“When I was younger, I dressed and boxed as a boy like everyone else, and things were simpler. Now, everything is much more complex and challenging,” says Rose Baan Charoensuk, who is unlike most other Muay Thai champion fighters. Her long hair tied into a ponytail, she enters the ring wearing a sports bra and full makeup—her lips red, face rouged, and plucked eyebrows angled to accentuate her sprightly eyes.
In the brutal, macho sport that is Muay Thai, Rose fights as the woman who she has become. She’s widely called Nong Rose, with nong, when applied to her, meaning “little sister” in Thai. To her advantage, some opponents make the mistake of underestimating her. Before they know it, little sister has landed a kick to their belly—or worse. She is, as some might call her a gulaab-sorn-nahm: a rose that hides its thorns.
This Rose, with over 150 domestic and international fights victories, became the first transgender boxer to fight in the storied Rajadamnern Stadium, which, along with Lumpinee Boxing Stadium, is widely considered to be one of the most revered arenas in the world for Muay Thai.
In such a male-dominated sport, Rose has long faced down the expected prejudices against a “second-type woman,” as male-to-female transgender persons often call themselves in Thailand. She hears someone yell, “If you lose to her, you’re worse off than a dog,” and knows the taunt to have been directed to her opponent with her gender identity as the insult. She keeps her composure and fights on. Although many would like to believe modern Thai society to be more open-minded than ever, discriminatory attitudes toward those with queer identities still abound. In popular media portrayals, many are called katoey, or, lady-boy, with their role often relegated to serving as comedic foil to the masculine hero. Katoeys are supposed to run hair salons or dance for tourists in cabaret shows, not become championship fighters.
Rose, now 22, first overcame her shy nature to openly dress as a woman when she was 14 years old. The name Rose stemmed from Somros Polchareon, the conventionally male name given to her by her parents. When she was young, her father was often out of town on business, and her mother worked whatever job she could find in their hometown of Phimai in the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima. It so happened that her uncle, a former fighter, ran a Muay Thai boxing camp, and it was he who trained her and her brother.
Wanting to help financially support her family, she entered her first Muay Thai fight when she was eight years old. It was at a temple fair, and she won 500 baht for the match—a little over 15 U.S. dollars at today’s exchange rate. At the time, it was more money than she’d ever earned for her parents. Even now, they’re still her main motivation. “No matter what, I always want to win for my father and mother, so that I can help them out,” she says. “For me, I need nothing else.”
She picks up her training regimen in the month leading up to a fight, eating and drinking what her trainer advises: no fatty foods and mostly fruits, vegetables, milk, and eggs. “I imagine that my opponent is training very well, so I have to train even better,” she says.
It used to be that, upon learning of her identity, other boxers would dismiss her skills. But with her lethality now well known in the Muay Thai world, she guesses they’re all watching YouTube clips of her past bouts in advance. Those videos should scare any fighter. Muay Thai is often called the eight-limbed sport for the knees and elbows deployed; Rose fulfills the name to the fullest. As the sound of classical Thai folk music urges the fighters on, she never shies from absorbing a kick or two to advance against her opponent or relentlessly trading knees in a grappling embrace or seizing a quick opportunity to swing an elbow into a face. That ferocity has earned her many monikers in the Thai press: The Knee of Iron Flowers, The Poison-Bathed Rose, The Rocket Knee.
Such handles bring delight to Rose, who feels the need to live up to or exceed expectations. Everywhere, and especially in the ring, she is keenly aware of the weight of responsibility. “That I fight the way I do makes me a representative for transgender women. I’d like to think that I’m helping at least some part of society accept us for who we are,” says Rose.
Rose acknowledges that she isn’t alone. She considers herself to be part of the sisterhood that includes “Toom” Parinya Charoenphol, the subject of the movie Beautiful Boxer, and Angie Petchrungruang, who became the first to fight as a transgender woman at Lumpinee. “There’s still a lot of prejudice, but many other transgender women are showing their true identity, so that more people will become more open-minded,” she says.
But progress comes slowly. Rose knows how dispiriting the path as a transgender fighter can be. For several months in 2018, she felt frustrated with the domestic Muay Thai scene, and she decided to return to her hometown to help her mother at the market and work at a bag-making factory, unsure if she would enter the ring again. Then her uncle asked her to help train a fighter at the camp, and the next thing she knew, she was headlining a match.
“The manager of the camp asked if I wanted to fight, and I said yes, I want to,” Rose says. She meant it. With her comeback that September, she won a prestigious title for her weight class.
In the coming years, Rose aspires to fight more international contests and someday open her own training camp. Muay Thai is her calling, she realizes, and she wants to beat down opponents for as long as she can. “Knee techniques will always be my favorite,” she says. “With them, I feel like I’m expressing my fullest weaponry.” She has a reputation—and many fearsome nicknames—to maintain.
TEXT PITCHAYA SUDBANTHAD
PHOTOGRAPHS ELOISE PERRY
PRODUCTION MOONDUCKLING FILMS
CASTING EVELIEN JOOS
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