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 th


In a rough and ready Auck­land gym, women come look­ing for a fight – and some­times find sal­va­tion. Joanna Wane goes to fight club.

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.

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.”

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

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

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 per- form 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 wom­en­sport­fight­

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.

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.’”

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,

“It’s opened up a whole new world and changed the way I think about how women should be.” WEI WEI

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.”

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

“John can read me so well. By the way I come in, he’ll know if I’ve had a tough day.” MAAIKE HUNTER

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.”

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. +

“The old me would have just gone and punched him. I used to think I could take any­one on!” SHAN­NON DAVIES

Top: Nic Brown takes a wa­ter break between rounds. Above: 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

Above left: Maaike Hunter de­scribes the gym as a com­mu­nity. “No one wants to put any­one down.” Above: Jaz Withe­ford, whose fight name is “Em­lyn, War­rior of God”.

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