United States Muay Thai: A Slow Burning Movement

A conversation with San Diego’s Alex Palma and Bowie, Maryland’s Jason Farrell

tiffany van soest and kru alexander palmaBy Steve Eisman (IG: @steisman)

Feature photo credit: @imanyc

Excessive physical strain, self-doubt, and a workload that doesn’t care how much sleep you’ve gotten. A medley of discomforts that both Alex Palma and Jason Farrell are no strangers to.

The residuals from their work as two of the top striking coaches in the United States often extend only as far as the gratitude they receive from their students. And yet, their enthusiasm and engagement while discussing their craft remains ever palpable– these men love their Muay Thai. A sport that has chronicled every fleeting moment of mainstream exposure in hopes of one day being revered by the general public as it is by Palma and Farrell.

Alex, you’ve recently reestablished the Blue Ocean system over at Alliance BJJ. How has it been being back in the saddle teaching newcomers to the sport from the ground up?

Alexander Palma: At first it was frustrating. A lot has happened in the past year. But fortunately, I stuck to my guns and stayed focus. It’s a little strange being at an almost exclusively BJJ academy; but there is some upside potential and things are moving in the right direction. I’ll be one of three guest instructors at this year’s Coaches Clinic hosted by Kirian Fitzgibbons at CSA next month. I’m very excited for that.

Jason, LevelUp has become a training hub for many Maryland-based fighters. You are currently coaching fighters in MMA, Muay Thai, and Boxing. Does training multiple athletes for different sports ever become chaotic? How do you manage the needs/variables of all the different disciplines?

Jason Farrell: We have a boxing system that I implemented into all three sports. My goal as a coach is to create fighters that can fight in all three disciplines– whether it’s MMA, boxing, or KB/Muay Thai. I really want my fighters to be able to transition between different striking disciplines. A good example of what I want out of my fighters is what Alex has created with Tiffany. We want to incorporate the necessary aspects of balance and rhythm that are prevalent in Muay Thai with the movement and footwork of Dutch kickboxing or traditional Western boxing.

What is the number one thing you want a brand-new student walking into the gym for their very first session to keep in mind while training with you?

AP: Patience. Especially with themselves. I have a fighter named Giovanni who fought for the first-time last night after training with me for six months. He did very well. I think six months is a good jumping off point to see whether a student is ready to compete. I change my curriculum every six months for this reason because it allows me to gauge how much of the blue ocean system a prospective student has absorbed in that amount of time.

JF: I think it’s imperative for new students/aspiring competitors to have a great first experience in their first bout. A big part of that comes from making sure they feel like they are a part of our team and that they feel welcome every time they come into the gym.

New students entering the gym for the first time are like rocks; it is my job as a coach to progressively chisel away at the imperfections while consistently reinforcing good habits until they’re eventually shaped into daggers– dangerous, durable, and efficient. I started two Muay Thai programs at two separate gyms that were primarily BJJ schools. So I can easily relate to the growing pains that Alex is currently facing. Building a core group of striking athletes takes time and requires a high level of commitment from both the student and the teacher.

jason farrell and erin jimenez of level up boxing maryland

Sparring. What is your take on hard sparring vs technical sparring? How do you incorporate sparring into a training schedule with students that are getting ready to compete?

JF: As of right now my team spars pretty technically. And that’s something that I’ve gone back and forth on. I think it’s mostly important for students that are newer to the game to experience a few sparring session at a higher pace/intensity level so they know what it feels like to get hit a little bit harder. Our Spar Wars sessions ratchets up the intensity of sparring a little bit but things stay technical for the most part considering we’re friendly with just about every gym in the area while still maintaining a competitive nature.

AP: I like to add 15 minutes or so of tech sparring at the end every class while focusing on what we worked on during the session. Whether it’s returning with punches off a blocked kick, answering your opponent’s punches with a kick of your own, etc. Friday evenings is open sparring for my guys where I invite anyone with permission from their coach to come in and get some good rounds in. I originally started doing that back in 2009 with Blackhouse.

Let’s talk about hardships. What were some of the most daunting/challenging obstacles you were forced overcome in your journey as coaches?

JF: The thing I would warn people about is getting into coaching while still wanting to compete. Don’t try and be a committed coach while still trying to be an active fighter. You must be 100% committed to being a fighter, or 100% committed to being a coach. It’s very difficult to do both things at the same time. You must be as committed to your fighter as your fighter is to the game. Luckily, I have Erin to help me with the coaching these days. Luther Smith is a huge help too, he teaches our one hour introduction classes and the students love him. It’s a blessing to have someone that you know and trust teaching good fundamentals while being highly personable.

AP: I was in a position where I had a lot of successful fighters and the pressure eventually got to me. I started abusing Adderall and began to think that everything would take care of itself. I would allow students to cover my classes, I would skip the weigh-ins– all things you should never do as a coach. And that’s where the business aspect comes in as well; you must remain committed to your vision; even when you’re on easy street. If your vision is to be a striking coach, then you must remain steadfast in that objective.

I am now in a position where I am starting from the bottom again and need to work my way back up. And I have new/different goals for both myself and my team. Being a coach is like being an endurance athlete– the price for my successes as a coach while building the Blue Ocean system costed me almost all my relationships I had outside of the sport.

Jason, you’re one of the most active individuals in the east coast, if not in the country on spreading awareness about the sport and creating opportunities for up and coming athletes. Do you currently have anything in the pipeline as far as projects go?

JF: First and foremost, I want the sport to be legal in Maryland. So that’s my primary focus right now. We are currently working on doing a spar ways in Pennsylvania and Boston. I would love to eventually form an East Coast Muay Thai awards show that honors a list of nominees. We have a ton of talent out here; and thanks to people like Christian Tran (promoter of New Jersey’s highly touted Warrior’s Cup) the amount of opportunity from local/regional shows have grown immensely.

Alex, what’s your take on the San Diego Muay Thai scene these days?

AP: If we’re being completely honest, the San Diego Muay Thai scene is in shambles right now. There are a lot of new schools that are opening up–which isn’t a bad thing. Carlsbad Kickboxing is the first newer program that comes to mind; and Rolando Montano is doing really great things over there. But a lot of older schools are currently under reconstruction right now and I think that has been recently fueling a lack of solidarity. And it sort of seems like it happened overnight. I was shocked at how much things had changed in a single year.

Certain organizations based out of California are doing a good job providing coverage of the sport as a whole, but only highlight a handful of athletes. Unless you’re with this specific gym or this specific coach, they’re not going to pay much attention to you. I believe there is some incredible talent throughout the state– much more than the organization I’m referring to leads people to believe.

Question from Liz Gerrity (IG: @daliz4rd): Do either of you believe kickboxing or Muay Thai will ever reach the level of mass appeal that MMA has/is getting in the US? Why or why not.

AP: I would hope so, I think on an amateur level Muay Thai and Kickboxing is more popular. There aren’t too many amateur MMA events being organized here in San Diego. The ‘PKB/IKF’ platform has been organizing bi-monthly shows in San Diego and the support from the local schools and community has been extraordinary. Hopefully in time we will see more organizations catering to the Muay Thai and Kickboxing enthusiast as well as the die-hard MMA fans.

JF: I think all of us in the community are working hard towards that goal. There are so many things that need to happen to get it there though. And as hard as people are working to get it done, most of us are doing it individually. Some people are even working against each other. It’ll always be tough to make something successful without order. I’d love to see it happen. I think with the proper push it could overtake MMA. I think many the people tune in to see the strikers. If you look at who the superstars are in the sport most of them earned that fame from being a striker in MMA. I could go on and on about the steps I think are necessary but it would end up being a book.

A few things that I think could get us on track though would be a reality show (just follow the TUF blueprint). Regional shows coming together all over the country to have a mega show every year. And someone with money willing to invest in the sport.

Question from Chris Davidoff:
How do you deal with an opponent that has an overwhelming jab presence?”

JF: We have a lot of jab counters. In my opinion the jab is the easiest Strike to counter. But you need multiple counters that you’re cycling through. If you use the same one over and over a smart fighter will counter your counter. A big part of our strategy at Level Up is to create doubt in the fight. So those strikes like jabs, teeps, etc, we try to counter those and take them away early in the fight. To create self-doubt, and make the opponent not believe in it anymore, which forces them to start leading with things they may not practice consistently.

For example, the opponent comes out, throwing the jab to find range, and they get countered every time they throw it, now they feel like it’s not working and switch off to the hook. But they haven’t been drilling throwing things off the hook, so it’s not as fast or as strong because they don’t have the reps behind it. Now they are fighting a fight they haven’t drilled. It’s not a 100% guarantee they aren’t ready to lead with something else, but if they are starting off with it, it’s usually something they are confident in, so breaking that confidence pays off for sure.

AP: The Jab is one of my favorite punches because of its versatility. You do not always have to aim at the head or mid-section. You could aim at your opponent’s shoulder, gloves, forearm and wrist area to disrupt your opponent’s rhythm. Slipping, stepping offline, splitting, parrying, pivoting, ducking, high guarding and cluttering the center with your own jabs are a few strategic components one could utilize against an opponent with a busy jab.

Question from Porshya Ragoschke (IG: @popemike69): What are your two favorite ways of teaching shorter fighters to negate the range of a taller opponent? What do you consider to be a shorter fighter’s best asset?

JF: I’m a fan of shorter fighters doing work from the outside. I was the shorter fighter in most of my fights. I like using a long guard, and catching their punches with my hands, then returning fire with low kicks from the outside. So essentially, I would use their punches to set up my kicks. Usually when people punch they are based well, so it’s hard to defend a kick and punch strong at the same time. So kick while they punch. If they are more of a kicker, I’ll look to still stay outside, and either check, cover, or evade kicks, and counter with hard punches finished by low kicks.

AP: Tiffany isn’t considered a tall fighter by any means. My recipe for short fighters is make them a smaller target when standing in front of their much taller opponent. Smaller fighters are naturally quicker, tend to be more evasive and explosive when closing the gap. Those are the building blocks a trainer could stack when preparing a shorter fighter for a much taller opponent.

Question from Sean Madden (IG: @seanmfmadden): What is your take on the current state of the US amateur circuit– what do you like and not like about it? What improvements would you two personally make in order to make us competitive with the rest of the world?

AP: The Amateur Muay Thai circuit is still very much behind compared to everyone else in the world. The United States Muay Thai Association and the International Kickboxing Federation are still very much fighting for the opportunity to sanction any promoters show. Europe on the other hand has one sanctioning body and they have a very robust system of keeping track of all the amateur competitors win and loss record. When it comes to choosing a team, they pick the athlete with the higher marks. We are not yet at that level, but we will get there, Michael did a great job assembling the IFMA team this year and he’s getting a lot of support from the community.

Wrapping Up

Alex Palma will be one of three guest coaches at the 2017 Coaches Clinic hosted by the highly-acclaimed CSA gym in Dublin California. Alex has previously taught seminars all over the US as well as Europe where his cerebral and highly detailed instruction has made him a favorite with aspiring Nak Muays across the globe. To this day, Alex’s protégé, Tiffany Van Soest is the only fighter in history to hold the WBC, Lion Fight, and Glory World Titles simultaneously.  

Jason Farrell will be one of the coaches for the 2017 United States IFMA team competing in The World Games in Minsk, Belarus in May. He is the first ever East Coast coach to be appointed this role. Jason has also served as a coach for the US National Team during the 2014, ‘15 and ‘16 WKA world tournaments in Spain. All of Jason’s fighters that have competed in the world tournament have medaled. Including his fiancé, Erin Jimenez– who took double gold in both 2015 and 2016. Erin will be representing the United States on the IFMA team this year in hopes of bringing the sport of Muay Thai to the forefront of candidacy for the 2020 Summer Olympics.

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Steve Eisman
Steve Eisman is a recent graduate from the University of Colorado, an aspiring amateur fighter and an assistant coach at The Easton Training Center in Boulder. Steve has trained in Thailand on two separate occasions where he fought in both Phuket and Bangkok. He loves Chipotle almost as much he loves seeing people progress in their training. Steve's passion for the sport is contagious and he will happily talk your ear off about the fight game, movies, books and food.

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