MUAY THAI is no stranger to the public either. Literally translated from Thai as “Thai boxing”, this combat sport traces back to as early as the 18th century, in which fighters use stand-up striking attacks alongside various clinching techniques, in defence against a grappling by way of kicking and punching. Also known as “the art of eight limbs”, Muay Thai is perhaps the only combat sport that allows the usage of the hands, feet, elbows and knees – as long as all strikes are done standing up.
By the time Ahmed Zareh won the MIMMA champion title last year for the welterweight category, he was already considered a veteran. Although he started training for Muay Thai for more than 10 years now, it wasn’t until he had settled down in Malaysia – following a series of moving around from San Francisco, to New York, to Singapore, and finally, Malaysia, before he could bring his years of training into the ring proper.
“I first competed in MIMMA in 2014, and it was like a chip on my shoulders when I didn’t win. However, after a nine-month long training ordeal, and I won last year, that came as a relief to me,” Ahmed recalls his greatest achievement thus far when it comes to Muay Thai.
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“A lot was at stake during that grand finals: the fact that the opponent (fellow Malaysian Theebaan Govindasamy) was bigger and stronger than me, and who also happens to be a friend of mine… there were several layers of difficulties for me right there.”
Ahmed found his way to Muay Thai (as well as Jiu-jitsu), following the quick stint in karate when he was a kid, and almost immediately, realised that it is a complex martial art that he could very well get used to in the long run. Besides the many fighting styles one could go for with Muay Thai, the strategising on which style to choose from that best suits the opponent at hand is when the fun begins for Ahmed.
In the ring, you’re constantly reading patterns that are always changing, and deconstructing them: what your opponents’ tendencies are, what they like to do, how they react to things… it’s like a very fast-paced chess match,” explains Ahmed, whose personal favourite is the push kick, a straight kick that goes in straight instead of from the side – a clear advantage for a guy with a lean physique.
“Between MMA and Muay Thai, they are probably the scariest and most overwhelming combat sports, each with the most number of things that can happen or go wrong in the ring,” he continues.
“However, strategically, they are different; for one, I can’t take down my opponent in Muay Thai – everything that you planned has to happen while you’re on your feet. There are less choices compared to MMA, but it makes the planning much more challenging, which I enjoy.”
Another mental exercise that Ahmed puts himself through, specifically before competitions, is one that puts him in a special frame of mind, so that when he enters the ring, he is in a completely different state of mind as he does anywhere else. “There is always a point while preparing for each fight when you ask yourself: why am I doing this? There is always that wall you hit. It’s a wall you face every time, but it’s one that you have to push through,” Ahmed says. “That fear doesn’t really go away, because you’ll always face it before every competition, every single fight. You just have to familiarise yourself with it, and adjust yourself – body and mind, accordingly to that fear.”
After all, that fear is well founded, for people have died practising and competing in martial arts. Combatants of all categories have been known to suffer concussions or gone into comas. In competitions, you could say it is potentially a life and death situation.
Yet, somehow, that is not Ahmed’s greatest fear: “I don’t fear getting hurt, I actually fear going out there and putting on a poor show in front of your family, friends and hundreds of thousands of people.”
“The physical injuries, you kind of understand that it’s part and parcel of what you’re getting yourself into. To a certain degree those are things that you cannot control,” he says. “The things you can control but you have a chance of messing up, that’s what I’m more afraid of.”
Despite the fleeting mortality staring right back at you in the ring, Ahmed still stands by Muay Thai to be a combat sport for anyone who’d like to give it a shot: “It’s a good way to learn self- defence, and also how to control your body, by getting to know your body and what it’s capable of.”
“Moreover, in terms of the mental aspect of things, the ability to confront fear is something that comes in handy in any situation that may make you feel nervous,” he adds. “The quick-wittedness you gain in the ring may be useful in running quick analyses on your ‘opponents’, whether in business meetings or brainstorming discussions, even when you’re faced with confrontations.”
This feature first appeared in the Augustman Malaysia April 2019 print issue.