The new lens on female fighting which impacted the world
The Awakening Fighters website, from the statistics to the fighter profiles, is very, very real. Every statistic compiled as a ‘win’, ‘loss’ or ‘draw’ or no contest, represents a fight between two female athletes that occurred somewhere in the world. Professional fighting, amateur, muay thai and every other combat discipline you can think of, world championships and local competitions: all of this information unfolds on the Awakening Fighters website.
Explains founder and director, Rew Mitchell,
‘I wanted to include all combat disciplines, and fighters at every level.’
An estimated 36,000 female fights (or 300 per month) have occurred since 2012, when Awakening Fighters began the massive task of compiling statistics of fights, dating back to the 1950s. The site lists an impressive 180,000 to 200,000 of those fights. It was an ambitious project that sought to include any and all female fighters, anywhere in the world. Because the site is profile-based, each fight requires two entries: one for each fighter. At present, 20,000 athletes have contributed their fight data to Awakening Fighters. Incredibly, many of these athletes are in direct communication with Rew.
‘I like to make contact with the athletes; verify the information,’ says Rew. ‘I’m also a fan of fighting: I like talking to fighters.’
Rew pauses for a moment, thinking. ‘The website is for the fans as well as the fighters.’
Respecting the Past
Importantly, the fighter profiles include retired fighters, and acknowledges their retired status. They are retired, but not forgotten: they are important figures in the dawn of a new era.
On 10th August 1957, nearly 65 years ago today, Barbara Buttrick of England faced off against America’s Phyllis Kugler in the first ever women’s Boxing World title fight in Texas, America. I found this on the Awakening website. Curiously, the two fighters met in the ring later that month in Florida for a rematch, which was announced a draw. There is, as they say, a story behind every fight. Phyllis Kugler passed away aged 77 in 2014. We remember the women who were pioneers.
All photo credits in this section are unknown.
Phyllis Kugler vs. Barbara Buttrick
Barbara Buttrick in the 1950's
Barbara Buttrick in the 2000's
What is the essence of female fighting?
I’ve been in communication with Rew since 2015 when Rew reached out to me and asked me for my fight stats. Our correspondence lasted for years, and Rew seemed nearly always available. I imagined Rew to be a female fighter: who else but a female fighter could be that dedicated to the cause?
Rew it turns out, is neither female nor a fighter. Although he does have a martial arts background and has published book on the subject. I ask him why, on a website dedicated to profiles, he kept his own so low.
Rew nods slowly, thinking.
‘It’s always been a dilemma for me,’ he explains. ‘Originally, I wanted to keep a low profile: the website was always meant to be about the fighters, not the guy who built the website, but…’
‘Let me guess, people wanted to know more about you?’
I get that: the fight world is all about relationships, and I think Rew clearly has a place in it. Without fans, there are no fights because fans support the fighting, making it worthwhile for promoters and fight organizers to run events.
So, who is Rew, and how did he come to build the premier website for female fighter profiles and statistics?
Originally a photographer who felt the call to create meaningful impact through his work, Rew stumbled across the idea of documenting female fighters while at the airport, traveling home from a conference on conservation photography. Rew saw a fight promo for an upcoming MMA fight between Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate. He was fascinated.
‘When I researched it, there were few photographers out there documenting these fighters in a way which truly captured the skill of the fighters and the essence of female fighting.'
‘Really,’ I ask, my curiosity awakened, ‘What is the essence of female fighting?’
As a female fighter, I am perhaps close to distilling the meaning of fighting for myself, and perhaps even something of my own essence in the ring, but what is the essence of female fighting from a social perspective, and from a gendered perspective?
‘Focus and skill,’ says Rew immediately. ‘The focus I see in the eyes of female fighters is amazing. Female fighters have skill, speed and lots and lots of focus.’
I’m curious about the desire of the photographer behind the photographs: why fighting, and why females?
‘I have a lot of respect for females: because females are the givers of life ’ says Rew, echoing the sentiments of awe and celebration of fertility that is perhaps to be found in many cultural beliefs systems around the world. ‘Female fighting, however, revealed females in a completely new lens: completely different to anything I ever saw when I was growing up.’
Julie Kitchen & Ronda Rousey holding up the Awakening logo in 2012
Rew Mitchell & Julie Kitchen in 2022
Rew, explains that he’d grown up in a world influenced by ‘lad culture.’
‘When I was a young man, newsagencies were full of magazines depicting women in a certain way. Women were sexualized in men's magazines, and in women’s magazines they were sort of just sexualized in a different way.’
Many of Rew’s female friends have shared with him the negative impact that the objectification of women had on their self-confidence and self-belief, and the way they lived their lives.
‘I saw an opportunity for female fighter photography to impact the world in a very different way. I felt like the world needed to know about female fighters. In many ways, it still does… I wanted to capture the essence of female fighting in my photography, using different angles, using lighting in a particular way, and show people.’
Lucy Payne vs. Tiffany van Soest | Photo Credit: Rew Mitchell
Rew’s images - over 10,000 of them - are to be found, distributed amongst the thousands of fighter profiles. Rew’s images have probably enhanced more professional fighter presentations and resumes, and contributed to more personal memoirs than even he realizes.
In trying to find out more information about fighters and events, Rew came up against a poverty of information.
‘There were some websites, certainly, and I did - and still do to a certain degree - rely upon sites like Tapology, BoxRec, Sherdog, but they tended to be limited to just one discipline, or one promotion.’
It was hard to get a complete or comprehensive data set across the board on female combat.
Again, Rew saw both the need, and the potential for impact.
Awakening Fighters was born. It was the first website ever to list multiple disciplines.
Dawn of the Female Era
Listening to Rew, now, at a time when female fighting is well and truly a phenomenon throughout the sporting world, and a popular form of entertainment with a large fan base, I realize that not even I appreciate how quickly the rise of the female era has occurred, and I was fighting through part of it. It’s a phenomenon that requires more than just being there: it requires someone to document it. It really was only a decade ago when, outside of the fight world itself, female fighting was a novelty, and female fighters were viewed at best, as pioneers, and at worst, some kind of aberration.
Ten years ago, female fighting was really something the world needed to know about, and something that female fighters really needed the world to know about. I wonder just how much impact that Rew’s photography and the Awakening Fighter’s website has had on the dawn of the female era; a descriptor that Rew himself coined in anticipation of what was coming, and what he wanted to help into the world.
‘I suspect more than a few of the great fights over the last eight years occurred, at least in part, because of the Awakening Fighters website,’ admits Rew.
Statistics isn't ever just about the past: statistics are what drive matches. Fight discipline, weight, number of wins, number of losses: without this information, fights do not occur. Promoters cannot organize matches unless, somehow, they can see the available fighters. Fighters too, do not know where the bar is set in their own discipline and weight division unless they know who else out there is fighting and what happened in the last fight.
‘So you not only created history and perspective which might otherwise be lost to the social world, but you influenced matches,’ I said, suddenly understanding the enormity of the the impact of Awakening Fighters.
Rew didn’t answer, but I read into his gesture - shrug of the shoulders and a smile - an acknowledgement. This, after all, had been his vision all along.
A Decade of Passion
It comes as an enormous surprise to learn that Rew has kept the project alive for ten years by digging deep into his own pocket.
‘The website is a huge beast: it takes an enormous amount of time, energy and money: it’s basically a full-time job for two people.’
Rew led a team of three similarly inspired individuals - Ashley Mann, Evelyn Crisan and Andy (the technical guy) - all driven by a vision to see the website grow, and to see more fights occurring. Now, it is just himself and Evelyn. All the while, Rew was working full time in his day job.
‘So it's a passion, not a business?’ I ask.
‘Yes, it’s always been a passion, but now my focus is maturing the project to incorporate a business mindset,’ says Rew.
He reveals big and exciting plans, and as much as I want to write about them, Rew asks me to put my pen down, and I do, but I will say this: like so much of his work so far, it sounds visionary and, true to Rew’s core value, impactful.
Rew plans to dedicate more time rather than less to the website, and generating a wage for himself will enable him to focus all of his time on Awakening Fighters. Indeed, who can begrudge someone the dream of turning their passion into paid work, especially when this passion has documented and influenced the birth of an era where female fighters are celebrated for their skill and focus, and the world wants to see more fights?
Indeed, many fighters have a similar dream.
Rew Mitchell | Photo Credit: Pailin Bergknecht
To watch full fights, interviews and promo videos check out:
Awakening Fighters YouTube
For photos and reels you can follow:
Awakening Fighters Instagram
For conversation, news and updates head to Facebook.
You can “Buy Rew a coffee” as a show of appreciation, as he continues his dream of bringing more female fights into being.
If you want an Awakening profile, or simply have updates to submit, you can send them to email@example.com
If you would like to sponsor Awakening and find out about their various opportunities, then simply email the same address above.
Claire Baxter | Photo Credit: Glorious Fighter
Claire Baxter is a professional Muay Thai fighter based in Melbourne, Australia. She has written about Muay Thai, female Muay Thai fighting, weight cutting, Western Muay Thai fighters adapting to Thai culture and Thai fighting styles.