At a moment when the mere existence of transgender athletes generates controversy, Patricio Manuel is fighting—and winning.
Before he transitioned, Manuel won five amateur women’s boxing championships—but a shoulder injury dashed hopes of competing in the 2012 Olympics. Then, after taking time off to transition, Manuel came back to the ring. Earlier this month, Manuel won his professional debut against super-featherweight Hugo Aguilar by a score of 39-37.
The Dec. 8 fight, which took place at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, lasted 12 minutes and ended with a unanimous decision.
Not only does that make Manuel the first transgender boxer to compete in a professional fight, it makes him the first transgender boxer to win one.
“Honestly, the feelings are still sinking in,” Manuel told The Daily Beast. “I’m obviously happy I won, but I also never doubted that I would win.”
Manuel told The Daily Beast that he might have come out as a transgender man sooner but he was worried about “not being able to compete anymore.”
Boxing, he said, has always been his “first love,” not just his sport of choice but a way for him to “connect with [his] black roots, given the historical significance of the sport for black people”—especially because he wasn’t raised within the black community.
“Boxing was the first place where black men were seen as human on a large scale, the first place we were celebrated as American heroes,” Manuel told The Daily Beast, citing Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali as inspirations.
In fact, one of Manuel’s role models in the sport—Archie Moore, a.k.a. “The Old Mongoose”—also had to step away from the ring at an inopportune moment. In 1941, only five years into his professional career, the Mississippi-born Moore left the sport due to a ruptured stomach ulcer. He came back the following year and went on to become the world light heavyweight champion in 1952—a title he held for a decade.
Manuel was worried about how much time he had to take off to recover from his shoulder injury—and to come out as transgender. (“Ring rust is a thing,” he wryly notes.)
Between his gender transition and the difficulty of finding amateur male opponents who would face him afterwards, a five-year chunk was taken out of his career—which was just reaching promising heights in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics.
“Beginning my pro boxing career as a 33-year-old fighter is not ideal,” he told The Daily Beast, “but I wouldn’t trade the opportunity to be winning as my whole, authentic self for anything.”
He takes comfort in the fact that “The Old Mongoose” didn’t get his first shot at a title fight until he was 38 years old and was almost 50 by the time of his final fight.
Manuel’s win this month is a milestone moment for transgender people in sports—proof of just how normal it can be for transgender people to compete as themselves.
Only recently have sports organizations and governing bodies begun revising their policies to make it easier for transgender people to compete. It took until 2016 for the International Olympic Committee to allow transgender people to compete in their sports without undergoing sex reassignment surgery first. (Testosterone levels are used as a deciding factor, with continuing debate over what levels should be permissible for female athletes.)
As Q Voice News reported, the 2016 IOC revision is what prompted USA Boxing, which governs amateur fights, to allow Manuel to re-enter the sport. He began competing at the amateur level again in 2016, winning against Adan Ochoa in a Cinco de Mayo bout.
Some transgender athletes coming up today are still required to compete in their birth-assigned gender.
Most notably, in Texas this year, transgender wrestler Mack Beggs won his second state-level wrestling tournament in a girls category—despite the fact that he is a boy and is now taking testosterone as part of his medical transition. The University Interscholastic League, which oversees the sports in the state, still determines gender by birth certificate—despite the enormous controversy generated by Beggs’ victories.
There were those who put the blame on Beggs himself for continuing to participate in his sport even though he didn’t want to wrestle against the girls.
To young transgender athletes in such challenging positions, Manuel would say, “You have every right to be a part of your sport and not have to compromise who you are as a person in order to compete.”
Manuel, who has had difficulty finding male opponents to face him after transition, had a gracious opponent in Aguilar for his first professional fight. Aguilar told the Los Angeles Times that he had no idea Manuel was transgender until two days before facing him in the ring—and that it made no difference.
“For me it’s very respectable,” he told the paper. “It doesn’t change anything for me. In the ring he wants to win and I want to win too.”
Manuel told The Daily Beast that the cheers for him this month—in the ring and in the press, among LGBT people and boxing enthusiasts alike—have been tremendously validating, just as boxing was a source of validation and strength for Johnson, Louis, Ali, and, of course, “The Old Mongoose.”
“My pro boxing career is giving me the same opportunity, to have my humanity as a black trans man affirmed and even celebrated by many people around the world,” said Manuel.