Video: Try This - Muay Thai

Getting bored of spending time of the treadmill at the gym and looking for a new way to keep fit? The Hunts Post sent sports reporter Jack Tappin to try Muay Thai in St Ives to see what he made of the martial art. IT WAS the skipping that exhausted me

Getting bored of spending time of the treadmill at the gym and looking for a new way to keep fit? The Hunts Post sent sports reporter Jack Tappin to try Muay Thai in St Ives to see what he made of the martial art.

IT WAS the skipping that exhausted me the most. Three minutes of it for a warm-up does not sound so bad, but they were three of the longest minutes ever. Then after a 30 second break there was another round. Then another. And another. And finally the last round. The 10 press ups in between each round felt like a break, even though it used most of the 30 second break.

I've never been much of a skipper and found it exhausting. I was soon told by the instructor, 'Kru' (Thai for 'teacher') Shaun Boland that the reason why was because I should not be throwing my arms all the way up and jumping two feet in the air, rather I should be flicking the rope with my wrists and jumping a few inches.

I took that into consideration and did find it easier, but after a few seconds and my record of 15 consecutive skips, I felt like I'd been shot in the gut. Having a hard rope that feels like having a brick dropped on your toes if you do not jump right does not help either. I was hardly made to feel proud when my hard rope was given to a child and I took his longer and softer rope.

There are around 15 people at the Chao Phraya Muay Thai Academy on Wednesday evening (March 11). I find that quite a lot considering a lot of people are probably passing the chance to train for the chance to watch the Champions League in the pub.

Like most martial arts and sports classes, the Muay Thai session begins with an intensive warm up that gets the sweat dripping. Boland started by warming us with press ups, sit ups, squats and star jumps with a variety of exercises I'd never heard of before such as the 'superman'. Then there was the dreaded skipping and we were onto the technique.

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There are few smells more revolting than that of worn equipment that stinks of the sweat of the last person who wore it, especially when you know that you're going to be putting it on. Nevertheless, I kitted up with Matt Meadows, who would be my practice partner for the night, without complaint as I got talked through the basics. I had done a few lessons of Thai Boxing a few years ago, so I had vague idea of what I was doing but was a long way off any level of competence.

Meadows talked me through the stance first, which is all important to keeping balance, defending and being in the right position to attack. You need to stand with knees bent, stronger foot back (if you are right handed then that is your right foot), and fists held close to your head ready to jab, swing and defend.

Though it all sounds very simple, I soon found out where the clich� of 'keeping your guard up' came from. Returning back to the correct stance after moves was difficult, and I often found myself standing in the wrong position and off balance.

We soon started on the different attacking moves, with several different punches first. The jab was short and simple, but only to throw your opponent off guard to use your more powerful fist. Then you hit them with a swing or an uppercut, or if you felt confident move in close for an elbow. Meadows explained that the main reason to use an elbow was to "break the soft skin on your opponent forehead", thus causing the blood to go into their eyes and hinder their vision.

Then there are the kicking moves. Unlike most martial arts that involve a flick-kick, Muay Thai kicks are intended to swing all the way through your opponents to bring them down. Another difference is that the kicks are with the shin, causing considerably more damage than with the foot. Another attack is the knee, which you drive up into the opponent's gut if they come too close, or their face if they come in for a low punch.

After I had let all of my aggression out on Meadows, we switched over so I was wearing the pads and it was his turn to give me a beating. I was told that the movement of the 'padman' (the one taking the blows) is just as important as practicing the technique of the attacks. A good padman has to be in the correct positions to receive the blows and at a higher level even attacks the attacker, as I saw some of the experienced fighters doing.

Unsurprisingly Meadows had much better technique than me, and it took me a moment to realise that what I first thought was him kicking me and missing the pads was just in fact the sheer force of the kick being done properly. I said different combinations for Meadows to do and he attacked, staying sharp and focused.

After I had taken a beating, we all did some sparring. Donning the gloves, I was at a bit of an unfair advantage as without a gum-guard Meadows was not allowed to give me a good punch to the jaw, but I could still hit him. I soon learned the basics of not dancing around as that wastes energy, and to be careful choosing what moves you go for.

I was pretty dire over the first few rounds, failing to get in many hits and all too often letting my guard drop lower and lower to the point where I was asking to be hit in the face. As the rounds wore on I slowly got the hang of it, and was even able to get a couple of hits in whilst waiting for Meadows to attack and countering.

After the sparring I spoke to Meadows, 30, from St Ives, to find out why he comes to the gruelling lessons. He has been coming to the classes for over two years, and decided to start coming after seeing the club's website.

"I always wanted to try something like this and Muay Thai seemed to have a history as well as the sport. I enjoyed it from my first lesson, and though there's definitely nothing easy about it you need that level of enjoyment or I would really struggle to keep coming week in week out. It's hard going and after you get home from work if you have two hours of this then you need to have fun.

"I don't know how far I can go with it and I'd love to have a professional level fight but the problem is that it's a big time commitment for the training as you need to be practicing six days a week before a fight. I hope to pick up my game next year and have some inter-club fights but for now I just want to keep it going as a hobby."

We all cooled down with some stretching at the end of the lesson. Boland asked the class some questions about the sport's history and the country which it originated from, being keen to stress that his lessons are not just "learning about kicking and punching" but are learning about the culture as well. "You need to know the recipe as well as eat the meal," said Boland.

He goes through some basic questions, and I learn that Muay Thai means "free boxing", and that Thailand means "free land". Everyone seems to know the routine and the answers to most of the questions, and learn a fair bit about the culture and the country.

Samir Hidalgo, 27, from Huntingdon, is one of the club's senior fighters and is training to become an instructor. Hidalgo, originally from Madrid, has been training in St Ives for four years. He has been involved in three professional fights and is undefeated, winning two and drawing one. He said he will keep going "until I can't kick anymore".

"I first started Thai Boxing in Peterborough but it wasn't very rewarding and I heard about this so decided to come along. I enjoy it as it's very different to other martial arts because it has no katas and it's just fighting," said Hidalgo.

"I love training and fighting and what I like about this is that there's a lot of respect between the fighters. It's not like boxing where they mock each other; in this you respect your opponent before, during and after the fight. I want to go as far as I can with this and one day start my own classes."

Andy Smallman, 21, from Needingworth, is the club's newest member and has been coming since December. He started coming after doing Jujitsu when he lived in Preston and after hearing that Muay Thai was a good martial art to learn he was surprised by how unique it was.

"It was completely different to everything else I had done, now after a few sessions I really love it. I want to keep doing it and it depends on where I end up but hopefully I can maintain it as a hobby and one day be competitive."

Boland, 50, from St Ives, has been practicing Muay Thai for 11 years. He started martial arts with Judo in 1973 and in 1983 he was the RAF novice boxing champion.

He won bronze 10 years ago at the full-contact British martial arts competition in Coventry after 11 years out of training, fighting with the Chinese martial art of San Shaou. He was asked to represent Britain is the national event in China, but was ruled out when officials realised he should not have been in the event as the cut-off age was 35.

"I started Muay Thai as a way to develop more for the full contact competition and I fell in love with this sport from the start. I was doing it because I have a passion for martial arts and the reason is do things is to better myself as a person and to challenge myself," said Boland.

"I never aspire to go further but if the opportunity arises then I seize it. That's what happened with teaching, and I think knowledge is very powerful, so if I can pass on what I know about the sport to others then that's a great thing.

"I want to keep going for as long as I can and though your body diminishes as you get older you can still pass on knowledge. Hopefully I'll have another 10 or 15 years yet and I can pass on my knowledge to people like Samir [Hidalgo] who can teach it after me.

"We don't always get the same number of people here but I'll treat teaching 10 people the same as I would teaching 50. People who come here always leave smiling and that's a great thing, not just for this but in any sport. It's hard for people to break away from television to come here but everyone who has come here tonight has left smiling."

Looking around as the class filters out, I can see that Boland is right. Despite a painful and sweaty two hours, everyone at the class seems to have been happy to come here after work instead of watching the television. Even I had found it quite fun, and if I go again in the future I may even learn to skip as well as fight.

INFORMATION: Training at the Chao Phraya Muay Thai Academy is at the Burleigh Community Centre in St Ives every Monday and Wednesday from 7pm to 9pm. Session cost �6 for non-members and �3 for members, with the membership fee being �30 annually. Shaun Boland also runs a fighting fit class aimed to keep people fit without learning about the technique, every Thursday from 6.15pm to 7.30pm at the same venue, and costs �4.