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.