In the first round of her professional mixed martial arts (MMA) debut, Malaysia’s Ann Osman took close to 30 knees to the mid-section from her opponent, Singapore’s Sherilyn Lim.
“You’ve broken her!” Lim’s trainer could be heard shouting, as Lim leaned against the cage of the Singapore Indoor Stadium.
In the second and third rounds, Osman took more devastating knee and head strikes, but responded with knees of her own along with takedowns and crushing ground and pound. Both fighters were unloading whopping lefts and straight rights as the final bell rang. But after 15 minutes of brawling, Lim’s hand was raised in a split decision victory.
ONE Fight Championship’s Total Domination event, held last October, was a disappointment for Osman, but “I definitely gave my best during the fight,” the Malaysian tells TIME.
And despite her defeat, the bout captured the public’s imagination. On Mar. 14, following immense pressure from both fans and media, ONE FC, the largest MMA promotion in Asia, will host a rematch between Lim and Osman — only this time in Osman’s home country.
“There’s an empowering element to women in Asia to see a strong, confident, fit female competing on a world scale, on a world stage, especially if you’re Muslim or if you’re from a Muslim country like Malaysia,” says ONE FC CEO Victor Cui.
Not many sports give women similar prestige as their male counterparts, but the growing prominence of female UFC stars such as Ronda Rousey, Liz Carmouche and Misha Tate has almost given MMA that distinction. And with the meteoric rise of MMA in Asia, ever more women are taking up the sport, and breaking fresh ground as they do.
“Having a female fight in a Muslim country like Malaysia is going to be a first,” says Cui. “There’s a huge cultural implication.”
While only 10 or so women trained at Yeoh’s fighting camp in Johor Bahru throughout 2013, in the wake of Osman’s October bout, and the hype surrounding the upcoming rematch builds, interest in MMA from female athletes has snowballed. In January alone, he has seen more than 20 women sign up.
According to Cui, it’s emphasizing narratives like Osman’s and playing off historical geopolitical rivalries like the one that exists between Singapore and Malaysia that is essential to MMA sinking deep roots into emerging Asian markets. “It’s Malaysia versus Singapore and those guys have a very, very extremely heated competition,” he says.