December 27 2011
It’s 32°C inside the Sor.Vorapin gym in Bangkok, and crushingly humid. Beyond the open windows, the clamour of moped motors mixes with the blare of tuk-tuk horns in a never-ending crescendo, while the smells of petrol and spice paste waft in on the scorching heat. Around me, the yellow walls are painted with blue fighters; above, the strip lighting clings to the corrugated iron ceiling, isolating as the midday sun, while garish banners painted in Thai Sanskrit hang beside punch bags that look heavy enough to bring the rafters down on to the orange matting.
In the elevated ring it’s jab, jab, hook, kick, kick, knee and elbow – I’m gasping for breath from the endless movement, the sweating and the pain blooming in my muscles. Opposite me is a world champion kick boxer – my kru muay – grinning the grin of the sadistic trainer.
This is Muay Thai, the ancient Thai kick-boxing martial art, and the country’s national sport, and it knows no let-up. I can only grimace back and keep pummelling and kicking the best I can. Every muscle is thirsting for energy, but deep inside it’s still exhilarating.
Sor.Vorapin, just off the Khaosan Road, is one of the most highly rated places in Thailand for a farang like me to learn Muay Thai (pronounced “moy tie”) – also called Thai kickboxing. Considered by its devotees to be the most effective modern (and ancient) martial art, it is known as “the science of eight limbs” for its use of elbows, punches, knees and kicks. Today it is riding a wave, finding its niche in fitness and self-defence classes from its home here in Bangkok to London, New York, Los Angeles and even Stockport.
The former world champion and UK Muay Thai national coach, Bill Judd, who owns the KO fight gyms in London, says: “People simply don’t want the homogenised gym experience any more, where you just sit on an exercise bike reading your paper. Last decade the craze was for Korean tae kwon do, but Muay Thai seems to have surpassed it, probably in part because it has the ancient traditions” – an intrinsic part of all mixed martial arts (MMA) – “and because as a sport for conditioning, nothing surpasses it.” Indeed, regular practitioners burn in excess of 1,000 calories an hour in a hard session. Judd adds: “If you can do Muay Thai well, you can do pretty much any other sport. It’s great for reactions, co-ordination, concentration and getting lean. And after short-course triathlons, I would say it’s the most demanding sport in the world.”
Modern Muay Thai doesn’t require you to knock seven bells out of your fellow gym-goers, though. Actual fighting happens rarely, and when you get in a ring with a retired world champion you can see why: they are such fearsome fighting machines. Most people come to get a taster, or to get supremely fit. The high-intensity intervals on heavy punch bags that constitute the warm-up, and the sparring in the ring, leave fighters sweating like cartoon characters in the desert – great for endorphins and rapid, effective fat reduction. Nico Macgregor, a 32-year-old chef in London, had never been able to find a cardio regimen she could stick with, but she loves Muay Thai. “I enjoy getting angry on the pads,” she says. “It gets rid of a bad day. And, apparently, women are very good at round kicks, as we are naturally more flexible through the hips. I have never known anything to tone me up and condition me more quickly.”
It’s no surprise that Muay Thai has also taken off in that burning arrow of world-fitness trends, New York City, where traditional gyms are declining in popularity and alternative workouts are on the rise. There are now more than 10 Muay Thai training gyms in New York; considered among the best are The Wat Gym, run by Phil Nurse (Kru Phil to his disciples), and the Five Points Academy on Canal Street, where the Friday Night Fights series is a major local draw. Several of the successful traditional workout clubs, including Equinox and the Reebok Sports Club, also offer popular Muay Thai-influenced classes.
In London, KO gyms in Bethnal Green, Thornton Heath and Park Royal have similarly seen a marked upsurge in popularity. Judd notes: “It really does seem to attract everyone these days – students, taxi drivers and surgeons.” To Judd and his team, it’s no surprise that Muay Thai has been fast-tracked by the International Olympic Committee to be an Olympic sport, and it is now three-quarters of the way there.
The hub of Muay Thai in the UK was originally Stockport, in Greater Manchester, which has one of the few schools outside Thailand where you can learn from a genuine grandmaster of the sport, Master Sken, who set up the Master Sken Academy in 1977. His wife, Kay Hampson, who is MSA’s managing director, says: “It’s true, we have a lot more competition around these days; but the main thing we are noticing, as we offer the MTQ [instructors course] in different levels of teaching the sport, is that there has recently been a surge in people wanting to teach Muay Thai.”
What they teach isn’t just physical. Muay Thai fighters learn the culture, the self-respect and the personal integrity intrinsic to the sport. It is known as “the king of martial arts”, and is inextricably linked to the history of the Thai people, who fought their way to the “Gold Promontory” from west China between the eighth and 13th centuries in a series of bloody battles. The visceral combat tools of the times – swords, spears and bows and arrows – were unwieldy at close jungle quarters, so elbows, knees, feet and fists came into play, and then became the weapons of choice. Over time, it developed into a seminal form of martial arts. The first Muay Thai training camps sprung up in the 18th century, and were slightly more hardcore than today; there are various accounts of betting and bouts to the death, of contestants’ fists being wrapped in cotton soaked in glue and ground glass to inflict more damage, and of King Phra Chao Suea (the Tiger King) disguising himself to fight incognito at village fairs.
Muay Thai has not changed much since those medieval battles, save for more modern protection (one can wear a box to protect the groin in lieu of the traditional piece of tree bark, though it’s an overly cautious precaution as directing a kick to that region of the body is now banned). The two-hour private sessions at Bangkok’s Sor.Vorapin involve a skipping warm-up, stretches, press-ups, sit-ups and shadow boxing fresh air. Then it is on to technical work with pads, followed by more than an hour of sparring work with Pises, a 112lb former Muay Thai world champion who leaps, literally, around the ring with you to really break you. The powerful downward elbows and roundhouse kicks that typify the art take practice; and I have never known such bruising as after two sessions sparring in Bangkok. (The pro fighters harden their bones by calcification over the years, sometimes by repeatedly kicking poles in training, which makes shinbones denser and less likely to bruise – or break.)
The basic moves involve combinations of a vast range of kicks and punches mixed fluidly with defensive techniques: blocking, weaving and turning. Punching techniques vary from straight jabs to hooks and uppercuts; kicks vary from straight front kicks to a series of round kicks, where you aim to hit the side of your opponent. And then there’s the downward elbow and the upper knee. The reps are exhausting; the lactic conditioning of the eight-limb workout often means that after a certain point, trying to lift either leg off the ground becomes all but impossible and your punches slow to nightmare-dream-sequence speeds. But focusing your body’s entire core power into a single kick or punch, which is what the sport teaches, is why those who practise it achieve such uniformly toned and strong musculatures.
Pises finished me off with an excruciating Thai massage, pulling my body inside out, or so it felt, to stretch my battered, lactic-acid-filled muscles. As I lay inert, I asked him about his students. “A lot of UK people have come here with experience of boxing training, but lately we have many more who know about Muay Thai. Some of them get very good – but never quite as good as the Thai.” I laughed, but this is not strictly true any more; in recent years UK, US, French, Russian, Brazilian and Japanese fighters have beaten some of the best Thai competitors. Pete Peraphan, Sor.Vorapin’s manager, acknowledges this: “We used to train the best Thais more or less exclusively, but now we train a lot of farang in our two camps. We have current world champions here to train future world champions – we have had Europeans come, train and win championship fights, all in less than a year.”
Barnaby Joy, a 34-year-old property developer from London, spent two weeks at a Muay Thai camp in Thailand earlier this year, training for four hours a day. “It’s a great sport,” he says. “Regardless of whether you are a beginner or a professional, you can all train in the same class and adjust to your own level. And in my experience one-to-one with a Muay Thai master is the toughest workout you can do.”
The next stage seems to be Muay Thai competitons open to the average competitor in the form of White Collar MMA, which take place in three 90-second rounds. There are some departures from tradition – no elbows or knees in the head allowed, and the gloves are bigger than normal so fighters’ hands, knuckles and faces are more protected. But it’s no less popular for that: as London’s White Collar MMA promoter, Dave O’Donnell, says: “The first White Collar night at the Troxy [a stadium near Canary Wharf] last year was a phenomenal success, with 40 fighters taking part. We have another one this year, and five planned next year. A lot of people have been taking up the sport just to be in one of the fights – there’s a big appetite for it at the moment.”
Conspicuous evidence of its growing cachet is the success of the Muay Thai- and martial arts-suffused film Warrior, featuring Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte, which, judging by its reception in America, seems to be doing for Muay Thai what Rocky did for boxing. It’s the ultimate 21st-century testament to the ancient art.