Kaitlin Young Left MMA for Love of Muay Thai – Interview, Bangkok
We pulled the car around a corner in a maze of suburban small streets and panned the lane in an attempt to locate the Dejrat Gym – this is an out-of-the-way gym which we could only find with GPS and a map location (below). At the far end of the street there was a pile of colorful equipment laid out in the driveway in order to dry it in the sun – a sure sign of a gym if I’ve ever seen one. So we park the car and I get out to greet the three older men who are sitting and chatting on the side of the ring. I wai to the oldest one and say in Thai that I’m here for a private session (which I’ll post in a few weeks), but he just smiles at me and points to the back of the gym. I peek my head around and there’s Kaitlin Young, an established MMA fighter on big shows like Invicta in the US – her all out fight against Leslie Smith a few years ago is what put her on my radar and I’m a big fan of both women – and Kaitlin has been training at Dejrat Gym for the past few weeks in preparation for her first fight in Thailand, scheduled for a few days from now.
Follow Kaitlin Young on Facebook here.
While MMA is fast drawing the best of western female Muay Thai, fighters such as Jojo Calderwood, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Valentina Shevchenko and most recently Tiffany van Soest (who has begun her transition to the sport), this longtime WMMA veteran for the last year as been returning to her roots. I was immediately struck by how comfortable Kaitlin was in the very Thai space. Fair enough, she lives at the gym, in a little room upstairs that overlooks the ring. But she’s the only westerner at the gym at the moment; she’s the only woman; and she doesn’t speak Thai. So her comfort and the relationships she’s formed there come out of an essence of who she is and who the men at the gym are, which is evident in this first impression of meeting her in person. There’s a moment of tension as she nears me at the side of the ring where neither of us know whether it’s going to be a handshake or a hug (I’m a hand-shaker), because we’ve actually never met before but we’ve been speaking in chat on Facebook for a while now, and discussing things on a personal level that makes it feel like we know each other better than the fact of this encounter might suggest. But I very much like Kaitlin and talking with her is easy and open, for both me and my husband. We talk about her training and her upcoming fight – there’s some question as to whether her scheduled opponent will be stepping into the ring after all, but the promoter has backups. She’s calm about it. There’s a hint of the natural discomfort with uncertainty, but there’s also this security with herself and her abilities that it doesn’t matter who they put in the ring with her. You’ve heard the expression, “he’s a guy’s guy;” well, Kaitlin is a fighter’s fighter.
above, my video interview with Kaitlin, below the story
Kaitlin’s training was being tapered by her trainers, so she had a little more time than would be typical for a training session. That was lucky for me because we could sit down for an interview, which Kaitlin excels in. She’s thoughtful about her answers and understands the larger context, which she elaborates on succinctly. I pointed out that she’s coming to this experience a little bit backwards from what’s more common: coming from a successful MMA career to fight Muay Thai, rather than single-discipline fighters heading into MMA. She laughed and clarified that she had started as a Muay Thai fighter and, indeed, went into MMA for similar reasons to what motivate those other cases: more opportunity. In the interview she discusses her training at Dejrat for the month, difference with the west, the depth of fight training knowledge in Thailand, how WMMA is somewhat in its infancy, what’s been like being a part of the rise of female MMA fighting, the change in WMMA commentary (and by fans), the marketing of Gina Carano, and the void that exists in female Muay Thai fighting promotion.
Why Muay Thai, and Not MMA?
I asked her after the interview, in follow up, what it is about Muay Thai that drew her back after having so many years in MMA, and her answer is a lovely mix of concrete interest and abstract attraction:
I feel like my temperament is more suited for [Muay Thai], and I’d like to elaborate but I’m not sure how. 555 [“hahaha”] I simply enjoy muay thai more, and the culture surrounding it is far more pleasant. When I was fighting MMA, there were days that felt like training was a chore. Since going back to Thai boxing there has not been one day that I wasn’t looking forward to training, and for me that’s very significant. I would train very hard for MMA out of discipline, but the desire was not the same. I’m sure people also ask you why you like Muay Thai all the time. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is just something special about it. I like kickboxing too, but only because you get to almost do Thai boxing and it keeps me fighting.
What I think really changed for her was finding a Muay Thai instructor in the US, former Dejrat fighter Kronphet Phetrachapat, whose Thai style teaching in the last year really captured Kaitlin’s imagination as a fighter, reminding her just how much she’s always loved Muay Thai.
She tells me that she doesn’t have the intention to fight in MMA again, that she’s found where her heart lies, with Muay Thai, despite training at an epicenter of female MMA, Rousey’s GFC gym in L.A., not long ago. She’s been through wars, she fought Gina Carano back in the day and saw first hand the ascent of women’s MMA. What’s amazing to me, as a fighter, is that Kaitlin has been in the fight scene for a long time, even though she’s still young at 30. You could feel it in her body. She’s been doing contact fighting (starting with Taekwondo) since the age of 14, which means that now over half of her life has involved martial arts (you can see her Awakening Fighter Profile here). That explains some of the deep-rooted comfort she possesses in how she carries herself in what must be largely an alien environment of a tucked-away Thai-fighter gym filled with old school attention and Thai culture. Watching her boxing-sparring with one of the young Thai men at the gym was for me a pure expression of her comfort and familiarity with her art (below). I love how Kaitlin stays in the pocket with such commitment, it stands out as a quality rather than just being a useful tactic. She’s responding with counters and combinations with speed and ease that really impressed me. Her technique is clean, her movements are fluid. You can see her years of practice in any moment of watching her in the gym. It’s beautiful to me.
above, Kaitlin with all the Thai fighters boxing sparring – she doesn’t wear headgear because the only time she’s been concussed was when wearing headgear.
Dejrat Gym – A Pure, Old School Gym
The gym itself is in a quiet, closed area of a neighborhood but not far from the main road of Ramkhamhaeng. It’s close enough to markets and restaurants that one wouldn’t feel isolated, but it’s also far enough away that it feels like a little world unto itself. The space is small, so when I was shadowboxing before my private with the owner and head trainer, Ajarn Surat, a couple of the young men worked together to hang up two heavy-bags that were leaning in a group of maybe a half-dozen bags against the wall. I’m not sure if they take the bags down after every session or what, but a truck had been parked there when we first arrived, so the space is multi-purpose with some ease. The ring is a good size and there’s a large piece of carpet that some of the fighters put on the street outside the gym in order to shadowbox and work on cutting weight in their sauna suits. So, what looks like very little space just expands to make it all work. Like a fold-out sofa bed. It’s pretty cool. You can see my video walk through of the gym below:
Above, walking through Dejrat Gym
The trainers kept a close eye on the sparring that we witnessed, occasionally stepping into the ring to demonstrate the technique they were asking for. They definitely didn’t just tell everyone to go and then check out. They’re very keen in their observations. And the same goes for padwork. The young men at the gym were incredible in their stamina and technique. Ajarn Surat told me the boys do 8 rounds at 4 minutes, and they don’t fade at all in that time. They are solid. Ajarn Surat teaches a particular style of technique, very old school, what he described emphatically: “this is Muay Thai,” a style which is evident in most of the fighters but to varying degrees. This gym is also a home of the National Team (both male and female) for a month or so prior to the annual IFMA tournament. Ajarn chatted with me about some of the top-name female fighters, with whom he’s worked in preparation for these tournaments: Loma, Chommanee, Sawsing, (and Phetjee Jaa – although she hasn’t yet been on the national team).
Arjan Surat is the soul of the gym. He’s 63, and as he tells me he’s been holding pads far longer than I’ve been alive. He’s amazing. He pulled out all his amulets, maybe 15 on a single chain around his neck, showing his protection and devotion. He holds pads patiently, but with command, communicating his Old School, somewhat Boran influenced, style which involves lots of emphasis on balance, bounce, explosion, no arm swing, and staying right in front of your opponent, putting him or her on lockdown. He has an absolute vision of the fighter and fighting as it communicates itself through the whole gym, and all its astute trainers.
I mostly spent my time being totally unable to take my eyes off the highly-skilled and explosive young men doing padwork in the ring (wish I had filmed it). One was getting ready for a big title fight on TV, another was just an incredible expression of short-distance explosive power and speed that I couldn’t stop staring at. It’s pretty incredible to see Kaitlin in this environment, floating through as a woman with years of fighting under her belt, now devoting herself to the love of Muay Thai, the art that beckons and embraces her.
Map of Dejrat Gym
Below is a Google Map of where Dejrat gym is. The location is actually at the very end of the cul-de-sac that the marker falls on. You can contact Dejrat gym through their Facebook Page. I’ll be doing a follow up post on Dejrat gym itself, including extensive video of my private with Arjan Surat.
If you enjoyed this article, you may like the other interviews I’ve done with Female Muay Thai Fighters.
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