Fighter to Fighter: Training & Fighting in Thailand vs the West

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Editor’s note: Claire Baxter is a three time Muay Thai World Champion. She is a practicing psychologist with a degree in sport and exercise psychology. In the third of her “Fighter to Fighter” series, she talks to American fighter, Whitney Tobin about Muay Thai around the world. 

I recognized Whitney as one of my own the moment I met her at Santai Muay Thai in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She was fit and strong, and she was, in every way, a fighter: driven, dedicated, and on a mission. Whitney took every fight that came her way. For the three months we trained together, she trained and fought with total focus and determination. I liked being around her.

Whitney has forged an impressive career, amassing 45+ fights in four different countries – the US, New Zealand, Australia and Thailand – by making things happen, and by putting the rest of her life on hold for months at a time to live the dream. She’s lived and fought a lot of muay thai in a number of different countries – funnily enough, in exactly the same countries I’ve lived and fought muay thai in. I relish the chance to talk muay thai with her, to share and compare our experiences of our discoveries of muay thai in Thailand vs muay thai in the West.

After our time together in Chiang Mai, life took each of us to different corners of the globe: Whitney to New Mexico, America, myself to Melbourne, Australia. Coming off a fight a few weeks ago, I’m on crutches with a torn anterior tibiofibular ligament in my left foot, while Whitney is her final preparation phase for her appearance on LionFight on 20th April.

Nothing makes me feel better than talking muay thai – at least when I can’t actually do any muay thai – and talking to somebody in the last weeks of fight camp is exciting. We carry out the conversation via email exchange, and I find myself answering Whitney’s questions, and eagerly awaiting her reply to my own. I distilled our email exchange into the following conversation.

Credits: Rebel Arts Production

Whitney: Claire, you’ve trained and fought in both Thailand and the West; how do the gyms compare?

Claire: My time in muay thai gyms – nine years of my life – has played a huge role in my development. In each case, my relationship with my gym – usually a 3-4 year relationship – came to an end because I moved locations – Melbourne, Brisbane, Chiang Mai, (briefly in San Francisco) and then back to Melbourne again.

I think there is a risk of overlooking the uniqueness of each gym by talking generically about “Thai gyms” and “Western gyms.” Every gym and every trainer has played a role in building me as a fighter. I think I truly began to understand muay thai when I lived full time at a Thai gym. I began to understand the classic Thai fighting styles – muay femur (kicks) and muay khao (knees), for example – as opposed to the Western preference for boxing. I also came to understand the meaning of “sabai, sabai”, (literally, “calm down” or “relax”).

The fighting opportunities are much better and more frequent in Thailand, and in Thailand your popularity in the ring is dependent on whether the Thai spectators find you a good gambling prospect. In the West, promoters rely on ticket sales; they want to know how many tickets you will sell, so you have to embrace publicity and self-promotion. Getting fights in Thailand compared to fights in the West is an entirely different project.

Claire: Whitney, I would ask you the same question: what difference do you notice between Thai and Western gyms?

Whitney: I think both are beneficial. In Thai gyms, the less experienced, less skillful Westerners are always playing catch up with their Thai counterparts, whereas in the West, training partners tend to be of similar skill-level and experience. Because of the language barriers between Thai trainers and Westerners, the teaching of skill occurs more through demonstration and physical correction rather than verbally. Thai gyms are more hierarchical than Western gyms, which can also be a barrier to communication. In Western gyms, things tend to be explained more clearly.

In Thai gyms, the cultural exchange is rich and engaging. Having a love for and open mind about food helped me build a good relationship with my trainers (Whitney sends me a smiley face and writes “hahaha”. I imagine Whitney saying this in person and chuckling.) There’s also a lot of humor and play, and playing pranks is common. On the negative side, there is more sexism in Thailand, and a lot less acceptance of the role of strength and conditioning.

I always earned my respect faster in Thai gyms because they love hard workers and people who are keen to improve. In contrast, in some Western gyms there is a big emphasis on your social media engagement.

Claire: Whitney, I’m curious about your experience: you were saying that at the start of a fight career there is a wide gap in skill range when you accept fights. As as you become more experienced, the competition gets thinner but more challenging. Could you expand on this a bit more? You have quite an impressive fight career with over 45 fights – that’s no small achievement. What has the journey been as you’ve progressed up the ranks?

Whitney: I fought too heavy for my first 10 fights, I was fighting girls at 64kgs and coming in well under weight by usually 2-3kgs. I was a lot more fearless until I had a fight where I cracked my ribs. Once this happened, I didn’t want to fight like a wrecking ball; I wanted to fight smarter. This meant going down a weight class; then I had to adjust to faster opponents.

Moving from continent to continent, I found the biggest leap of skill going from New Zealand to Australia.

I enjoyed my last 15 fights in Thailand because both my opponents and myself were at a higher skill level. At this level, I really enjoy five round fights, where there is more opportunity for strategy than in three round fights.

Claire: You have a phenomenal work ethic, Whitney. I mean, I thought I was a hard worker, but you set the bar a couple of notches higher. You genuinely ran 10km every day before the morning training sessions, and you seemed to thrive on it. I don’t mind 10km runs, but 60km a week on top of training pushes me into the overtraining zone. Speaking about training, this brings me to my next question: I understand you have been largely training yourself for your next fight. This is a bold move. Why have you decided to train yourself?

Whitney: I felt when this opportunity arrived I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. I’m currently in New Mexico, America. In the West, not many people dedicate themselves to purely muay thai for as long as you and I have done, meaning that we often end up having more fight experience than our would-be trainers. I make up most of the curriculum for the camp but have had a lot of help with really sharpening up in the last few weeks.

It’s a challenge: I’ve always pushed myself hard, but now I’m accountable for what kind of training I do as well as how how well I apply myself! During this fight camp I have planned drills and set up sparring sessions. I’ve also been watching videos of my previous fights – something I absolutely hate doing! – trying to hone in on areas I need to improve.

I have good supporters. My husband, who has had over 25 fights, is my pad holder and my main sparring and clinch partner. Victoria Mihok from Performance Ranch Trainer has helped me incorporate strength and conditioning exercises that mimic fight movements into my training. I’ve also had a lot of support from Ray Yee, one of the Owners and Head trainers at Luttrell/ Yee gym. Lastly Sergio Chavez, a world champion boxing trainer has really helped with my hands game!

Whitney in Thailand

Whitney: Now, Claire, what has been your greatest challenge?

Claire: Outwardly, my greatest challenge has been finding fights, and getting the balance between muay thai and the rest of my life right.

Inwardly, my greatest challenge has been self-acceptance. I’m a long way from the fighter I would like to be, and I used to beat myself up over this. I’m still a long way from the fighter I would like to be, but I accept that the road to improvement is a long commitment paved with small, hard-gotten gains.

What has been your hardest mental obstacle along your path? What has been your greatest challenge, and what is the greatest thing you have gained from your long-standing fight career?

Whitney: My greatest challenge is not comparing myself to other people. Some of my friends have been training for less time than I have but are far more talented. I’m not ashamed of this: my work ethic rather than any natural talent has seen me through my fight career. Another challenge has been my quest for technical perfection: I’m disgusted with myself when I fall short of the mark.

The greatest thing I have gained along my fight career are my friends. I met my husband through muay thai, and Pat, my mentor, was best man at our wedding. The people I have fought alongside are truly exceptional people and I respect them for their passion, determination, and their compassion and solidarity.

Who would you list as mentor, Claire?

Claire: Ghot Sernoi in Brisbane was a senior fighter when I was fighting for NTG. He was influential in the evolution of my psychological mindset. I remember him saying “When you step into the ring, your mind should be so clear that you can hear a pin drop.”

That was a big turning point for me; I started to understand that the mental game was about emotional regulation orientated towards calmness and clarity rather than busyness.

Kru Phon at Santai muay Thai was influential because of his emphasis on repetition of the basics. One time he was holding pads for me and he made me kick right – just right roundhouse kicks – for 5×5 minute rounds. I nearly hated him for that! But I learned a powerful lesson: I’d always considered my right kick to be my best weapon, but Kru Phon taught me that you can never really be content enough with any aspect of your muay thai.

Kru Nan at Santai muay thai was influential in the way he believed in me and prepared me for fights – one time I was so smashed up from a previous fight and a long term shin injury that I was limited to punching and teeping on pads during fight camp – but he just kept saying “no problem, you win sure!”. His wife later confided in me that he was beside himself with worry, saying that I was too injured to fight, but he never let that concern show: all I was aware of was his belief in me, and his desire to see me do well. I’ll never forget his support.

Let me ask you the same question: who would you list as mentor?

Whitney: I thought I was a hard worker until I met Omnoi from Kiatphontip gym. I trained with him for 6 months in Wellington, New Zealand. It was through him I that learned that I was a clinch fighter. I also learned different fight strategies. He introduced me to my next trainer and mentor, Pat.

Pat took me and two of my training partners on as students. That period forms some of my greatest muay thai memories. Pat encouraged us to watch videos of great Thai fighters, and analyze what made them great. He inspired in me a lifelong love of learning about muay thai.

I clicked straight away with Boraphet, (aka “Ten”) from Santai Muay Thai. We are both short, stocky and strong. Under his tuition, I developed my muay khao style. He really looked after me with respect to skill development, even giving me technique tips in between rounds when I was on the bag and he was holding pads for other fighters. I was very proud to win two titles in Thailand as his fighter.

Claire: Ultimately, our training journeys had to go along both Western and Thai pathways. As Western fighters, we are tied to our homes for so many reasons, and naturally, we want to fight there. As fighters, we are drawn to Thailand, the fight opportunities it can give us, and all it can teach us. The pilgrimage to Thailand is a valuable experience for anyone who has made muay thai part of their life.

Whitney: I mean, the more places you train, the broader your skills and experience become. We’ve both been lucky, I think, to be able to fight and train in so many places. This sport has given us a lot.

Claire: Hahaha, it also takes things. I’m stuck on crutches for six weeks or more with a torn ligament from kicking.

Whitney: Best wishes with that, I hope you recover soon. Yeah, injuries suck, it’s not all fun all of the time, but I think the injuries and sacrifices are worth it for the chance to fight.

Claire: Definitely, it’s such a beautiful style of fighting. Thanks for the chat Whitney. Best wishes for LionFight!

Whitney: Thanks, I can’t wait to get back in the ring on 20th April!

Edited by Jo Bowen

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