogical training, which not only provided me with teaching methodologies; it also allowed us to create an environment that is suffused with feminism and the desire for everyone, men and women, to be taken seriously.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Publishing my book, She’s a Knockout! a History of Women in Fighting Sports. This book is the culmination of my dual careers as a coach/former fighter and an academic.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
There are always opportunities to find your particular niche, whether that be in the corporate, academic, or fighting worlds! Look for people with similar interests and work to establish how you will leave your own particular mark on your field.