A Short Bio – Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu
I was born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, at the feet of the mountains that serve as backdrop to almost every memory. I have two amazing parents and three older brothers, who are the world to me. My parents each ventured out from their own families to settle in Colorado and as the “black sheep” of their respective families, they gave rise to a flock of black sheep with their own children. We are all uniquely weird kids.
After high school and a year off I moved to New York to attend college (Sarah Lawrence College). It was a strange experience, leaving the only home I’d ever known and moving in with other adolescents to figure ourselves out under the magnifying glass of communal living. But I was lucky to make some very good friends there and, while my degree doesn’t help me a lick in the “real world,” studying things I was interested in learning about is a privilege not all have the opportunity to have and I’m grateful for it.
I also met my husband there, during my fourth year. As my graduation grew near and our courtship had not quite reached the point where such a suggestion would be reasonable, Kevin asked if I’d like to live with him for a while, since I didn’t have firm plans of where I’d end up after school ended. Happily, our friendship and relationship evolved in such a way that I did want to move in with him and we began our life together in the Hudson Valley of New York.
While my brothers went onto the adventures of their lives, I settled in Fort Montgomery, a small town about an hour and a half from NYC. From left to right: Gabe was becoming a mad snowboarder, and riverist, not to mention master controller of the Steamboat Spring bus system; John worked on his Ph.D in Sports Psychology, something he’s achieved and grown into a business in Arizona; and Shane slaved away at the Truth, getting his own Ph.D, but in Philosophy.
I on the other hand was in a small town in the middle of nowhere by the edge National Park forest. Our evenings became rich with lots of movie watching, some of which headed toward Kevin’s endless kung-fu DVD collection. After watching pretty much every Kung Fu movie imaginable, I told him I was through – no more! He insisted on one more, promising it was something I’d never seen before and I gave in. He popped in Ong Bak and I was introduced to Muay Thai (2007) – I was astounded and romanced by the beauty of the movements. I had, indeed, never before seen anything like it.
In 2008 Kevin and I got married and I began training Muay Thai under the instruction of Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) who teaches out of his basement in Paterson, New Jersey. Master K embodies the beauty and finesse of Muay Thai in a way that nobody else does. He’s funny, brilliant at teaching and dissecting technique, adamant at getting things right and old-fashioned in a way that is at once charming and frustrating. So of course I grew to love him, and to obsessively love Muay through him. He gave me my heart for Muay Thai.
Filming my sessions with Master K began as an exercise in keeping track of my lessons, getting everything down because each 90 minute private was so packed with information and detail. But it grew beyond that as I discovered what a rare and precious thing it is to know and train with someone like Master K – if indeed there is anyone else like Master K – and the videos and YouTube channel became an earnest effort to preserve his legacy and disseminate his technique. It is such a gift to know him, to be in his presence and learn a kind of Muay Thai that is fast disappearing from the world; sharing as much as I can of it is as much a compulsion as a responsibility.
As I pushed my way into the ring and fighting, I became a stronger part of the story on YouTube. I began recording and posting Video Journal Updates to express my experiences verbally (there are well over 100 vlogged updates now).
Above is my very first vlog update back in October of 2009
In Winter of 2009 Master K underwent an operation on his heart (the man is invincible as it is, and then it turns out he’s been a superman despite pinched arteries!) and the experience caused both him and me to consider the temporal limits of our training together. Master K bounced back stronger than ever, but he thought for a minute, in the darkness, that he would stop being able to teach. It was then that my husband and I decided we must go to Thailand to train for the first time (2010). We owed it to Master K to get a good basis upon which all of his detailed, Ph.D level technique could be grafted.
Thailand opened up a new world to me. Training full-time, sleeping 400 feet away from the gym (rather than the 60 miles drive from my training in NJ and sometimes NY) and fighting with frequency and without fanfare was liberating and inspiring. In Thailand I could see that Muay was a way of life; and I wanted that to be my way of life.
When I got back to New York I began training with Kru Nat Fuz, who had just opened her own gym in midtown, Chok Sabai. Having a female trainer was a very different experience and a wonderful addition to the training I still had with Master K. Kru Nat became my “fight coach” and I was exceedingly happy to have opportunities to fight in the US.
Through Kru Nat I had the chance to meet Ying Ross, who is a Thai filmmaker (and truly brilliant cinematographer) shooting a film about female Muay Thai fighters. Ying has been a great friend to me and has become a quiet presence in my Muay Thai journey since we met. She connects me to her friends in Thailand, who are some of the kindest and most generous persons I’ve ever met, and encourages me in a quiet, steady manner that is very much in the vein of her essence. I adore Ying.
My husband and I intended to return to Thailand after one year with the hope of an extended stay. Due to debilitating student loan payments, the amount of money we would have to save in order to be able to afford living abroad was considerable. I kept training and fighting as much as I could in the US, finding (or being found by) good souls who offered me training, sparring partners, support and inspiration. In heaps.
After six fights with Kru Nat as my coach we had a disagreement and our training together stopped. It was painful, but we remain on good terms and support one another on our separate paths. As a result, however, I pushed to start training with Kaensak Sor. Ploenjit (AMA Fight Club), to whom I was introduced by Master K as they are friends. Kaensak is one of the greatest Muay Thai fighters in history and was named “Fighter of the Year” in Thailand two years in a row – an enormous honor and achievement.
Master K was delighted when I started training with Kaensak. He told me often that Kaensak is the best and to pay close attention to what he teaches me. It’s immediately evident what Kaensak is – you can see it in the way he moves, how he carries himself, the way he slips into perfect and powerful movements with ease like something he’s done 100,000 times. He has that “ex-fighter” quality that can only be witnessed and not explained. It’s like watching a bird take flight or a dolphin leap out of the water – the mechanical justification of the movement says nothing of how it’s really done, or what it truly is. Celestial isn’t the right word, but it’s close.
I learned a great deal from Kaensak, perhaps most important of which is how to play. He would spar with me for 15-40 minutes non-stop, getting me to the point that I was too tired to be self-conscious. Master K has a few classic phrases, my favorite of which is “we need that one!” in response to a proper technique. Kaensak has a phrase too, which is: “I don’t care.” He says it in a goading way, when you land a kick on him and he doesn’t block it – he just steps in and says, “I don’t care,” while he forces you to back off or block something yourself. It’s a motto, a mantra. And it is exquisitely Thai.
Master K and Kaensak were opposites in a wonderful way. Kaensak was not detail oriented or even focused on technique with me. He teaches technique as a way of dealing with an opponent and stresses that you have to be relaxed in order to execute any of it. Play around, try things. Master K knows that technique is what allows for speed and power; the proper technique for a knee will make any knee you throw a fight-ender. Do it right and it is beautiful. When I fought, Master K would give me the rundown of what I did wrong, what to work on and how to fix it, how to perform. Kaensak would tell me that win/lose doesn’t matter, don’t get discouraged because fighting is a learning process.
My husband and I had finally saved enough money to move to Thailand for a year, to train and fight full-time. When I told Kaensak his face lit up, “A year? Really? Fight a lot, get experience,” he said. Master K said, “Don’t go!” Both men expressed exactly the feelings I had about the adventure that was to end up being a life. I was incredibly excited at the prospect of training and fighting, getting experience and improving, dedicating myself to this art which I love so much. And I didn’t want to leave Master K. He has become part of my family and seeing him gives me strength. I miss him immeasurably, but he is always with me and the pain of not being near him is less than the pain of failing to become the fighter both he and I believe I can be. The blog on this site has been the writings that have covered my time in Thailand. I originally set a far and distant goal of 50 fights which I now have passed, and then 100 fights in Thailand, and now I’m stretching out to 150 or even 200 fights in this noble country.
I have now been training and fighting in Thailand, steadily, for over 3 years. In that time I’ve fought over 115 times. Chiang Mai and Lanna Muay Thai (Kiat Busaba) was my first gym and I stayed there, fighting on average every 10 days, for two years – it was an incredible experience, and the Lanna trainer and boys helped form my first fight family. I could not have begun fighting at the level and frequency that I wanted to without that gym. In June of 2014 we moved down to Pattaya, initially to train with the legendary Sakmongkol at WKO gym, and resume my training at Petchrungruang Gym, both of which I’d experienced on a short two-month trip to Pattaya from Chiang Mai at the start of the year. My growth in the north had begun to feel a little stagnant and my fighting opportunities, while plentiful, were headed in a direction that wasn’t where I wanted to go with my path – my opponents were just getting very physically large. When I moved to Pattaya permanently, training at both WKO and Petchrungruang proved to be difficult due to cultural expectations and I was more or less forced to make a decision about whether I wanted to try to “wait out” the awkwardness of fighting out of both gyms, and feeling that I may have been disrespecting my trainers, or to leave one gym. So I left WKO and spent a couple weeks at only Petchrungruang before branching out yet again to include evening sessions at O. Meekhun Gym – the family gym of my hero and the best female fighter in the world, 13-year-old Phetjee Jaa O. Meekhun. Petchrungruang only offers padwork once per day (you can pick AM or PM), so for more than a year I’d do a session in the morning at PRR with pads and my own work on the bag, conditioning, etc., then in the afternoons I do my own work and clinch/spar with their boys before heading over to O. Meekhun where I do my second set of padwork with Sangwean and then clinch/spar with Phetjee Jaa and her older brother, Mawin. You can see a short film of my average day then here. My growth has been incredible, marrying these two gym experiences together. But now, due to some unfortunate developments (or maybe revelations) in my relationship with O. Meekhun’s director, I’ve left that gym and am back at WKO training under Sakongkol and Sifu McInnes, along with my regular developmental work at Petchrungruang where I have been since June 2015.
The difficulty with Pattaya is that my fight rate had dropped significantly. My quest is to become fluent in the art of Muay Thai, and that among other things takes lots and lots of fighting. My fighting every 10 days and sometimes 4-5 times in a month at the numerous stadia in Chiang Mai was not an option in Pattaya, even though the training is optimal for me. In Pattaya there are three stadia locally and they don’t have fights every night, and not all stadia favor female fighters. I’d been struggling to get even one fight in a month at times since moving to Pattaya in June (2014). As a result, and with the blessing of my main trainer at Petchrungruang, Kru Nu, I’d asked several sources to find fights for me. As such, for more than the past year I’ve been traveling all over Thailand – into Isaan, down to Hua Hin, sometimes back up to Chiang Mai – and to various outskirt locations for fights, as well as trying to get fights locally – my friends, family and supporters raised money for me to afford to travel to fights wherever I can find them, allowing me to grow as a fighter. The experiences have been amazing.
So currently I live in Pattaya with my husband Kevin, and our rescued soi dog Jai Dee. I train at my two gyms everyday, with the sometimes exception of Sundays, and I just keep plying myself to getting better, pushing towards fluency. My day is made up of Muay Thai, writing and reaching out to build community.
I’ve now surpassed the 100 fights in Thailand goal and am only a few fights away from having the most fights in Thailand of any westerner, male or female. Continuing to fight every fight I can find in Thailand what I’m learning through the “slow cook” process of training under Pi Nu at Petchrungruang, the way he’s shaping me and letting me develop as a fighter has been exciting. Becoming anything takes time; and as much as you might be exposed to lessons, you only really learn something when you’re ready for it. It’s cyclical, rather than linear. I’m realizing things now that I learned from Master K years ago, thinking, “Oh! That’s what that is.” Proficiency and ability aren’t in the numbers. Achievement isn’t in the numbers. It’s in the steady continuation of doing and reforming as you go. If we can afford to stay, the fighter I can become is unknowable to me now, but it’s exciting. It’s not about the last fight, it’s about the next one – not about what I’ve done but what I will do. As I always say, “on to the next.”
Above, a short film which talks about my motivations as a fighter, back when I was pursuing 50 fights.
As a Writer
And now I am moving forward as a Muay Thai journalist and a writer. Out of my passion for the art and sport, and the realization that little had been written about the experience as a western woman, training and fighting in Thailand, I’ve written a great deal. In fact in Thailand alone I’ve written over 600 blog articles (and shared 1,500+ videos), likely as much written on Muay Thai from a single western author in Thailand, as there has been. The realization that I’m already writing at a prolific rate, and the need to develop a sustainable life has moved to toward becoming a professional author and journalist of the sport. To those ends I’ve appealed to my readers to help make my writing possible through pledges on Patreon, and invited others to sponsor my journalism. Two books are in the works: a Guide To Female Training and Fighting in Thailand (to be co-authored with Emma Thomas), and a biographical book exploring my experiences as a fighter in this country and culture that I love. With the continued support of readers, friends and family as well as sponsoring others, my aim it to lift up my writing to the station of profession, and to open doors to everyone drawn to this beautiful art.