From Making Van Damme Films to Living One in Northern Thailand

The following is a part 1 of a multiple part series written by Andrew Dearnley about how he has decided to quit his film making career to pursue a life of training Muay Thai in the hills of Northern Thailand. Enjoy!

First question I would ask myself when contemplating reading an article like this would be; why do I care? How does this relate to me? Those are both reasonable questions, so before you waste your time and overly invest let me give you a snap shot of what’s going on here.

I want to tell you about how finding Muay Thai has affected my life, my relationships, how it’s helped me change my physicality and ultimately led me to quit my career in feature film production and move to Thailand with nothing but a bank account, a mouth guard and some painkillers.

I’m ditching the fetish clubs, strip joints, soho nightclubs, models and movie premieres in favor of the hills of Northern Thailand. Enough with making Van Damme films, now I want to live one. But first I want to tell you how finding Muay Thai opened me up to all these weird experiences and gave me the confidence to jump in with 2 feet.

Who Am I?

andres dearnlyI’m Drew, I’m a 31 year old guy from Northern England who moved to London at 17 to pursue a career in feature films.

I finished university and started as a volunteer at a TV station. Jumping through all appropriate hoops at the cost of low earnings, no free time and poor health. A diet of late night takeaways delivered to edit suites and comfort food when stressed led me to an unhealthy, busy working life which I was convinced was the right thing to do.

After all it’s what I had always been led to believe, nose down, work hard, make sacrifices, gain the rewards that a big desk and leather chair offer.

10 years of grind and a few Oscars later I am now post producing American studio films. Recently working with the charming George Clooney on ‘Monuments Men’. Lovely man, exactly how you would imagine… he bought me a scarf… he has incredibly soft hands (like an empty leather glove)… I’m not convinced by the wedding.

Now I’m finishing up on ‘Edge of Tomorrow’, a Tom Cruise 3D sci-fi alien invasion epic. Funnily enough Doug Liman (the director of Edge, Mr and Mrs Smith and The Bourne Identify) was the first person I told about my Thailand plans.

We had two standard conversation routines he seemed to pick from.

One was asking about my dress code (lovingly referred to as ‘Biker Librarian’) and the second was asking me how the kickboxing was going. As a weird coincidence one of my coaches was a stunt man on his set and before I knew what I was saying I was telling him all about my training and how work was getting in the way. In a very dry disinterested American way his reply was “That’s cool man, do it”. Funny how there is not much more to say after that. I did however take that as the Hollywood seal of approval. The guy who brought us that Matt Damon Krav Maga fight says “cool”. The man from Del Monte, he says yes.

The Real Reason I Started Muay Thai

I’d be lying if I said takeaways, getting fat, and sitting on my arse making films was what got me into Muay Thai. Like most stories written by a man the real plot starts with a woman. I’d like to think the right woman but the wrong time. I suspect her boyfriend would disagree with my choice and my timing.

gym_01Even now with a couple of years in the rear view mirror I’m still not sure how I should have handled the situation. I got sucked in only for her to do a 180 last second and leave me high and dry. I thought I was rescuing a girl from a bad relationship, but I was just pulled into a tangled back and forth eventually seeing me the pariah.

It left me on the fringes and feeling vulnerable. I had made the standard mistake of falling for the girl with the aggressive boyfriend. A guy with a well earned reputation for violence.

I’d witnessed it so many times over the years, bar fights, mosh pits, vicious stuff only outdone by stories of what I hadn’t seen. Taking a rock to someone’s head at a music festival or biting a chunk out of someone’s face during a row when he was outnumbered. Needless to say I felt a little like I had just shook the hornets’ nest.

But In truth I was more pissed off than scared… Cliché…yes… but I had been dragged into a situation by a beautiful girl and then cast out with real blunt cruelty and I wasn’t going to let it affect me and I wasn’t going to be looking over my shoulder; I knew I’d be seeing them again, almost definitely on a night out… with alcohol in the mix. The outcome seemed pretty certain. So I bought some boxing gloves and I headed down the gym to work some punches and prep for the inevitable.

There were no combat classes offered at my local gym but the little bit of bag work I was doing had me convinced I was a badass. I started to watch more and more YouTube tutorials and eventually started filming myself on the bag to watch my own technique. It was god awful. Slow. Static. Lazy. It gave me a whole new appreciation for the UFC events and Glory events I had started to follow with a passion.

Venting work and life frustration on the bag was such a transformative experience. From such a small thing I found myself feeling so much better, sleeping better and generally walking a little taller and just feeling more like my body was a functional tool and not just a meat sack holding back the celestial sparkles inside.

Over the following couple of months I bumped into the boyfriend several times at house parties and night clubs. But it never kicked off. Evils from across the room rather than confrontation. Worked for me.

I never felt intimidated or at risk. Sorry if that’s an anti climax but that’s life sometimes. The funny thing was that I felt so much better in myself for using my body and for having a focus outside of work and this ridiculous love triangle that I just felt bulletproof. In retrospect I think people exude this confidence and not coming across as the runt of the litter is probably what saved me from a beating. But clearly something was out of balance as Karma came a calling anyway.

Crashing Into My Love For Muay Thai

Crash_01This karma I was speaking of came in the form of a motorcycle crash. Turns out motorcycles are exactly as much fun and danger as you would think.

After a series of sports bikes always increasing the power, rarely increasing my skill I proceeded on a track day at Cadwell Park, pushed way too hard and took a face slide down the track after getting a corner wrong. I walked away seemingly unharmed just a little filed down.

Paramedics checked me out and sent me on my way. Two and half weeks later my hand had become a swollen claw and no mind over matter was going to move it. Quick ride to the doctors and I was off to the hospital for the first of four surgeries over the next two years that kept me in hand casts on and off for 35 weeks as they rebuilt my joint with metal rods and transplanted a tendon from my ankle.

Here out of this weird and seemingly awful experience is where my love for Muay Thai was born. That therapeutic bag I had got so used to punching and mauling as only an unskilled 6’3 man can do was still there calling but now I only had one functional hand. Naturally I started to try and develop my kicks.

stitches_01TV shows like ‘Human Weapon’ and ‘Fight Quest’ seemed to offer helpful technique tips and explanations that I could make sense of but it was ‘Bas Ruttens big dvd of combat’ that taught me so much and cemented my interest. Strange to think that these self help type dvd’s might actually work but filming myself from the same angles and comparing my stance, foot position and hip movement in great detail enabled me to analyze myself in direct comparison to the video examples.

Youtube was my next port of call; the amount of conditioning drills and technique videos I found was insane. Those videos on my i-phone combined with HIIT timers and basic training apps made all the difference. The improvement I felt in my fitness and my technique was massive. Unfortunately the gym felt it as well as other patrons started to complain about the noise. Turns out my shin slamming into the bag was interfering with the techno music hypnotizing the people on the running machines.

Finding a New Gym and Starting A New Journey

Hand healed (to a point – my hand is only functional in wraps, and my little finger is a permanent hook shape) it was time to find a new gym where I could pursue my Muay Thai and find training partners and pad holders. I tried various fight gyms around London offering Muay Thai, Kickboxing, BJJ and MMA. Picking up several injuries on the way. Turns out being the new guy also kinda labels you the punch bag.

I swear I look scarier than I am so I got very little mercy wherever I went. But it taught me bruises heal, sprains heal and every injury is a lesson for next time. As they say the gym is no place for an ego. I had that beat and submitted out of me very quickly. Now I just think of myself as clay. I’m not a fighter, i’m not a tough guy. I’m a sponge and I’m proud of that.

After a short stint with Urban Kings I am now training with Rob Lynch of KO Gym and the tuition and support I am receiving is exactly what I’d hoped for. It’s done nothing but fuel my love for Muay Thai and seemingly made everything else slip down my priority list. Every day at work feels like it’s getting in the way of what I should be doing. The demanding schedule of overtime and weekend work that forces me to miss classes and sparring infuriates me. My focus has moved. This film game can take a long walk off a short bridge. It only leads to a mortgage I can’t support and a heart condition I can’t afford.

PaiSo I’m making the call. I’m pulling the shoot. The clock starts now. Countdown to exit. I am going to quit everything, pack up and head to Northern Thailand. The money I save now should provide me a basic existence out there for long enough to train up to fight, then I’m hoping that system will keep me there.

In September I travel to Pai, north of Chiang Mai to choose and join a local gym in the hills and train full time. No distractions. No hot water. I’m basically Jean Claude Van Damme in ‘Kickboxer’, minus any kind of real fitness, skill or preparation… who wouldn’t want to watch this impending car crash of smashedshins.

You can follow Andrews’s progress at

Go to Part 2


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Sean Fagan
Sean "Muay Thai Guy" Fagan owns & operates the largest online Muay Thai community and the #1 training resource for nak muay of all levels.

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