When Patricio Manuel steps through the ropes and into the boxing ring just after 6 p.m. Saturday, few in the crowd at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio will know what a long and torturous trek he made to get there.
They won’t know about the resistance overcome or the months of physical rehab endured. They won’t know how hard it was to get those chiseled biceps atop a super featherweight’s thin frame. They may not even know that, at 33, an age when undefeated champions Rocky Marciano and Andre Ward had already retired, Manuel will be making his pro debut.
And if they don’t know any of that, they surely won’t know that Patricio used to be Patricia — he was a she — and in the four-round bout against Hugo Aguilar, a journeyman boxer from Mexico, Manuel will make history as the first transgender male to fight professionally in the U.S.
“It feels like a long time coming,” said Manuel, who fought for the last time as a female in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. “But I’m still like, ‘Wow, we’re finally here. Finally at this point.’
“I just feel incredibly fortunate to be in this position. To be able to enjoy all the sacrifice, all the work, all the doubt that came through over the years to really be here in this moment.”
If you feel like you’ve read this story before, it may be because you have. Fifteen months ago, after losing his coach, getting kicked out of a gym and seeing his dream of fighting as a man stymied by bureaucracy — no one was quite sure how to license a transgender boxer — Manuel split two amateur bouts and was set to turn pro before suffering a broken bone and torn ligament in his right thumb.
Eric Gomez also read that story and as president of Golden Boy, Oscar de la Hoya’s boxing promotion company, he was uniquely positioned to help.
“It really inspired me,” he said. “This is a story that is bigger than boxing. It’s a very tough sport. You compound that with what Pat went through. The inner struggles, the process of transition and to keep wanting to fight?
“Just that drive is impressive. It’s very different than any athlete I’ve met. And I’ve been doing this for 20 years.”
So Gomez — along with a number of politicians, including state assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Dean Grafilo, director of the California Department of Consumer Affairs — cut through the red tape to help get Manuel licensed. Golden Boy then arranged a bout, matching Manuel against the winless Aguilar (0-5) on an eight-fight card topped by a super featherweight world championship elimination bout matching Rene Alvarado of Nicaragua against Carlos Morales of Los Angeles.
“We haven’t talked about doing any more fights,” Gomez said. “His dream was to debut as a professional fighter. Everybody has a right to follow their dreams. Just to be part of this is special for me.”
Manuel, whose ancestry is Irish, Mexican and black, never really knew his father. But his mother, Loretta Butler, and grandmother Patricia Jean Butler were never far away, supporting Manuel through childhood in Gardena and a boxing career that included almost as many injuries as bouts.
And all the while, they sensed something was different about young Patricia, who was named for her grandmother. She preferred boys’ clothes to dresses, kept her hair short and played with action figures rather than Barbie dolls.
“Every Christmas I would be buying toys at Toys ‘R’ Us and everybody would say, ‘Boys at home, huh?’” Loretta Butler remembered.
So one winter Manuel’s grandmother got creative with her gift-giving, buying Patricia a boxing club membership. Although female fighters were rare, Manuel took to the sport and its hyper-masculine ambience quickly, moving to the Commerce Boxing Club and spending long hours working with Roberto Luna, who trained three Olympians.
Manuel was to be his fourth. But in the 2012 women’s Olympic Trials, Manuel had to withdraw after one bout — a one-sided lightweight loss to Florida’s Tiara Brown — because of a shoulder injury.
Even before the trials, Manuel had thought of transitioning to male, but the hope of representing the U.S. in the first Olympic boxing tournament for women held him back. After the trials, there was no reason to wait. On the trip home, Manuel told Butler that her daughter would soon become her son — then waited for the response.
It was one not of surprise but relief.
“Pat has always been a male,” his mother says. “It’s just Pat was not assigned properly at birth.”
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