We follow the rise of Malaysia’s first professional female mixed martial artist as she faces the fight of her life.
Ann Osman is counting down the minutes.
She has not eaten in five days – her head is spinning and a wall of photographers are blinding her with flashes as she punches and kicks the air with expert force.
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And this is before she has even stepped foot in the cage.
101 East follows Malaysia’s first professional female mixed martial arts fighter as she prepares to face Egyptian kickboxing champion Walaa Abbas.
Notorious for its brutality, this fierce sport is male dominated and often ends with blood splatters on the mat and knock-out blows.
But for Osman, a 28-year-old from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Malaysia’s Sabah state, it is a “beautiful art”.
“Once you’re in that cage, it actually reveals your true self,” she says. “Are you a fight or flight kind of person? For me, I’m a fighter.”
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By Aela Callan
She’s up to her fourth hour of hard training in the gym for the day and Ann Osman is perplexed why we need to keep filming her. “Why are you guys even interested in me?” the normally sunny 28-year-old complains.
When she agreed to be followed by 101 East in the lead up to the biggest fight of her career, she was upbeat. “Let’s do this!” she said excitedly.
But now, sweaty and exhausted, she really wants us to go away. Her mood alternates between sweet and surly.
Preparation is crucial for every mixed martial arts fighter. In the weeks before a fight, she trains for at least five hours every day on a diet that many would consider extreme. All I’ve seen her eat today is a salad – in the weeks leading up to the fight she will take liquids only in order to make weight in her category.
Even though MMA bouts are notorious for their brutality and often result in blood splatters on the mats, the deprivation that fighters endure before the match looks much tougher than getting into the cage.
I feel for Ann. As well as shedding at least six kilograms in the next 10 days, she is trying to keep the rest of her life afloat. She runs a small business and tries (often in vain) to fit in time with friends and family.
Professional MMA pays poorly, and she has to find her own sponsors and pay for her medical expenses. On top of this, she fields dozens of media requests each week – being Asian, Muslim and female in a notoriously violent sport is making her a celebrity.
“In a sport that is male dominated, even female unfriendly, she’s very feminine and Muslim,” says Suri Kempe from Sisters in Islam, a women’s rights group in Malaysia. “For her, there is no contradiction in that. That’s essentially the most radical thing she’s doing.”
Ann is bewildered by all the fuss and doesn’t invite the attention. “I want people to see who I truly am,” she complains. “It’s not always rainbows, it’s not always being happy. There are moments I just cry because I’m human after all.”
Her eyes plead with me to pack up all our lights, our tripods and our probing questions and leave her alone. But she’s too polite. Instead, she begs. “I’m so tired. Please. Please. Please.”
I look down at her, sprawled on the sweaty mats. She looks like a miserable girl with a mountain to climb, rather than a fierce woman who can take down a man twice her size.
“Ok, Ann,” I say. “We’ll leave you alone for today.”
As I walk down the darkened staircase and out onto the steamy streets of Kota Kinabalu, I wonder if I’ll ever manage to squeeze in enough time with Ann Osman to make my deadline for this show. But I figure it’s easier to have this fight with my boss, instead of a woman who does battle in a cage.