THAILAND: Step into the various outdoor training halls within the Tiger Muay Thai & MMA (TMT) gym in Phuket, and you will immediately feel transported into a world detached from reality.
Juxtaposed against the idyllic and slow-paced life of the island, the violent sounds of padded fists hitting punching bags and the vocal shouts that accompany each blow seem out of place.
However, the tropical holiday island is making a name for itself as a destination for martial arts' practitioners to take their skills to the next level.
Stepping out of a training session, Emilio Urrutia, a sponsored pro fighter at TMT best described the vibe at the facility as he greeted a group of journalists interviewing Singapore’s ONE Championship women’s straw-weight title contender Tiffany Teo.
“Welcome to paradise, fellas,” said the American, who is also one of Teo's coaches. Over lunch, he spoke of his decision to uproot from his native Miami to Phuket, where he is now currently based.
"I was actually slated to fight professionally in America, and so I had a fight camp in this part of the world," said Urrutia, who eventually debuted in a smaller promotion in Malaysia in 2013.
"I loved it so much in Phuket, that I decided to move here and get more professional fight opportunities in Asia," added the ONE Championship athlete, who has an upcoming fight in Manila on Jan 26.
He was especially taken in by Soi Tai-ied street, where TMT is located. "You can feel the energy on the road because you're surrounded by like minded people who all have primarily the same goals," said Urrutia.
"Most people come here to prepare for fights because you get to train alongside world class athletes from all around the world," he added. "You constantly get to spar with people who have different styles and ways of doing things that you may have never seen before."
The island attracts not just professionals like Urrutia and Teo, but also novices and casual fight enthusiasts. “For a fighter, it’s great. It’s warm and sunny for the most part - unless it’s the rainy season,” said TMT’s wrestling trainer George Hickman. “Even then, it’s a good climate to train in.”
He added: “Everything here is cheap. Before this in the US, I had a full-time job and I had to train on top of that. Here, it’s a place you can come as a professional fighter and not be from the biggest organisations like ONE Championship or Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and still afford basic necessities to survive and train.
“Obviously for food, you can buy cheap food on the streets here. I think that, as fighters, it’s the biggest factor aside from the climate and weather here, in a sense that it is also more affordable here.”
It also helps that surrounding businesses have also adapted to serve the fitness market, with health-food cafes and sports massage parlours also located in the vicinity alongside the fight gyms and fitness clubs in the area.
“It’s not like normal reality here because everybody here is training like professionals and there’s a slew of shops that sell healthy food and cater to athletes,” said Hickman. “You can get whatever you need here.”
For TMT, its entire operation centres around giving the best possible experience for the professionals as well as tourists, who typically spend a couple of weeks at the facility.
“The people from overseas love the ocean, and they love to be at the seaside where it’s relaxing," said TMT’s managing director Viwat Sakulrat. "They like to do sightseeing while they're here and so for them it’s a two-in-one experience: training and excursions.
“Phuket is already a destination for top fighters to come down and train,” added the 50-year-old.
HOTBED FOR MARTIAL ARTS
Though not as big as TMT’s premises, rival gym Phuket Top Team (PTT) is located just a 10-minute walk away on the same street.
Its no-nonsense and somewhat grungy feel attracts top fighters from various promotions to hone their skills. “We’ve had three UFC champions here in 2017, and about 16 UFC fighters in all,” said PTT owner Boyd Clarke, who has had UFC stars such as Alistair Overeem and Cris Cyborg drop by in the past for short stints.
“I was listening to a podcast on how the UFC built a Sports Performance Institute in the US, on the idea of (attracting) more fighters because everything is there,” he said. “They’ve got mountains to run to, sports science and things like that.
“To be honest, here in Phuket we have a third-world version of all that, that’s rapidly rising to a first-world one,” added the Australian, on why Phuket has become the go-to place for some pro MMA fighters.
He noted how advanced sports science facilities such as partial-body cryotherapy tanks, which have been widely used in professional sports in the United States, are making an appearance in Phuket.
These upright, cylindrical tanks typically mimic ice-bath treatments that are used by athletes to relieve muscle sprains and aches immediately after physical exertion.
“The technology on the street is impressive, there are float tanks for muscle recovery, in addition to numerous sport massage shops from one side of the street to the other,” said Clarke.
“There is also now cryotherapy (saunas) over at Phuket Town with specialized tanks. The guys on our street have water-based float tanks, but they’re also trying to buy a cryotherapy tank right now,” added the former Muay Thai pro. “There’s an açai cafe down the street … a vegan eatery, places that do nutritional diets that deliver to your door three times a day … that whole community just built up onto each other.”
According to Clarke, though, it is the cultural acceptance of fight sports in the country that bred the success of Phuket as a destination for top-notch MMA training. “It's all due to the cultural thing for sure … almost everyone is involved in martial arts here, especially Muay Thai,” said Clarke.
“If you speak to a taxi driver, he’ll likely have a family member who’s doing something related to professional combat sports.
“In Thailand, grandmas, uncles and aunties all watch Muay Thai on TV, and it’s an acceptable thing here.”
Also appreciating the conducive environment at PTT is ONE Championship’s female straw-weight contender Xiong Jing Nan, who is preparing there for her title fight against Singapore’s Tiffany Teo on Jan 20.
“One of the main reasons why I love it here is because I can find so many good sparring partners to sharpen my skills with. I also find that Thai people have been very friendly and welcoming,” said the Chinese MMA fighter. “I find Phuket to be a very peaceful and conducive place to train for my upcoming title shot.”