Packing a Punch
Bruce Emond, WEEKENDER | Tue, 01/31/2012 1:15 PM |
Former Muaythai world champion Stephan Fox wants fitness hopefuls to get their kicks from this martial art.
Stephan Fox has designs on bringing Muaythai to a fitness center near you. In fact, he is a fervent believer that the martial art from Thailand can help anyone – young or old, fit or flabby – get into better shape.
“As a cardio workout it burns more calories than any other,” says the 48-year-old. “And the reason is when you do a regular workout, like on the treadmill or doing weights, you are still checking your BlackBerry, still thinking about the problems at work. But with Muaythai, that’s impossible to do, because you are going one-on-one with a personal trainer and for 45 minutes you belong to him or her.”
Busy city executives enjoy the feeling of taking instruction from others and getting rid of some pent-up aggression, says the German-born Fox.
“They have to focus on the instructions, not anything else. It’s just the training for that 45 minutes. Many executives are looking for this opportunity to switch off, they want to be dominated and burn, in the short time they have.”
Fox, who was in Jakarta in December for training sessions with Muaythai instructors from Fitness First centers, says women clients are particularly enthusiastic about the chance not only to tone their thighs and hips through repetitive kicking, but also to let off some steam in the gym.
“Women tend to be so much more organized than men, because they have to be in taking care of their jobs and their families. Our instructors are trained to get them to let go during the workout, like telling them, ‘think that it’s your husband’ or ‘this is your boss’. So after the session, they are totally satisfied, even when they are in the shower they’re still thinking of the good workout, not what they have to do in the afternoon.”
Fox has been the Muaythai trainer for contestants in the Biggest Loser Asia cable TV program. He emphasizes that the sport is ideal for people with significant fitness targets, because of its emphasis on discipline.
“In soccer, players are given a yellow card when they screw up, but in Muaythai there are no second chances. You don’t do what you are supposed to, then you have do 20 pushups, and you think about what you did while you are doing them. And even a big executive cannot say no to doing them, because he is paying for his session. So he does it, and he feels good about it.”
The response to the training sessions was “fantastic”, he says, adding that trainer numbers increased from 110 in his first session to more than 200 in the second. It shows the growing popularity of the sport for fitness regimens.
“At Fitness First, the personal trainers are taught to first find out from the clients what they need, to take it easy at first but to get them hooked with a good workout. And to make sure to never hurt the clients. There is nothing worse than having someone going home with a swollen eye or a hurt leg.”
Fox is one of the authorities in his sport; a former world champion, he has been a “bridge” in Muaythai’s efforts to go international and is the vice president of the World Muaythai Council.
Bruce Lee action movies inspired the young Fox to do his own kung-fu fighting around his home in Germany. Although the popularity of Asian martial arts was still relatively low at that time, his mother sought out a range of classes in different sports – judo, karate, boxing – so that her son might live up to his dreams of being Bruce the almighty.
Destiny brought him to Thailand at the age of 19, and his discovery of Muaythai. For a young man who already thought of himself as a good martial artist it was a rude awakening.
“I didn’t really understand what it was about, but I went to the gym, wanting to mix it up,” says Fox. “My ego was bigger than my muscles. They put me with this little guy, who threw me from one corner to the next. I couldn’t understand his technique, because I couldn’t even touch him.”
He says he knew then that it was the martial art he had been looking for.
“First of all, it showed me it didn’t matter about muscles or strength, it’s a lot about technique. And what really struck me at the time was the cultural part of the art, the respect. The kid would throw me down, and then pick me right up again. He could have really hurt me, but he was showing me he was superior and that he had respect for me.”
He had to start from the beginning, although his karate and boxing training gave him an advantage in learning the sport in its homeland. He began competing in events in Thailand and Australia, where he has resided since the mid-1980s.
“In the old days, there was no Internet, no proper cameras; I have so few photos from those days. Newspapers didn’t come to report on our fights because we didn’t know how to contact them. But we didn’t really care. We didn’t fight for fame, we fought to compete. There was no money. I remember once getting a gas voucher for an event out in the middle of nowhere in Thailand. I gave it to a taxi driver and he was happy to drive me around for three days.”
His involvement in Muaythai also coincided with the sport’s growing popularity beyond Thailand, where it is known as the working man’s sport. Since the mid-1990s, he has been enlisted by the Thai authorities in standardizing regulations of the sport, and also in being the “bridge” in promoting it in the West.
That has included changing its spelling from “Muay Thai” as part of the effort to have it one day admitted as an Olympic sport (the Olympic charter prohibits any sport that uses a country’s name).
“We have 128 member countries, we have many more events, we have proper in and out of competition doping testing. In 2006, we were recognized as a proper sport, not a blood sport, which is basically what it has been in Thailand.”
The English football league is today’s sports marketing champion, but Fox points out that martial arts reach even more people than soccer: “everyone is either doing one of them, or knows someone who is”. And Muaythai can learn from soccer in marketing superstars and reaching out to higher income groups and sponsors, including through media and making it available in fitness centers.
The sport has gone international, and Thailand is no longer the world champion. Fox does not see Muaythai becoming an Olympic sport for at least the next 20 years – “wushu and kickboxing also want to get in there”.
He sees it as his destiny to join in the ongoing journey of Muaythai, beginning in a sweaty gym 30 years ago and leading to a class in a gleaming modern fitness center today. He has been in the Asian region so long that he admits to having lost touch with his roots.
“In Germany I am totally out of place, because everything has changed,” he says.