Patricio Manuel always wanted to be a fighter. While struggling with gender dysphoria in his teens, he started boxing and immediately fell in love. A decade later, Manuel has tried out for the Olympics, transitioned, made a comeback – and he’s only getting started.
Boxing, a Metaphor for Life
Patricio “Pat” Manuel has been boxing for more than ten years. The referee has brought him to the center of the ring countless times, instructions have been given, blows have been exchanged. The ritual is the same, but Pat is different. He has grown. He has changed, but he has continued to fight. As a trans man of color, Pat fights within the squared circle of the ring, and outside it. Pat jabs against imposed gender norms, slips, ducks and weaves around the heavy hands of racial discrimination and yet is still regulated by the biased referee of capitalism. The contest outside of the ring becomes heightened inside.
Everyone has a puncher’s chance. My own world is full of boxing, I’ve seen it happen. I work at a Muay Thai boxing gym in Bangkok and regularly commentate ringside as fighters battle it out. I first got a chance to hear about Pat through another coach and trainer when he shared a video about Pat with me. I watched it and could tell that Pat was no slouch. He threw his punches with snap, he had a boxer’s build – he belonged in the ring.
Pat came to boxing early on, at seventeen. He found the sport while battling gender dysphoria. The sport helped him shape his body into the one that he wanted, that of a fighter’s. His path took him through countless amateur bouts and he was set to compete in the USA Olympic tryouts in the female division. When an injury sidelined him and his Olympic dreams, he decided to transition to male.
I got a chance to talk to the Los Angeles pugilist about his path to becoming a boxer, identity, politics, and the benefits of knowing how to defend yourself.
How did you get into boxing?
I started [boxing] when I was 17. It was tied to my gender dysphoria. [I was] struggling with my gender identity when I didn’t have the language for it. It’s not a coincidence that that was around the time I was going through puberty. I was really struggling as my body was changing. I grew up in the Japanese community and was watching Dragon Ball Z on video tape. I loved martial art movies, I loved video games, everything like that. When I was really struggling with myself, the masculinity that I wanted to embody was that of a fighter. Subconsciously, you know. I had no idea I was trans.
There’s a reason that, when I say I’m a fighter, it resonates with other people of color in a special way.
I think I knew I was queer but I didn’t know that meant I was gender non-conforming. I was just trying to save myself. I had a lot of dissociation and anxiety. I thought if I could make myself feel more comfortable in my body then somehow this is going to work out. And it really did help me. When I became a boxer, I fell in love with that sport immediately. I loved everything about it. The training, the discipline, the way it made me look. The way it made me feel. It really helped me to cope with a lot of the mental anguish that was coming up through puberty.
What is your training regimen like?
Usually three days of the week I start at 4:30 am with some strength training. Around 10:00 am I go for a run – a mix of sprints and long distance running. From 4:30 to 7:30 pm I go into boxing training.
And then you work during the day?
What does it feel like when you go into the gym? What’s the atmosphere like?
The first thing is that you’re always hearing noise. There’s always activity. People on the speed bag. People punching mitts, punching the bag. Jumping rope. Constantly hearing the bell every two and a half minutes, every three minutes, then thirty seconds. So it’s loud. There are a lot of kids, so it’s always busy.
What’s your proudest fight accomplishment?
My first fight back, which was my first fight in the male division. I’d been off for four and a half years. I’d had a lot of fights pull out. I had a pre-match fight that ended up falling out that day. There happened to be a guy there who was in my age group and was an open fighter and who had more fights than me. We decided to take it even though it was risky. I was like, sure, I’m always willing to fight.
The first round he busted my nose. I just gritted down and came back and the last two rounds I was able to pull it out. For me it was a big turning point, I had to win that first bout back. Not only to prove myself to other people, because I think people were like, “Oh, Pat’s coming back and he’s in the male division. Let’s see what he’s gonna do.” But for myself to prove that after four and a half years and everything I went through, I still had heart.
That was what is most important. It’s not about the talent. It’s about: we’re both tired, in the last round, can I out-will my opponent to win that fight? It was dramatic. It meant a lot to me. It’s what I really needed to remind myself that this is who I was, then this is who I am now. It wasn’t something that was based on my perceived gender.
You’re currently training at the Duarte Training Center. How long have you been there?
I started training at Duarte in October 2014. I had lost my previous gym which was owned by a church. The owner of the church said that I didn’t represent the values of the gym and church. It was transphobic. I walked out and never came back.
I was really struggling with where to go. I was out as trans, so many people knew me. Faith, a female fighter who I had sparred back in the day, asked me: “When are you gonna come spar?” “I don’t have a gym right now,” I replied. She said, “Come to Duarte, you’re family.”
As a black athlete, people will always be surprised by my intelligence.
I didn’t want to go somewhere just because it accepted me. I’m very picky about who I work with. I need to be able to work with someone I can respect and who can also further me along. I went out there and talked to my trainer Victor Venezuela.
Faith had told him what was up. Victor said “Come back tomorrow and let’s see if this works.” I’ve been there ever since. It’s always been a cool gym with top-quality trainers. They are the best allies. I never have to train them or sit them down for “trans 101.” Vic was very much like, “Pat’s one of the guys.” They give me the correct pronouns. When occasionally someone would mess up, someone else would correct them.
[Before I joined the gym] I used to go there to spar with Rhonda Luna. [After I joined,] guys would come up and say, “Hey I remember when you used to spar Rhonda.” That was their way of telling me that they knew me before and that they were fine about it. I think now only half the gym knows I’m trans. I’m not closeted, it just doesn’t come up.
Outside the church and one coach, after I beat his fighter, I haven’t had many negative reactions. If they are saying it to my team, it’s not really coming back to me. I go in there and spar. LA is a hotbed for boxing, especially at my weight. I go in and I throw down with them. I get cracked, I crack them back. I’ve earned my respect and I think people see me as a man. I’m just like any other boxer. Just like when I was a female boxer. That respect I earned carried over to me as a male athlete.
Do you feel like there’s a difference between opponents in the female versus male division or is it basically the same?
You know, I’m different. My body has changed. I think people always want to say that fighting females is easier and I’m like, no.No.Not when you get to Olympic caliber boxers. I’ve fought internationally against Olympians and beat them and they weren’t easy fights. These were really high quality opponents.
My experience would be different if I had only fought novice fighters in the female division and then went to the male division, but when you are fighting the two-time silver world medalist from China it’s kinda different. If I go into another fight, well, she’s still a two-time silver world medalist. That skill level transfers over as I’ve changed genders. I don’t feel one is better than the other. I’ve fought at such a high level I don’t want to ever disrespect my opponents. I’ve lost to the females, [and] there are some that have beaten me. I’ve beaten a lot of them. I’ve gotten revenge on a lot of them. They were definitely high caliber opponents.
Are there fighters you’ve looked up to? You’ve mentioned a handful of female boxers that you know of, do you consider them role models?
For me, my path is really different. I have to take from here and there. My personal all-time favorite fighter is Archie Moore, the Old Mongoose. I really looked up to him, especially when I was younger. [It wasn’t until his late 30s that] he won the light heavyweight championship – because of racism. He just never gave up. That’s always been my motto. I don’t always do things quickly, but I’ll keep doing it until I eventually prevail. If anyone’s story that I’ve gotten inspiration from, it’s definitely his. Even though our paths in life have been different.
My friends were a lot of the top female fighters and have been great supports for me. In terms of male athletes, I like Érik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Márquez, Salvador Sánchez... I definitely look up to Mexican fighters, that Mexican fighting style, just because that’s a lot of what I’ve been around.
In terms of the Mexican fighting style, that’s sort of, you move forward and aggressive body punching, right?
Yes, stereotypically speaking. It’s changing. Márquez is a beautiful counter puncher, and so are Morales and Sánchez. They were high-level boxer punchers. Morales loved to fight, and he would brawl in there but he was also an excellent boxer.
How would you describe yourself as a fighter? Are you a boxer puncher, are you a technical brawler?
I’m definitely a forward fighter. My trainer made me spend a year basically learning how to move my head. Not that my other trainers didn’t before. It’s a different style. A lot of the female fighters were excellent boxers. I had to go there and bring the pressure. I’d like to think of myself as a technical pressure fighter who's prone to brawling. That’s a sophisticated way of saying I don’t listen sometimes and get into firefights.
Boxing is so emotional. It’s so hard to control your emotions and be technical and be thinking. It’s really challenging.
I mean, I like to brawl. If someone throws down I’m like, “okay, let’s go fight then.” It’s not something negative. It’s being super excited and wanting to throw down.
I know how it is. You get cracked with a clean shot and it’s like, ahhh, okay, now I want to give you two!
How has boxing helped you as a real-life skill and asset? Especially considering the current climate of repression, with news about the rise of white supremacy...
People say that boxing was a white sport, especially when they didn’t let black people compete in it, but there’s always been people of color and oppressed people [in boxing] because it’s a way for people to have some empowerment.
We are constantly dealing with systemic oppression and systemic trauma. As a black person, in my epigenetics is the trauma of slavery. Why wouldn’t I want to fight? The fact that I am here is a testament to my people’s resilience. When we get stuck in these systems where we feel like there is nothing to do, just being in the gym is a break, being able to hit someone is a break.
Boxing is such a metaphor for life. You’re in the ring, there’s an official, the judge may not have it your way, you might not be the favorite to win that fight, everything is stacked against you. But if you get that knockout, you can still win – that is the black existence. [Laughs] Sometimes you can will it. Sometimes you have the tools. It happens.
We are [still here] despite the attempts at genocide. I think it’s a slow genocide. Incarcerating us and using us as a new form of slave labor. The lack of access to healthcare, the lack of nutrition. We’re being killed by the crappy food that we’re constantly introduced to in the hood. The fact that we’re still here and we’re still fighting, that’s the same as someone coming off the ropes all the time. There’s a reason, too, that most people of color – especially black and Latino people that I run into – when I say that I’m a fighter, it resonates with them in a special way.
What is that like for you, being a boxer around different groups of people? You say working class people and people of color resonate with you. When you have to deal with more middle or upper class people, what are some of the common experiences?
“You’re so articulate!” That’s the first thing that comes out of their mouth. As a black athlete, people will always be surprised by my intelligence, especially as a business owner who is strategic and relies on getting people to trust in something they don’t understand. Most people don’t understand how online lead generation works.
I can see doubt. [It’s as if they’re saying] “You’re the fighter, right? You’re not the business person. You’re not the person to even understand what systematic oppression is.”
I have this extra incentive because of society’s really crappy definition of manhood and masculinity.
I’ve spoken at universities about using fitness as a resource tool for healing trauma. It really catches people off guard that someone like me is having these discussions. But someone like me understands it better than them. People have these stereotypes. For a lot of people it’s that the “jock” doesn’t really understand.
I also think there’s some anti-blackness that bleeds into it as well. A black athlete that is intelligent, they are like, “What is this?” People will try to credit the fact that I was raised by a white family. I’m like, no, there are plenty of intelligent athletes of color in sports. Very often people don’t give us platforms to speak on, look at Colin Kaepernick. And when you do speak out, they punish you. You better not get political.
More concretely, has boxing been beneficial to you in terms of self-defense?
Boxing has helped me with self-defense. Prior to hormone treatment and medically transitioning, I think a lot of people viewed me as a feminine gay man. Unfortunately, femininity, especially when seen in people that are men or are supposed to be masculine, becomes a target for attack. I definitely had people attempting to gay bash me. I was able to not only defend myself but kick the shit out of them. So that helped.
On the flip side, since my transitioning, I’m seen as less ambiguous gender-wise, and less racially ambiguous. Before, people would constantly question my ethnicity. They don't do so anymore. I personally can't tell you why because I don't see how my race has changed by my gender presentation changing. But I’ve been faced much more with the criminalization of black bodies. Specifically the way in which masculine black bodies are weaponized. That has included an increase of unsavory dealings with police who question why I am anywhere. They pull me over without cause. They did this before, but then, when they read female on my ID, they dropped some of the edge. There is so much police brutality. Every time I get pulled over I’m terrified.
It’s a double-edged sword. I can defend myself, but also because of the way I walk through this world and the way I look – like I’m not tall but I’m not small, I’m muscle – [people are intimidated]. They can see that I am someone who can use his body as a weapon, and looks like he can fight. Rather than people letting things slide, they might meet me with more extreme violence in order to check me quickly.
What are your goals with boxing? Can we expect to see you go pro soon?
My coach is gonna try for one or two more amateur fights. He just wants to see. I’ve talked to the California State Athletic Commission, and I’ve talked to my doctor already. He said he’s willing to sign everything that states that hormonally I’m a man and should be treated no different. The commission said, “submit it with a note and we’ll see.”
I don’t know if they’ve ever dealt with anyone like me, a trans-masculine athlete. I know there have been issues around trans women, which is a whole other sore spot, and it's really unfortunate that there is so much trans-misogyny for those athletes.
With someone like me, who is known, I’m not sure they know what to do. They can’t argue that I don’t have experience, or that I haven’t been hit by top-quality male sparring partners. So it’s wait and see and play it by ear.
Boxing is such a metaphor for life. The judge may not have it your way, everything is stacked against you. But if you get that knockout, you can still win – that is the black existence.
Even if they legally let me, I don’t necessarily get opponents. You can’t make someone fight me.
I’ve got a lot at stake. In order for me to be who I am and compete in the sport, I need support. Not just people saying, “Hey Pat, you’re really cool, good job.” I need people financially supporting me. I need masses behind me. If there is money behind me, someone will fight me. If I can get someone to support me – even if they can’t go to my fight, but they can buy the ticket, and let people know that they are supporting a trans athlete – that’s going to cause so much more attention. If people want to help out, they should reach out to me. Ask for actionable ways to support me that might change the way this sport is done and make sure there is space for athletes like me to compete.
Do you currently have any sponsors?
My only sponsor is the Long Beach LGBTQ Center because, one, I’m from Long Beach, but also I used to mentor the youth there and did a boxing program. I was like, hey, I need sponsorships. They were like, we’re hundred percent in your corner, here’s a check.
What does boxing mean to you?
I’m a very disciplined person who really likes working for goals. That’s boxing in a nutshell. Boxing is gritty and ugly and it never goes the way you want. If you can stand back up, you still have a chance to win. It really helped me to figure out the type of man that I want to be. A lot of trans men use the term, “self-made man,” but I believe that we are constantly constructed. I am still constructing myself based off the identities of fighters that I looked up to when I was a little kid – even if they were fictional.
In boxing a lot is tied to winning and losing. As a man, how does it feel to lose?
I used cry every time I lost. It was really easy for me to cry at the time. It could have been that I was so emotionally distraught because of everything that was going on in my life at the time. But I really fucking hate losing. I’m not a good loser. I don’t show bad sportsmanship but I get really fucking pissed at myself. That’s something that’s always been present.
I think there is an extra pressure now. When I was female it was pride. [Now it] is more about how I can’t afford to be written off. I feel like if I lose or when I lose, people will say I lost because I’m not a real man. I have this extra incentive because of society’s really crappy definition of manhood and masculinity. Most people will never get into a fist fight or actually step into the ring with a trained athlete, [yet] they’ll be the first ones to go, “Well I told you that’s a girl and that girl shouldn’t be fighting.” It irritates me because I could totally beat the shit out of them. I do think that’s an extra pressure. I’m not sure that it [has to do with] masculinity, but [rather] because I am a trans man. The stakes are higher for me.
What does it mean for you to win?
My definition of winning has changed. [I used to only see] my errors, even when I won. I gave away all of my trophies, all my belts to other people. I never really enjoyed it. I would say, “I did this and this wrong. I need to do this better.” I’m still critical, I’m always looking for improvement. But now when I win, I spend a moment and say, “You did good Pat! You won that fight. Smile about it, be happy. Celebrate it.” Celebrating is new for me. I’m starting to embrace that now. That speaks more to where I’m at as a person than anything else. I’m a happier person, so I’m able to see the positive when it happens, rather than always look for the negative.
Photos by Bibs Moreno.