“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.