According to statistics provided by the management of Tiger Muay Thai, between 500 and 600 students pass through the Phuket mega-gym daily, choosing between some 23 different classes.
Established in 2003, Tiger Muay Thai has recently changed its leadership team from American-led to Thai. In July 2015, a well-known Thai billionaire became the majority shareholder, and brought on Thai-born Viwat Sakulrat as the new managing director. We spoke with the new director in an air-conditioned meeting room looking out over one of Tiger's many Muay Thai training areas as we sipped fridge-chilled water out of bottles labeled with the Tiger Muay Thai logo.
Fightland: So, take us the long way as to how you came to be here at Tiger.
Viwat Sakulrat: I was a Muay Thai fighter as a kid, but I grew up more overseas than in Thailand. After college I worked as a tour guide in Phuket for two or three years then worked with Club Med in Thailand and all around the world, as a water-sports and then land-sports instructor.
I left Thailand when I was 24. With Club Med, every six months they send you to a different country. I went to Africa, Europe, you name it. Sometimes they'd just buy you a ticket and tell you to go. "Here, you have to be in Mauritius by next week." I've been to 42 different countries, used to speak six different languages but now only three are left: Thai, Japanese, and English. I still understand French and Italian, though.
After Club Med, I went to New York. I wanted to visit New York because I had a girlfriend there. She's now my ex-wife. She was Japanese, but born in New York. I went there on vacation and she asked me to marry her. We got married in 1993. Back then, a green card was so easy to get. I applied for the green card after we got engaged, and I got it in four months.
In New York I worked at the YMCA for 14 years, started as lifeguard and then was promoted to pool diver. Biggest YMCA in the world, by the way. I also got involved in Muay Thai in New York, worked with the UFC, taught Muay Thai and ran a gym in New York. Three different gyms, actually. One in Connecticut and two in New York.
I stayed in New York about 22 or 23 years before I came back to Thailand in August 2014. The plan was to come back to Thailand on vacation, after 20 years away. I met with a friend from Club Med who had hotel in Patong, and he offered me a job. He said, "Why do you want to go back to NY?" He asked me to be general manager of the hotel for a few months. So I decided to stay in Thailand.
Sounds like where you ended up really differed from your plans.
I didn't plan anything. I just planned to stay a month on vacation.
One gentleman asked me to come to TMT as a consultant, give some advice. At that time, they had a lot of issues with the local government. The previous owner was American. They asked if I knew of investors to take over this place. I said sure, I have a friend who is a well-known person in Phuket, a billionaire. I knew him through the golf course. When I came back [to Thailand], my Thai was rusty and my golf buddies had to speak English at first. Now it's fine because I've been here for a while. Anyway, [my golf buddy] Khun Watchara is the majority shareholder now. He speaks English. If you speak English in Thailand it means you have a good education. One day I told him, "I think TMT is looking for new investors, new owners." Without hesitation, he said, "Deal." [Viwat snaps his fingers.] This happened July 2015.
We started construction on new facilities at the end of August 2015. There's new construction, like the yoga studio, and MMA moved up to the hill outside, open-air. The old MMA room is now the yoga studio so we can avoid mosquitoes.
And you have a new tattoo parlor as well, right?
Yes. Our board of directors decided on the tattoo parlor, we want to complete TMT. We don't want to compete with others; whatever our customers need, we want to give it to them. Kru Oh will be doing the tattoos. Traditional bamboo tattoos, some modern. [The structure has] a traditional look too: straw huts, trees everywhere. I want it to feel more natural, like you're actually in Phuket. I hate concrete and buildings; I lived in New York too long. But I also want it to be safe and convenient for our customers. After you live in New York more than 20 years, you become a clean freak. Thais are very clean but I [emphasize] it more, like the sanitizing buckets. [Plastic pans of sanitizing liquid are provided at entry points to areas where students train barefoot.]
I see you now provide water coolers at training sessions. Free water wasn't provided last time I visited a year or two ago.
We're not in Dubai or in the Middle East that we can't give people free water. It's about convenience. If they have to run and get water, that's not convenient for our customers. Or safe, either. Dehydration. I don't want them to pass out. I think water is one of the most important things for your life. That's good customer service. When they have the little things, they will appreciate everything else around them.
When I came here, I restructured things. Didn't change the whole structure; just modified or added on something. Every time we have board meetings, here or in Bangkok, we talk about quality control, cleanliness, safety. Those are the keys to success. Customer service too. We have five on our board of directors, all Thai and all investors.
Tell us more about your background in Muay Thai.
I started when I was seven years old [in the province where I was born], Kamphaeng Phet, which is three hours away from Chiang Mai. I grew up at my own gym: my father was my trainer, my brother was my sparring partner. I had three brothers, and some other neighbors trained with us too. It was a neighborhood gym, not commercial. No pads, no mitts, no electricity. Our kicking bag was an old army duffel bag filled with sand.
I stopped fighting at age 18, had over 100 fights. Back then it was a way of life. I needed to do Muay Thai because I was not born a rich kid. The only way I could make money was to do Muay Thai. My parents were farmers, and my family is still in Kamphaeng Phet.
I still keep everything pretty low-key. I don't consider myself successful yet. I just came here recently and I have a long way to succeed in reaching our goals. But I'm very proud of being able to show that our martial arts, Muay Thai martial arts, is not all about business. Muay Thai for me is more about discipline, respect, and for exercise. It's not all about how good you are, fighting, being a world champion.
So what does success look like to you? How will you know when you've made it?
When I have another 150 TMTs around the world. We're going to start having franchises around the world. It's unofficial. We're in the process of doing the paperwork. The way of information, people will get info when they come here, and then when they ask me if we're going to franchise, I tell them, "Yes, contact this person and they'll explain it."
How big will these gyms be?
That depends on the investor. If they want to do one as big as ours, that's fine. Most of them first have to have Muay Thai and fitness, or an MMA program. Right now, those are key to TMT. You never know, maybe one will open in New York soon. Most of them will be built from the ground up, or transform old warehouse spaces. That's all about the people who buy the franchise; they can do whatever they want as long as they stay within our format.
How will you maintain quality control if you franchise?
That will be a challenge. But we won't know until we have our first franchise. I worked at UFC franchise gyms in the U.S., so I know how it works. It's pretty simple for them, but for us it's challenging because every franchise will require a real Thai fighter or trainer. In UFC, anyone can teach BJJ or MMA, but in our franchise, we'll have our real Muay Thai trainers go overseas and train.
How do you find your Thai trainers?
They find us. We never once put an ad out saying we need trainers. They walk through our doors everyday looking for a job. There are so many gyms around here but they want to work here. We have a lot of ex-champs, every one of them a superstar, they were all on TV in the past, but here it's like a family, they run around laughing. We treat them as a family, not just as staff, and they enjoy working here.
We have 47 Muay Thai trainers, all Thai, which is more than we had before I took over. Back then there were about 30. Before, the max here was 200 guests, but now we can have 700. And it's not just Muay Thai here, but yoga, Krabi Krabong, BJJ, Muay Boran, MMA, K1, Western boxing... And fitness.
More and more gyms in Thailand are offering training in multiple disciplines. What makes Tiger different?
Our gym is different than competitors because we offer a complete package. The customer buys an all-inclusive package. We all have similar prices, but we have 12 different activities to offer. [Other gyms] might have three. If you were a guest, where would you want to stay?
What would you say to people who accuse Tiger Muay Thai of being just a fluff gym with nothing serious to offer?
It's both, actually. We have fun and fitness, but we also have serious fighters. Those fighters have to be serious and train hard because we send them around the world to represent TMT. Like Valentina Shevchenko.
What kind of deal do sponsored fighters get here?
Sponsored fighters get free food and free training. We have 30 or 35 sponsored fighters here, but they're in and out, always on the move, fighting in China or America, etc.
Muay Thai and MMA are getting a lot bigger in China. What's your Chinese clientele like?
Definitely a lot more Chinese people are coming to Thailand for fight camps. Two hundred of them will be here [soon for training]. The Chinese groups organize it; we coordinate with them. They have gyms in China, like small gyms all over China, and then they have a package tour to come over here. TMT is the only place in the world that can hold all 200 of them. They're hobby fighters mostly, people who want to be healthy and learn self-defense or for fashion. You never know, a lot of people do Muay Thai for the fashion. Like, "I went to Thailand and did Muay Thai and fought once in a stadium." Or a lot of people just think about fitness.
There are two different types of Chinese [who come to Phuket]: the vacationers¾ they go to the islands, go shopping¾and then the other group that comes here to train. [The ones here for training] are very disciplined, polite, and probably wealthy. They're the new generation who are fit, have a good job, want to be healthy. Even though some of them don't speak English, the way they behave, the difference between them and the ones who walk around Phuket Town and eat food on the street... That's what I want people to understand, these are different groups. [The ones who come to this gym] don't yell and scream. They line up; they behave properly. They're well educated.
Two hundred people are a lot to accommodate. Where will they all stay? Do you have housing for so many?
They will live along this soi [street]. We help them find housing.
What about the accommodations on-campus here? What changes have been made since you took over?
We have the TMT hotel back behind the gym. It's been open two months. We renovated the old rooms, 24 in all. The old rooms didn't have private bathrooms, so we added them.
Are you planning to build more rooms soon?
We have no plans to build a bigger place right now, but maybe in the future we will. We're focusing on the gym now. Look. [Points to recently planted trees.] My trees haven't even grown up yet. We're focusing on quality right now, but so far, so good.
How do you decide who gets to stay here?
It's first-come, first-serve for the rooms. No favoritism. If your timing is right, you get the room.
How long do guests usually stay?
People stay here for about a month on average. Some three months, some six. One month is very common.
What about cross-cultural communication? Do you have many issues with that?
Communication problems are no big deal. People can communicate through Muay Thai. But if you want to sit down and have a conversation? Forget about it. The students who come here for Muay Thai know what to expect. Sometimes they use a dictionary to communicate with the Thais. I think it's fun for them, the broken Thai and broken English. They both laugh it up.
Tell me about your other employees. The ones behind the scenes.
A lot of the admin employees are from the hotel industry. Lots of them have college degrees and all of them have experience.
Our cooks and chefs and the restaurant staff, well, the chef is from TMT and they're mostly the same from before. When the owners switched, 99% [of the employees] stayed. In the beginning they almost left, they weren't sure how I would manage because the previous [managing director] was American. They didn't know me, never even heard my name before in Phuket or in Thailand. It shocked them, like, "What is this guy going to do over here?" Of course people had doubts, second-guessing you, like why did I call a meeting? So I promised them, guaranteed that this would go well. They asked me same questions, said, "The previous management kept promising us stuff too." I think they got sick and tired of listening to people promising them stuff, like politicians. I said, "Give me one chance," and by the second week I started demolishing things, and they said, "Oh shit."
I see there's a new cafeteria area just for the staff. I don't remember anything like that from the last time I was here.
The staff canteen was new, my very first project. I needed for the staff to have a place to sit peacefully. They used to eat behind the office at a small table with one kind of food and rice. Rain or shine, you stay there; when it's raining you have to hide under something because there's nowhere else to eat. So I brought in the lady who cooks the food and had [her team] cook three or four different dishes each day. The staff likes it a lot better, of course. Our foreign staff can eat there too. A lot of them like Thai food and like to mingle with the Thai staff.
How do you find your foreign staff?
They come here on vacation and they have the skill level. They prove themselves and then apply for a job, and we give them a work permit.
What advice would you give to people who want to run a gym?
If you open a Muay Thai school, you won't survive. The income has to come from a different source too¾you have to have Muay Thai and something else. You have Muay Thai, and you have 10 people staying with you for three months.
Tiger hosts such a variety of people. Would you say the people here at a gym like this "understand" Muay Thai?
Even the world champion of Muay Thai might not understand Muay Thai completely. We're still studying our own martial art. No one is perfect. Michael Jordan is not perfect even though he's, like, a god. If [the visitors] love it, good. But don't go out and try your skill with a Thai. Don't look at them and think, "Oh you little midget, you're 5'2", what you got?" Before they know it, they'll be sleeping. I call the trainers here "silent killers." They're so sweet and they look so nice outside training. You never know if you're talking to a champion here. So don't disrespect them, like at a bar.
I used to work in Patong on Bangla Road, used to see muscle heads get beat up every night, little Thais beating the shit out of them. Even the ladyboys! They do Muay Thai too! In the U.S. you grab your basketball or baseball, but here we learn Muay Thai automatically. Everyone learns how to fight.
But you know who is stronger than a Muay Thai champ? His wife. These scary wives, you can't even imagine! Everyone's so tough here, big and strong, and when they get home they're like puppies. That's a true statement. Every one of them, even my staff, like old champion Lam [Lamsongkram Chuwattana]. When their wives show up, they're like puppies, keeping quiet and not talking much.
What about prospective foreign students who want to come to Thailand but are unsure about taking the leap? What advice would you give them?
Study a little bit of our culture before coming here to understand our way of life. People in Thailand are very happy; they smile at you. Don't take things personally. Sometimes we joke and don't know we're offending people. Just learn a little about the culture and everything will be a smooth ride.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.