Nong Toom prances around the ring waiting to land another punch or kick on her male opponent as her black, glossy hair, pulled back in a pony-tail, swings to and fro. Despite the detached look on her face, she is hurting. Her breasts have been tightly strapped for protection and her muscles and bones throb from the kicks, punches and elbow strikes she has traded with Japan's Kenshiro Lookchaomaekhemthong. The fight has been going for three rounds, and both welterweight combatants look exhausted. The sticky February heat in the Thai seaside town of Pattaya is not helping. Both fighters are trying hard not to show their pain and fatigue; in Thai kickboxing, or Muay Thai, fighters are supposed to be courageous, tenacious and composed. Suddenly, Nong Toom unleashes a devastating elbow strike that causes Lookchaomaekhemthong to lose his footing. It seals the match. The judges declare her the winner and the crowd cheers. It's her first fight since coming back from six years in retirement but, rather than celebrating, Nong Toom is just relieved there has been no damage to her valuable face during the bout. She walks over to Lookchaomaekhemthong and gently kisses him on the cheek, leaving a pink lip-gloss mark. The crowd roars. There is a ripple of excited chatter: it's just like the Nong Toom of old, say some voices in the crowd. When Nong Toom was a man, he also kissed his boxing rivals, but back then he preferred bright red lipstick. IN PERSON, 25-YEAR-OLD Nong Toom is not what you expect. At 170cm, she is not tall and her petite figure is hardly that of a brawny boxer. When this is pointed out, Nong Toom seems pleased. 'I've been worried my muscles might be getting too big in training and I don't want them to because it would be too much for a female figure,' she says in a husky, quiet voice. It has been six months since Nong Toom fought Lookchaomaekhemthong, a bout that took place in the gym where she works and trains when she isn't away on acting or modelling assignments. An international-award-winning film, Beautiful Boxer, has been made about Nong Toom's unconventional life and her decision to give up a career as a champion male fighter. She is dressed in her training gear: tight long grey pants and a see-through pink Billabong T-shirt that reveals a bright yellow bra and convincing breasts beneath. Her nails are manicured, her eyebrows shaped and her lips shine with pink gloss. She is attractive and first impressions suggest the 120,000 baht (HK$24,800) sex-change operation, which doesn't include the cost of hormone-replacement pills, has been money well spent. But why make such a life-altering choice? The mental and physical anguish an individual must endure to change sex is considerable. And even then the operation does not fully change one's gender - the surgery might alter Nong Toom's appearance but her chromosomes will always be male. A 1988 Dutch study claimed that one in 12,000 men cross the gender divide. However, other studies have suggested the figure is more like one in 30,000. Medical science struggles to explain why some people are transsexuals and the answer offered by Thai society isn't much more illuminating. Thais believe that katoeys - the Thai word for gays, transvestites and transsexuals - are suffering bad karma from a previous life. Nong Toom doesn't know if bad karma caused her to become a transsexual but she does know it is something she always wanted. 'I had been thinking since I was a child, before I even went to school, that I would like to be a woman - my real person. And that if there was ever such an operation to transform a guy into a woman then I would do that.' She hangs her head shyly. Nong Toom is intimidated by media attention, despite the fame her life has brought her in Thailand. She repeatedly lowers her head and eyes when talking. Those eyes, hidden beneath long lashes, are the most striking part of Nong Toom's face. Has she had plastic surgery? 'No, and I can't do anything to my face while I'm fighting,' she explains. 'It's too dangerous. I might get my nose broken during a fight and then any surgery would be a waste of money. I guess if my nose does get broken I might have to become a comedian.' She says she might consider plastic surgery one day, after she's finished making her boxing comeback. Nong Toom was born Parinya Charoenphol in 1981, the oldest son of three children. His family was dirt-poor and lived an itinerant lifestyle as his parents moved around northern Thailand in search of work. Parinya became known by the nickname his parents gave him, Nong Toom, which means 'chubby little one'. At an early age, he left home to become a novice monk so his poverty-stricken family would have one less mouth to feed. His future in the monastery, however, was cut short at the age of 12, when he stumbled into boxing. 'I went to this village fair and there they had kickboxing fights for kids,' says Nong Toom. 'There were plenty of kids trying out and everybody was paired up with an opponent except one guy. He came over to me and said: 'You have to fight me.' Before that I was just watching. I fought him and it was my first knockout.' Nong Toom recalls being more intrigued by the women dancers and their outfits at the village fair than the boxing match - until a wad of cash for winning that fight was pushed into his hand. He bought a meal for his parents, sister and brother. 'It was then that I recognised boxing was a way to help my parents with the expenses of the family,' she says. 'There weren't many other ways for a little kid to earn money.' As a child, Nong Toom's boxing skills were honed defending himself against the merciless teasing of other children, including his younger brother, who mocked him for being effeminate. Nong Toom liked to dress up in his sister's and mother's clothes, sometimes simply to make his weary parents laugh. His mother and father thought it was just a phase their son was going through, one that he would grow out of after he joined a kickboxing camp. A scout from the camp had been at the fair and seen Nong Toom's knockout. He was impressed and recruited the lad - his life was about to change forever. Nong Toom progressed through different boxing camps, under different trainers. He fought in many of Thailand's provinces and sent most of his prize money to his parents while secretly putting a little aside for his future sex-change operation. In the boxing camps, Nong Toom felt uncomfortable having to hide his double life from the men he trained alongside, some of whom he was attracted to. They trained from 6am to 9am and 3pm to 7pm, beginning with a gruelling 10km run, 300 sit-ups, rope skipping then countless kicks and punches into a sandbag. The regimen caused Nong Toom's chest to broaden and his arm and leg muscles to bulge, much to his horror. Instead of flirting with girls, partying and drinking like the other young kickboxers, Nong Toom stole away in his spare time and put on make-up and women's clothes. Surprisingly, when the inevitable happened and he was caught, the camp didn't expel him. Instead, one of the trainers saw the potential for Nong Toom's cross-dressing to be used as a marketing ploy to draw crowds to the boxing ring. For Nong Toom, it was finally a chance to reveal his true self. His father was not pleased. 'My dad said that nobody would be afraid of me, they would all think I was this girly guy. But I proved otherwise.' Today, Nong Toom wears make-up when she fights and trains, despite the sweating such exertion brings. 'I have to put make-up on every time I fight otherwise I lose confidence in myself,' she says. 'I put it on every day before training.' She still argues with her father about mixing genders in the ring. 'He told me that now I'm a woman, just be a nice, polite one and not a mean one, not a boxer. Just act like a woman.' Nong Toom underwent her sex-change operation in 1999. A year earlier, he had reached the apex of Thai kickboxing: a fight at Bangkok's Lumpini Stadium, the Thai equivalent of Madison Square Garden. There he was feted as the most exciting talent to emerge in Thai kickboxing for almost a decade. For his loyal followers, it was inconceivable that a master of such a masculine sport would want to give all that up. For Nong Toom, however, kickboxing had been the ticket to achieving his dream. The US$900 in prize money he won at Lumpini Stadium took him a step closer to realising it. Before the Lumpini fight, Nong Toom had won 20 of 22 matches in Thailand's provinces, all but two by knockout. In kickboxing circles, few people were happy about Nong Toom's decision to retire. Indeed, some were furious his make-up and nail polish had been tolerated only for him to make an even bigger mockery of the country's sacred sport. The fighter's fans were speechless. They had defended his cross-dressing as a publicity stunt, but now he was besmirching Thai manhood. They could no longer stand by him. Fortunately, Nong Toom had his family to fall back on. They chose not to desert him, despite the furore. When their son insisted on having the operation, Nong Toom's parents gave their consent, even though they worried the sex-reassignment surgery would change his personality. 'They were worried that if I became a daughter instead of a son, they would not get the same child,' recalls Nong Toom. 'I promised them I would be the same person inside.' Nong Toom remains close to her parents, who look after the girl, now three, the retired fighter adopted from a friend who could not afford to look after her. But they are not happy about her return to the ring, pleading with Nong Toom to concentrate on her acting and modelling careers instead. 'My mum is worried I will get hurt and that there will be nobody to take care of me,' she says. Nong Toom doesn't have a boyfriend and hormone therapy has weakened her muscles. 'I'm also the one who takes care of everyone in my family,' she says. Since her first professional fight at 13, Nong Toom has helped support her family financially, working hard to atone for the burden she has placed on her parents and siblings; according to Buddhist beliefs, a katoey brings demerit upon a Thai family. Shortly after her sex change, Nong Toom began receiving modelling contracts and starring in television advertisements. Later, she won roles in Thai soap operas and she has a substantial role in Mercury Man, a forthcoming action movie about a Thai superhero. Next year, she will embark on a world tour, which will include Hong Kong, starring in a play called Boxing Cabaret, which is billed as a sequel to Beautiful Boxer. The play, originally scheduled to go on tour this year, had to be postponed when Nong Toom decided to make her boxing comeback. 'Thai kickboxing has been part of me since I was a little boy,' she says. 'It's my passion. I missed fighting in the ring and I had this need inside of me to compete again.' Ekachai Uekrongtham, who directed Beautiful Boxer, was at the Lookchaomaekhemthong fight in February. 'She'd been living as a woman for a while and I was worried she might have lost that male spirit, which is required to fight in the ring,' he says. He arrived with a bunch of flowers to wish her luck. 'She didn't need luck,' he recalls. 'When I saw that fight I realised she can turn it on. She really hurt the guy.' Nong Toom says she apologised to Lookchaomaekhemthong after the fight for cutting his eyebrow with her elbow strike. 'I felt bad. It was also humiliating for him - he lost to a woman,' she says unconvincingly. Nong Toom has since fought and won against another Japanese kickboxer, this time a woman, Takada Yui. She is now preparing for a fight against the imposing Lucia Rijker, who has won four different world kickboxing titles. What could be the toughest fight of Nong Toom's career has yet to be confirmed, however. Despite her impressive kickboxing achievements, Netherlands-born Rijker is probably best known for her role as the villain in the Oscar-winning boxing film Million Dollar Baby. Off-screen, she has left a trail of opponents with broken noses. She is the reason why Nong Toom is training eight hours a day. The Thai fighter worries she will lack the strength to compete against such a formidable opponent. 'She is quite dangerous. She's a tough fighter.' When questioned further about the fight with Rijker, Nong Toom clams up and appears uncomfortable; it's almost as if talking about the contest will make it a terrifying reality. Her irrepressible manager, Bunjong Busarakamwongs, the driving force behind Nong Toom's comeback, is far more effusive. 'This fight is a dream for me and most of my dreams come true,' says Bunjong in typical hubristic style. 'I'm pushing Nong Toom to train nearly every day. She's got a few more fights to win and then here we come USA.' The fact Rijker and her manager have yet to express an interest in the bout seems to have no bearing on his enthusiasm; Bunjong has a hold of the idea like a terrier. 'This will be a good fight: Million Dollar Baby versus the Beautiful Boxer,' he says loudly, as if announcing the match to a packed arena. But time is running out for Bunjong; Nong Toom has hinted her comeback will be brief, claiming the fitting retirement age for professional kickboxers is 26, an age she will reach next June. She dreams of getting married and running her own business, possibly in her home town of Chiang Mai. One wonders why Nong Toom has bothered to step back into the ring for such a short time, putting her acting and modelling careers at risk. Ekachai has also puzzled over his friend's decision and offers this explanation: 'Whoever has gone through the gruelling process of becoming a boxer has this very strong foundation of perseverance.' And besides, 'She wants to know she can be beautiful and a boxer.'