In 2013, when Fallon Fox came out publicly as trans in professional mixed martial arts, she was the target of a torrent of hatred I have literally never seen targeting an LGBTQ athlete. While certainly some writers took thoughtful approaches to understanding this emerging dynamic of trans athletes in women’s sports, still many more, like Joe Rogan, were vicious for the sake of being vicious.

Yet Fox stood strong and continued to push for, and earn, her right to compete. Except for one fateful match, she also won every time she stepped into the professional ring.

When I wrote my book, Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes Are Claiming Their Rightful Place In Sports, the final chapter was titled, “Fallon Fox Is The Bravest Athlete In History.”

That remains true for me now, four years later.

So when Outsports released its 20 LGBTQ sports heroes of the decade, and we erroneously failed to include Fox on that original list, I felt it was important to re-introduce Fox to the world.

Today, as she works toward getting a degree, Fox is quietly re-emerging on the scene. She had slipped away from the public eye and social media for some time as she nursed injuries and healed her body. Now .she’s stepping back in the ring in hopes of some sparring and possible exhibition matches.

“My body is feeling a lot better lately,” she told me from her home in Chicago. “I’m getting past some of my injuries and I’m feeling a lot more in shape.”

Fox’s previous departure from MMA

When Fox disappeared from professional MMA, some people wondered why. Did a lack of opportunity with the UFC drive her away? Would no one fight her? While she admits some women likely felt pressure to not validate Fox’s presence in the sport with a fight, she said it was exclusively injuries that forced her to the sideline.

“I would have kept going but the injuries were the biggest reason,” she said, insisting that there were many women willing to fight her. “Some people suspected it was the UFC not letting me in, but that wasn’t the ultimate goal. Some people would ask if I wanted to fight in the UFC, and yeah, I would have taken that opportunity. But even without that I would have just kept fighting.”

To be sure, it wasn’t just UFC that seemed closed to having Fox enter the octagon against a cisgender woman. Fox told Outsports that she specifically approached Invicta, an all-female MMA promotion, about competing. She said she had personal conversations with executives there, yet follow-up outreach from Fox went unreturned.

Even with high-level MMA promotions ignoring her, MMA writers attacking her existence in the sport, and comments on MMA blogs that were routinely banned as hate speech, Fox persisted.

“What drove me to want to stay in the sport was my whole goal for becoming an MMA fighter, and that was to be like my heroes, some of the cisgender women in MMA I watched from 2006 on. That’s where I belonged. That’s who I was, and I wasn’t going to let anyone stop me from being that.”

One of the lasting moments from Fox’s career is a fight that has been twisted by anti-trans forces to paint her as a criminal assailant. During her fight against Tamikka Brents, Brents suffered a broken orbital and a concussion. Broken bones and concussions are not uncommon in MMA.

The people looking to ban trans women from women’s sports quickly twisted that into the misleading headline: Transgender MMA Fighter Breaks Skull of Her Female Opponent. The crux of their campaign is to build an aura of rarity around the fight and point to Fox being trans as the reason for the outcome.

“This happens all the time,” Fox said. “I’m not the first female MMA fighter who’s broken another fighter’s bones or caused a large amount of stitches or a concussion or any combination of those. And people will of course, because I’m trans, hold it up as this devastating thing that couldn’t possibly happen if I weren’t trans. But there are many different examples of similar things happening.”

A team in her corner

While people outside Fox’s circle have used the most malicious terms known in the English language in an attempt to drive her from the sport, Fox said she was supported by the people in MMA who knew her best.

“I know what it’s like to compete and train with teammates and they not know you’re trans. They get o know you as a woman and nothing else. And then later on when you come out, your team is behind you because they understand the situation and they’ve seen it first-hand and they care about you. In many situations this is happening with other trans women.”

Fox points out that she had been with her training team for a long time before she came out publicly, or came out to them, as trans. All the while they had, according to Fox, absolutely no idea that she was any different from any cisgender athlete in MMA.

Despite all of the screams of “unfair advantages” lobbied at her and other trans women in women’s sports, the women sparring with her saw no reason to believe she was different.

”My teammates had no idea I was trans. They recognized my endurance, my strength, my ability to cut weight in the same category as cisgender women. There was no idea in their minds that I didn’t belong.

“They weren’t thinking, ‘oh my God, she’s going to kill somebody.’”

In fact, Fox being trans was so far from the radar that one teammate was quite nearly speechless when she found out.

“I told her I was trans and I was about to come out, and the look on her face and what she said, she was totally surprised. She had no idea. And everything, my physical capabilities, my endurance, it was shocking to her.”

Fox ultimately came out publicly — in articles on Outsports and in Sports Illustrated — to get ahead of an article being planned by a sportswriter planning to out Fox, she said.

“Someone told that person that I was trans. I don’t know who. But they found out. And they contacted me and they were saying that because I was trans they didn’t want me to compete.”

Fox isn’t sure who tipped off the journalist whose threats changed her life forever, but she isn’t looking back. She’s been inducted in the LGBT Sports Hall Of Fame. She is an indelible part of LGBTQ sports history. And, maybe most importantly, she generated conversations an opened possibilities for trans athletes in women’s sports that will be felt for generations.

Be sure to catch Fox’s conversation with Dawn Ennis in The Trans Sporter Room podcast: