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In 2011, Lynn Le had what she describes as “a spiritual awakening.” It didn’t come in temple or church, at the feet of a guru or tripping on ayahuasca deep in a Peruvian jungle. Instead, it happened in a Portland, Oregon, Krav Maga studio, when Le, then 22, discovered that, despite being all of 4 feet 11 inches, with the right application of force she could flip a grown man from standing right onto his back.
“I like to tell people now, especially when they’re like ‘oh, I could never do boxing, I could never hit anything’: You’d be surprised,” Le says. “As women, we’ve suppressed any emotions related to aggression. But when you ask someone to suppress an emotion for long enough, [and then] they experience it, and it’s a positive feeling? It is something like a spiritual awakening.”
Le quickly graduated from taking classes to teaching them, and that was when she noticed how many other women were getting excited about combat sports, a category that includes everything from mixed martial arts (MMA) and Krav Maga to muay thai, Brazilian jiujitsu and old-school boxing. But she also noticed something else: how few gear manufacturers seemed to care. “I always got questions like, ‘where can I find good women’s gloves? I bought these,’ and the gloves they would show me were big, bubbly, bubblegum pink boxing gloves.”
Le has no problem with pink, per se, but she was bothered that these were the only option marketed at women, and even more so that they were often not actually tailored for women’s hands and wrists, which are generally not just smaller but also narrower than men’s. This gives women’s hands, on average, different proportions than their male counterparts, which means that, just as a pair of men’s XS pants won’t necessarily fit a woman’s shape correctly, neither will his XS boxing gloves.
This is particularly critical because with gloves, fit determines your safety. Boxers wear gloves to brace the delicate bones of the hand and wrist and hold them precisely in place. Gloves create a streamlined shape that produces maximum impact on another object, but also minimal consequences for the punch-thrower’s joints and bones. To do this effectively, the glove has to have a snug fit.
Most men’s gloves are made for their wider, larger hands, and so women end up “floating” in them, uncomfortable and, more importantly, at a higher risk of injury. Gloves being marketed as essentially unisex as not just another case of a retailer turning a gender-nonspecific good (like, say, a pen) into a “lady’s product” by making it pink and sparkly: When you are, as Le puts it, “throwing a bag of bones at a heavy bag repeatedly,” as combat sports drills often require, one-size-fits-most can be a pretty perilous solution.
Le decided to do something about it, so in 2016 she launched a Kickstarter to raise funds and enthusiasm for what has become her women’s combat gear and apparel label, Society Nine.
Since then, enthusiasm for women’s combat sports has continued to grow, thanks to the increased visibility of pro fighters like MMA icon Ronda Rousey, as well as Victoria’s Secret models touting the workout as their go-to. Gear makers have started to catch up to the trend: Everlast patented the term “Women Specific Design” last year, and, on the high end, Cleto Reyes now offers a version of its gloves designed for women… as part of something called The Pink Collection. Even Adidas has gotten in on the game, with a “Dynamic Fit” that is “ideal for women and youths with smaller hand size.” But there are still only a handful of companies that, like Society Nine, focus exclusively on serving women fighters.
The first among them was Machina Boxing, which Austin Saylor and Courtney Kammerer founded together in 2011. The pair had met at a party several years prior, in 2005, but it was a mutual interest boxing that truly cemented their friendship. “We started hanging out, boxing, watching boxing, talking about boxing,” Saylor reports.
The germ of the Machina came to them during the height of the recession in 2009. Kammerer’s small business had folded, and Saylor’s work as a freelance graphic designer for small businesses was suffering as well. “So when Courtney said there’s [no boxing gear] for women that’s not, like, junk, or pink and ugly, and just kind of cliché, I was like, ‘Hey, that’s an idea,’” he says.
“It wasn’t our intention to reinvent anything,” he explains, “Courtney and I have certain aesthetics and values. We wanted it to be cool. Old school. We didn’t want it to be too fancy. We wanted people to recognize: this is a boxing brand. We didn’t want them to think, this is a fashion brand or a style brand. This is a sporting goods brand, and it’s tough, and it’s for women.”
That specificity of vision is key. Kammerer reports that “When I was first starting out, my coach was mad [that our gloves] were women’s, because he liked them! He was like, you should do this in men’s. And we were like, no. That’s not the goal of our brand.”
Despite the boom in women’s participation in combat sports, many more women are still gym-shy, worried they’ll be out of place or unwelcome in such a traditionally masculine space. So while the size of the gloves, and their ability to protect from injury, are obviously critical, it’s also important that women-focused brands exist at all. They send a message to newbies that there are other women out there like them, who want to figure out how to fight on their own terms — women who are interested in taking on a so-called manly pursuit, but have no desire to pretend to be one of the guys when they do it.
For Machina, this means that, though they’ve dabbled in sponsorships (including support for US National Team members Isamary Aquino and Stacia “The Natural” Suttles and retired professionals Sarah “KO” Kuhn and Melissa “Huracán Shark” Hernandez) and are proud to make gear good enough to be worn by the pros, they don’t necessarily consider working with professional athletes their top priority. “My audience is at the gym,” Austin says. “So when we sponsor, we look for someone who actually likes us and uses our stuff. Women talk — I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. They compare: ‘Oh, those are cool, where did you get those?’ And if you know that person, you know she’s a fighter, she’s serious — that’s where the rubber hits the road for us.”
Machina’s business has been steadily expanding, but it’s been running on a skeleton crew for the last seven years. Austin has been the brand’s sole full-time employee; he’s hoping to have Courtney leave her day job to join him before the end of the year.
Le and Society Nine are in a similar position: Le has a part-time operations assistant and a handful of contractors, but she’s the only person whose full-time job and first priority is Society Nine. It takes its toll: “l found out I was Forbes 30 under 30 for 2018 the day before Black Friday,” she says. “I was like, awesome! And then I went back to work.”
She’s got a lot she’s working toward: Le thinks women’s presence in combat sports will only continue to grow. She cites the current political climate, as well the prominent media coverage of cases like Brock Turner’s rape of a Stanford classmate, as heightening women’s desire for a sense of physical security. When she was teaching kickboxing classes, she says, “I could tell like clockwork. March, April: all of a sudden we would get moms signing up their teenage daughters, because their daughters were going to college at the end of the summer and they were like, ‘My daughter’s not going to school without knowing how to throw a punch.’”
She also thinks pop culture and fashion brands have had a huge impact on the mainstreaming of the industry: Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman arms and the bodies of her Amazon companions, combined with models like Gigi Hadid promoting the sport, suggest that you didn’t have to be ripped to be a fighter.
And that’s what Le hopes Society Nine and its peers will help communicate to women who’ve never pictured themselves on the mat or in the ring: “It’s time for women to own the word ‘fighter,’ and you can do that however you want. Stop letting other people discourage you from doing what you want because you’re not ‘hardcore enough’ or you’re not ‘legit,’” she says. “Your journey is your own. You’re allowed to use that word. You don’t have to ask for permission.”