Photos courtesy of the author
A seven-time world Muay Thai champion recently said, “Any bloke, especially with white skin, who calls themself ‘Master,’ ‘Kru,’ or ‘Ajarn’ needs the fuckin’ taste slapping straight out their mouth. Pricks.” Though I might not entirely understand what Liam “the Hitman” Harrison, the seven-time world champ in question is saying, I heartily concur with what he means. White, black, brown and yellow, there are way too many coaches doing the Muay Thai rounds these days calling themselves “Master,” “Ajarn” (professor) and “Kru” (teacher). But, there’s one modest, self-effacing chap I know who doesn’t go by any of that grand sounding, self-anointed malarkey. Meet Mr. Lek, one of the best Muay Thai coaches active on Planet Earth today.
Every martial art has its bohemian purists, Muay Thai boxing is no exception and Mr. Lek happens to be one of them. He isn’t a washed up, boozy, ex-superstar who lost his fight fortune dabbling in the restaurant business. He’s the real deal. Mr. Lek was born Pette Rukuchaomeikeimutong in north Thailand in 1960, and, during the 1970s and 1980s was a sixth-ranked Lumpini lightweight with an awesome 120-win fight record. A true artist knows his craft and Mr. Lek exited the Bangkok fight game with an encyclopedic knowledge of moves and counters, an archive of tricks and pyrotechnics to barter, trade, and pass on to chosen pupils. He became a coach. And not just any old coach, he became one of the best Goddamn coaches on the professional scene, period.
No one forgets a first impression. When I first met Mr. Lek at Rompo Gym (now the Muay Thai Academy) in Bangkok’s never-to-be gentrified slaughterhouse district of corrugated shacks and dimly lit back alleys, I was definitely a computer in need of an upgrade, a burnt out circuit board, fit for the scrap heap. The heaving, sweaty, tin hut gym was crowded with sinewy pugilists, both Thai and farang (foreign), tripping over each other’s feet looking for space on the bags or five rounds on the pads with overworked and arthritic Thai trainers on minimum wage. So much hustle and bustle, ebb and flow, deal and match, fix and fit up; this wasn’t some run of the mill boxing gym. This joint was more like the floor of the Thai stock exchange.
Kneeing my way around the four square ring, an unworthy amongst the worthy, I noticed a senior looking figure on the margins of the ring. Lean, sturdy, with the stern, scholarly face of a politician, and the merciless eyes and mouth of a Chinese hatchet man from an old Hollywood film, he was dressed in a blue vest and wearing a pair of black Muay Thai boxing shorts turned inside-out (for good luck). He fixed me with a telescopic stare and barked in raspy but dramatic English, “He too fat… Too fat!”
Welcome to the world of Bangkok Muay Thai where square jawed tough guys are more self conscious about body fat than catwalk supermodels in London, Paris or New York. And meet Mr. Lek, the boss, the capo and big fish trainer. I didn’t know it at the time but Mr. Lek had been bringing up professional fighters and baby champions from all over the world at this very spot ever since the gym’s establishment in 2000. Suffice to say, he did not have much time for fat bastards from Liverpool.
When Mr. Lek had chosen fighters to school he set about molding them into contenders. If you were in the black ring, in the Lek set, you felt like one of Muay Thai’s elect. You were getting bespoke, made-to-measure tuition and the full weight of his boxing know-how. Talent is in the eye of the pad holder and Mr. Lek on the job often resembled a Muay Thai version of the eccentric schoolteacher from Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Like the title character of that story, Mr. Lek was in the business of putting old fight heads on young shoulders and nurturing the crème de la crème of the fight game. I was a bum, surplus to his exacting requirements, and, for several years or so, Mr. Lek was content to survey my sclerotic progress in the lower ring with an amused, distant eye.
Mr. Lek’s top set were thoroughbreds. So many champions and contenders have passed, and continue to pass, through his focused gaze, so many big name fighters—who can testify to the learned input and genius of his teaching methods, not to mention his reassuring presence in the corner on fight night down at the stadium. “Relax, relax, relax,” was and is his mantra. It soon becomes your mantra as well because you can never win a fight, or lose one sportingly, when you are consumed with fear and anger.
For some strange and inexplicable reason, the world over, boxing trainers always seem to know more about you than you would care to admit. Mr. Lek was no exception. If a fighter was a part time drunk, sex addict or bully boxer, he wasn’t interested in schooling them up. Mr. Lek would shake his head, turn his back, lean on the ropes and mutter something profane to himself in colloquial Thai. If you were clean living, had the ability to keep your trap shut and do as you were told, you might get invited over to the black ring for 3-5 rounds of pad work, sparring, clinch or technique. Note “might.” Then as now, Mr. Lek had no time for bozos.
It is often said that when you live in a foreign country long enough, and immerse yourself in its culture, the doors will open wide. If not, they slam shut. After seven years plugging away at the gym, five to six times a week, in November 2010 Mr. Lek decided to take me under his wing and rewire my entire style. Under his tutelage, my guard was modified: elbows sharpened; stance narrowed. Now I boxed behind the spear of a sharp teep front push kick, and, instead of wildly throwing round kicks, I set them up with tactical impact. Something clicked. A window had opened to the soul. My game had improved and so had my understanding of the eight-limbed art. Mr. Lek had performed the impossible: he had taught a mangy foreign dog new tricks. “Good,” he would say if it (rarely) was. “Phaeng,” he would say, (Thai for expensive or costly), if it was risky.
What are Mr. Lek’s secrets to training, day in, day out, clock on, clock off, as a foreign pro-fighter in Bangkok? Relax, relax, relax. You don’t have to wrap your shins around the trunk of a coconut tree. Mr. Lek’s daily recipe for success was simple as 1-2-3. Three rounds skipping; three rounds on the bag; three rounds on the pads; three rounds sparring; three rounds clinch; three rounds technique; fuck off home and don’t forget to do your roadwork, you fat farang bastard.
In any vocation, art, science or discipline, no one forgets a good teacher. They are the brain boxes who take our trembling fists and guide us through the void to find that supernatural something that makes us bigger and better than we already are, or even dreamed of. The true coaches are the learned elders, the cranky old monks of the temple, who can turn us from wankers into warriors. It’s important to remember them, to praise them. The true ones so rich in their own knowledge and identity, that they don’t need to give themselves self-aggrandizing titles like “Master,” “Ajarn” or “Kru”. The respect of their pupils, deeply earned but modestly borne, outweighs any label.
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