The second time I visited Germany's first (well, only) female fight club, I got lost. It was early April, and I wandered through the wide boulevards, somewhere deep in northeast Berlin, breathing nervously. I looked again at an email from Anna Konda, the ripped, 264-pound club co-owner. "We can make you into a wrestler in some days," she had written excitedly. For my first lesson, I'd be fighting Amethyst Hammerfist.
I was an athlete in high school, but now I mostly just talk about yoga and complain about a recently broken wrist. When I arrived at the fight club, conveniently located next to a hospital, there was a gaggle of blond Northern European journalists, a carefully laid-out selection of snacks, and three fighters warming up in leather and spandex.
Anna and her co-founder, Red Devil, are the club's stalwarts. They've opened their space to any woman who wants to train or fight; this particular week, they were hosting Amethyst, from London. Though the women—who can leg press up to 1,500 pounds, squash watermelons between their thighs, and knock somebody down with a well-placed finger behind the ear—are mostly amateurs or semi-professionals, they spar one another with respect.
Amethyst roughly matches my height and weight, with a mess of bouncy blue curls. "I had some anger-management issues," she told me when I asked why she got into wrestling. Those seem to all be gone now—she was very sweet and complimented my arm wrestling. "You're strong," she lied.
I watched as the three women fought in an informal round robin. There's no referee, so there are no rules, though they discourage biting, scratching, and hair pulling. Everyone fought with genuine esteem, often pausing to demonstrate new moves or compliment a fellow wrestler. Anna prevailed (she usually does). Suddenly, it was my turn. My stomach hurt.
I knelt on the foam mat in front of Amethyst and adjusted my ponytail. "OK, so..." she said, smiling. We raised our arms and began to grapple. After several seconds, we fell to the mat and rolled around. Though I have little strength and less technique, I was surprised by how long I stayed in the bout and how fun it was. Unless you are already part of a fight club, it's generally considered socially unacceptable to choke out a stranger.
Freshly confident, I agreed when Anna said I could fight her in a "handicapped" match, meaning I would start in a dominant position. I straddled her and held her arms down. "Good!" she said encouragingly, simultaneously thrusting her hips and throwing me clear off her. She pinned me against the wall and leaned on my chest. A breast popped out of her leather corset, and a pink nipple dangled near my nose. It was very difficult to breathe.
"They say wrestling is the closest sport to sex," Amethyst told me after the match. That partially explains the other side of female wrestling—the men. "There are different kinds of men who are coming to fight," explained Anna. Some do it for sheer athleticism, but for many, it's a salacious experience to be dominated. Muscle worshippers, fetishists, wrestlers, mixed martial artists, marathon runners, grandfathers, and submissives have all had their asses kicked here. These men schedule individual sessions with the fighters, usually for a fee around $225.
"I think that because of typical gender roles, it's interesting for men to think if women can be stronger," Paul told me before his session in late March. He knows best—he's happily married to Anna, and he originally got her interested in powerlifting and fighting. Now he's relegated to managing the club's social media.
At Anna's suggestion, I stopped by the Heinrich Zille Museum in Mitte. Zille dedicated himself to portraying Berlin's working class at the turn of the 20th century in Rabelaisian detail. I was searching for two paintings depicting female fight clubs, where, legend has it, men used to bet 15 cents that they could beat the women. If the men won, they got 100 German marks.
The paintings aren't in the museum, but the manager, a sweet woman who spoke no English, sent me off with a postcard of a man and woman in a tight embrace, muscles bulging, fighting in front of a rapt audience. The image is dated from 1903.
Before the dissolution of the Weimar Republic in 1933, German women's status was one of the most progressive in Europe. The rise of the National Socialist Party brought all that to a crushing halt. The model Nazi woman became a stay-at-home, unemployed, makeup-less Aryan wife and mother. But by World War II, the state desperately needed labor. The government relaxed certain policies and allowed women to join the army. Many held office jobs—as typists and telephone operators—but thousands filled posts in concentration camps and joined the SS. At the same time, a number of German women, particularly minorities, got involved with the resistance.
"To friendship and male abuse," Dominique toasted, raising her glass.
The war's end led to Soviet occupation, resulting in the creation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Both Anna and Paul grew up in East Berlin during the Cold War. "It was a very successful sports nation," Paul told me. Athletic scouts didn't make a distinction between girls and boys, he said. Girls were picked for more "muscular" sports, like crew, and dominated the schoolyard. In many aspects, men and women lived in more egalitarian partnerships in the GDR than in West Germany.
Reunification complicated progress in gender equality. Even today, Germany's performance in achieving gender parity has been lambasted as "mediocre" and "lagging" by the European Parliament. Prevailing views on women and men's roles are still largely traditional, the pay gap is the highest in Europe, and 40 percent of women have experienced physical or sexual abuse.
To an outsider, the fight club might seem like an antidote to this culture. It's a "place for women to rule," Anna told me, though individually, the women stray from this philosophy. "I'm not so much into these gender roles," said Red Devil, who's a multilingual food chemist and kung fu student. "I think people should just develop themselves, like Renaissance guys."
Two weeks before I fought Amethyst, I sat on a plastic chair a foot away from the mat and watched as Anna and Dominique Danger, a visiting Lebanese American Olympic lifter and self-described "femdom super lady," chased Paul around the room until he fell rather quickly to the floor. Submission, I'm later told, usually happens fast.
They pulled at his arms, walked on his back, slapped him, and folded his legs behind his ears; in a particularly cruel move, they tickled his feet. Anna brought out a thin wooden bench for Paul to lie down on, and Dominique arranged herself on top of him. He let out a guttural moan. "Do you like to be choked?" Dominique asked, flipping her hair over her shoulder and adjusting her weight on Paul's stomach. "I don't know if you like to be choked," she said thoughtfully. "But I like to choke."
Dominique stands at 5'2" and weighs 220 pounds, and her long fire red hair was swept off her face in a braid. She had an incredible arsenal of stories ("You know Sean Paul? I went to rehab with his father in Jamaica") and a Hand of Fatima neck tattoo. In addition to fighting other women competitively, Dominique provides non-sexual services to male clients, everything from fantasy wrestling to full-on, no-holds-barred fighting. Despite her formidable strength and the fact that men are quite literally paying to get beat up, people often question her role as a female fighter.
"Women with dicks," she said, shaking her head incredulously. "I get that a lot. 'Do you have a dick?' No, I don't." Anna told me men often accuse the club's members of being on steroids. "You get into these situations with men who are nurtured or cultured to think that you're a woman, so you can't do anything." Dominique said.
Unlike the Berlin women, Dominique works independently, mostly out of hotel rooms. She claimed to have had clients who have shown up with chloroform or who have tried to kill her. "The biggest fear of men is to let go," she told me. "When they realize you can put your foot in their ass, they get fucking vicious. It's just arrogance. Just because of a gender assignment, that does not make you stronger."
As their fight continued, Dominique rose, and a debilitated Paul dropped from the bench. Anna handcuffed his arms in front of him and leaned his head back against the bench, straddling him and sitting squarely on his face. Every few seconds she stood, and Paul let out the gasping breath of a man being waterboarded. Though everyone was a consenting adult, I felt uncomfortable—I can't stand violent movies, let alone someone in front of me being suffocated. I wanted to give Paul a glass of water, but that's not allowed.
Their session ended, and Anna got up. "Is it time for the cage?" she asked.
"Yes," Paul said meekly. "Please put me in the cage."
In the corner of the room was a padded black cage that looked like it could comfortably hold a medium-size dog. Paul crawled inside and sat with his legs crossed and his back hunched over. "It's the only safe place," he whispered.
"Now we can have a good time." Anna said brightly, bringing out a bottle of champagne and a box of assorted chocolate-dipped cookies. She and Dominique sat on top of the cage and popped the champagne.
"To friendship and male abuse," Dominique toasted, raising her glass. "Oh yeah, that's good," she said. "Is it German?"
"No," Anna replied. "I think it's French."
There was a pause in the conversation, and Paul spoke up.
"It's Spanish," he offered helpfully from underneath them.