We students all know the joy of a good session. Overindulgence, hangovers, all just a part of life for a young Scot. More positive pastimes though, are paramount to our development as human beings- naturally what qualifies as a positive pastime though, is as subjective as the pineapple on pizza debate is divisive. Some might scoff at the thought of an avid reader dedicating their down-time to consuming fiction (personally I do love a good novel), while another might think me a thug for my interest in Muay Thai boxing “The Art of Eight Limbs”- a sport which promotes exacting standards of fitness and discipline, defines an ancient nation… And kills 30-50 people a year.
Naturally I am not without sympathy for any man or woman whose life is taken in a Thai ring or training setting- but would argue that the practice of combat sports saves many times more lives than it claims. Gyms and Dojos the world over often attract some of the hardest pressed in society. Children in the grips of a life in poverty, convicts and recovering drug addicts, all train shoulder to shoulder with middle class professionals and international fight champions- and are taught the priceless joy of achievement.
The coaches who run these establishments are the people who make their achievements possible, and I spoke with one such coach- John O’Brien (of OB’s Thai gym in Johnstone) about his time in the sport and his work with local children. John is a successful fight promoter, long suffering gym owner and full time teaching assistant/fitness coach. He works at Mirren Park School; an establishment for kids who have been excluded from main stream education… in Ferguslie Park, Paisley. One of Scotland’s most notorious housing schemes.
With 27 years’ experience John clearly has a driving passion to keep training the next generation, training them to the highest level possible. He said;
“It’s seeing others succeed, seeing what other people get out of it is what keeps me coming back to the gym every night, particularly the juniors and women.” He paused for reflection- an oddity for a man with the confidence of a Rhino in the Sahara. “It’s seeing the people who others might not expect to do well improve week in and out. Anybody can succeed in Muay Thai, that’s what makes it special.”
There are many ways to succeed in Thai boxing, but fight events organised by various clubs around the country, represent a tangible goal for some Thai scholars. They offer fighters the opportunity to showcase their skills before a large crowd under bright lights- and although Thai bouts can be visceral and violent, a 4 tier “class” system lays down a clearly defined list of rules and level of contact. From N Class, full head and body protection with no knees or elbows permitted, through to A Class bouts- where the most seasoned (and/or talented) fighters wage full contact, controlled war.
O’ Brien couldn’t stress enough that the events organised by the authorities isn’t actually that important, he merely wants to improve people and keep them going.
“95% of what we do isn’t about fighting, but something entirely more positive. It’s about giving people somewhere to achieve, a group to be part of, somewhere they feel welcome. Even to progress week in and out, that’s an achievement in itself, one you can literally feel.”
Nonetheless, the events are a useful tool in maintaining commitment from students who might be tempted into less savoury pastimes come the age of 15. This year two students introduced to John through his work with Mirren Park, enjoyed the opportunity to “take on a fight”, with one fighting on one of Scotland’s biggest annual fight shows.
Speaking of training, John beams as he takes great pride in his pupils, knowing he has potentially changed someone’s life.
“They put every bit of their heart and soul into what they do with me, and show me the same respect that I give them.” John told me. “The effect it has is amazing, I’ve known more than a few boys who Muay-Thai has saved from jail. It changes the way you think, the way you breathe, the way you treat yourself.”
Let me tell you from my own limited experience, that John wasn’t exaggerating. The adrenaline rush that comes on as you pull off your shoes, the atmosphere inside the gym, the tangible progression each lesson… even the aching muscles feel good. Muay Thai helped give me the confidence to follow my dreams outside of the sport, and abandon a well-paying career that had spanned a decade, in pursuit of a career as a writer.
Gyms like OB’s, and coaches like John (pillar of the community though he may be), are not necessarily special places though. What they do certainly benefits society more than many will ever know, but there are hundreds of dedicated men and women all over the country with the same moral compass as John’s, working tirelessly to see their students meet their full potential. Perhaps on your next fitness drive, you should consider investigating a Thai gym, rather than sign up for an expensive fitness suite to end up only getting your money’s worth out of the sauna.
If you’re interested in taking up the sport, or spectating some real Muay Thai, there are gyms and fight shows near you. MTB hold a large event at the On-X Linwood, on the 1st December, and local gyms include;
OB Muay Thai Gym. 9 William St, Johnstone
Base Muay Thai. Unit 23 Mossedge industrial estate, Paisley
Glasgow Thai Boxing Academy. Clydegrove industrial estate, Hamilton St, Glasgow