Charting New Frontiers
A Muslim girl and mixed martial arts (MMA) may seem a problematic pairing to some. But Ann “Athena” Osman, the first top-tier Muslim female MMA fighter, relishes breaking stereotypes and proving critics wrong. Top 10 Lifestyle reveals what makes this gutsy Sabahan ‘warrior’ tick.
Being a Muslim female in a violent, male-dominated sport such as mixed martial arts seems a problematic proposition — Kota Kinabalu-born and bred Ann Osman is no stranger to frowning eyes laced by gender bias. When her pre-fight weigh-in photos make the rounds on social media, for example, sexually-loaded comments are inevitable, a product of gender bias and women not being taken seriously in such a rough sport.
But Ann, also called Athena in fights, is undeterred. In fact the comments only drive her to work harder and prove her critics wrong. “It is an honour for me to be able to change perception on gender biases in a male-dominated sport such as MMA,” says Ann, whose affair with the sport was accidental.
While Ann originally signed up for Muay Thai classes to learn self-defence, her coach AJ Pyro – himself an MMA fighter – later introduced her to MMA. Ann, whose interests lean towards outdoor activities such as river-rafting, was immediately hooked.
“I am a person who gets bored easily but with MMA, I get to learn various martial arts disciplines and it is very interesting because there are so many things to learn,” says Ann, who turned out to be a natural at the sport. “When ONE Championship’s offer came, I knew that I had to take it because I wanted to challenge myself and really see how far I can go professionally in MMA.”
The 29-year-old has made her debut in ONE Championship, the biggest MMA promotion in Asia, in October 2013 and immediately gained a following by showing steely determination to rally back despite being kneed in the mid-section nearly 30 times. While she lost that fight to Singaporean Sherilyn Lim, Ann bounced back with her first win the following August against Ana Julaton, the first female world boxing champion, in Dubai.
“Being in the cage for the first time was a memorable experience for me,” says Ann, adding that the loss prepared her for what she felt was her biggest win yet against Julaton. “I learned so much from my first fight and so it meant so much to me when I won ONE Championship fight against Ana Julaton.”
Ann says her dedication to the sport is an ongoing commitment, spending hours daily to train when not fighting. Between running her tourism business Borneo Paddlers, which organises river rafting tours, and spending time with family and friends, Ann trains for two hours in the morning before work and puts in another three hours in the gym in evenings.
And her training does not always take place at the gym. “Depending on my coach, we train at different places – stadium, beach or gym,” says Ann, who even trained at the foot of Mount Kinabalu earlier on in the year. Ann acknowledges that with such a commitment, managing time is vital and she has learned to prioritise her time as best as possible. “For example, if I have an upcoming fight, more time would be allocated for training,” says Ann. “It can get overwhelming sometimes, but I will try to give myself a break and take a moment for myself to think and plan.”
In Ann’s favour is a supportive circle of family and friends, who stands by her side whenever she faces challenges. According to the Sabah lass, this support keeps her fighting even when she feels like giving up at times. And the chief supporter is her mother, whom she says is supportive of whatever she does.
“I have different role model or mentors for different things,” says Ann, adding that her mother is her biggest inspiration in life. “In MMA, I have the biggest respect for my coach, AJ Pyro, who spared no effort in training me and I am where I am today because of these great people in my life.”Ann has no regrets and there is nothing that she wished to have been done differently. Calling the exposure she got through ONE Championship “humbling”, Ann reveals that meeting people from all walks of life through her career had been a great experience. “Of course, I will continue to work harder and fight tougher opponents.”
Looking ahead, Ann simply wants to do her best in the cage and outside of it. MMA gym owners are already saying Ann has inspired a growing female following. “I hope to continue growing myself in the sport and I want to inspire more girls regardless of religion to do what they want to do regardless of stereotypes, whether it is MMA or any other activities.”