From humble beginnings to UK’s most famous nak muay, Peter Crooke has seen the whole of the Muay Thai world. Now we sit down with the retired martial artist for an exclusive chat. . .
GREAT BRITAIN’S BEST MUAY THAI HERO
Using just a few words, how on earth can one begin to properly describe a Muay Thai champion? Luckily for one such champion, it can be done with the use of a single word — gentleman.
Given that nickname when he fought in his Super League days, Peter “The Gentleman” Crooke has left a mark on the Muay Thai and kickboxing worlds that will never be forgotten. He accomplished this all while being a full-time police officer and competing with a massive injury early in his career, leaving him with no ACL in his left leg.
Crooke amassed titles in SIMTA and WAKO Pro (being the champ in both the Super Welterweight and Light Middleweight division), as well as becoming the WMTC champion and fighting the top fighters in his division the whole time.
Crooke, born in Wombourne, England and now retired from the fighting world, entered Muay Thai much like his friend Ole Laursen, in that it was a movie that sparked his interest.
BEGINNINGS – TRIALS BY FIRE IN THE GYM
“The Kickboxer film came out with [Jean-Claude] Van Damme,” recalls Crooke, “I went with my then-girlfriend to go watch it. I came out of there thinking, ‘I’ve got to do that, I love it.’ I just fell in love with it.”
A local karate instructor was instrumental in that he recommended Crooke to a gym called Freestylers, that being the gym that set him on his path to a fighting career.
“It was in Heath Town in Wednesfield (England),” says Crooke. “It was in quite a rough area, about five miles from where I lived and they said, ‘If you’re going to do it, go there, ’cause it’s a real tough gym. If you end up going somewhere else and then compete against them in a competition, you’ll probably get smashed.”
Crooke was told that if he could “hack it” at Freestylers, he could be successful anywhere. “So I went there and that was it,” he said. “I never looked back.”
Freestylers later became the Trojan. It’s the gym Crooke fought out of until its doors closed and fellow fighter and training partner Kirkwood Walker opened up his own gym called Firewalker. “We fought from there pretty much ‘til the end of my career,” says Crooke.
Crooke said that fighting out of Freestylers, there was really never an amateur career for him. “I pretty much went straight into professional. From that gym, you just, they just put you into fights… and you’re pretty much professional right from the start.” More or less, Crooke says his start there was a case of “getting thrown into the deep end.”
The first time out, he was matched against an experienced opponent, with about ten fights under his belt. “Thankfully I stopped him in the first round and then from then, like my fourth fight, I fought the British champion.”
Crooke termed the sparring environment at Freestylers “ridiculous.” His list of sparring partners included not only world champions Kirkwood Walker and his brother Winston Walker, but longtime veterans of combat, John Atkinson and Eval Denton. The intense make-or-break sparring sessions with this stellar cast of partners only fueled Crooke’s desire to train more.
“It was like sparring, no shin pads, bag gloves… It was one of them where like, I go to the gym and I would crawl back to my car every night, limp back to my car every night, if you know what I mean… Then I would come back to the do the same thing again the next night. I just loved it.”
OVERTIME – WHY CROOKE HAD TO WORK EXTRA HARD TO SUCCEED
Crooke started Muay Thai at the tender age of 21, having his first fight just three months into his training. He would go on to fight for another two years before taking a break in order to focus on becoming a policeman.
“I joined the police, so I had two years off because I did not want to get injured while I was in the police on my probation,” remembers Crooke. “Then after probably about two and half years, I started training again and started fighting again.”
To make matters worse, Crooke had hurt himself playing football, resulting in a crucial ligament tear in his left knee. Still, in spite of all the ups and downs, Crooke has no regrets. He says he’d have done nothing different in his professional career.
“Looking back on my career, no. I mean, I was lucky enough to compete at the highest level. Not that it was easy.” It was especially hard to find time to train while committed to his family and his job. “Sometimes all I could get the chance to do when I would come home from work [is] just a twenty-minute run.” In the meantime, he was squaring off against opponents whose full-time job was to fight and had three-to-four-hour training sessions twice a day.
Crooke credits his wife for keeping him on track, helping to balance his professional fight career, a hectic schedule as a police officer, and Crooke’s life as a family man. Because he was fighting in Thailand, Crooke missed the birth of his second child. Frequently, his wife had to take care of the children alone while he was away training or competing.
“I’ve just got a very, very understanding, very good wife who knew I loved it. She supported me all the way.”
Crooke admits that at time, balancing fighting, family and a full-time job was extraordinarily difficult. At times, he may have questioned what he was doing. But ultimately, his love for the sport won out.
STANDOUTS & OTHER MEMORABLE ENCOUNTERS IN THE RING
Crooke has fought some of the toughest fighters in his weight division, including Malaipet, Sakmongkol, Kohiruimaki, and many more. But the match he remembers most was on his first trip to Japan to face Akeomi Nitta, a notorious leg-kicker. Nitta had driven the legend Ramon Dekkers to a draw prior to their match.
“[Nitta] was just something else,” he remembers. “The experience of going to Japan for the first time and everything was just amazing.”
A close second to the Nitta fight is one with his all-time favorite fighter and legend, Sakmongkol. “[Sakmongkol] has been my favorite fighters since I first started Thai boxing. To be fighting him was an absolute honor.”
Fighting your idol can present its fair share of problems, however. “It was a bit surreal, because it sums up certainly crazy, but I didn’t want to beat Sakmongkol. That sounds mad because he’s my hero.”
It was because of Crooke’s hope to just “share the ring” with the great opponent. “I had that much respect for him that I almost didn’t want to beat him.”
Also noteworthy in his memory of his fighting days is short-notice fights. Fighting on short notice is not unique to the sport, and when Crooke fought Sato, he only had about two weeks to prepare. (“That’s why I was so overweight.” Cook was about eight kilos (17.6 lbs.) over prior to taking the fight.)
Taking fights on short notice is something he’s done more than once. In particular, he recalls one against Khunpon, a man he’d defeated easily in a prior match. But Crooke took a risk by agreeing to a rematch.
“They asked me to fight him again and I got injured,” he says. “But I wanted a trip to New York, so I didn’t say anything about the injury. I had six pad sessions in total and no training, no cardio, no running, nothing.” Once again, he resorted to sitting in a sauna. When the fight started, a lucky punch dropped him, although it did little to no harm.
Crooke has a reputation for being calm and collected. Even when the pressure was on, he always carried himself like he was following a game plan. “I literally had the mentality where, I’m just gonna do my thing. I always had confidence in myself that if I catch him, if I catch him with my left hook or something, it’s going to be a game changer anyway.”
That mentality was conducive in his win over K-1 superstar, Kohiruimaki, or better known back then by many as Kohi.
“With Kohi, he had a reputation for being really aggressive and coming forward and… coming forward and smashing leg kicks. So, my trainer said, ‘we’ll just counter fight him.’ He said, “instead of doing your normal fight, just counter fight him.’ So I did all my training counter fighting, then we get in the ring and he stood off with me and it was like, ‘what’s happening here?’”
Every time Crooke would move forward, Kohi would kick his leg, which ultimately ripped the thigh muscle. “So when I was fighting, and he’s kicking it, I would try and put weight on my leg. It would just collapse on me, so it would look like I was stumbling all over the place.”
The momentum of the fight began to change after Crooke was dropped with a head kick in the later rounds. “He finally caught me with a head kick, and then he started coming forward.”
At the end of the fourth round, Crooke’s trainer told him that he hoped Kohi would continue to come at him. After Kohi dropped Crooke with a kick, the forecast paid off and a window of opportunity presented itself. “He got confidence and changed his game plan and came for me.”
The long hours of training to counter fight had paid off, as Crooke dropped Kohi with a left hook, sending his opponent to the canvas and ultimately calling the fight in his favor. The result of the head kick may have made Kohi change his game plan and in turn walk right into the plan of Crooke.
PROPER NUTRITION – “WHY DIDN’T I DO THIS BEFORE?”
Regarding his career, it’s clear Crooke has no regrets. But when it comes to his diet as a fighter?
“It cost me so many fights,” laments Crooke, who said that the constraints of his job was one of the reasons that his eating habits were bad.
“You start working as a policeman, you’re going to be eating junk food,” he says. “That’s because you’re working different shifts and you only got a chance to grab something quick.”
Those eating habits led to brutal hours spent in a sauna, trying to make weight. He has a vivid memory of fighting Sato in Japan when he departed on a Wednesday for a Saturday fight.
“I didn’t eat or drink anything ‘til the Saturday morning. I spent about four hours in the sauna. Not four hours at the sauna, four hours actually inside the sauna, on the Friday night ‘til about midnight. Then I was in the sauna again at 6:00 on a Saturday morning. I had blurred vision, I couldn’t even see properly and I was going to the weigh in.”
Crooke made the weight and fought that night, but the results were less than favorable. He remembers feeling like he was about to lose consciousness. He considered stopping the fight because he felt like his was going to “die” and “pass out.” After the fight, the doctor delivered shocking news.
“[He] said let alone be in the ring, [I] should be in a hospital on a drip.”
Weight-cutting methods early in his career hindered him in previous fights, including one with Albert Kraus. “I did the same, like killed myself in the sauna. I did it when I fought a few people and… it’s my biggest regret.”
A nutritionist who’d come to the gym was the solution to Crooke’s weight-cutting problems. He says meeting the nutritionist was “eye-opening.” The nutritionist told Crooke that he’d have been better off not training at all, but eating properly and fighting off of his natural ability.
“No matter how much you train [or] how you kill yourself in the sauna drained your body,” he was told, he was was losing all his fluids.
Even if he weighed in the day before, he was told that his muscles, after 24 hours, would only be performing at 40 percent capacity. The nutritionist noted that when the body is drained that much, it would take a week for the muscles to replenish themselves.
At that point, Crooke was given a diet and he followed it religiously. The payoff was monstrous: a win over Kongnapa. “I did eat properly, but I was meant to fight Kongnapa in New York on my last fight, and I did my diet properly and I was down to my weight two weeks before the fight. I was already at my weight, and I’ve never felt so strong and fit in my life.”
“I thought, ‘Why didn’t I do this through all my career?'”
‘THE GENTLEMAN’ – NICKNAME ORIGINS & NEXT STEPS
As a lawman, Crooke is frustrated by fellow officers who don’t live by his same standards. There have been instances, he says, where he’s left the scene because he didn’t like the way another bobby was talking to someone. He admits that at times, it’s drawn the ire of his workmates.
“They’ve come and got back in the car and said ‘How come you left me? What if I would’ve got beat up?’” Crooke’s stock response is that he would have let such a beating go on for a few minutes because his partner deserved it. Then, he would have put a stop to it.
“I’d say, ‘you wouldn’t speak like that if you weren’t in that uniform, so why are you doing it [now]?’” It’s that kind of attitude that earned Crooke his nickname, “The Gentleman,” in the Super League.
“They gave me the nickname ‘The Gentleman’ because they said, ‘you’re like, you are an English gentlemen, you know?’ so we want to give you the nickname Peter ‘The Gentleman’ Crooke.”
Crooke has now retired from fighting but not from police work. He also runs a gym — Evolution Leisure in Wombourne — and promotes shows. Evolution Leisure has a focus on youngsters, as the kids academy trains about 130 of them.
“We got a few kids who just train for belts,” says Crooke. “We just started a belt system [and a] grading system for them. Those that want to compete, we’ve got another little class called Evo Stars and they go move into that group and then they start training for fights.”
Needless to say, he’s excited about what the future holds, both as a trainer and a promoter. “I’m hoping to build those (shows) so then hopefully, we can go bigger and then start to bringing people from abroad to fight on.”
Peter Crooke has proven himself to be a great ambassador for the sport he loves, as well as a legendary fighter and hero, both inside and outside of the ring.
- Kyle Gilmore is a 34-year-old full-time sheriff's deputy and part-time Muay Thai instructor.