Tara Wolf first contacted me after having a bad experience at a gym in Phuket.
She’d paid for a month of training and accommodation, but after being sexually assaulted by the head trainer on the second day, she reached out to me for advice. “He came into my room and assaulted me under the pretence of giving me a massage”, she said. “I spoke to the gym manager about it, but he just played it off as something that’s normal in Muay Thai”. In the end, the only consequence for the trainer was that he didn’t train with her anymore. “I saw him try it on with other women in the gym after me, but I warned them off him”, she said.
After a while of chatting on the phone, Tara mentioned that she was trans. I asked her if she’d ever heard of Nong Toom or her movie Beautiful Boxer, and she hadn’t, although she’d vaguely heard that Thailand has one or two famous transgender fighters. Having met Nong Toom a handful of times, I offered to put her in contact with her, and explained that she had her own gym just outside of Bangkok. Less than two weeks later, Tara had moved across the country to train at Nong Toom Muay Thai Gym.
On her very first day, Tara asked Nong Toom to get her a fight. “I wanted to fight so soon because I’m impatient”, she later told me. “I know you learn quickly by jumping in at the deep end, so that’s what I wanted to do”. She certainly was, as she’d only started martial arts training 6 months prior at an MMA gym in London. Her trip to Thailand was her first experience of training full Muay Thai, and just a few weeks after landing, she would fight with Nong Toom in her corner.
Her only previous fight experience was one interclub at home in the UK, in which she fought a cis woman. In Thailand, trans women fight men. “I was intimidated by the thought of fighting a man, but I thought I could do it”, she said. Her opponent was described as having a few fights when he was younger, but having been out of the game for a couple of years. She was told that he’d come back to training for a week to prepare for their bout at Ram100 Boxing Stadium in Bangkok. They both weighed in on the night of the fight, with Tara weighing 62 kg and her opponent 58 kg. I went to support and to finally meet her in person. It was wonderful to see her in the hands of Nong Toom, who was carefully applying Vaseline to her face when I arrived. I watched Tara prepare to get in the ring, knowing that she would never have been able to have this experience in Phuket.
Reviewing the fight with me in a cafe a few days later, Tara said she knew she wasn’t going to win from the first round, but refused to give up. Nong Toom had removed her mouthguard for the second round, explaining that she saw that Tara was tired and wanted her to be able to breathe more easily. However, after a barrage of blows, the referee stopped the fight. “I’ve never taken kicks like that before”, Tara smiled as she clutched her forearm, which was bandaged and swollen by this point. A week later, an x-ray would reveal that it had been broken.
She took the loss in good humour, posting the fight video online with the caption ‘Tara gets slaughtered by a cis man’. Both her opponent and the promoter apologised profusely after the fight, but Nong Toom assured them that there was no need. Tara was happy to have had the experience, regardless of the result. Her only concern was that she might have disappointed her trainer, but that’s a common feeling for fighters. She’s determined to come back stronger next time.
Going up against a male opponent wasn’t the only issue that Tara faced as a trans fighter, and hormones produced an unexpected roadblock. She says that Nong Toom advised her to stop taking them around a week before the fight in order to feel stronger. Unfortunately, she had the opposite experience. Instead, she felt that all her energy had been sapped. On top of that, she described experiencing dissociation two days before the fight and being unable to focus. “I just wasn’t really there”, she said.
When asked about the controversy surrounding trans athletes, Tara laughs. “It was quite routine for Rhonda Rousey to break people’s arms with her armbars”, she shrugs. “But when Fallon Fox cracked an opponent’s skull, that was a huge issue. No one cared when Fallon was an amateur or if she lost, it was only after she became pro that it was controversial”. After leaving Phuket and connecting with Nong Toom, Tara reached out to Fallon, who in turn contacted me to ask her if I could put her in touch with Nong Toom, too. “She’s been a hero of mine since before I started martial arts”, she said. “There’s a lot I’d like to say to her”. Of course, I was happy to do so, and the two have since chatted online.
When asked how she feels about having to fight men, Tara says “I do think it’s unfair, but if I have to do it, I might as well use it to my advantage and get noticed”. She also adds that she’s doubtful she’ll ever be able to go pro, at least in the UK. Instead, she plans to “have an amateur career fighting women in the UK and then fight men in Thailand”. She explains that trans women can get sanctioned fights against cis women in the UK with certain associations. That includes the British Kickboxing Council, which told her that it follows the IOC guidelines, requiring athletes to have had testosterone levels under 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to competition.
Tara returned to the UK shortly after her fight, but doesn’t plan to stay there for long. She doesn’t exactly feel tied down there. She’s been squatting in London on-and-off since she was 20, having first travelled there from Bristol to join an Occupy London protest, and staying to join the resistance. She describes being enamoured by the scene, taking part in activism against fascism, and inviting local homeless people to stay in empty buildings around the city. “We were evicted every two weeks by the police”, she said. One protest she joined at Hyde Park in 2017 turned her life upside down. After a physical altercation with a 60-year-old ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’ who was filming her and other protesters, Tara was taken to court and charged with assault. She was vilified by the media as a ‘trans-identified male’, a ‘granny basher’ and a ‘violent misogynist’. The trial and media coverage sparked a wave of transphobic harassment, and she cites this as the cause of her subsequent drug addiction. “They tried to ruin my life, and in trying to cope with it all, I developed a speed problem”, she said.
It was martial arts that helped Tara to kick the habit. “I realised that I needed to get off the drugs, but I was still relapsing. I started training Krav Maga, quickly realised that was bullshit, and moved to MMA. I started training Monday to Friday and spending my entire evenings at the gym, and I loved the adrenaline of sparring. After that, I didn’t need drugs anymore; I was getting the hit I needed from somewhere else”.
At home, Tara’s Muay Thai training consisted of two sessions a week at her MMA gym. Now, she feels that she’s much better suited to Muay Thai – partly because she’s autistic. “I’ve been institutionalised all my life. I was diagnosed at 10, and went to a special school for kids with disabilities”, she said. In her training, she finds it difficult to get her head around certain aspects of MMA. “My dyslexic brain gets confused by the technicalities of grappling. Even in Muay Thai, I sometimes mix up which hand I should be throwing when I kick, or which part of my body should do what”, she says. She says striking is much easier for her to process.
Having had her first real taste of Muay Thai at 28, Tara is currently planning a trip back to Thailand to do it all again. She intends to train with Nong Toom again, too. “One thing I noticed about Nong Toom’s Gym is that everyone is lifting each other up and complimenting each other on their improvements”, she smiled. “I wonder if that’s because the gym is mostly women”.