Fallon Fox's fifteen minutes of fame was inevitable the moment she got a phone call that changed everything.
It should have been a time for celebration, a dinner to celebrate the launch of something new. Fox, in just her second professional fight, had won in devastating fashion, knocking out poor Ericka Newsome with a brutal knee in the clinch.
The ringing phone, and the reporter on the other end, changed the mood, glee turning to gloom in just a few seconds. The gist?
The reporter's words were as chilling as they were inevitable. Her secret, one she had kept close to her heart for seven years even from close friends such as her trainer Joe Smith, was about to become very, very public.
Fox, profiled Tuesday night on HBO's Real Sports was born Boyd Burton. She was about to become MMA's first openly transgender athlete.
Secrets are nothing new for Fox. It all started with a dress. At five, she put one on for the first time, one of her sister's, and things clicked. It felt right.
And yet, the young man who went to church four times a week with his parents and two siblings knew it was wrong. And that God was watching.
"It's likely to lead you to a pit of fire," Fox told HBO's Mary Carillo. "I was brought up with the idea that God is watching at all times. So I felt dirty, I felt worthless, I felt like I was going to hell. Just for putting on women's clothes."
And so Boyd Burton soldiered on, trying to leave his impulses and desires in the past and live his life as he was born—as a man. He wrestled in high school, knocked a girl up at 19, even joined the Navy to make ends meet. But it was all a lie.
Eventually, the truth spilled out. Boyd became Fallon, a 2006 surgery in Thailand making her outside match the woman she says always lurked within. Her daughter, amazingly, handled the change with grace.
"I think when kids are younger, they don't have these preconceived notions of what a transsexual person is," Fox told Sports Illustrated's Loretta Hunt. "I told her that I felt I should have been born a woman and that it was really, really important to me. I told her the doctor was going to help me become a woman. I told her that and she said, 'Oh cool. Can we do something else now?'"
When she finally told her parents, the sailing was less smooth. Her mom all but disappeared from her life. Her dad insisted that she must be a gay man instead. Not because he was accepting of that—but because he knew a conversion therapist who could fix her. It was, she agreed, worth a try.
"I wanted to take the chance and see if it actually worked," Fox told Carillo. "There was a lot on the line. Losing my family. Losing my friends. Losing my daughter. I was going to go to hell in a lake of fire with no possibility of parole."
When it turned out a fixation on sports and a steady stream of Die Hard flicks didn't do the trick, it was back to plan A. Boyd became Fallon, in body as well as soul.
The mixed martial arts community, in short, has not greeted Fox with open arms. Her very first opponent as an openly transgender fighter blared Aerosmith's "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)" on her way to the ring. A fan in the crowd got big laughs with a simple piece of advice—"kick her in the balls."
But the uproar wasn't limited to the Florida regional scene. Her revelation led to an outcry from fans, media and fighters all across the country, all sure her biological beginnings gave her an unacceptable edge in the cage. While scientists disagree, that's never stopped anyone from voicing his opinion.
UFC announcer Joe Rogan led the charge with a vile rant:
She calls herself a woman but...I tend to disagree. She used to be a man but now she has had, she's a transgender, which is the official term that means you've gone through it, right? And she wants to be able to fight women in MMA. I say no f---ing way.
I say if you had a d--k at one point in time, you also have all the bone structure that comes with having a d--k. You have bigger hands, you have bigger shoulder joints. You're a f---ing man. That's a man, OK? I don't care if you don't have a d--k any more.
Fighter Matt Mitrione got in on the act, telling MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani that Fox was a "lying, sick, sociopathic, disgusting freak. And I mean that."
Women's champion Ronda Rousey was equally as crude, telling The New York Post (via Bloody Elbow.com):
She can try hormones, chop her pecker off, but it's still the same bone structure a man has. It's an advantage. I don't think it's fair.
A year later, little has changed. Just last week, Rousey was in the headlines again, this time for referring to fellow fighter Cris Cyborg as "it" instead of "she." If change is coming, it's on a slow train.
MMA, it seems, is not ready for Fallon Fox. And that's a problem.
Unfortunately, Fallon Fox is not ready for high-level MMA, either. And that eliminates the most obvious solution—let her rise to the top on merit, critics be damned.
As with every mainstream story covering Fox's tale, you don't get a sense of Fox's rightful place in the sport's hierarchy. The truth is, the only reason anyone beyond the most hardcore fans in Florida have ever heard of Fox is because of the controversy surrounding her transformation.
She was one of the opening acts on the regional level. Now 38 years old, with delusions of grandeur shattered by Ashlee Evans-Smith, it's likely that's all she'll ever be.
Fox's is a sad and compelling tale. I'm glad it's been told. I hope there's a happy ending. But, as I said last year, I don't want to hear about her again unless it's because of what she does, not who she is. That's the best way to embrace Fox—by treating her just like everybody else.