This article was originally published on FIGHTLAND
Once upon a time, Manchester was Mecca for Thai boxers looking to sharpen the edges of their eight limbed weapons. I should know – I was once a pilgrim myself.
Ripple dissolve to the long hot summer of 1989. The dog's bollocks JKD club that I used to attend, the Bob Breen Academy in London, had a Thai boxing class. I looked at the black and white Xerox poster on the pin board, the sinewy figures trading blows and the promise of "a hard but injury free cardiovascular work-out." I was sold and turned up the following week. There were only a few guys in attendance – snarling East End types with eyes like coal pits. And then there was the teacher, Gary Derrick, an imposing but charismatic figure, who moved with the certainty and grace of a king cobra. He took one look at me, aged 19, and joked to the others: "Fresh meat."
The martial arts world has always been full of power mad posers and solid brown bullshit artists, but Derrick wasn't one of those. He was a bona fide nak muay (Thai boxer), who had learned the gear from Master Toddy in Manchester and had even travelled to Thailand to train and fight there. As his students, we were part of that lineage, and a pilgrimage up north, to "Toddy's Academy of Martial Arts," was deemed all but essential for apprentice knights.
At that time in human history, the north-west of England, unlike London and the south-east, was teeming with shit hot Muay Thai camps and kickboxing clubs such as Master Sken's and Sandy Holt's in Bolton, and Toddy's gym in Manchester. Toddy, the ex champ and former captain of the Thai Tae Kwon Do team, had been running his own gym since 1975 and its roster of Muay Thai champs – like Ronnie Green and Anne Quinlan – had put his northern fight factory firmly on the map. Outside of going to Thailand, or the not-so distant gyms of Holland, the north-west was the best spot to learn the noble art of kicky boxy.
One kick fighter, a hairdresser named Tim, used to go all the time. I once caught him wrapping up his hands in a funny way that I hadn't seen before. I asked, "Where'd you learn to do that?" With an air of bored superiority, he fixed me with an eye. "I learnt how to do this at T's." By "T's" the too-cool-for-school figure of Tim meant Toddy's school of hard knocks. Moreover, the homework showed. Every time Tim the hairdresser (and closet Van Damme fan) went he always returned with some new trick to pull out in sparring. I had to go but there was one problem: I am from Liverpool. And us folks from Liverpool are not too keen on Manchester, or its people.
Then as now, when you leave London by train to travel up north, you soon realise that England is another country entirely. The north was poor, depressed and post-industrial; London, and the south-east of England, was rich and booming with entrepreneurs and small businesses. Why, I asked myself, on that two-and-a-bit hour train journey to Manchester, looking at the greasy red sky, the landscape of chimney stacks belching smoke and endless back-to-back houses, did the Thais come to settle in this grim and drizzly end of the country? I was to learn that they came for the footie. This was Manchester, home of Manchester United, and the Thais had come to follow their favourite team and earn a buck teaching those inferior farangs (us foreigners of European descent) a thing or two about Siamese boxing.
The pilgrim had arrived in Mecca early for class. The gym was closed and I waited on the dirty concrete steps for it to open up for biz. It was a rainy day: it always rains in Manchester, the kitchen sink city of pills, thrills and bellyaches. Suddenly, a gleaming dark blue BMW pulled up outside the gym. Three bouffant-headed figures, Master Ae, Master Chana and Master Toddy, emerged with grim and determined looks etched upon their chops like bad assed gangsters from a Hong Kong action movie. I was nervous. Shaking. Insecure. I had come quite some distance. What was the pilgrim going to learn? And, more importantly, was the pilgrim from Liverpool via London even good enough to be here in the first place?
Past the cramped reception area (selling namman muay boxing liniment, wraps and mouth guards) was the bag strewn training space, complete with frayed industrial carpets, nicotine yellow walls, flickering strip lights and lots of exposed piping. Next door to that was another room with a ring – a 10' by 10' number flush against the wall with its ropes wrapped around the pillars of the gym. Toddy used to host packed out inter-club bouts and a lot of guys and girls lost their cherry, and banged their head, fighting in that nowhere to hide ring.
A stereo in the corner was blasting a duet by Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson. After three rounds of jumping rope and bag work, Master Ae matched me up with another kick boxer – a 42-year-old accountant with thick-lensed spectacles and whitish hair. Like me, he had taken it up some years before and was now fighting on the super competitive northern Muay Thai and kickboxing circuit. At first, I dismissed the bloke as a geek suffering from some sort of mid-life crisis. That all changed when I went to do clinch with the fella. He was as strong as a Thai upstairs and winded me with a hefty khao la (farewell knee) downstairs in the labonza. I collapsed to the floor. A voice from the wings rang out. It was the venerable and inscrutable Master Toddy. "Get up," he said.
That moment crowned the next phase of my education as a would-be nak muay and marked the beginning of an annual pilgrimage to Toddy's in the early 1990s. It was never a wasted journey. The same Thais who had schooled your masters were now schooling you. There would be no conflict in the curriculum. Just lots of new weapons in the armoury to pull out on Tim the hairdresser, or any other kickboxer in the path of my eight limbs. Master Toddy aside, much of my new programming came from the three other Thai coaches at the gym: Masters Ae, Chana and Paisari.
Let's start with Toddy's little bro, Master Ae, the "cobra of Bangkok," whom I'd first met at a seminar in London a few years earlier. It's hard to forget the sight of a pint-sized Thai stepping on to the thigh of a muscle bound farang to deliver an all-mighty knee to the head, but that's what he did and it was something else to witness. As a coach, Ae was patient, diligent and quickly fitted you up with a bespoke suit of ready to use weapons. He showed me how to cock a round kick for maximum impact and use the elbow like a knife. "The elbow," he said, "is not just bone. It is a blade. It cuts." He was also very keen on teaching me how to do a headstand on a pile of broken glass. "You want to do? It's very easy." No thanks, Master Ae; think I'll pass on that one.
Master Chana, like every coach worth his salt, always gave you an earful about doing more roadwork and upping the fitness. That wasn't the only fault he sought to correct in his charges. Like most western nak muay back then, and MMA strikers now, I was a big round kicker not much interested in working the intricacies of the knee and clinch. Under the tutelage of Chana that all changed and I soon became a muay khao (clinch specialist). "Bone in leg is bigger than other bone in body," he said in a staccato English accent, "you must use the knee; you must become brave enough to fight with it!" Chana gave you the confidence to deploy the knee and showed me how to do a jumping/flying knee – used to great effect on many an unwitting opponent and sparring partner during my formative twenties.
And then there was Master Paisari, a taciturn nak muay from Bangkok, who had won all of his 100 fights and retired to Manchester to school up the long-nosed round eyes. I remembered guys in London complaining about Paisari being a grumpy old git. Who could blame the undefeated champ for being so blooming miserable? He was in Manchester, the city of grey skies and perpetual rain and was probably homesick for good Thai food. From Paisari, I learned how to set up a round kick with a calculated teep, and how to use my lead leg like a hinge to check incoming teeps and knees. At first, I was skeptical about doing this move. Like MMA strikers today, most up and coming western kickboxers back then were kind of lazy about teeping, and only seemed to be interested in doing low round kicks behind boxing hand combos.
Watching your progress at all times in the gym was Master Toddy, "the Father of English Muay Thai" and laughing Buddha incarnate. He instilled supernatural confidence in the people who fought and trained under him. Even now, far and asunder from youth, his wisdom still haunts my daily thoughts and practice. "If he is better at you than kicking, beat him with a punch, if he is better than you with an elbow, use the knee and vice versa. When you look, when you listen, you will learn, and you will understand." I doubt if he remembers me, so many people have walked through those hallowed doors, but I shall never forget the words, or those long rainy days spent training in his spit and sawdust gym.
For me, and a small band of others, a quarter of a century ago Manchester, and the north west of England, really was the spot for UK kick fighters looking to brush up their Shakespeare. For others, it represented something else entirely. Manchester was "Madchester," the party town, and its indie music scene and raucous nightclubs were the talk of the nation. Lot of young people were applying to study at Manchester University for cheap drugs at the Hacienda and even cheaper beers at the Student Union bar in the Winnie Mandela building. Not this square. I applied to read politics at Manchester University so that I could go and covertly read Muay Thai at Master Toddy's gym nearby. As back up, I also applied to the grim sounding "Bolton Institute of Education" to read Muay Thai on the sly at Master Sken's.
My folks didn't know about my noble-yet-warped priorities. "Why Manchester, why aren't you applying for Oxford or Cambridge University?" The answer, the one that I never gave them, was very simple indeed. Oxford and Cambridge might have been fine seats of learning for politics, philosophy and economics, but they were crap towns for Muay Thai kickboxing. If I were keen on some useless sport, like rugby or rowing, I would have worked my arse off and gone to read a serious subject at Oxford or Cambridge University instead.
In the end, I was too thick. Manchester University wouldn't have me. Neither would Bolton Institute of Education. The only place that would take me was "Edge Hill College of Higher Education" in Ormskirk, a market town just outside of Liverpool. I soon got into trouble with lecturers because of commuting to Manchester to train at Master Toddy's. When a concerned tutor pulled me up about my non-attendance record at seminars, I fessed up. Much to my own surprise, he laughed his head off. "That's a first," he said, "I thought that it would be sex, drink or drugs."
What was funny was that much of what I had learned at Toddy's in the early 1990s I was later retaught at Rompo Gym in Bangkok from 2003 to 2012 – right down to hinging the lead leg for incoming teeps and doing my wraps like Tim the hairdresser. These days, lots of armchair warriors on internet forums, and Facebook threads, bitch and banter about Master Toddy and his "pad holder instructor certificates' but, back then, in gloomy Manchester, this was like eating real Thai food cooked by Thais in an authentic Thai restaurant. It wasn't watered down. It wasn't bland. You got always got spicy somtam on a pilgrimage to Master Toddy's gym in Manchester. Always.