Kru Sai Varley no longer fights, but he is one of the most decorated and experienced nak muay training the best up-and-coming British Muay Thai artists (of all ages). Learn more about Varley in his interview with Muay Thai Guy. . .
KRU SAI VARLEY: A LIFE DEDICATED TO MUAY THAI
Muay Thai is a beautiful sport. Stepping in the square ring and battling it out with a fellow competitor… The atmosphere and music, the crunch of the kicks and thud of the elbows… It’s all very exciting, and it’s also a form of escape, friendship, self-defense and fitness.
No one knows about the intoxicating allure of Muay Thai better than the 35+ year veteran nak muay, Kru Sai Varley.
Though he enjoyed a long, successful career in the ring, Sai’s greatest claim to fame comes from the late 80s when he beat a Japanese champion on his own soil while under the wing of Thohsaphol Sitiwatjana (aka. Master Toddy).
Now, in Derbyshire, in the heart of England, Sai owns and operates Studio 2000 Muay Thai Academy which has given much needed guidance to so many English nak muay – not just in the sport, but in life, too.
We caught up with Kru Sai to chat about his career in both fighting and coaching.
(Title image courtesy of The Derby Telegraph.)
SAI VARLEY: A LIFETIME OF FIGHTING
MTG: How did you get into Muay Thai to begin with?
SAI: I originally started training in boxing, mainly through being bullied as a kid. I then went to a place called Newton Street in Manchester, England for a try out as a professional boxer. Two gentlemen named Pat Brogan and Charlie Atkinson were getting pro Thai boxers to turn into boxers. Little did I know it was a Thai boxing gym ran by [legendary nak muay and trainer] Master Toddy.
This was back in late 70s, early 80s. I had my tryout, then had a couple of hours to kill waiting for a train home. Watching the Muay Thai blew me away. I thought, “I have to do this” and so I started training there.
MTG: So presumably it was Master Toddy who took you under his wing?
SAI: Yes. It was the mid-70s when the Thai masters came over. You had Master Toddy, Master Woody, Master Krin and Master Sken, all of whom worked as doormen whilst teaching.
It was Master Toddy who I fought for all over the world, then under Master Sken after that. It was Sken who led me to the most inspirational person I have met: Master Sken’s first student , William Hilditch – the first non-Thai that I trained with. He was a massive inspiration on me and my training. His gym in Manchester was called Studio 2000, hence the name of mine now.
MTG: Did you ever think about any other martial arts, like kung fu or karate? Had you heard of Muay Thai previously?
SAI: No, I hadn’t. Like I say, it was boxing first, then I did a little bit of kung fu and kickboxing at the local community center. You would see it every now and then in the martial art magazine Combat, but relatively low profile compared to nowadays. Everyone wanted to be Bruce Lee and everything in those days was centered around the [Asian] martial arts.
MTG: When did you go to Thailand to train and what was it like?
SAI: It was late ’87. I was 18 years old. I thought I was super fit – six pack, running six miles every day – but when you go to Thailand and get ragdolled by 12 -13 year-olds, you soon realize you’re not.
Their training is intense: 10k run for a warm-up sort of thing, then you do bag and pad work, sparring… and that’s just the morning session! Eat, then do it again. It’s humbling.
MTG: Was your first fight over there?
SAI: No, it was my 10th Muay Thai fight, but with boxing and others, I was about 30-40 fights in. I‘d had a few around Manchester.
MTG: What was the first fight like?
SAI: Funnily enough, my first was won by head kick in the first round. I remember obviously being nervous. When they called my name, I walked out and I couldn’t see the ring through the smoke. Not the [fog machine] smoke you get now – this was cigarette smoke.
SAI VARLEY: A LIFETIME OF COACHING
MTG: With your vast experience in the ring, do you think that makes you a better coach for teaching fighters now?
SAI: Yes. It’s not just the physicality of teaching fighters, but the psychology. You see so many of the lesser experienced coaches now on the circuit that haven’t been there [and] they tend to leave their fighters in the changing rooms. Your fighter needs you the most then. When you’re bandaging their hands up, you need to be telling them that their feelings are normal and their opponent is feeling exactly the same. You work through your tactics and keep them calm and reassured.
I think fighting is more mental than physical. I have seen so many fights lost in the changing room.
MTG: So you think you can tell which way it’s going to go?
SAI: You can sometimes, unfortunately, yeah.
MTG: How does that make you feel, knowing you put them there?
SAI: You have to try and bring them back ’round when they get zoned out, concentrate on regaining their focus and dealing with those nerves. If they can’t, you can lose before you step in the ring.
Sometimes it’s [best to treat it as] a one-round fight. What I mean by that is it’s a case of getting them through the first round with as much instruction from the corner as possible. They can build confidence from the first round then. I’ve seen many fighters go on to victory from there.
MTG: Are there any fighters under your training that are showing real promise for the future?
SAI: Well, I’ve been teaching for 30 years now, so there have been many. They tend to come in waves, since, unfortunately, in this country people have to work and [attend to] family commitments and so on. There’s no longevity in it. It’s not just training every night that can put a strain on relationships and young families, but the specific diet you’re on may not be the same as the rest of the house. You have to be selfish to be a fighter. Fighting is not something you can half-do.
Back to the original question: Marc Sargeant has won five or six different titles; Alix James – three different titles, would fight anyone with 10 minutes’ notice, borrowed gumshields and was a natural fighter; Alan Whitton – two-time champion and probably the most technically gifted; Ross Singyard and Adam Townsend, who are both undefeated, as is the heavyweight Casey Braddock, who owns three titles.
At the moment, we are building a new stable of fighters, having relocated with the gym recently. That said, I don’t class myself as a “fighting gym”; I prefer teaching the other 99% of students through the door who come for the self-defense and fitness aspects.
(Below: Kru Sai Varley holding pads for Studio 2000 fighter Alex Whitton.)
MTG: You have created a family atmosphere at Studio 2000. How important is that sense of belonging?
SAI: The family ethos is something I’ve pushed. Your first ever lesson is with 30-40 people you’ve never met. By the end of it, you have 40 new friends.
Also unlike traditional gyms, if you have a torrid day at work or an argument with the other half, running mindlessly on a treadmill is forcing your brain to mull it over. Here, you need to fully concentrate and it therefore promotes mindfulness. By the end of the class, you find you’re feeling good, endorphins have been released, you’re burning fat and you leave in a more positive frame of mind.
MTG: How do you prep for a class?
SAI: We have a split of classes which follow a certain syllabus, but I usually have a couple of hours of meditative thinking in the afternoon to prep. My experience now tells me that within 10 minutes of a warm-up, I know what we need to work on.
I am a firm believer in teaching my students rather than just training them. I am here to improve people. I want everyone to take at least one thing away from each class that they think they have improved or aware of something to improve on.
MTG: What is it you prefer teaching?
SAI: The kids’ classes are really successful with over 100 [attendees] a week. That is the future. It’s [about] trying to be a positive role model for the youth.
It’s close to my heart [because of] bullying. I’ve had so many parents bringing kids in with bullying issues and we have turned their lives around with confidence and self-esteem, and made them into more positive children. I do train fighters, but I don’t actively encourage [kids] to go that way.
MTG: And if they ask you?
SAI: If they ask me, we have a sort of elimination process where they move through the harder classes and see how they get on.
That said, you can always look to plant the seed with someone you think shows promise and feed it some water. Ross Singyard’s wife trained here. She trained really hard so I asked her if she had thought of [fighting]. She was such a timid girl to start with and deflected the idea at first, but then she ended up having half a dozen bouts.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON KRU SAI VARLEY
This interview was meant to dig around Kru Sai’s fighting career but soon shifted to his current incarnation as a coach. His passion for helping local youth doesn’t quite jibe with how everybody on the outside sees Muay Thai as a violent sport.
It also flies in the face of the notion that Muay Thai artists should be merited on records or gradings, but to those of us involved, it’s much more than that. It’s about community, family and trying to become our best selves possible.
Studio 2000’s tagline of “Where champions train champions” not only rings true for the 1% of nak muays representing themselves in the ring, but also for the other 99% who never fight. We are all trying to be champions in our own lives, from our own perspectives. Kru Sai Varley’s version of Muay Thai teaches its students how to become just that.
(For alternative nutritional & training tips from Phill Hibbert, check out www.healthexplorerblog.com.)
- Phill Hibbert is a Muay Thai practitioner, student of sport science and part-time personal trainer, as well as being a husband and father of two future nak muays (unless his wife says different). You can check out his blog at https://healthexplorerblog.com/ for alternative training and nutritional tips.