Stepping Into The Ring And Mind Of a Muay Thai Head Coach

Oii!” the crowd of trainees chimed in uni­son, as Chris’ right round­house kick con­nect­ed with one of his train­ers’ ribs yet again. The train­er had caught his leg, but it was too late. The dam­age had already been done.

Catch some more, lah!” Chris taunt­ed in Man­darin. Most oth­er peo­ple might have got­ten flus­tered to have their round­house kicks snared under the armpit. But Chris knew exact­ly what he was doing. Even though it has been many years since his hey­day, he nev­er missed a step. He went ahead with anoth­er kick, but this time with his left; it looked exact­ly like the basics he had been teach­ing begin­ners, except it was decep­tive­ly lethal.

The train­er did not see it com­ing. He was used to the rights. A thun­der­ous smack resound­ed around the Muay Art Fit­ness (MAF) gym, and peo­ple could almost see it in slow-mo as the train­er clutched at his ribs with mouth agape, before he col­lapsed onto the rub­ber mat.

The spar­ring ses­sion was over.

On anoth­er occa­sion, dur­ing a clinch­ing (a Muay Thai sta­ple where two com­peti­tors jos­tle for posi­tion and score points by scor­ing knees) exer­cise, Chris invit­ed all his stu­dents to take turns to clinch with him. They either end­ed up being tossed off their feet like a rag doll, or they gave up in their futile attempts to con­trol the pace, and him. It was like try­ing to budge a deeply root­ed oak tree, and Chris wasn’t even a big guy to begin with.

After train­ing, the action usu­al­ly wind down to drinks, rau­cous jest­ing and mobile games. It is almost a tra­di­tion for stu­dents, train­ers and Chris to prover­bial­ly ‘talk cock, sing song, play mahjong’ post-train­ing. Some­times the stu­dents would break off into their own cliques while they untied their hand wraps. Whether explic­it­ly con­versed or implied, one thing that nev­er ceased to amaze them is how Chris makes every­thing look so easy.

But noth­ing comes easy. It wasn’t always fun, games and laugh­ter. Inter­view any pro ath­lete with seem­ing­ly extra­or­di­nary phys­i­cal prowess, and they’d prob­a­bly reveal that they went through the same kind of jour­ney Chris did.

Sure enough, Chris had to suf­fer for his craft: Muay Thai.

Muay Thai is many things to many peo­ple. At its core, it is Thailand’s nation­al sport — a twist on tra­di­tion­al kick­box­ing — where­by com­peti­tors also attack with their elbows and knees. But to bystanders, it is a vio­lent exchange of blows. To hob­by­ists and expe­ri­enced trainees, it is a com­pet­i­tive sport. To white col­lars, it is a means to lose the cor­po­rate paunch.

To Chris Wong, it is his life’s work.

Known affec­tion­ate­ly as Ah Biao, Chris has built a close-knit­ted Muay Thai fam­i­ly at Muay Art Fit­ness. Like any oth­er good sto­ry to be told over a camp­fire, the nucle­us went way back, a long, long time ago before Chris was the founder and head coach of MAF. Dur­ing his for­ma­tive years, a trou­bled stu­dent life led him to become a stu­dent of the Muay Thai game. He was involved in fights in school – as many as 50 to 60 – and won them all, he claimed. He felt invin­ci­ble. Of course, he was only ‘invin­ci­ble’ until the dis­ci­pline com­mit­tee caught up with him.

The prin­ci­pal, who might have cho­sen to see the good in him then, went with an uncon­ven­tion­al approach; Chris did not escape the inevitable deten­tion, but he was brought to a gym to chan­nel his aggres­sion. It was over there that he saw a man much larg­er than him, dent­ing bags with pow­er­ful kicks. Sud­den­ly, he found him­self with an unbeat­able foe; he imag­ined engag­ing that large man in a street fight, and how he would become that bag: dent­ed. But as a true stu­dent of the game, his mind was already made up: he would find a way to turn his weak­ness into strength.

He would enrol in the dis­ci­pline known as the ‘Art of Eight Limbs’ and train like a mad man.

Some­times, you do every­thing you can in your pow­er to con­trol the out­come, but the expect­ed out­come eludes you. It is every fighter’s dream to start and end his/her career with a per­fect win-loss record, and ride off into the sun­set with gloves hung. Chris’ fight­ing career did not treat him too kind­ly; despite cov­er­ing all the bases he could in his pre-match prep, he lost his first four fights. He was train­ing like a mad man, all right: mad with frus­tra­tion.

Up till this point, Chris had yet to realise that the miss­ing ingre­di­ent was under­stand­ing Muay Thai in its purest form: an art. Muay Thai is not the aggres­sion, pow­er play and mind­less kick­ing of banana trees peo­ple make it out to be. It is also a cere­bral tug-of-war – much like a game of chess. Jab, cross, hook, kick. Retreat. Read the oppo­nent. Block. Counter. Some call it a dance. The com­bi­na­tions lend an exe­cu­tion of flu­id­i­ty and grace­ful­ness to make the sport such a spec­ta­cle.

That’s why Chris named his gym Muay Art Fit­ness.

But one oth­er thing that real­ly turned the los­ing streak around for him was bit­ter dis­ap­point­ment. Not in him­self, but in let­ting down his fam­i­ly, friends, fel­low trainees, coach and spon­sors who flew down to watch his fights. Indeed, he was turn­ing his weak­ness into strength. He said that despite the cir­cum­stance, one has to remain hap­py and pas­sion­ate about the art he has com­mit­ted him­self to. Oth­er­wise, a nasty cock­tail of lazi­ness and quit would set in. One would give up. “You can give in, but you can­not give up,” he mused.

As sure as the sun­rise, Chris con­tin­ued to plow him­self into train­ing. And boy, was it gru­elling.

When Chris trains his fight­ers now, he said that there is no short­cut but to make the gym their sec­ond home. They would have to clock so much time, they prac­ti­cal­ly live there. It’s a rite of pas­sage he has known all too well.

As he detailed his dai­ly train­ing sched­ule to pre­pare him­self against Thai fight­ers, Nation­al Ser­vice imme­di­ate­ly comes to mind. Each day would clock at least six hours of train­ing, and it starts at 5AM. He would do a 12 to 13KM run to fin­ish off half of the dai­ly deliv­er­able: 21KM. Yes, a half marathon was to be com­plet­ed every day. That is how much sta­mi­na it is required for a pro­fes­sion­al Muay Thai fight­er to go the dis­tance on the day of reck­on­ing.

There would be a break from 7 to 9AM, when he takes his break­fast and his rest. The morn­ings also see 20 to 30 min­utes of skip­ping, 500 kicks, and pad work with the coach. In the after­noons, after down­ing snacks and ener­gy drinks, train­ing starts again at 4PM and ends at 8 to 9PM. Clinch­ing prac­tices are a must – it is even more exhaust­ing to stron­garm and knee your oppo­nent at close range, for min­utes on end – and so are 200 pull-ups.

Only then can Chris call it a day. “I know that if I suf­fer more, I will be stronger than I was yes­ter­day,” he said, when quizzed about how he sur­vived a demand­ing rou­tine as such.

Some of the new­er mem­bers at MAF would usu­al­ly bemoan the extra ‘CCA’, the gym work that Chris instructs every­one to do as cool down after 90 min­utes of train­ing. Three sets of push-ups, decline sit-ups, bar­bell swings, squats, bicep curls to shoul­der press­es and bat­tle ropes.

To Chris, that is prob­a­bly a Sun­day pic­nic. But of course, the new guys know noth­ing about the depth of the suf­fer­ing Chris once had to stom­ach.

It is of Chris’ opin­ion that train­ing and com­pet­ing in local­ly held Muay Thai com­pe­ti­tions isn’t all that dif­fi­cult. Train­ing and com­pet­ing for fights with the Thais, where the sport orig­i­nates, is a whole dif­fer­ent ball game. It sure speaks vol­umes about his ambi­tion. But his ambi­tion also spills out­side of a Muay Thai ring.

Look­ing at the black lac­quered cage enclo­sure, the sleek four post ring and the sea­soned row bags at MAF, no one would have imag­ined that the whole oper­a­tion start­ed out at a HDB cor­ri­dor where he once lived. He would recruit stu­dents and train them to tip-top fight­ing fit­ness. That was when he also met the gym’s oth­er lead train­er by the name of Ah Xiong, one of his best pro­teges who is nick­named Black Tor­na­do.

Obvi­ous­ly, the HDB cor­ri­dor was no place for a train­ing ground. Not that it was legal, any­way. He want­ed to start his gym bad­ly, which pre­sent­ed a new set of chal­lenges: he need­ed to scour for a prop­er venue and he need­ed cap­i­tal. When you fight for some­thing bad enough, it seems that the uni­verse will take notice and respond. That was when an ‘angel investor’ came in to turn his ambi­tions into a real­i­ty.

The ‘angel investor’ was none oth­er than his school prin­ci­pal.

Even though he always made me stay back in school until so late, I real­ly owe a lot to him. With­out him, I won’t be who I am right now,” Chris said.

The MAF gym has had its ‘dog­house’ days when aspir­ing fight­ers and coach­es would slam the doors shut when the clock strikes 9:30PM – the last train­ing ses­sion of the day. A series of no-holds-barred, spar-to-the-death melee was to be in order. It would not stop until some­one could not con­tin­ue any longer. When asked what was the cra­zi­est thing that hap­pened in the ‘dog­house’, Chris sim­ply laughed know­ing­ly at Ah Xiong and said: “Too many already.”

These days, at its spank­ing new gym at Woodleigh Park, the social ele­ment of MAF has got­ten stronger. The fam­i­ly is grow­ing by the day. Chris is men­tor­ing a good bunch of young guns who are still school­ing, a bunch that no doubt wants to achieve the kind of effort­less­ness he demon­strates with his unend­ing arse­nal of Muay Thai tech­niques. He also con­ducts cor­po­rate class­es for big-name MNCs. One of the most enjoy­able parts of his job, Chris men­tioned, is how he gets to meet peo­ple from all walks of life as they con­verge through the MAF doors.

Whether they are high pow­ered exec­u­tives or stu­dents, over­weight or stick thin, rich or poor, every­one would be equals once they enter the gym. All of them would get tor­tured by his train­ing regime just the same, he joked. He loves to empha­sise that his goal is to see all his mem­bers get into the best shape of their lives.

Although he cuts a big broth­er fig­ure to see through to that, he brought up his own big broth­er fig­ure who sup­port­ed him since his days as an active fight­er: Willy Lim. It was through Willy that he got to ful­fill anoth­er big­ger pur­pose: to employ Muay Thai as a means to lev­el the play­ing field for impov­er­ished Thai chil­dren.

They had pooled togeth­er a sum of mon­ey to buy over a piece of land in the out­skirts of Udon Thani, at north­ern Thai­land, so they could set up a Muay Thai shel­ter-slash-gym and pro­vide basic neces­si­ties, along with a stronger life pur­pose. Every month, he makes sure part of the pro­ceeds from MAF would go into this cause. Unwant­ed clothes are packed and sent off as addi­tion­al sus­te­nance. The pio­neer group chil­dren here at MAF Udon Thani, who would have oth­er­wise been led down a mis­guid­ed path of bot­tles, nar­cotics and haze, have since grown up to boast over 200 pro­fes­sion­al fights and numer­ous vic­to­ries under their belts.

Chris spoke about these chil­dren with a hint of sat­is­fac­tion in his voice. He must have been proud. It is a feel­ing he is famil­iar with when he spent sig­nif­i­cant effort groom­ing local fight­ers to their first big win. But that is Muay Thai the sport. Muay Thai the art. For those strug­gling chil­dren of Udon Thani who lit­er­al­ly sur­vive day to day on Muay Thai, it is… more. It is their career.

It is the great equalis­er.

In the grand scheme of things Chris is doing with MAF, those round­house kicks to the ribs,  those round robin clinch­ing ses­sions, those ‘dog­house’ mad­ness, those three sets of ‘cool down’ exer­cis­es – they sud­den­ly seem so small.

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