The First Lessons Hurt the Most
(Story written by an anonymous Nak Muay)
Where It All The Beginning
I first heard of Muay Thai during the summer of 2004. It was a couple of the months before my senior year of high school, and friends and I were playing Mortal Kombat: Armageddon.
We were creating custom characters and choosing their fighting styles, and as I looked over the various styles my friend urged me to choose Muay Thai.
When I asked why, he said “It’s supposed to be this bad ass martial art from Thailand.”
I had never heard of Muay Thai, and I remember choosing something else to his disappointment. Looking back at this I chuckle because the stances and moves are not like the martial arts they claim to represent, they’re just generic combos that they added to make us believe that the game had a sort of martial arts spirit as opposed to wanton blood lust that the Mortal Kombat series is.
Being raised in a Mexican-American family, I grew up watching boxing. My grandfather had been a small-time professional boxer. When my parents went out on Friday nights, we watched Box Azteca (spanish channel) or Friday Night Fights.
Some of my friends also did karate, which I desperately wanted to do, but my parents never allowed me because they were terrified of any injury that could possibly be inflicted on their first born.
So I started researching Muay Thai, and I was immediately fascinated by what I saw. The first thing I noticed is that they were in a boxing ring with boxing gloves, but as the kicks started flying and the elbows were unleashed, the fighter in me just couldn’t say no. Within months I signed up at a gym—a scrawny, excited, and scared 17 year-old with no idea what to expect.
Part 1: The Bad
My Kru was having us go over clinch fighting on the first day. He stood about 5’8’’ and was a bald, stocky, hard-nosed, no nonsense former kickboxer from Poland. And when I say no nonsense, I mean it, because he did not allow any squabbles or stupid remarks or questions go unresolved.
Such as when I asked,
“You say that control in the clinch is really important but from what I’ve seen, elbow strikes are what do the damage. Not knee strikes.”
I think someone chuckled, but instead of arguing or berating me, he simply told me to get in his clinch. I remember how his grip felt like an iron vice, and how my instincts were already telling me that this was a huge mistake.
“Throw your elbow strike,” he said.
I tried, but his vice grip seemed to totally overpower me and I was helpless to get out as he delivered a knee strike to my side.
My world went white, and it felt like I couldn’t breathe. My body seemingly had locked up, and even I couldn’t make a sound, on the inside I was screaming like a madman.
I had taken my first steps out of my sheltered, middle-class life into the world of pain. I felt like I was going to die…but I didn’t. I had never felt that kind of pain before. I also felt a great humiliation as I heard a couple of guys laugh, and a part of me wanted to quit and never come back.
But the same technique that had caused me so much agony had also inspired me.
I had to learn it. I needed to learn it.
I wanted to change, and I realized that this was the way to do it. I had spent my years avoiding pain and any potential conflict, and I realized right then that by running away from those things, I had deprived myself.
Part 2: The Good
Instead of breaking me, this is where our team spirit really came through.
We had a heavyweight fighter from Europe that realized my problem, and instead of pouring on, he began to slowly go over combinations in Muay Thai and how to evade, block, and counter them so I wouldn’t flinch.
He had me sparring with another teammate of mine who was new as well so we could practice against someone on our own level, and then we would spar with someone with a little more experience. This eased our feelings of anxiety and helped developed trust, which is very important to new fighters.
Too many gyms develop toxic atmospheres due to guys going 110% in sparring
—not because they want to improve, but because they want to show off and be the alpha dog.
I think this is the reason our gym was so effective in developing fighters faster than the others in the area, and why our fighters could come into fights healthy and confident.
Back in the day, MMA was still in its wild west phase in Houston. Organizations had sprung up left and right, there were plenty of belts, and lots of egos. Adding ego to the fight game is like adding gasoline to a flame. Especially when you’re talking about young men in their early 20s. Everyone wants to win, but the difference between fighters is how far they’re willing to go to get what they want.
Part 3: The Ugly
I had a teammate, Steve (name changed to protect identity) who was always at our gym, his Brazilian Jiu-jitsu gym or an exercise gym. He was a little crazy, and was an absolute savage in the ring. Fortunately for me, he was a middleweight so I didn’t have to spar him.
Apart from fighting in the ring or cage, he loved getting into seedy street fights for money. I heard so many stories about him just in the first week of my training, and I wondered how he had this superhuman ability to train and fight all the time with seemingly no damage to his body. It didn’t take long for me to find out how.
One night our Kru lent another guy the keys so we could have a midnight training session. I had heard that Steve was going to some sort of fight that night, yet there he was, sparring like a madman at 11:30 PM.
I had stopped earlier and was relaxing in the sauna which was right by the lockers. I saw Steve frantically run to his locker, open it up, and take out a small bag filled with crystal meth. He began grinding them up and snorting them, let out a yell, and then disappeared. I was stunned.
I’d heard about steroids in sports, and even about guys using cocaine or meth in other gyms for stamina, but you never think it would be one of your guys.
Was this really how he attained his level of skill, by doing dangerous drugs so he could train longer?
Wasn’t this dangerous for him and the guys he fought?
Are my future opponents doing this to fight against me?
And finally: should I do this too? What lengths should I go to make sure that I win?
I had naively assumed that everyone who did martial arts was implanted with the same respect for the art as I was, but I soon realized that winning fights in the ring and the cage is what most sought. It was a horrible realization, but one I needed to see. And it motivated me to work even harder so I could earn my victories cleanly.
All in all, Muay Thai is going to be like every violent sport; it will attract good and bad people, but the important thing is to not lose your focus and your ideals. Cheating can help you win, but in the end what did you really accomplish?
I take pride in conquering my problems, and it helped me grow as a person. Muay Thai can bring that out in you if you let it, but ultimately you must decide how you’re going to proceed. Sooner or later the tide will be against you, and those around you will see what you truly are.
Do you have a story about your first time in the gym?
Share your story in the comments below or email Sean at sean (at) muay-thai-guy.com
- Sean "Muay Thai Guy" Fagan owns & operates the largest online Muay Thai community and the #1 training resource for nak muay of all levels.