P atricio Manuel sits silently backstage at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino. He’s in the back corner of the white-tarpaulined gazebo as he waits to be called to the ring of the 3,000-seater events center here in Indio, California.
Inside the thin tent walls, he can hear the hubbub of spectators already seated in the arena and the bass-y bursts of rap intermittently being used to warm up the PA system. But neither seem to bother the glazed-eyed boxer as he rubs his beard. Focused.
It’s been eight weeks of running drills, eating right, and heavy sparring for Manuel to be ripped and ready for this, his third professional bout, and potentially toughest yet. Physically, the 38-year-old is in great shape — his lean, tattooed torso of super-featherweight brawn hitting the scales on the 130-pound mark at the weigh-in the day before.
All that Manuel’s sagacious head coach Victor Valenzuela can do now is fine-tune his fighter’s composure. He knows that the usual high-stakes danger of boxing will be coupled with historical stakes tonight. That’s because Manuel is a rare talent of the sport: a five-time women’s national amateur champion and former female Olympic trialist, whose transition in 2013 led him to become the first trans man to fight professionally on American soil.
In his first pro fight after his transition, in 2018, Manuel made history by defeating Hugo Aguilar in a unanimous-decision points victory. The win of a trans fighter over a cisgender man proved so controversial that it took five years of hustle, knock backs, and determination for Manuel to book his follow-up. When he did, in March of this year, a second victory followed: a technical knockout against Hieu Huynh. Tonight will be yet another step down this uncharted and challenging path.
Tonight’s bout nearly didn’t happen. Thirty-year-old lightweight Alexander Gutierrez confirmed his participation just two days before the weigh-in — an unsettling 11th-hour call that denied Manuel the usual benefit of being able to study his opponent as part of his preparation, and one that left Gutierrez sweating off pounds at short notice to make weight. But as a pro with just two fights in 10 years, Manuel was in no mind to complain: “I was like, honestly, fuck it. What can I say? I just wanna fight, and I don’t have much longer in this sport. Any chance I get is an opportunity for me to do what I love.”
Most boxing careers demand blood and bravura in equal measure, but in Manuel’s case, his identity as a fighter has required him to overcome prejudice, too. Which is why tonight is so important, and why composure now is so key.
Manuel’s eyes follow Valenzuela as the coach starts to wind the cotton wraps over his tattooed knuckles. Each bind covers another inked letter from the words “bash back.”
Next, Manuel puts on his fight gear: black silk shorts adorned with an orange trim designed by a local African boutique, in honor of ancestors on his father’s side.
Referee Jack Reiss visits the tent to brief him on the rules of engagement in the ring and to check Manuel’s groin protector. “Hey,” Reiss says before he leaves, “good luck out there, man.”
As his gloves are laced, Manuel’s expression hardens. Valenzuela pats him on the shoulder and smiles. Manuel nods back, ready. Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” plays on the dressing-room speakers as they walk from the tent through the black-curtained drapes to the lights and the fenced-off walkway that leads to the ring. The time has come to rock & roll.
BOXING HAS ALWAYS been a sport for the outcast. Instead of college scholarships and pre-Olympic programs, the big talents have, more often than not, been drawn from society’s most deprived, where trauma and lack of opportunity bake in a capacity to persist through pain.
Consequently, one of the unwritten rules of the boxing gym — the kind of joint where floorboards come stained in sweat and where communication can be monosyllabic — is that everyone is welcome. In a sport that relies on the underclass for future growth, much like the church, it pays not to be picky.
Which is maybe why so many who have suffered rejection in other areas of their life find solace in the bag work and sparring, where respect is earned through hard, physical workouts, discipline, and through the courage it takes to step up and fight. It’s a rare mentality but a powerful one that can unite across race, age, ability, and gender in the dank, sweat-laced air of a gym.
The key to this communion is leaving all other identity classifications, save that of a fighter, at the gym door. But now boxing — following in the footsteps of swimming, track, cycling, and even the checkered battlegrounds of international chess — is grappling with how best to respond to the desire of trans athletes to compete at the highest levels.
In December, when Mauricio Sulaimán, the president of the World Boxing Council (WBC) — one of the four major organizations that govern boxing globally — announced his intention to create a “transgender division” where fighters would only be allowed to take on opponents of the “same birth sex,” it was met with hostility by many fighters within the trans community. Not only did it strike trans boxers like Manuel, whose very status as a professional would effectively be outlawed under the new guidelines, as headline-making posturing, it also seemed to fly in the face of grassroot boxing’s ethos of inclusivity.
“I don’t wanna be in a trans division, you know?” Manuel says. “I understand there may [be] some people that feel more comfortable with that label, and I can’t speak for them, but every time I walk into a gym, every time I go sparring, I’m perceived as a man. For me, there is no other way to compete other than in the male division. To have a leader of my sport saying that I don’t get to be a man, that I can’t compete even though I’ve been out here doing just that, you know, it really hurts.”
For Manuel, the boxing gym has long been a place he felt a sense of acceptance, ever since he walked into the now-closed L.A. Boxing and Fitness Club 20 years ago. “I’m gonna misgender myself here, but there was a trainer, and he goes, ‘I hope she’s here to box. She looks tough.’ For someone like me, who didn’t feel tough, but always wanted to, I knew at that moment that I belonged in the space.”
At that point, many things felt out of his control: He’d changed schools, sending his grades into a plummet, and he’d gained weight after giving up martial arts and softball. Puberty exacerbated his gender dysphoria, leaving him feeling “disconnected,” he says, from his body.
The boxing gym, thanks to classes his grandma gave him for Christmas, not only provided structure amid the confusion — but also an outlet for his rage.
“It’s three minutes of work time and then a break. It’s always the same. There’s a rhythm, a regimen and discipline, and it made me feel more comfortable than any other place in the world,” he says.
With diligent training, Manuel was soon seeking out fights in the L.A. area, turning up to local women’s tournaments on “Friday, Saturday, and Sunday,” he says, to get as much ring time as possible, filling in for no-shows and dropouts.
It took years of hard work and persistence to build a reputation in the amateurs, but by the time a professional career beckoned in the burgeoning women’s division, Manuel faced a life-changing decision that threatened to end his ambitions as a fighter entirely. “I figured I could go into the female division and try to be a world champion, one of the greatest in the sport. And that’s no disrespect to other female fighters, that’s just me acknowledging that for myself. Or I could take a risk and be true to myself.”
Manuel chose the latter, and began hormone therapy in 2013. A year later, he underwent top surgery. Following guidelines laid down by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), his gender affirmation surgery and two-year hormone-replacement therapy qualified him to return to the ring as a trans man, and in 2016, USA Boxing (USAB) granted Manuel a passbook to fight as an amateur male.
It was during this time that he turned to Valenzuela, a California Boxing Hall of Fame inductee who had taught many of the opponents Manuel had fought as a female amateur. Valenzuela ran the Duarte Boxing Gym from its base at the town’s teen center and had a reputation for molding champions.
“I just told Pat that you’re just gonna be trained just like one of the guys. Nothing different. We’re gonna work hard. You’re a boxer, that’s it,” Valenzuela says. All these years later, their partnership remains tight.
“Everybody’s well aware that Pat’s transitioned, and a lot of the guys and coaches didn’t want to fight him,” the coach says. “They think they have nothing to gain by it: Win, and you beat somebody that was a female. Lose, you got beat by somebody that was a woman.”
The professional fights Manuel has fought thus far have come in no small measure due to the support of Golden Boy Promotions, a match-making company founded by boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya that is one of the biggest in the sport. When Eric Gómez, president of Golden Boy, read a Los Angeles Times article about Manuel in 2018, he felt “compelled” to reach out to sign him.
“It was an incredible story … and I said, ‘You’re already a champion, just going through what you went through and the transition.’ And if the dream [is] to fight a professional boxing match as a male, I wanted to help whichever way I could,” Gómez says.
“So I got together with my partner Oscar [De La Hoya] and we discussed it, and Oscar said yes. [But] one thing we said to each other is ‘We’re not doing this for publicity. We’re not going to announce it. We’re not going to put it out there. [If] people find out [about Manuel’s transition] that’s fine, but let’s just do it.’ And we did it. [We’re] just trying to be good human beings.”
THE FIRST ROUND goes largely to plan.
Manuel, though only around a pound heavier than Gutierrez, is more muscular, and uses his heft to establish an early advantage, double-jabbing the body and head to set up left hooks and overhand rights, always moving forward. He’s been a front-foot puncher his whole career, preferring to pressurize rivals, landing power shots on the inside, even if that means taking hits. Tonight, he’s on the undercard of local favorite Manny “Gucci” Flores and against a skilled opponent, but he’s not about to change who he is.
Second round, he comes out fists flying, eager to press home his early advantage in the four-round bout, but Gutierrez ducks and dodges, then counters with a left hook to Manuel’s jaw, followed by another.
Manuel chases Gutierrez across the ring, walking onto two quick-fire uppercuts from his opponent that draw “oooohs” from the crowd, and after a clinch, Manuel’s caught again by a straight right.
“There you go!” shouts Gutierrez’s coaches from the corner, clearly liking their fighter’s resurgence. “Take his fucking head off!” another at ringside bawls. “Pat has no power!”
The bell rings, a Hapollo rap tune pumps across the canvas, and Manuel returns, blinking, to his corner. As a ring girl in black hot pants parades the Round Three card to the crowd, Valenzuela implores Manuel to stop lunging in. But that’s easier said than done for a fighter hard-wired to engage — especially when the opportunity to take part in more fights like this might become all but impossible.
In a bid to ease the hand-wringing of governing bodies around the world, the IOC released new guidelines in November 2021. “No athlete should be excluded from competition on the exclusive ground of an unverified, alleged, or perceived unfair competitive advantage due to their sex variations, physical appearance, and/or transgender status,” the IOC wrote, before adding that any restrictions should be implemented only on the strength of “robust and peer-reviewed research.”
However, for all of its moral weight in the sporting landscape, the IOC has no jurisdiction over professional-boxing governing bodies such as the WBC, and consequently, career fighters compete under the rules and guidelines specific to the body sanctioning their prize fights.
WBC’s Sulaimán was open about the lack of trans-specific medical studies funded by the WBC to inform its position, but maintained, despite noncompliance with the IOC, that its plans were made with safety as a prime concern.
“There have been no separate studies for transgender boxing per se,” Sulaimán confirms. “However, we’ve created a committee, and we’re listening to the concerns of the [trans] community.”
The trans-boxer community the WBC is “listening to,” Sulaimán admits, consists of a very limited number of individuals, with only three actively fighting. On this basis, a transgender division is almost impossible because of a lack of numbers alone. So why is the WBC pushing so hard to create a ruling that could curtail the career of Manuel and his peers?
“I am concerned about [Manuel’s] safety,” Sulaimán says. “He’s 38 years old, and competing against men with his different bone and neck structure, and [higher] rates of concussion.”
The WBC’s position on trans athletes was largely formed from commissioned studies conducted on women fighters nearly a decade ago, where “lots of medical data,” according to Sulaimán, was used to determine female-specific rules. The WBC’s 2014 press statement lists reasons like the menstrual cycle creating physical changes in women, and the “physical inclination of women to have more concussions” for adopting its template across the sport.
“It is not safe for women to fight more than 10 two-minute rounds,” Sulaimán reiterated to me via video call. “In tennis, women play three sets; in golf, they tee off from a shorter distance, etc., etc.”
The shorter competition time for women’s fights remains controversial with the WBC’s alleged findings coming from a report that has never been shared publicly, and that remains contested among neurologists and medical experts. The WBC did not get back to Rolling Stone’s request for the study; instead, they sent a report from the Association of Ringside Physicians (ARP) that highlights how competition in combat sports between transgender athletes and cisgender athletes, in the view of the ARP, “unnecessarily raises the risk of injury.”
Dr. Meeryo Choe women’s brain-health specialist and pediatric neurologist at UCLA who took part in the study and who sat on the WBC’s medical advisory board, tells Rolling Stone that more research is needed. “In sports where females and males play with the same rules, the rates of concussion are higher for women [though] we still do not know why,” she says. “Certainly more studies need to be done in this area … as none of the [current] literature references transgender or nonbinary athletes.”
And in a report published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine, based on a review of 25 studies of female sports-related concussions, its suggestion that women are more vulnerable to concussions and suffer more prolonged symptoms than men was caveated by the fact that female athletes remain an “understudied population” in this area, with research explaining why female athletes have worse outcomes being “limited.”
“The work’s been done on men, less than 10 percent has been done [on] women. It’s just very skewed,” says Robert Cantu, a clinical professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine and co-founder of its Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. According to Cantu, there’s also another key reason why published studies convey a greater vulnerability to concussion in women:
“On average, they’re more honest about reporting their symptoms. And they’re probably more honest about also reporting symptoms [that] are continuing. So that theory alone could explain why the incidence of concussion is higher in women than it is in guys and why their symptoms last longer. In my mind, the literature may be flawed by the reporting bias.”
Women aside, Cantu is “not aware of any good studies” — which he defines as 50 to 100 athletes who would be assessed over the course of 10 years at the cost of between $500,000 and $1 million — currently being carried out on transgender concussion.
“One’s skills and abilities should dictate whether [transgender fighters] can do something or not,” Cantu says. “I don’t think there is solid medical data to say their brain is more vulnerable.”
The WBC has been assessing the viability of transgender boxing for “three to four years,” according to Sulaimán, but it was only in 2022 that its committee’s findings came together in a press release that proclaimed the WBC’s “unequivocal support for transgender rights,” followed soon after with its intention to launch a trans division in 2023. These plans have so far stalled, and when pushed, Sulaimán admits that much could change in the following months and years should compelling medical research emerge. For organizations like USAB, the national governing body for amateur boxing, a boxer transitioning from male to female is eligible to compete in the female category only after gender-reassignment surgery, and a minimum of four years on hormones. Testing for correct levels of testosterone is also a prerequisite to competition.
Sonya “the Scholar” Lamonakis is the vice president of USAB for the New York metro area, as well as a four-time Golden Gloves winner and former IBO heavyweight world champion. Coincidentally, she won one of her national Golden Gloves championships alongside Patricio Manuel in 2009, and still has the photograph of them celebrating together. Lamonakis oversees every sanctioned amateur fight around New York City and, as a result, is in contact with around 40 trans boxers who train, but only “one or two” who take part in fights. For Lamonakis, applying the same policy used for amateurs to the professional realm should be approached with caution.
“You can’t take out the shoulders. You can’t take out the wingspan. You can’t take out the bigger lungs, [hearts, and organs that men have]. In the amateurs, it’s fine — everyone wears headgear, 12-ounce gloves [which have more padding], and there are safety procedures, but with the professionals? I’m not sure it should be happening.”
GLEASON’S GYM HAS been a mainstay of the New York fight scene since it was founded in 1937. Originally located in the Bronx, the gym relocated to Brooklyn in 1987 and claims to have welcomed more than 130 champions during its illustrious history, including Jake LaMotta, Roberto Duran, Muhammad Ali, Julio Cesar Chavez, and Mike Tyson.
Initially, the gym was reserved for pro fighters. But when Bruce Silverglade took ownership in 1982, Gleason’s began programs for white-collar businessmen and, more controversially, women. What started with a handful of boxers has grown to more than 400 active female members today, and is just one of a number of programs Silverglade runs to promote inclusion and diversity.
“You have to like the sport of boxing and you have to want to try it out. What you do on the outside or what you do in your personal life does not matter to me,” Silverglade says. “Everybody is treated equal. Mike Tyson had to pay dues here. If Hillary Swank was up here training for Million Dollar Baby and she wanted to hit the heavy bag, she had to wait her turn. ‘Sammy the Bull’ Gravana, John Gotti’s right-hand man, he trained up here. As long as people remain respectful, mind the rules of the gym, then they’re welcome. Everyone pays the same fee, and gets treated the same. Except Muhammad Ali, he was different.”
As well as classes for veterans, children, neurodiverse individuals, and Parkinson’s sufferers, Gleason’s is also the proud home of Trans Boxing, a group founded by coach Nolan Hanson in 2017 that’s dedicated to supporting those who want to box free of the limitations of “gender identity.”
“It’s a project to challenge things like racism, misogyny, transphobia, and late-stage capitalism, you know, all the things that support our patriarchal economic system,” Hanson, the 32-year-old athletically built, buzz-haired coach says as he moves past fighters working the big leather punching bags, the chains from which they hang chinking with each hit.
Hanson has run workshops for trans boxers in San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; Seattle; and New Orleans, but it’s in Brooklyn — in the rings that intersperse the concrete columns of the Gleason’s building, and where posters of Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson look knowingly down from walls — that his sessions found a more permanent home.
“I found a lot of acceptance here,” Hanson says, directing one of his students to jump rope in front of a full-length mirror just as a buzzer signals the start of another three-minute round. “Bruce has been great. I feel really comfortable with him.”
Silverglade remembers being cautiously optimistic about the idea when Nolan first presented him with it. “I mean, I was absolutely going to allow [trans boxers] to come in, but there was one member of 20 years, a professional heavyweight who had a problem with it. So I had to tell him his attitude wasn’t proper, that he needed to be tolerant to everybody up here, and if he wasn’t, he’d have to leave.”
According to Hanson, the expelled heavyweight had harassed one of his cohorts in the locker room to such an extent that his fighter never returned. Gleason’s now has signs detailing New York state law regarding gender expression and identity.
“That was really scary, that really sucked, but I’ve been here like two years, and that’s happened once,” Hanson says.
Moving to the edge of a nearby ring, Hanson greets another one of his fighters, who is warming up for a sparring session: Kerry “Miles” Thomas, a USAB-certified coach and social worker, who joined the Trans Boxing project in 2018.
“There was a time I thought I’d never be able to walk into a boxing gym and be welcomed,” he says during a rest between a rigorous set of situps.
“I think a lot of us in the community, with the things we’ve been through, rejection from families, you know, maybe we’ve hurt ourselves in different ways: [Boxing] can help us claim our self-esteem back, helps us find resiliency,” says Thomas, a specialist in trauma-informed care and post-traumatic growth. “It’s definitely helped me to find that resiliency. It’s a very healthy coping mechanism.”
Thomas says he almost “lost his life” 20 years ago, before he started to transition. Now, at 38, he hopes that being visible here shows other trans people they don’t have to “hide in the shadows.”
With Thomas’ situps complete, Hanson helps him fit his headgear so he’s ready to spar. The opposing fighter — a cisgender man — is already waiting for him in the ring, and at the next bell, they begin to trade blows, Hanson shouting advice from the corner.
“Get your distance with your jab, Kerry! Just pop it, pop it out. There you go. You gotta watch your feet, though, they cross up. Yo, watch that!”
Though both Hanson and Thomas are amateurs with no plans to fight professionally, both are upset by the WBC’s plans for a transgender division and its binary assessment of fighters from their community.
“They’re trying to get ahead of a problem that actually doesn’t exist — which is that trans women are going to invade the elite women’s category and strip them of their belts,” Hanson says, eyes still on his fighter’s movements. “I’m a trans person. I’m a boxing trainer. I’m in this world. I know professional boxers, but I don’t know any trans-women elite boxers. So, this policy is dealing with a phantom problem.”
It’s a sentiment that, once he recovers from his sparring session, Thomas agrees with. “I’m currently involved in a study regarding hormone-replacement therapy [in sports],” he says. “I rely on testosterone exogenous medication, but I truly believe, once we have the data, the science will show I have no advantage or disadvantage [over other fighters].”
When the buzzer calls every fighter of Gleason’s back to their workout activities, Hanson heads off to find those he’d left jumping rope.
“It’s not inclusion, it’s segregation, you know what I mean?” he says. “I’m sure there will be some motherfuckers that are just like: ‘I want a WBC belt.’ Fine, do it. But it’s not cool. This kind of rhetoric, it’s really not doing any good.”
BY THE TIME the bell marking the end of the fourth and final round rings out, Patricio Manuel has blood running down the side of his face; an accidental clash of heads, earlier in the round, has badly cut his eye. Regardless, the two fighters pat gloves and wait for the announcer to come onto the microphone with the verdict.
“So, we go to the scorecards,” he says, building suspense. “And all three judges see it the same, 40 to 36. Your winner by unanimous decision … and still undefeated: Patricio Manuel!”
Referee Reiss raises Manuel’s hand, the victor’s salute to the cheering crowd. The eye will need stitches before the night is out, but first, Manuel heads backstage to give his postfight reactions, returning to the tent where the night started. He’s calm, undoubtedly happy with the win, but reserved and contained.
“I’m glad that I have the victory, but I’m still a little disappointed in my performance. In my next fight, you’ll see a lot more maturity from me,” he says as his perfectionism pushes aside any modicum of hubris. “A hysterical fighter is a fighter that’s gonna be in danger for themselves. So I always try to make sure that I’m in control of myself at all times.”
Manuel’s control and confidence have helped those closest to him endure his battles in the ring, too.
“It is stressful, you know, for me to watch him. No parent wants to see their child hurt and bleeding,” Manuel’s mother, Loretta Butler, says of the 70-plus fights she’s seen her son come through over the years.
“But, it’s his lifetime’s dream, so that outweighs any physical pain. I remember driving back from Home Depot and him telling me he was going to transition. And the first thing I asked was ‘What about boxing?’ Because I knew how much he loved it.”
She’d been there for Manuel’s struggle through the amateur ranks of women’s boxing, and his depression after injury ended the dream of competing in the first female Olympic boxing tournament of 2012.
Back then, as a five-time national amateur champion, there were many who felt that Manuel’s talent and power were enough to deliver a professional world title in the female division. For his mother, however, this was not a realistic option.
“Where would the real joy come from if he wasn’t his true self? I mean, money’s not going to bring that,” she says. “And he’s a man, he was born a man. Biology just fucked up in some way. I gave birth to a son.”
Before the fight, Manuel had lamented how the transgender community is being used as a wedge issue to drive fear and fuel political fervor in America, and how disappointing it was that groups and individuals helped to “fund such narratives.”
Boxing has often been used as a platform for advocacy, the spotlight of combat acting as metaphor for the greater fight happening outside of the ring; but in this moment of triumph against adversity, Manuel is reflective about the marker he’d just laid down.
“You know, I’m just here living my life as any other boxer does,” he says. “I know it’s exciting for people outside of the sport, but for me, I’m just one step closer to the next fight and doing better.
“I’m just someone that wants to live my life just like every other person out there. That is a human desire, regardless of your gender identity, race, sex, whatever you want to talk about. We’re all just trying to live our life on our own terms. And for me, I just happen to be a boxer. That’s it.”
This story appears in the October 2023 issue of Rolling Stone. The online version has been updated to include additional comment from the WBC, as well as comment from Dr. Meeryo Choe.