Ann Osman balances MMA, religion as Muslim female athletic pioneer
Ann Osman won't be labeled. She won't let anyone put her in a category.
She's a Muslim Malay, a woman and a professional mixed martial arts fighter. But none of those three things define her as a person. In her mind, and in the minds of those closest to her, she's just Ann Osman.
Osman hasn't lost sight of that with all the attention she's garnered lately.
In November, she became the first Muslim female to compete at a high level of MMA when she fought Sherilyn Lim at ONE FC: Total Domination in Singapore in October. The two will meet again in a rematch Friday at ONE FC: War of Nations (the first bout was a razor-close win for Lim) and it will be even more significant. Osman will be the first Muslim woman to fight MMA in a Muslim country. She'll be home, in Malaysia.
Most of the feedback she has gotten has been positive. Osman, 27, is something of a media darling in Malaysia, which is pretty liberal in urban areas. ONE FC PR head Loren Mack says she's one of the most requested athletes on the roster despite having just one career fight.
There has also been some negativity. Nothing major, but Osman has haters different from most MMA fighters. Her critics question her devotion to her religion. Osman wore a sports bra for the first fight against Lim. She doesn't wear a headscarf. She does photo shoots for magazines.
"I have my own way," Osman told FOX Sports. "I don't eat pork. I pray. I don't cover up and stuff. People judge me for that. I'm like whatever. I know what I'm doing. I still think of God. It's not like I don't have a belief. It's my lifestyle."
The way Osman practices Islam is perfectly acceptable in Sabah, where she lives, and Kuala Lumpur, where the fight takes place Friday (Online PPV, 7 a.m. ET). That isn't the case everywhere in Malaysia or the region. Protests by radical Muslim groups in Jakarta forced out the Miss World beauty pageant last year. Osman could be teetering on the brink as she continues to get more and more popular.
"If she should really get major attention at some point, you might see a backlash," said Michael Buehler, a political science professor at Northern Illinois who specializes in Asian Studies. "I don't think she's reached that threshold yet. Should she get beyond that, then there probably is going to be a protest."
Osman has been in FHM Malaysia, a men's magazine, in workout clothes, but said she would draw the line at taking photos in a bikini, because that would violate her "own personal principles." The offers will certainly be there. Osman is extremely marketable -- young, attractive and charismatic.
“If she should really get major attention at some point, you might see a backlash. I don't think she's reached that threshold yet. Should she get beyond that, then there probably is going to be a protest.”
ONE FC CEO Victor Cui is experiencing a little bit of what the UFC has with the rapid rise of women's MMA, led by Ronda Rousey. Lim, he said, is now the most famous athlete -- male or female -- in her home country of Singapore, which is also where ONE FC is based. Osman draws "swarms" at shopping malls when she does appearances.
"We're lucky in that not only do they like fighting, they are articulate, attractive and media savvy," Cui told FOX Sports. "Once in awhile you get athletes who put that all together and it makes a big difference."
This was part of Cui's plan all along. He said Osman's debut has "been in the works for awhile." Malaysia's minister of sport, Khairy Jamaluddin, is behind her competing and he'll be in attendance Friday at Stadium Negara.
"You have to imagine what a quantum leap from two years ago when nobody [in Malaysia] ever heard of mixed martial arts," Cui said.
While ONE FC is promoting Osman-Lim, a 115-pound fight, hard, it remains a preliminary bout. It'll be just the second fight on a card headlined by a welterweight title fight between Brock Larson and Nobutatsu Suzuki. Osman and Lim, after all, only have one professional fight of experience apiece. Osman works full time as a business development manager.
Cui said the crowd reaction in October for the two women was one of the loudest of the night. It was a back-and-forth fight with Lim taking the decision. The third round was nominated for 2013 WMMA Round of the Year by Bloody Elbow.
"They're role models," Cui said. "They're inspirational. They are legitimately the every day woman who are challenging themselves to another level to improve themselves through martial arts."
Osman is still pretty uncomfortable with being a role model, but she hopes she can inspire other women, Muslim or otherwise. She said the amount of females at her Borneo Tribal Squad gym has tripled since her fight with Lim in October.
"MMA is kind of new here," Osman said. "It's just starting to grow. It's just great to actually make some contributions to the growth of the sport."
Malaysia actually has a long history of females in traditional martial arts and Osman is helping meld the worlds of the old guard and MMA. She's also helping to bring worldwide awareness -- not only to ONE FC but also her region and religion.
"She's a good ambassador," Buehler said. "She's young, she's attractive, she's successful. I could see how that's creating a kind of trend."
Just don't expect to pin Osman down as a stereotype.