On Saturday 23rd May, London-born Greg Wootton was pitted against Thai fighter Rungrat Sasiprapa at Barclaycard Arena's Muay Thai Main Event. 19-year-old Sasiprapa, who's been tipped as one of Thailand's next superstars, has already been described as a legend in the sport. With over 80 fights to his name, it hardly seemed fair to unleash him on a 24-year-old English guy who trains at his local gym in Bethnal Green.
Of course, as the UK number one super lightweight, WMC MAD World Champion and winner of an Enfusion World strap, Wootton – also known as "The Prodigy" – is not your average London lad. But, with half as many wins as Sasiprapa and less than half the fights, competing against the Thai in his country's national sport was never going to be easy.
I visited Wootton's gym on the day of the fight and spoke with his team. Bill Judd, a former World Champion in Kickboxing and Muay Thai and the founder of KO Gym, explained how they were getting behind their fighter.
"It's a family gym and it's a team thing – it comes down to the team behind the fighter," said Judd. "All of us are going up to Birmingham to watch. Hopefully we'll be out tonight celebrating, but win or lose they're met equally. When a fighter's down, everyone commiserates and when they win, great, but don't let your ego run away with you. It's not how many times a fighter has won, but how he's developed as a person."
The team – which Judd likens it to Formula 1 operation – includes two-time Thai Boxing World Champion David Pacquette who specialises in neuro-linguistic programming. Judd explains: "Neurological pathways and behavioural patterns have been built within Greg, so certain things will be instinctive and intuitive, such as posture, shape and balance, so he controls the ring naturally."
Judd also introduces me to Ben Ludlow, the team Osteopath, saying: "If you're broken down, you can't fight. Ben fixes people, he's one of the best." Ludlow talks about Wootton's injuries, which include problems with his neck and shoulders from clinch work and contusions in his legs – that's bruising and bleeding in his muscles as a result of being hit and kicked in training and sparring.
Depending on his injuries, Wootton will see Ludlow about twice a week in the six-week lead up to a fight. Ludlow formulates action plans around training with specific injuries and advises on ways of resting the injury while still staying active, "because you can't completely rest in the lead up to a fight."
"I get him into the ring in the best condition possible," adds Ludlow, who has a background in mixed martial arts.
Freddy Brown is the team's Oxford-educated nutrition wiz. It's his job to make sure Wootton has the optimum diet to support training, aid recovery and get him to his fighting weight safely, lowering his body fat while preserving muscle. Brown explains: "Muay Thai fighters have a low body mass index because it's a weight categorised sport and they fight at a lower weight than they'd naturally be. I advise on the right nutrition for high quality training, while still achieving a calorie deficit."
That night Wootton beat Sasiprapa in a unanimous points decision; I spoke to the Londoner the morning after the fight. The victory didn't change Wootton's ranking, so I asked him to explain its significance.
"In Thailand this is a professional art – the standard is really high. Sasiprapa's from a very good gym and he's got a really good reputation, so when you beat someone like that, people worldwide start to take notice – it opens up the opportunity to fight in bigger shows that are better promoted. It will definitely help my reputation. It's a good step in the right direction."
For the uninitiated, Wootton explains that Muay Thai is "like kickboxing but with punches, knees, elbows and kicks. It's often called 'the science of eight limbs' because you've got eight different weapons you can use, and clinches as well. It's fought in a ring with just gloves and there are five, three-minute rounds, with 10 points each per round. The winner's the one who takes best of three, so it's similar to boxing in that sense."
As the UK's number one in his weight category, can he make a living as a Muay Thai fighter.
"The higher the level you compete at, the more you get paid, but it's not really possible to make a living purely from fighting. Most Muay Thai fighters are also coaches and personal trainers, because that allows you enough time to train. It would be brilliant if we could earn a living, because we're as dedicated as boxers, MMA fighters, footballers, whatever – we train just as much, if not more, but without the financial support.
"Money's not a motivation," he continues. "Most people who compete do it for the love of the sport, but if fighters get paid better, you can train better. I'd love to be able to pay my team more – a lot of it's done with favours. I can't afford to pay them as much as they deserve for the time they put in."
With a first-class honours degree in Sport and Exercise Science, Wootton does personal training and coaching at the gym and University College London. "We've produced some good university-level fighters," he says. Wootton enjoys passing on knowledge and "seeing people progress and grow and develop in their own right." Not all his clients are fighters: "I train people that do it for fun, people that want to lose weight. I tailor it to each person's fitness levels. I wouldn't give the same drills I do to someone who's training twice a week, when I train twice a day! At the same time, if they want to learn some Muay Thai, I'll teach them. I'd recommend it anyone – it doesn't have to be sparring and getting hit or hitting people – you can hit pads. You meet people and it's so much more interactive and fun than a regular gym. You're learning and developing, it gives you a great, athletic physique – it's just really functional fitness. And because it's fun, you don't realise you're training."
Wootton eats a generally healthy diet all year round, which becomes a very healthy diet in the five-week lead up to a fight. He cuts out chocolate and only has fruit sugars until the week before the fight, when he doesn't even eat fruit. With the fight now behind him, I asked Wootton what he couldn't wait to indulge in.
"I've got a list actually! I'm not a big drinker; I haven't really drunk alcohol this year. What I really want is a cup of tea and a pack of biscuits – caramel digestives. You can dunk those multiple times and they won't fall apart. Porridge is up there – a really creamy porridge. Then desserts – I love pastry, cheesecake, and Haagen Daz Salted Caramel, that's amazing. I'm trying to take it easy though. I learnt my lesson after one fight, when I went straight to a 24-hour McDonalds. It ruined me – my stomach was in a bad way!"
Judd, who's trained Wootton since he was 16, says his temperament, character and integrity is "spot on." He describes him as a good role model: "down to earth, humble, successful, balanced and healthy."
Speaking to Wootton myself, I don't doubt it. He tells me about the time he was scared to leave the changing room because he had a cut on his face and he didn't want his mum to see. "You don't want your mum upset, do you? I think mums always worry – you don't need to be doing Thai fighting with elbows and knees for them to worry. She worries if my brother goes out on the town and has a late night. But she's alright with it – she understands it will heal up and won't be so bad. The fact is, the positives outweigh the negatives and the discipline of the sport has helped me with my studies. Through college and university, it helped me get the grades I got."