THERE are tough jobs and there are really tough jobs – and then there’s being a full-time professional boxer in Thailand’s brutal national sport.
Known as Muay Thai (Thai Boxing), it is also known as the ‘Art of Eight Limbs’ – so called because practitioners makes use of punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes, thus using eight points of contact.
The life of a professional Muay Thai fighter or ‘nak muay’ – is far from easy. Yet Ancrum joiner James Allan has now spent over a year living, training and fighting in the country’s biggest training camp, Tiger Muay Thai, in Bangkok.
Passionate about martial arts from a young age, James, now 27, even spent five months living and training at the Shaolin Temple in China prior to heading to Thailand.
There, he learned kung fu, tai chi and kickboxing from the world-famous Shaolin monks. Moving on to Bangkok in October 2009, he only returned to the Borders at the start of this summer – after nearly 20 months in the Far East – to visit family.
And this week he begins the long journey back to Thailand and the world of the professional fighter. Before he left, however, former Jedburgh Grammar pupil James spoke to TheSouthern about his chosen way of life.
“My first taste of the martial arts was a karate class. I moved on to classes in Lau Gar Kung Fu and kickboxing in Jedburgh and Hawick.
“What I love most is the actual training - learning new things and seeing myself get better.”
Now one of Tiger Muay Thai’s 10 sponsored fighters, he previously won national martial arts competitions at Scottish and British level, took gold in two separate weight divisions in a major Swiss event, trained in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with the world-famous Rick Young gym in Edinburgh, and spent time in western boxing and tae kwon-do, all to improve his fighting skills.
“But although I was training in all these martial arts, I really missed the traditional kung fu and it was that which led me to travel to China and Shaolin,” he told us.
James’ descriptions of the harsh training regime he encountered in China would put most people off emulating his adventure, but James loved it.
“It was really hard training. Each day, we always started with tai chi for 45 minutes, then standing or sitting qigong exercises, then breakfast, which was always boiled eggs and warm milk.
“They we would have room inspection. The monks believe that a tidy mind is reflected in your kung fu and mental discipline.
“Then it was Shaolin kung fu which included horse stance training with weights on your legs and if you collapsed you’d get cracked with a stick.
“Then maybe we’d do forms or acrobatics like cartwheels and backflips, butterfly kicks and jumping tornado kicks. It was then a 15-minute break. followed by an hour-and-a-half of forms and applications.
“By lunchtime we were usually wiped out, so we got to sleep for a while before kickboxing and power training. Exercises would include getting a partner and doing wheelbarrows round a massive sandpit the size of half a football pitch about six times. If you collapsed that was another crack with a stick.”
One of a number of foreigners at Shaolin, James had originally intended only staying for three months, but managed to stretch that out to five.
“I just wanted to go and sample it. And you do learn a lot because all you do is train. One important thing I learned is the importance of training your mind, realising you can train when you think you can’t because you have some niggle or ache.”
It was then on to Thailand where, again, James only planned to stay for several months, but ending up remaining for over a year. Eventually, girlfriend Anna Galbraith flew out to join James and she now has a job as a personal trainer in the Thai capital.
With 14 fights to his name, including 10 wins, James is one of a handful of fighters sponsored by the Tiger Muay Thai gym – not bad when something like 200 fighters train there each week.
“You only get £150 per fight, but in Thailand that lasts a long time. My mum – my folks moved to Switzerland for my dad’s work – is always petrified when she knows I have a fight.
“In fact, in the minibus on the way back after every fight I have to text her to let her know I am ok.”
So far, the worst injuries suffered by James was a cut above his eye that had to be stitched up at the ringside and a broken bone in his hand.
“I enjoy the fights – they’re fun – but it’s really the training and lifestyle of a fighter that I love. It’s like being a member of a big family – you get really well looked after.”
By the time Southern readers read this, James – complete with suitcase stuffed full of sports nutrition products courtesy of Nutrition X in Galashiels’ Huddersfield Street – will be back to training twice a day and getting ready for his next fight, which should be some time before Christmas.
As for the future, James plans to continue his pro career as a Thai boxer in Bangkok. “We have visas for another year, so we’ll see. Ultimately, we’d both like to come back to the Borders and do something together, like start our own gym. I’d love to come back and be able to make a career out of teaching martial arts in the Borders.”
z Part of his sponsorship deal with Tiger Muay Thai means James has to start blogging regularly and TheSouthern intends carrying regular reports from James on his fighter’s life in the Far East.