Ashlee Evans-Smith, Former Long Beach MMA Instructor, Ready to Battle Transgender Fighter Fallon Fox

Ashlee Laguna 007

Ashlee Evans-Smith working on her ground game. Photo by Matt Cohn.

It’s extremely rare that a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter with a 1 – 0 record would be on the verge of helping make history in her sport. But such is the case with Ashlee Evans-Smith, who will square off against the first openly transgender pro MMA fighter, Fallon Fox, in the Championship Fighting Alliance tournament title fight on October 12 in Coral Gables, Florida.

“I can honestly say I’m in the best shape of my life,” says Evans-Smith, 26, who left her post as children’s wrestling instructor at the Long Beach United Boxing Club a few months ago to spend more time preparing for her fight against Fox, who is somewhat of a reluctant MMA pioneer.

Fox, 37, had hoped to maintain her privacy regarding her 2006 gender reassignment surgery when she entered the CFA tournament last spring, but when it became public that she was a transgender athlete, the tournament was postponed after the quarter-finals so Fallon could produce the proper medical documentation regarding the surgery and the required two years of subsequent hormone therapy. This put her in compliance with International Olympic Committee guidelines, which the CFA adheres to.

During the postponement interval, Evans-Smith auditioned for the popular MMA reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter and, after a lengthy selection process, just missed making the final cut. “I think that happened for a reason,” says Evans-Smith. “I think I was meant to fight Fallon and go from there.”

Ashlee Laguna 026Fox, who is 3 – 0 as a pro, was able to control her last CFA opponent Allana Jones on the ground and win via submission, but stands to have a much tougher time accomplishing that against Evans-Smith. Originally from Ukiah, California, Evans-Smith wrestled for the boys team at Ukiah High School and went on to become a four-time All-American wrestler on the women’s team at Menlo College, near San Francisco.

During a stint playing rugby after college, her wrestling skills were noticed by her team’s strength and conditioning coach, Eugene Jackson. Jackson, who fought in MMA’s premiere organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in its early years, helped Evans-Smith incorporate striking into her rapidly developing MMA game. Evans-Smith went on to compete in nine amateur fights before turning pro. She is now coached by Adam Lynn, who had a 10-year pro MMA career himself and will be in her corner on October 12.

In her pro debut, Evans-Smith avenged an amateur loss against Tori Adams with a unanimous-decision win over Adams in the opening round of the CFA tournament. Evans-Smith went on to advance to the tournament finals against Fox after her semi-final opponent Anna Barone couldn’t make weight.

Evans-Smith has managed to keep a level head throughout the intense scrutiny this fight has attracted.

“I train the same way for every opponent,” she says. “I look at their style, I choose the right game plan, I train hard, I push my cardio, I do my strength training, and do everything else I need to do.” Still, she acknowledges the significance of fighting a transgender opponent–something that two of women’s MMA’s biggest stars, Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, said they’d refuse to do.

Ashlee herself has some misgivings about fighting an opponent who spent her first 30 years of life as a man: “I’m not 100% sure Fallon doesn’t have some kind of advantage,” she says. But she has no hesitation about fighting Fox. “If I were to pull out of the tournament, I’d be letting her take the $20,000 and the title from me,” she says.

ashleeevansIt’s been no bed of roses these last few months for Fox, who has generated some very public vitriol and derision from certain members of the MMA community (including Allana Jones, who entered the arena last spring accompanied by the Aerosmith song “Dude Looks Like A Lady”). But Fox also has many supporters, including boxer Pat Manuel, of Long Beach, who won five national boxing titles and was on the way to being a member of the first-ever U.S. Women’s boxing team at the London Olympics in 2012 before being forced out of the Olympic Trials by a nagging shoulder injury. Manuel is currently making his own gender transition and hopes to re-enter the boxing world as a man.

“Most folks know very little about transgender people,” says Manuel. “I think that’s where the hostility stems from. I think if anyone watches Fallon fight they can see there is no overwhelming physical advantage she displays.”

On the night of October 12, when Evans-Smith and Fox step inside the cage at the CFA tournament final, there will be no more scientific tests or opinion polls taken: It will be skill against skill, strength against strength, and will against will.

Three judges will determine a winner according to effectiveness in striking, grappling, cage control, and overall aggression. Or, one fighter will eliminate the need for judging by scoring a knockout or submission. Either way, this fight has already changed the lives of its participants and has forever altered the playing field of professional mixed martial arts.

For more information on this weekend’s fights including how to watch, visit cfafights.com

Above, left: Ashlee Evans-Smith, photo by Matt Cohn. Above, right: Ashlee Evans-Smith, photo by Keith Mills.

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