Myanmar’s Bozhena Antoniyar had to side-step conservative parents to take up bare-knuckle fighting, but her stealth paid off on her MMA debut when she knocked out her opponent in a record 24 seconds.
Bozhena picked up Myanmar’s brutal martial art of lethwei when she was 16, secretly attending training sessions.
“[My parents] had never seen or heard of girls doing lethwei,” the 24-year-old told AFP. “I had to trick them by saying I was playing football.”
The diminutive 1.57 metre (5ft 2in) fighter holds the record for the fastest MMA bout for the Singapore-based One Championship, the sport’s biggest promotion in Asia.
The bout ended at 24 seconds when Bozhena, sitting astride her opponent – compatriot Shwe Sin – landed a barrage of nine rapid punches to the head.
Bozhena, who goes by the nickname Toto, trains in a humid Yangon gym where she pummels her coach with jabs and hooks while ducking counterpunches.
She will need to be on top form for her next outing at the end of this month against Indonesian star Priscilla Hertati Lumban Gaol at One Championship’s card in Jakarta.
Bozhena hails from Myanmar’s poor eastern Kayah state, where women are better known for using brass rings to elongate their necks rather than the traditional combat sport lethwei.
The bone-crunching Myanmar fighting style is considered one of the most aggressive in the world. Combatants eschew boxing gloves for thin gauze wrapped around hardened knuckles and head-butting is permitted.
Like many in Kayah state, the fighter’s family are subsistence farmers. “My parents live hand-to-mouth. That helped drive me to success,” said Bozhena.
Her ambition to excel in MMA was also inspired by the increasingly high profile of Myanmar-born fighters.
The most well-known – and Bozhena’s hero – is Aung La Nsang, an ethnic Kachin nicknamed the “Burmese Python” who holds both middleweight and light heavyweight world titles for One Championship.
The 34-year-old was even voted 2019 International Fighter of the Year at Las Vegas-based World MMA Awards.
Bozhena’s career is still in its infancy, but she is already proving a formidable foe. In a knuckle-biting battle in July against Vietnamese-American fighter Bi Nguyen, the judges favoured her in a split decision.
She has gained fans across Myanmar, including within her once-disapproving community, she says with a smile. “Now when I have a fight, my house is packed with people who come to watch,” she said.
Social norms aside, Bozhena decries the lack of support for women wanting to get in the ring, saying men are more readily offered sponsorship deals and high-profile fights.
“There should be no gender discrimination,” she said, explaining that was the reason she left the lethwei arena for MMA.
Despite the challenges the trailblazer vowed to fight on. “I miss the days when I could be beautiful and feminine, but I prefer the path I have chosen.”