Sunday, April 21, 2013


Note: The issue of transsexual athletes in the combat sports is still being debated, especially among their most backwards sector, North American MMA circles. This controversy has been covered in depth on No Holds Barred, with recent interviews with transsexual athletes Fallon Fox, Alaina Hardie, Ryka Aoki, and Donna Rose, as well as a commentary supporting Fallon Fox's right to fight in women's MMA.

But this issue is neither new for combat sports nor for my coverage of them. Back in 2005, for the now-defunct and dearly departed site, I reviewed the movie "Beautiful Boxer", about transsexual muay Thai fighter Parinya Charoenphol, also known as Nong Toom. Since that site has totally closed down, I actually had to use the Internet Archive to retrieve it, here.

And since that time, the entire film "Beautiful Boxer" has been uploaded on YouTube, at

Take the time to watch it, and you will feel rewarded.

Below is the text of the original article I wrote in 2005 on the film "Beautiful Boxer", minus the links at the end to sites about the movie since they seem outdated as well. Just remember that it was originally written for the audience of what was then a major boxing web site, and that the article also received praise and appreciation from those involved in that site.

by Eddie Goldman (March 6, 2005)

The fight game is once again emerging as the undisputed champion of cinematic drama. The Clint Eastwood film "Million Dollar Baby" made a big haul at the 2005 Academy Awards, winning four Oscars. The highly-acclaimed documentary "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story" will debut on the USA Network on Wed., April 20, after a run at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Another boxing movie called "Black Cloud" is set for its national debut on March 11.

And now from Thailand comes "Beautiful Boxer," a very different kind of story about a different kind of fighting and a different kind of fighter.

If you are expecting "Raging Bull," "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (my personal favorite), "Rocky," or any other of the traditional boxing films, this one is something quite different.

"Beautiful Boxer" is a dramatization of the story of Thai kickboxer Parinya Charoenphol, also affectionately known as Nong Toom. Thai boxing, or muay Thai as it is known internationally, is a brutal form of kickboxing that combines punches, kicks, elbows, fighting while clinching, and even some throws to the mat. And that's just the legal stuff. "Beautiful Boxer" is partially subtitled in English with most of the dialogue in Thai and some in English as well. Once you get past all that, you will find a very human story that will be hard to forget.

The reason is that Parinya Charoenphol, or Nong Toom, was a champion Thai boxer, and a transvestite who eventually had surgery to become a woman.

The film starts with the telling of Nong Toom's life story through flashbacks. Nong Toom is played by Asanee Suwan, himself a champion muay Thai fighter.

As a young boy Nong Toom was brought up to face a very hard life with dirt poor parents. Yet even then he was attracted to girls' clothing.

In an array of seeming contradictions, at least to prevailing stereotypes about gender, he ends up going to a fighting camp to learn muay Thai, and does very well. As his career develops, he starts to fight competitively and win almost all of his fights. An exception is a hometown decision given to a fighter whom he sliced and diced in the ring. Yes, corruption in boxing knows no bounds either of country or style of fighting.

While building a reputation as a top fighter in this brutal combat sport, he also remains gentle on the inside. This film is filled with his strikingly sensitive and haunting observations, with statements made in an increasingly feminine-sounding voice like, "I don't like to hurt strangers. But in the ring you have no choice." If you don't react to these types of statements, and the way they are delivered in this film, then you have a smaller heart than the tin man in "The Wizard of Oz."

Soon it is made clear that Nong Toom's main motivation for fighting as a professional is to earn enough money to pay for what is clinically known as sexual reassignment surgery, or more popularly as a sex change operation.

By this time Nong Toom is taking female hormones and openly appearing at his fights as a transvestite. He comes into the ring wearing women's makeup. This only adds drama to the matches, and many regard this, incorrectly, as simply a gimmick to add heat to the matches.

In the film, the underlying contrast of his success at this seemingly male and brutal style of fighting and his increasingly female appearance and psyche is highlighted, all the while decking and staggering preconceived notions about the nature of masculinity, femininity, and gender as effectively as Nong Toom's punches and kicks are stopping his opponents in the ring.

Eventually Nong Toom's success earns him a fight in Bangkok's famed Lumpinee Stadium, the Madison Square Garden of muay Thai. Despite his growing success as a fighter, he never loses sight of his main goal: To earn enough money for a sex change operation.

Nong Toom continues to take female hormones as part of that transition, while also continuing to fight. Yet the female hormones begin to transform his body and sap his muscle power. Now, as he is growing breasts and has to wear a bra into the ring, he starts losing fights to male opponents.

Women are banned from this style of fighting in Thailand. Even before his surgery, Nong Toom is shown the door from the muay Thai ring.

Yet he still needs cash for his surgery. So he goes to Japan in 1988 to participate in what is essentially a freak show match to face female pro wrestler Kyoko Inoue in the Tokyo Dome. The movie portrays their encounter as a real fight involving mixed styles. In the film, Kyoko Inoue plays herself, and performs various moves from the fake pro wrestling that are not known to work in real fights. In both the film and in the real fight, however, Nong Toom wins by a TKO as Inoue is cut and bleeding from his many blows. According to Tadashi Tanaka of Japan and Dave Meltzer of the U.S., both expert journalists in pro wrestling and the mixed martial arts, this was indeed a real fight and not a fake or staged one, even if it was very strange.

A key scene in the film takes place after this fight. A cute female groupie camps out by Nong Toom's hotel room awaiting him. When he arrives, she tells him that she believes that all this transvestite stuff is merely a gimmick, like some fictional pro wrestling persona. In his room she begins to disrobe and throw herself at him. He tries to be polite, but looks distraught and is obviously not sexually interested in her. At no time in the film do we see Nong Toom having sex or expressing sexual interest in anyone, male or female, but this scene touchingly makes clear that the direction he is heading in is as real as real can be.

Eventually Nong Toom has the sex change operation and becomes a woman. The real Parinya Charoenphol, who is now a successful model and actress in Thailand, makes a cameo appearance as a makeup artist in the film, as a sort of a visual endorsement of the authenticity of this dramatization.

In the U.S., "Beautiful Boxer" has made the rounds at some gay film festivals as well as some independent movie theaters. The fact that it is not an easy movie to pigeonhole, as a gay movie or a martial arts movie or what, led a reviewer in the Village Voice to complain that "some fences just can't be painlessly straddled."

Yet "Beautiful Boxer" is beautiful precisely because of its universality. It transcends all those social barriers that segregate transgender people from everyone else. Nong Toom could be the kid next door, or the fighter on the card you just watched, or anyone else. And that is precisely its point, that it is as natural for transgender people to be who they are as is the grass that grows underneath all our feet.

You will undoubtedly root for Nong Toom as you watch this film. Hopefully it will instruct you, if you didn't already realize it, that the issue of gender needs to be approached with reason, science, logic, history, and compassion, and not superstition, fear, ignorance, prejudice, and hatred.

Do you want a parallel? Look at how Black people were characterized just a century ago, as documented in "Unforgivable Blackness." Race and gender, of course, have very different histories and natures. For one thing, we know that race is not even a scientific category. For another, slavery, apartheid, segregation, and racial discrimination have a different social significance and history from gender discrimination. But the ideological prejudices are similar. The justifications of the persecution and oppression of all these groups use similar religious fundamentalist texts, which support the buying and selling of slaves, and the suppression of anything other than heterosexual relations.

This beautiful movie, "Beautiful Boxer," begins to break down these barriers with this dramatization of this real-life story. It is but one of countless real-life stories which demonstrate that the path taken by Nong Toom is not some "lifestyle," and not a mere "choice," but as natural as the sun that shines above us all.

Only the most heartless, the most prejudiced and bigoted, and the most empty- headed religious fanatics will fail to empathize with the very human dilemma which faced Nong Toom. And only the densest and most closed minds will fail to notice the contradiction between Nong Toom's brutal profession and his gentle and pacific nature.

It will indeed be a shame if this movie gets labeled as simply a gay movie. It is a movie for everyone -- everyone that is compassionate and open-minded, that is. Bigots can stay home and hate themselves as well as everyone else.

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