A SPORT developed from a Thai legend is helping people in Cwmbran keep fit and learn new skills, as FELIX CARPENTER discovered.
THAI boxing, also known as Muay Thai, originated in Indo-China 1000 years ago, and requires physical and mental discipline to maximise efficiency of movement.
The Cwmbran Thai Boxing Club is named after Phraya Pichai, a Thai general who famously fought with two swords. According to legend, he was once leading an army when one of his swords shattered. Unfortunately for his enemy, Pichai was a brilliantly skilled Thai boxer, and instead of accepting defeat, he led his army to victory with his impressive hand-to-hand combat technique.
Justin Reeks, former British Thai Boxing Champion and now a trainer at the Cwmbran club, based at Goode's Fitness, said the story still has important meaning today: “Phraya Pichai is a huge Thai legend, and his story reflects the ethos of the sport. Because the training is intense, it is easy to fall by the wayside.
"The story is about perseverance, promoting a survival of the fittest ethic and encouraging members to train hard.”
Thai boxing is a growing sport in Wales. Mr Reeks said this is because it is now easier to discover alternative sporting activities: “Absolutely, modern technology such as the internet allows people to access a broader range of sports.
“Traditionally Olympic sports like Karate have been the biggest, however now Thai boxing and others are gaining in popularity.”
People are increasingly turning to Thai boxing as a means of staying fit, while at the same time learning useful new skills.
"About 80per cent of people at the club train purely to get fit, however those with a particular vocation for the sport can take it on competitively.” said Mr Reeks.
Self-defence is a concern for many people, and Thai boxing can give the confidence and techniques needed to protect oneself. Mr Reeks continued: “Thai boxing isn't just about weight loss, the skills are transferable from the ring to the street. If you find yourself in a situation of peril, or against an aggressor, people with these skills will be able to defend themselves.
"Another of our trainers, Bob Spour has taught the SAS combat techniques, so you learn from the best."
However the sport is not simply physical. Thai boxers have to be mentally prepared before they fight, and this also requires training.
Mr Reeks, who is also Chief Instructor for Wales, suggested that these less obvious skills can be useful in other areas of life: “Training is tough, and not half hearted. It's not fully rewarding without a positive attitude, and it improves your mental endurance.
“It helps you not to feel phased by everyday life, and able to get through difficulties.”
Other benefits include boosted cardiovascular endurance and better hand-to-eye co-ordination.
Thai boxing is similar to its American cousin Kickboxing, although there are several distinctions. Thai boxers wear broad, often brightly coloured silk shorts, whereas kickboxers use long trousers. In Kickboxing a fighter can only hit the head, face and torso and no grabbing is allowed, but in Thai boxing clinching is allowed and there are no restrictions on where on the body can be hit, other than the groin area.
Mr Reeks explained how he became involved with Thai boxing: “I actually started off training Karate and Ju-jitsu for a short time, but I found 90 per cent of it wasn't for me, I didn't enjoy the semi-contact nature of it. Because it was so traditional being 2000 years old, it didn't seem relevant to today.
"I moved on to Kickboxing, but soon realised that Thai boxing was for me. It is great for people to cross-train though, 10% of what I learned from Karate was very good and I took it with me."
Mr Reeks has been practicing the sport for 28 years, and teaching the others for 20. He is a 10th Khan Muay Thai fighter (the highest grade), and also holds black belts in both Karate and Ju-jitsu.
A former British Thai Boxing Champion, Mr Reeks now feels it is his obligation to pass on his expertise: “At first I was reluctant to start teaching, I felt I would be sacrificing my own fighting career. I represented Wales nine times, Britain twice, and fought in Thailand for the world title. However, I was sitting in on some lessons and realised I was twice as experienced as any of the other instructors.
“I felt I had to step in, so I took over to bring everyone up to speed.”
Developing new talent into top performers is a key priority, and Mr Reeks is aware of this responsibility: “Of course this is really important, and the club produces a lot of top fighters.
“Ian Tomkinson, a lad I trained since he was a boy, won the Five Nations title, an achievement I'm more proud of than anything of my own. Paul Martin another member recently took the Welsh title.
"At one point we had five champions all training at the club."
The Cwmbran club is seeking to attract younger children to the sport. Mr Reeks said: “In Thailand they have children fighting by the time they're six, it's a way off the street and out of poverty for them.
"For us it is just a hobby, so we've been concentrating on over 14s. However we are working towards in the new year training younger kids, which would benefit on their career in the long-term. We've applied for Sport Wales Community Chest funding to do this."
The no-frills approach of Thai boxing is appealing to beginners. The sport places greater importance on psychological resilience and physical effectiveness than flamboyant flourishes and gestures.
Thai boxing is good for those who want to improve their muscle tone without looking as if they have spent hours in the gym, with practitioners developing a more robust physique without appearing overly bulky.
Clever, fast footwork is vital in Thai boxing, ensuring one is able to deftly avoid blows, but Thai boxers are also taught to withstand hits. "Unlike some other fighting arts, in Thai boxing you are trained to take shots, and how to have the physical and mental strength to bounce back," said Mr Reeks.
A fighter's knees can be their most dangerous weapon, often delivering the highest percentage of devastating attacks, Mr Reeks added: "Scientists have found that the force of knee hit from a properly trained Thai boxer is equivalent to the force of a car hitting you at 30mph."
A typical training session run by Mr Reeks includes a variety of different activities.
Mr Reeks said: "We usually start with fitness, working on strength, stamina and cardio, for 20-30 minutes. Then we'll have to one to one technique sessions, before practising those techniques on the pads.
"At home there's nothing better than running to improve your fitness."
Asked why in a sentence people should take up Thai boxing, Mr Reeks answered: "Thai boxing is sometimes called the 'science of eight limbs', because you fight with your fists, elbows, knees and feet. Personally, I call the sport the 'science of nine limbs', because you don't just train to use your muscles, but also your mind."