Muay Thai gyms in Thailand are often referred to as big families: training, sweating, bleeding, fighting, often even living and eating together. Traditionally, this is the case, as in small gyms that cater to local children in the Thai countryside, or professional fighters' gyms in Bangkok, which act almost as a Muay Thai boarding school. But in a place like Phuket, with its transient tourists and a Muay Thai industry dominated by foreign fighters and hobbyists, do "family gyms" exist?
Boyd Clarke, owner of Phuket Top Team, would argue that they do.
In the very least, Phuket Top Team has always been a family-run business. The gym was established in 2012 by Boyd, an Australian fighter and entrepreneur, and his Thai wife Kannika. This was around the time their first child was born ("Not exactly perfect timing, but we worked through it," Boyd says with a smile). Now his two children are common sights at the gym, playing with toys in his office and kicking bags in the training area.
Boyd's sharp-tongued, quick-witted wife Kannika puts in long hours at the gym alongside her husband. She's a local, known as Kan for short. "Kan, like Genghis Khan, because she's ruthless," Boyd laughs. "It's spelled K-A-N but pronounced like Gun, and every now and then she'll go off, like right off, like crazy off," he says, then is quick to add, "but ninety percent of the time it's completely justified, so I kind of let it fly because she's got a good ratio."
Kannika's nephew and other assorted family members also work at the gym behind the desk, helping customers, doing administrative duties, and of course giving a frequent dose of candy and ice cream to Kannika and Boyd's young children.
Scores of fighters and hobbyists pass through the doors of the family-owned gym daily. For the past four years since its inception, Phuket Top Team has experienced steady growth in student numbers. Management has had to cap the population at somewhere around 80 to 100 students in order to maintain quality of instruction. But for a gym in such a tourist-friendly place as Phuket, it's difficult to determine the actual numbers of attendees. "It's very hard to figure out an exact number because you have people who train just one day," Boyd says. "They come and they're like, 'Oh, I'm in Thailand and I'm going to come train three days.' Some [train] for a month, some for a year. Some just go around all the gyms and try a little bit of everything."
The management team relies on simple math to keep numbers in check. "If you've got five classes [a day], then no more than 20 [students allowed] per class in anything," Boyd says. If each class is full with the max of 20, then there are your max 100 students for the day. Still, not so easy—many students train twice a day, so management attempts to keep the total number of individual students under 100, especially during the high season. Messages of "Sorry, we're at max capacity," to prospective students are not uncommon.
Preference is given to longer stays, with considerable discounts available for six- and twelve-month stays. Accommodation is also available with training packages: it's an extra 5,500 baht a month (approximately) for a room with a fan. A room with air conditioning will cost you nearly double that. "Electricity is the killer," Boyd says. "In Thailand, it's the one thing that's really at a Western price."
When asked what sets Phuket Top Team apart from the plethora of other gyms in Phuket that also offer comprehensive martial arts programs, Boyd says it has to do with his stance on developing the quality of training, without necessarily increasing size or revenue. "The first thing, purely in a business sense outside of emotion and attitude, is that I don't need continual growth nor do I demand it or assure it necessarily," he says. "I want the gym always to increase in what our product is, our quality—I always want us to get the next great coach, the next champion, the next good fighter—but I don't need that to always equal continual growth. As long as it's not costing me more and I'm losing."
This freedom to run the gym as they see fit is due largely to it being a family business. "It's only me and my wife for this gym. It's her money and my money and that's it, no other investors." Using their own money assures they retain control, though establishing a gym purely based on their own capital was a struggle. Originally, the couple sought out investors. Many were interested, but Kannika was the one to turn them all down. "My wife was like, 'I just don't feel it with that person; I think we should just ride this out,'" Boyd remembers. Four years on, he says he's grateful to have listened to her instincts.
The gym does, however, work with sponsors. "Fairtex has been really cool with us." Boyd admires the company's business savvy, says Fairtex gives Phuket Top Team no money, but is generous with sending its products and gear for free. "To me, I like that more than money. Money is cool, but with the money, then you owe them something."
Phuket Top Team boasts an impressive roster of big names who have, at one point or another, trained at the gym. Cris Cyborg is one such name, as well as Tito Ortiz, Thiago Tavares, Cat Zingano, Gracies Clark and Carlson… Boyd recites their names and more off the top of his head.
The gym also sponsors long-term local fighters as well, both foreign and Thai, male and female. One such sponsored fighter, Russian Katya Knysheva, is a digital nomad who discovered Muay Thai after taking part in a "Muay Thai blogger tour" sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand in late 2014. She joined Phuket Top Team for fun and fitness a year and a half ago, having never trained before. Then she started blogging about it. Realizing the value of having a woman, especially one who did not come to Thailand specifically to fight, write about her experiences at the gym online, Boyd offered Katya a sponsorship. He helped her increase her blog's online traffic, taught her tips of attracting an audience. She, in turn, provided him with advertising and endorsement.
Less than a year after she started training, Katya took her first fight. She now boasts a record of 10-0. For Katya, it was the dedication of her trainers that inspired her to fight. "I wasn't ever going to fight in the beginning, and only because there were serious about me, I'm a fighter now," she says with a happy grin. She also echoes Boyd's sentiment about the family vibe of the gym. "This gym is run by a family, and this is how they keep all of us. Here it feels just like home. The Thai trainers call me 'sister' and it means the world for me."
Katya is a friendly face at the gym, always upbeat and smiling, laughing with old students and amicably greeting new ones. That's yet another reason Boyd sponsors her. "I like to have at least one or two females sponsored," he says. "[The women we currently sponsor] go out of their way to greet people, particularly [other] women who come and train." Having friendly women around is potentially very helpful in putting new female customers at ease. This, Boyd says, is especially important when new students arrive for something like jiu jitsu, where physical contact is close.
The gym's motto is "No Egos, Only Dedication," and sponsored fighters are expected to uphold this. Boyd tells a story of dismissing a past sponsored fighter for her frequent rudeness. "[My wife] Kan asked me, 'Why you sponsor her? I say hello and she doesn't say hi to me or the other trainers.' That's big in Thailand," Boyd says. "You have to say hello. Even if you're having a bad day, even if it's a fake smile, you still have to be polite."
The trainers are not immune to the "No Egos, Only Dedication" rule either. Many Phuket Top Team coaches are champions, but you wouldn't necessarily know it from talking to them. Boyd takes pride in their modesty. Take Thai fighter Lerdsila Phukettopteam (formerly Lerdsila Chumparetour), for example. "Lerdsila is a three-time world champion in three different weight classes at Lumpinee, same at Rajadamnern," Boyd states matter-of-factly. "And yet the first time you come in here and he's holding pads for you, and someone whispers, 'That's Lerdsila,' [the students] have no idea [who he is]. Because he won't tell you. He won't say, 'You know I'm Number One.' That's the kind of people we try to keep more, and it grows that like-mindedness and that attitude. Avoid the vibe of the 'hashtag-beastmode'."
Phuket Top Team welcomes students of all ages and nationalities, and curiously finds itself catering to many Russian children. "[We get] little kids throwing people in here in judo [class]," Boyd laughs. Perhaps this explains why many Russian adults are so talented at physically demanding pursuits like combat sports, ballet, and gymnastics. "They like to start them young. The parents are pushy. The trainer will say 10 pushups [to the kid] and the father will say FIVE MORE!"
Couples or groups of friends often come in to train as well, supporting a family business that tries to maintain the "we're a family" vibe. Many of the trainers and sponsored fighters have found their way to the gym through personal contacts—friends telling friends, word-of-mouth. Now into its fifth year of operation, Phuket Top Team keeps growing. And together the motley gym family, a rolling mix of levels and talents and cultures, keeps striving for that ideal: No Egos, Only Dedication.
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