Asian cage-fighter strikes blow for region's women

SINGAPORE - A young Singaporean is hoping her fast hands and feet can strike a blow for Asian women when she joins the region's tiny ranks of female cage-fighters next month.

Sherilyn Lim is polite and pretty but beyond that, the stereotypes crumble as the 23-year-old sweats through a tough routine in a small, downtown gym.

Lim, who first took up martial arts to lose weight, aims fists and elbows at a punching-bag before hitting the ring to fire jabs at a trainer.

Then she drops to the floor, straddles a prone bag and grimly pummels it with her knuckles and forearms, pretending it's an opponent.

Beaded with sweat and with a large tattoo across her back, Lim is training up to seven hours a day ahead of her debut in mixed martial arts (MMA), or cage-fighting.

She will take on another Asian debutante, Malaysia's Ann 'Athena' Osman, in Singapore on October 18 in a One Fighting Championship (One FC) promotion stacked with male fighters.

Anything-goes displays of kicking, punching and wrestling between two combatants locked in a cage is certainly not a traditional pursuit for Asian women.

But Lim, plucked from obscurity for the fight, says her appearance could be empowering for others like her.

"If I were to see myself or some other Asian woman step into the ring or in a cage, I would say 'Wow, this girl can kick ass'," she says, carefully straightening her hair and replacing her black-rimmed glasses after her work-out.

"A lot of times you realise certain things you think you cannot do are actually achievable and attainable. It's only a matter of whether you put that limit on yourself or not."

Lim, speaking calmly and intelligently as she sits on the gym floor, says she was a "fat kid" until just a couple of years ago, when she developed a serious interest in Muay Thai, or Thai kick-boxing.

Growing up, like many Singaporeans, her sport of choice was the less aggressive pastime of table tennis - although she says fighting and ping pong have some elements in common.

"A lot of people see it as just two paddles hitting a ball back and forth," she said. "But there's a lot of position and timing and also the right amount of strength needs to be applied at the right time."

As recently as two years ago, Lim could not do a full push-up ("I used to do the girly push-ups, the one with your knees on the ground") or a pull-up.

But an urge to raise her commitment to martial arts led her to an amateur fight this year, which she won. Footage of the bout prompted the offer from One FC.

"When I first started Muay Thai I wanted to lose weight but the dedication was not there," she said. "And then slowly, slowly I realised this thing has to be consistent, there's got to be discipline and a certain number of hours or days.

"Then you learn about nutrition and everything and then you put it all together like a puzzle."

Outside of Japan, which already has a presence in MMA, few Asian women have ventured into the cage. In many parts of the region, attitudes are conservative.

But Lim says her fight against Osman shows that women in Asia can do more than is sometimes assumed.

"Asia, in general, if you compare it to the Western countries, there's a societal stereotype: females should be at home as a housewife, taking care of children," she says.

"But as of today you can see that is already changing - women are educated, they're getting jobs, they're bringing home money.

"If you talk about what MMA does for Asian women, I would say it shows that women are also able to do the same thing that real athletes are doing, with regards to whatever sport.

"Just because we're Asian women, it doesn't mean that we're unable to perform certain tasks or have certain skill-sets."

Another woman who does not conform to stereotypes is the feisty Osman, who has promised via Twitter to "knock Sherilyn on her sorry Singapore city-girl butt".

Trash-talking is not Lim's way. But she says that when the steps into the brightly lit cage, for three five-minute rounds in front of thousands of spectators, she'll be ready.

"You can say everything you want before you fight but when it comes down to that three rounds in the cage, there's no talking needed," she says. "It will be intense."