What I Love about Muay Thai that I Hope Never Changes

Roxy Balboa Muay Thai 2006

It’s easy for me to get nostalgic about my early days of training. When I discovered Muay Thai, it quickly became my sole passion. It did for me what true loves does for most people. It captivated me, thrilled me, challenged me and made me want to be a better person. Not everyone may feel this way about a sport, but everyone that becomes a fighter or even becomes good at Muay Thai feels at least a little like this at some point and remembers it well.

I started Muay Thai in the spring of 2002 in Philadelphia when I was 24 years old. I was dating a guy who trained, and he wanted to teach me, Muay Thai. At the time I was bartending in the city after graduating from college. I hit up Bally’s to work out a little on occasion, but had little clue about fitness other than what I gathered from playing basketball in high school and reading Shape magazine – and I had never taken a martial art in my life.

My boyfriend had keys to this tiny, dirty gym he trained at, so he took me there one afternoon to give me a lesson.  The place looked like an attic; it may have been one. There was no AC, one heavy bag and some beat up mats and pads. I was suspect at first. It’s not easy training your boyfriend or girlfriend, and I must have been the biggest pain in the butt. I remember complaining about jump rope and shadow boxing and only wanting to hit pads. I hated walking knees with a vengeance. He made me do all of it and since he was the first athletic, totally hot, non-delinquent boyfriend I’d had, ever, I decided to listen to him. Once I was warmed up and doing pad-work I loved it. Something about hitting and kicking things just really exhilarated me. I’d never felt anything like it. I begged him to train me twice a week. I was addicted from day one.

About three months later I moved to Los Angeles.  It was a change I needed in my life, but my first year in LA was pretty rough. I couldn’t find stable work that paid well for quite a while. I blew through my savings and racked up $10,000 in debt that I’m still paying for now.  The one thing that saved me was Muay Thai. I found a gym the first week I was here. I drove 60 minutes through rush hour traffic from West Hollywood to North Hollywood to make my favorite 6 pm class at the Muay Thai Academy. I trained hard 5-6 days a week, made new friends I still know today, and loved every grueling minute of it. I ended up fighting in December of that year.

If it weren’t for Muay Thai, I would have probably moved back to Philly in a year or less, but no matter how hard it got I had my training to focus me, drive me, and keep me strong. Ten years later and I’m still in love with the sport. Here’s what I love about Muay Thai that I hope will never change…

Muay Thai challenges me to be a better person. Getting good at Muay Thai is not easy. The hours of training, bumps, bruises, and sacrifices are just the beginning. It takes real maturity to take ownership of all your weaknesses and channel them into strengths. Anyone can lie to themselves and tell themselves they are good enough at something. In many other hobbies and occupations, you can go your whole life and never have anyone challenge you to do better. What I love about Muay Thai is it checks you right in the face. One hard sparring session with someone skilled who picks me apart may feel like shit, but it’s also giving me more ways to improve. Losing a tough fight has brought me face to face with looking at ways I fell short and drove me to develop. Fighting is the great equalizer; everything shows up in the ring. Any weakness, be it mental, emotional, physical or skill based is magnified when someone else is in your face trying to break you. Through training and fighting, I have had to look deep within myself at what I fear and what I lack, and find out what I’m made of.  Muay Thai taught me that I always have more inside of me. I will always have more strength, more power, more speed, more skill I only have to believe it, train for it and want it badly enough. I never knew what I was truly capable of until Muay Thai challenged me to find out.

I hit people in the face; they hit me back then we introduce ourselves and are friends for life.  I have always loved traveling to new places and training Muay Thai.  I have trained in many gyms, visiting places big and small around the country. I have always found the Muay Thai community to be welcoming and friendly no matter where I am. I jump in a class or a team sparring session. I sweat and bleed with people, and they become instant friends. This often happens with fighters after they try to kill each other for five rounds, they buy each other a beer, hug it out and compliment each other on a certain strength in their match.

Not everyone I have fought or trained with has become my best friend, but I can say that I have met some of the best people in this sport, my gym is my family, and I have friends all over the country as a result of Muay Thai. I’ve made friends with trainers, pro fighters, amateur fighters and everyday people that love the sport. Other sports don’t have this same camaraderie. Boxing has a little more attitude, most other individual sports like tennis and golf are pretty lonely and isolated, all the major league team sports are so huge and highly paid that if you aren’t in the NFL, NBA, NHL, etc. you aren’t a part of that elite world. You can’t imagine Kobe Bryant taking an impromptu trip to NYC and playing a pick-up game in the park. That just wouldn’t happen, but it happens all the time in Muay Thai.

The Muay Thai community is small, intimate and unique. I hope it never loses that with higher paydays. Part of what connects people that fight Muay Thai is knowing that if someone is a Muay Thai fighter, they fight because they truly love it, you need a second job to be a fighter and you won’t retire wealthy. I hope that as the sport grows and fighters earn what they deserve financially, and we never lose the camaraderie of the sport that was such a big part of what made me fall in love with Muay Thai in the beginning.

I always know that I will feel better after a Muay Thai workout.  It could be the worst day, the kind of day that crushes you from all angles and teases you to quit. But I know that after a little jump rope, shadow and some kicks and punches I will feel better. My problems will all still be there, but through training my perspective changes. I give in to the meditation of a heavy bag. The familiar and rhythmic flow of my combinations; my breath chiseled and strong as leather hits leather;  the feel of sweat dripping down my neck as I grip the bag for knees – the harder my muscles are forced to work the smaller, consuming thoughts get pushed aside. Nothing clears my mind more effectively and quickly than a rigorous Muay Thai session…and when I’m done troubles seem less overwhelming, work seems less pressing, and worry evaporates like the sweat on my skin.

Even though I’ve done the same strikes and combinations a million times, it’s never dull. Maybe that is because every time I train a thousand beautiful memories flood my subconscious mind. The best moments in my life have all been because of Muay Thai: chasing my dreams, making it through tough training sessions, fighting, feeling rewarded by my efforts, bonding with others who feel the same… and with each strike I throw on that heavy bag those memories warm my soul in a way nothing else can.

There is always more to learn. Even great fighters have things they can improve on. I love that I can be in a sport for ten years and someone tells me a new cue or clench trick or footwork drill and I’m instantly fascinated again. Now that I’m retired I’ve switched gears to coaching fighters, and there are a whole new set of challenges and lessons to be learned. There is no complacency in Muay Thai. I love that I am forced to grow and evolve just like the sport, and its fighters do.

Here’s to the next ten years!