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Ready to rumble: The Auckland gym where women are looking for a fight

Wei Wei (right) in the fight ring at Mania  with her training partner Shannon Davies.

Tucked between a tyre workshop and one of Auckland’s top dance schools is a rough and ready gym where women come looking for a fight – and sometimes find salvation. Joanna Wane gets a ringside view for the launch of Mania female fighting academy’s “Put the Scissors on Suicide” campaign.

The first rule of Fight Club: No kicks or punches to the head. Who wants to turn up at work the next morning with a black eye or a broken nose?

The second rule of Fight Club: No hair pulling. We’re not talking “cat fights” or jelly wrestling here.

The third rule of Fight Club: Pretty much anything else goes. Double-leg takedowns. Chokeholds. Leg locks to the kidneys. Suffocating an opponent by sitting on their head. Bending an arm or a leg to within a shiver of breaking point. It’s not so much the pain but the promise of pain yet to come that can determine the outcome. The best fighters outfox rather than out-muscle their victims.

The fourth rule of Fight Club: Talk about Fight Club. Because this is an all-female crew and people can stick their prejudices, their stereotypes and their judgments about whether women really can fight – whether women should fight. And how hot they should look when they’re doing it.

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Who comes to Fight Club? Now that might surprise you. One regular works in airport security, another drives a container crane on the waterfront. Obviously, this isn’t for sissies. But accountants and company directors, actors and TV presenters, a former vet nurse, a psychologist and a housewife in her 40s dripping with gold have all left their sweat on the floor.

“Mania: Female fighting academy – specialists in women’s combat” reads a banner above the door. Inside, it’s no poodle parlour, but it doesn’t have the trappings of a traditional dojo, either. Fluoro tube lights on the ceiling, blue training mats, old photos all over the walls. And along the back wall, a fight ring, raised a metre or so off the floor and flanked by windows looking out on the traffic humming along Auckland’s Sandringham Rd. Legend has it that a passing cyclist was so distracted by seeing a fight in action he rode straight into a power pole.

The gym’s combat style is MMA (mixed martial arts) sportfighting, without the Ronda Rousey-esque fist or foot slams to the head, although there are elements of kick-boxing, too. Mostly it’s close-quarter wrestling – grappling is the official name for it – where the aim isn’t to land a knock-out blow but to trap and control your opponent, forcing them to submit by “tapping out”.

Bodies lock and flip and roll in a tangled game of Twister, slamming flesh onto canvas with such ferocity it makes you wince. Yet there’s an easy camaraderie between the women as they laugh and joke around between “trying to beat the shit out of each other” and scraping their latest victim off the floor.

“When you’ve got your bum and your boobs in someone’s face, it’s easy to open up to people because you’ve already gone way past your comfort barrier,” laughs Nic Brown, whose signature move is “the mount” – basically sitting on top of someone, but trickier to pull off than it sounds.

Fights last for three rounds, of three minutes each. That doesn’t sound much, but at a recent show, one woman pushed herself so hard she vomited through the ropes. Yet beyond a few knocks and bruises, serious injuries are rare. “You have to know when [to submit],” says Brown, who trains three times a week. “If you’re too stubborn, that’s when you’re going to get hurt.”

Nic Brown takes a water break between rounds.

At school, Brown was the small, arty kid, not the sporty one. Now 24, she’s the marketing campaigns manager for Auckland Theatre Company. It’s not as though she goes around picking fights, but a couple of months ago, she was all dolled up for her mum’s 60th birthday, in a lemon dress with a petticoat underlay (the party had a 1950s theme), when one of the male guests challenged her to a wrestle. Stripping down to shorts and a T-shirt, Brown sized him up as family and friends gathered round.

“He was six foot seven and because of his weight he was able to pin me down,” she says. “But I pushed him off balance, bent his arm up his back and put him in a side headlock and a cross-body press.” She grins. “I got him three times.”

Brown’s fight name, Ayla James, was inspired by the free-spirited main character in The Clan of the Cave Bear, a book she loved as a teenager. Creating a persona for the ring is encouraged, but it’s less of a mask than a symbol. You won’t see any WWE-style theatrics or fakery here, although the gym’s owner and chief trainer, John Brotchie, has dabbled with that in the past (his alter ego Max Mania’s trademark look was a shock of orange and green hair). “We entertain but we’re not entertainment.”

He’s trained stuntwomen for TV shows Xena and Hercules and run fight rings at Auckland’s Big Day Out, but regularly turns down requests for the team to perform for titillation, as a kind of novelty sideshow. “We’ve got an amazing bunch of women who are really tough, really strong and really focused,” he says.

“If we keep looking at women as sweet and gentle and innocent – not that they can fight and that they can stand up for themselves and that they can survive... unless you change that mentality and thought pattern, you’re not going to change anything, right? I wouldn’t say women’s power has been kept from them – they just haven’t discovered it yet.”

For Brotchie, who began as an amateur wrestler in his teens, the gym has never really been about making money. But that’s about to change. In a loose partnership with comedian and mental health campaigner Mike King, he’s planning a series of charity fight shows to launch Mania’s “Put the Scissors on Suicide” campaign – riffing on the name of a leg-lock wrestling hold.

Over the next few months, there’ll be sponsors to woo, T-shirts to sell, and a team of 30 female fighters available to put on shows, run training sessions, and help set up a network of clubs nationwide (to find out more, visit Mania’s website, at womensportfighters.co.nz).

Bodies lock and flip and roll in a tangled game of Twister.

The aim is not only to highlight our disturbing youth suicide statistics but to show women they’re much tougher than they think. “Young people today live in a very pressured society, and both Mike and I agree it’s a situation that’s getting worse,” says Brotchie.

“I’m up for anything that promotes women’s confidence and women’s strength. And it’ll work because it gives them the chance to believe in themselves and be accepted for who they are. Our fight look is any weight, any shape, any way. That’s the way it is, yeah.”

Women, he says, are socialised to hold in their anger, instead of releasing it in a healthy way, by having what Brotchie calls a good ruck – the way boys (and grown men) burn off excess energy or emotion by wrestling or “play-fighting”. There’s a big difference between violence – “where something takes over you” – and the kind of controlled aggression women are taught at training, he says.

“Sometimes there’s so much anger and frustration to get rid of and this is a place where you can do that under control. Here, you get your shit out on the mat. It’s exploded and gone, so it doesn’t come out when you’re off the mat.”

Brotchie calls his fighters “the girls” – and, to be fair, that’s how they refer to each other, too. In the schoolgirl club, the youngest are barely in their teens, but a handful of the older women are in their 40s and 50s – and their backstories are so disparate that almost the only thing they have in common is their gender.

Maaike Hunter, an athletic Nordic blonde, is a distance runner who works as the e-commerce strategy manager for a fashion & lifestyle agency and talks of the “rush” of being pushed to the limit.

Mother-of-four Donna Slack works in real estate and was a makeup artist on The Shannara Chronicles, an American fantasy-drama TV series filmed here; her teenage daughter comes to training, too, and Brotchie reckons she has the makings of a top lightweight.

Left, Jaz Witheford, whose fight name is “Emlyn, Warrior of God”; Right, Wei Wei says wrestling has "opened up a whole new world and changed the way I think about how women should be.”

Jaz Witheford, who’s 23, works for a Christian TV channel and says she’s such a non-violent person she worries about catching a cockroach in case she hurts it. “But I quite like fighting,” she says. “It’s almost a brain teaser, or a game of chess, figuring out how to win.”

Another woman who doesn’t want to be named was so crippled by sciatica when she came to her first session that she could hardly walk across the room. She says fight training is the only thing she’s loved enough to push through the pain barrier. “It was getting to the point where my body would resist moving at all, because everything hurt. But I always did think of myself as a fighter – not physically, but mentally tough. And the adrenalin takes over. I don’t feel anything until I get home.”

Wei Wei, a Chinese student who graduated from Auckland University with a degree in maths and statistics, joined Mania to learn self-defence after a friend was robbed and beaten up in Albert Park. “They even took her socks.”

Asian women are expected to be submissive and behave in a certain way, says Wei, who turned out to be a natural in the ring. “I didn’t fall in love with it until my first fight; now I’m addicted,” she laughs. “It’s opened up a whole new world and changed the way I think about how women should be.

“People get so surprised I’m doing fighting and wrestling. They don’t believe me – until they see my muscles!”

Like Wei, some women come to fight club to learn how to defend themselves; others come because they haven’t been able to defend themselves in the past. And some are fighting demons in their heads that are far more powerful and more frightening than anything they might face in the ring. Drug addiction. Sexual abuse. Depression.

Priyanka (who asked for her surname not to be used) is in her third year of an arts degree at Auckland University. At 14, she suffered from depression, began to self-harm and attempted to take her own life. One of the women she trains with saw the marks on her arms and quietly showed Priyanka her own scars. “She said, ‘I’ve been through that. And I’m here if you need anything.’”

Mania’s John Brotchie runs a training session on the mats.

The 20-year-old still struggles with anxiety, but says the club has given her more confidence in herself and in what she believes is truly important. Her fight name, Kali, pays tribute to the fierce, beautiful Indian goddess whose portrait is tattooed on her arm.

“It’s good to feel you’re not just here to train but you’re part of something bigger than you. And you don’t have to be 100% perfect; you’re allowed big, unpredictable events in your life and they don’t have to define you. There are women here who have been through a lot, who are still going through a lot, and it helps show you there is a way out.”

In a curious way, the gym is a kind of safe house – a rare place where women can expose themselves without feeling judged or found wanting. There are no hair straighteners in the changing rooms, no chrome mirrors lining the walls, not even hot water for the shower. Bodies of all shapes and sizes spill out of bike pants and sports bras; wearing fitted clothes means there’s less for your opponent to grab onto when you’re sweating and grunting on the mats.

But what’s most remarkable about Mania, given the traumatic experiences some of its members have had with men, is that the club is run by two of them. Brotchie’s offsider, Peter McRae, is a printer by trade who’s been the skills trainer at Mania on and off for 20 years. He’s done some stunt work in the past – falling out of buildings, being set on fire – and takes a scientific, mathematical approach that’s the perfect foil to Brotchie, who has a more instinctive, empathetic training style.

“John can read me so well,” says Hunter, who’s trained with Brotchie for two years. “By the way I come in, he’ll know if I’ve had a tough day.”

Brotchie describes himself as “everyone’s mother” – whether it’s providing a character reference or a shoulder to lean on. “The first time I walked in, I felt like I was home,” says one woman, who was violently raped as a young teen.

She kept the assault hidden as a dark, corrosive secret for almost 20 years before finally reaching out for help, and joined the gym after being advised by her therapist to find a physical outlet for her anger. “By the time John and I went into the ring together, I trusted him completely, which is incredible considering why I went in the first place.”

Skills trainer Peter McRae with Davies (centre) and Wei. Boys grow up play-fighting, which gives them a natural advantage, says McRae, but women are tougher than they think. “You have to take a bit of the lady out of them.”

Instead of being left feeling small and vulnerable, she says that discovering a “bolder, fiercer me” has given her back a sense of power. “That’s what I channel when I’m fighting: the me I want to be. There’s nothing flash or assuming [about the gym], we’re just this rag-tag bunch of women, but there’s a real bond between us – like we’re part of an army.”

Small and wiry, Brotchie is a pixie of a man with a white goatee and a handful of missing teeth. At 68, his body might be slowing down a bit, but he still averages eight training fights a day in the gym, and wins most of them.

Born in the UK, he holds a black belt from the International Martial Arts Federation and set up his first female fight club in London in 1975 – one of only six in the world back then, he reckons, and two of those were topless.

He and his Kiwi wife, Joanna, settled here in 1989 after they had a “Damascus moment” at the Kai Iwi Lakes, on a trip to New Zealand to meet her parents. So when Brotchie describes Peter McRae as his “rock”, the biblical reference is intentional. A born-again Christian, Brotchie talks to God – “and God talks back, which is rare”.

These days, stuff like that would see most people backing slowly out the door. But even hardened non-believers simply accept it as one of Brotchie’s eccentricities. “Safe” is a word they often use to describe him.

“He’s such a good trainer,” says Amanda Swales, a young architectural technician who joined Mania a year ago and reckons it’s helped give her the confidence to call out sexism in her male-dominated industry. “But he has good life advice, as well. He talks about his family – his wife, his kids. If he had a cat, he’d probably talk about that, too.”

Indeed, Brotchie, who has two adult sons, is full of colourful stories. His mother was a German Jew who got on the last plane out of Denmark before the Nazi occupation in World War II. Later, in England, his jet-set parents had pots of money and sent him to a posh but brutal boarding school when he was six. For the next 10 years, he barely saw them, so he understands what it’s like to feel rejected.

As a young music promoter in the UK in the late 60s and early 70s, he hung out with bands, dabbled in the occult, dropped acid and dated a heroin addict who wrote on the walls with her own blood. He tells these stories without regret or chagrin. “Where you’ve been makes you who you are,” he says. “So I know what some of these girls are going through. Our team is made up of some broken people. Once broken... not now.”

Left, Maaike Hunter describes the gym as a community. “No one wants to put anyone down.”; Shannon Davies, who trains four times a week, has boxed for fitness but says sportfighting is the best workout she’s done. “It works every muscle – and it’s fun.”

Mike King recognised a fellow maverick in Brotchie. And although a lot of the focus has been on the high suicide rate among young men in New Zealand, the latest figures showed girls in the 10-14 age group took their lives at a higher rate than boys. “Girls also attempt suicide four times more than boys – and guess what? Girls are getting better at it,” says King.

Although other mental health experts have blamed social issues such as poverty and housing, King reckons the most important thing in a young person’s life is to feel accepted for who they are – and to know their thoughts and opinions mean something to a significant adult in their life. For some of the women at fight club, Brotchie is that person.

“I guarantee some of those young women have been put down their entire lives – by the adults around them or the partners they’ve chosen,” says King, who’s been riding a scooter around the country on his “I Am Hope” tour. “Now this guy called John has come out of nowhere and sees their potential.

“Being with a group of like-minded people who all support and encourage each other – that’s powerful, man. And John, he’s lived a life, hasn’t he? He believes in them, and as soon as you have someone believing in you, your whole perspective of yourself changes.”

Take Shannon Davies, one of Mania’s fiercest fighters, who’s in her early 30s and asked to be known only by her fight name. Despite her love for the ring, she does have a softer side and volunteers at an animal shelter when she can. But she also has the kind of “anger issues” that attract the attention of bouncers when her hackles are raised.

Last summer, she was glammed up for carnival day at the Ellerslie races when some drunk guy slipped his hand up her friend’s top and unhooked her bra. “The old me would have just gone and punched him,” she says. “I used to think I could take anyone on!”

Instead, Davies decided she was better – and smarter – than that. So she got him where it really hurt.

Picturing the hour-long queues for alcohol at the bar, she knocked the full cup of beer out of his hand. Then, while he stood there stupefied, she used his jacket to dry the wet splashes off her legs. And as she turned to walk away, it felt good.

This was published in the May 2018 issue of North & South.