Yokkao Founder Philip Villa: Passion, Intuition, Vision
Yokkao has always been at the forefront in terms of fightgear designs as well as novel ideas and marketing strategies in the traditional Thai sports.
The company is a disruptor in the world of Muay Thai. Its founding in 2010 was a catalyst for many of the industry’s modernization that has taken place in the last decade.
Yokkao arrived and updated Muay Thai gear and fightwear with contemporary looks which contrasted with a market full of stale generic copies. The brand is also one of the earliest adopters of social media marketing in the industry. Many have only just started to play catchup in recent years.
The man pulling the strings from behind the scenes is and has always been Yokkao’s founder, Philip Villa.
Philip Villa masterminded Yokkao’s many initiatives including the popular Yokkao Seminars, global events, the Yokkao Training Center Bangkok and more, leading to the brand’s place as a key player in the Muay Thai industry today.
A former fighter and a combat sports fan since he was a kid growing up in northern Italy, Villa shares how he began his life-long relationship with Muay Thai,
“I fell in love with combat sports when I was a kid. I used to live in a place where you need to know how to defend yourself so it came naturally. Since my mother understood that I was the kind of guy to get into trouble, she encouraged me to practice combat sports to let off steam. I started with karate but I felt that I was missing something. I found it in Muay Thai.”
The calling to train in the sport’s motherland was strong like it is for all Muay Thai practitioners. In 2007, Villa booked his flight and arrived in Thailand. He recounts,
“I can remember the first day I arrived, I went straight to Sityodtong gym in Pattaya. I said to them, ‘Hello, I am here to train twice a day for 3 years’. And I did it. Pain, sore, raining, whatever I was there every day even the day after the fight. Every single day.”
Driven by his love for the sport and armed with an acute business acumen, Villa felt that there was a gap in the industry. He saw the potential of an untapped market in a world where fight sports was growing rapidly and that Muay Thai was not receiving the exposure it deserved.
“I understood that the Muay Thai world was unexplored and I started to show it to the world. We uploaded the first FULL-HD video on Youtube showing the world how the Muay Thai champions were training. The rest is history”, said Villa.
Yokkao gear made its debut in 2010 beginning with a collection of Muay Thai shorts. The company then quickly ramped up with a full collection and a series of events, partnering with the biggest names of the time.
Within just 2 years of its founding, Yokkao had grown to become a household name in the global Muay Thai scene.
“Yokkao” (Thai: หยกขาว) translates literally as “White Jade”. Villa explains the cryptic significance behind the brand’s name,
“It’s a stone that you should always have with you when you want to forge friendships or strengthen your connection to people.If you pair it with the Tiger’s eye (chatoyant gemstone), this gem may help you in accepting particular truths about your life that you can’t change anymore. It will make challenges seem easier, and it will make your troubled mind calmer.”
White jade seems like the perfect type of protective gemstone for Villa as an Italian entrepreneur in Thailand. There are many challenges in building a business from scratch in a foreign country. Communication difficulties, cultural differences, foreign laws being some of them. Villa shares,
“Difficulties are part of the game. As I am an Italian, we tend to be hot-blooded and passionate. It can be considered a flaw because we defend our opinions no matter what, but also a strength because being spontaneous and passionate is a good thing. I had to adapt myself to the Thai culture and find the right equilibrium. Let’s just say that I count ‘till 10 far too many times.”
The brand and its founder have overcome numerous challenges and obstacles to get to where they are today.
10 years on, Yokkao has grown to become one of the major players in the global Muay Thai industry. Villa credits the success to the brand’s “360 operations”,
“I believe that what we’ve created is unprecedented. We’ve been able to vertically integrate everything related to Muay Thai into the brand. We produce gear and fighters, we promote our own events, seminars and we have our own gyms. If you talk about Muay Thai, you can’t not mention Yokkao. The community that we have created is unique, their support is amazing because they understand that whatever we are doing we do it with heart and passion. You can’t replicate that.”
“One day at a meeting, one of my best workers replied to a customer who was comparing us to other brands. He replied ‘Sorry, we have no competitors’. He said it all.”
Game Recognize Game
It becomes fitting that the one fighter most associated with the brand is the living legend, Saenchai. The brand made a very strategic move of bringing Saenchai onboard the Yokkao fight team in 2012. This would be the equivalent of Nike signing Michael Jordan after he won 3 championships in 1993.
Saenchai has played a key role in Yokkao’s world since the promotion’s first official event, Yokkao Extreme (2012). Headlining a number of events, leading worldwide seminars and featuring in countless gags on the brand’s social network channels.
The interview would not be complete without asking Villa about the brand’s most prominent fighter. Villa recaps how he first met Saenchai,
“Saenchai is an amazing history. When I started Yokkao, I went to train at almost all the gyms in Bangkok including 13coins gym where I met Saenchai. I can remember we talked for just 2 minutes and we understood each other. Since that day, we started an amazing journey and friendship. 10 years later we are still in this together.”
Saenchai’s larger-than-life personality in and outside the ring has been both an inspiration for many fans as well as a source of countless video gags and memes. 10 years into the partnership, I asked Villa if he had any stories about the Muay Thai legend. He shares,
“I can tell you about that one time when we had a stopover in Germany. A few beers later and we ended up missing the plane. Then there was the time when we went to eat oysters and we literally ate all the oysters of the restaurant and the check came in at over 1,000USD.”
The Next Frontier
In late 2017, Villa moved back to Italy while his Thailand team continued to take care of manufacturing and other aspects of the business in Thailand. He explains the motivation for the move,
“It’s tough. It’s really tough but I had to do it. I came back to Italy to maximize the European distribution and to go deep into a major lifestyle project. I gave myself 2 years max but it took longer than I expected. I’ve been able -with the help of my team- to increase the European sales by over 300% and there is much more to do. I am lucky that the staff I have in Thailand really love and support me. I miss everyone back there but we are always in contact by phone.”
Villa is ready to move on to the next phase of his grand plans for the brand. He reveals,
“Next year I will be back in what I consider my hometown, Thailand then I will move to the USA. This time we will not do only seminars. I will go there in beast mode.”
There is truly not one brand name in the fight world that is comparable to the vertical integration of Yokkao. As for the brand’s long-term goals, Villa shares,
“I have always known that I would create something unique. The vision is simple: I want to kick into the lifestyle world which is what I’ve been working on since day one. I can’t say more.”
The Yokkao founder is taking the brand into new territories with a series of projects in the pipeline. With his lifelong passion for Muay Thai, driven by his intuition and a fiery pursuit to achieve his vision, Villa and Yokkao show no signs of slowing down.
To keep up with everything in the world of Yokkao and its founder, follow Philip Villa’s instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/philyokkao/