Mixed Martial Arts: Phuket street a big draw for fight camps

Tiffany Teo sparring with a coach at the TMT gym in Chalong, Phuket. Her One Championship strawweight title bout opponent tonight, China's Xiong Jingnan, was training at the PTT gym along the same street about 1km away.
Tiffany Teo sparring with a coach at the TMT gym in Chalong, Phuket. Her One Championship strawweight title bout opponent tonight, China's Xiong Jingnan, was training at the PTT gym along the same street about 1km away.ST PHOTO: LIM SAY HENG

PHUKET • The ancient Greek city of Sparta configured its society towards military excellence, where its people were brought up on virtues such as austerity, strength and fitness.

Walk along Soi Ta-iad in Phuket, Thailand, and one would feel transported into a modern-day version of Sparta.

Instead of armour and shields, the road is full of modern-day warriors wearing singlets and shorts and often are covered in tattoos.

These athletes - professional or amateur, specialising in mixed martial arts (MMA), muay Thai or even crossfit - live, eat and train along the 1.6km stretch, which is about 16km away from the bright lights and parties at the popular Patong Beach.

"A lot of people say it's a fighters' haven here and I actually believe that," said George Hickman, the head coach of Tiger Muay Thai and MMA gym (TMT) along Soi Ta-iad.

"Everything here is so simple: having a fight camp is extremely stressful, and coming here takes the stress out of that."

"You have great facilities for training, you have access to healthy food, nice weather, the beach. It all makes it less stressful," added the 32-year-old American, who arrived in Phuket four years ago.

It is also relatively cheaper than the US, Hickman noted. For example, a sports massage in the US may cost about US$70 (S$92.30), but only a tenth of that along Soi Ta-iad.

"Phuket is a place that you can come as a professional fighter and not be making a lot of money in the biggest organisations like One Championship or UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), but still survive and do a training camp."

Singapore's Tiffany Teo is among a growing band of professional fighters who prepare for their fights in Phuket.

The 27-year-old trained with TMT for about a month before she flew to Jakarta earlier this week for the One Championship strawweight title bout today. Her training was sponsored by TMT, while she spent less than $2,000 on airfare, accommodation and other expenses during her four-week stint.

She said: "In Singapore, we don't really have a lot of females doing MMA. If you find one, you are probably going to fight her in the future.

"In Thailand, there are a lot of professional female fighters doing their camps here too, so I have more training partners."

While other places in Thailand like Bangkok, Chiangmai and Pattaya are also popular training destinations, Phuket has become a go-to place for professional MMA fighters' fight camps over the last four to six years, noted TMT owner Viwat Sakulrat and Phuket Top Team (PTT) owner Boyd Clarke.

Both facilities - at opposite ends of the street - have attracted big names in the MMA world, such as UFC's Cris Cyborg and Georges St Pierre, and One Championship's Xiong Jingnan and Vitaly Bigdash, to hold their fight preparations in gyms along the street, which the locals dub "Fight Street".

"We are always running fight camps, it is so ridiculously busy," said Clarke, a 34-year-old Australian who arrived in Phuket about nine years ago.

"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.

"Here in Phuket, we have a third-world version of that, which is rapidly rising to a first-world one."

Shops selling healthy food - essential for fighters who need to make weight for fights - dot the road, as well as shops selling protein shakes and protein powder.

"There are also cryotherapy (saunas) over at Phuket town, with specialised tanks," Clarke observed. "The guys on our street have water-based tanks, but they are also trying to buy a cryotherapy tank now."

These tanks use low temperatures to relieve muscle aches and sprains when used immediately after physical exertion.

Business has boomed so much for TMT, which has a capacity of 700 athletes over 1.6ha, or about two football fields, that they are going to expand their brand overseas.

Viwat said: "We are already a destination, and we are going to launch Tiger Muay Thai in different parts of the world, starting in India in the next two or three months."

PTT's Clarke limits his numbers to 120 though. The former muay Thai fighter said: "We have had tour companies approach us... but we don't want that because it's going to affect (the quality of) what we do.

"That sounds crazy, but it's a trade-off."

Lim Say Heng

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2018, with the headline 'Phuket street a big draw for fight camps'. Print Edition | Subscribe