Ann Osman looks un-impressed as she glances at photographs of her prefight weigh-in on social-media sites. This isn’t because her opponent, Aya Saeid Saber, tried to provoke her before their mixed-martial-arts (MMA) fight, which will take place the following day, but because Osman’s smartphone is showing her just how many people have already made sexually loaded comments about photos of the weigh-in.
“That doesn’t happen to guys,” says Osman, 28, between bites of sushi on the eve of her Oct. 17 bout in Kuala Lumpur. “But then again, I just ignore them.”
As the first female Muslim MMA fighter to compete at the top level of the rapidly growing, albeit sometimes very violent sport, Osman has already had to knock down as many stereotypes as opponents since her professional debut late last year. Along the way she has been very publicly showing that Muslim women in Malaysia do not have to be docile in a country where conservative, religious norms often force women into traditional roles and where religious figures hold increasing sway over society.
Osman says there is nothing un-Islamic about her fighting career. “We don’t believe religion should stop us. Islam teaches us to work hard,” says Osman, who is signed with Asia’s dominant MMA promoter, ONE Fighting Championship (ONE FC). “I may not be the perfect Muslim woman, but I hope to inspire others.”
Male fighters have largely dominated the sport since the first major MMA event was held in Denver, Colorado, in 1993. However, an influx of female fighters in recent years, notably in Japan and the U.S., has carved out an increasingly prominent place for women in the sport.
Some of the biggest stars in the sport in the U.S. are now women and in Japan, an all-female promotion was formed over a decade ago. But elsewhere, women’s MMA is only just beginning to emerge from its early stage of development. Osman participated in ONE FC’s second female bout in late 2013, when only a handful of women had signed with the company. Twelve months later, there are 15 women on contract.
Osman’s willingness to confront challengers in the wire cage where the fights take place is inspiring more women to slip on MMA gloves. In the process of learning to defend themselves in training, many of those women are gaining confidence outside the gym. “I had one supporter who said she was in an abusive relationship and seeing me being strong and learning martial arts kind of inspired her to learn self-defense,” says Osman, adding that the fan is now out of the relationship and still training hard.
Lim Yeow Chet, who runs an MMA gym in Malaysia’s capital, says he had no female clients one year ago. Now he coaches more than 30 women, including some Muslims—and it’s all because of Osman. “They say, ‘I want to be like her,’” Lim explains. “She’s actually opening up the horizon for women in Malaysia and Asia.”
Osman’s rise to prominence in the sport hasn’t come easily, though; her record since she turned professional is two wins and one loss. During her first contest she rallied from behind after taking nearly 30 knees to the mid-section in the opening round. She lost the fight on a split decision, but her dogged resolve made her a fan favorite. “She’s proud. She’s confident. She portrays what women should be like—someone who can protect themselves,” says fan Nadia Nasir, 26, who watched Osman’s bruising first-round victory over Saber, an Egyptian Muslim, last month at the Stadium Putra, along with 10,000 other fight fans.
Before dispensing with Saber, Osman says she prepared mentally for the win weeks in advance. During her commute to and from the gym and before going to sleep, Osman would listen to her walkout song, while visualizing the pace of the bout in her head. The key to winning, she explains, begins with believing in yourself. “[It’s about] having that right mentality and saying this cage is mine and I’m going to bring home the win,” she says.
Osman says she first learned to square up to tough challenges from her mother. In the late 1980s, the matriarch of the Osman clan took her three toddler-aged daughters in tow to the U.S., where she studied at Southern Illinois University. Life wasn’t easy, as her mother balanced a rigorous academic schedule with raising a family far from home, where her husband had stayed to work. “I told them in order to be successful you have to really work at it,” says Osman’s mother Florence Anthony Tom. “You don’t get it from the sky.”
The message appears to have stuck. Now, Osman’s ultimate goal is to become the undisputed titleholder in her weight class. ONE FC officials say there aren’t yet enough women fighters to merit a championship belt. But thanks to Osman, it seems only a matter of time before she—and the women she has steered into the cage—will have a shot at MMA glory.