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Thursday 22 April 2010

In memory of a teacher

Teachers are very important to me and it always sad hear about their passing. Today, 22 April 2010, I received the tragic news that Tony Hayes had died. Tony Hayes was my muay Thai kru for an intensive year of training in Warwick. During this time I travelled several times a week, had private lessons with him, represented his club at a judging course and was a part of his fortnightly "fight club". He awarded me my "Training Instructor" qualification shortly before the club closed. Below is an article I wrote for club's website - this was before my work was widely published in martial arts magazines and just before I began Clubb Chimera Martial Arts. There is a certain naivity in the writing and it reflects a time when Hayes Muay Thai was in its hayday. I haven't edited anything for fear it will take away what a good friend of mine calls "lived experience" of the time, so please forgive any grammatical errors. I offer it as my own way of remembering one of my teachers...

Hayes Thai Boxing Club: Inspiration and Drive

“A teacher affects eternity: no one can tell where his influence stops.”


There was no logical reason why I took up Muay Thai (Thai Boxing). A few months on and I still can’t deliver a strong commonsensical argument for making the hour and a half round trip twice a week for an extra four hours of training on top my usual martial arts/fitness schedule. Prior to making this decision there were enough items on my daily agenda without having to fight my way out of the office, get changed and drive from my part-time home and workplace in Oxfordshire to the club in Warwickshire only to then drive to my girlfriend’s home and crash out as a bruised, tired and sweaty carcass spoiling her clean eiderdown. So, why did I do it and why do I continue to do it? The answer comes in the form of a word that has a poor scientific definition. It cannot be measured and has no material properties. It is a word often misused as fanaticism and is over-used when people discuss their sex lives. The word is “passion.” I believe it is passion that keeps the regular students going to Kru Tony Hayes’s classes and it is passion that drives the club.

I discovered the club whilst visiting a fitness centre in support of my girlfriend’s latest efforts to look after her health. She is one of life’s annoying naturals, who has never had to work hard to keep her looks or her figure and therefore views sports centres with the enthusiasm an enlightened turkey might feel for the approach of Christmas. As it turned out the place was impractical because of her many time constraints, and also did not interest her children, who were already engrossed in ice-skating and ice hockey. Having been brought up the “spit ‘n sawdust” way, modern commercial-looking gymnasiums have never really appealed to me. I was already joined to a free weights gym that had more in common with Clubber Lang’s workout room from “Rocky III” than the very trendy-looking hi-tech fitness facilities on offer at this place. The trip would have been a wasted journey if I had not been directed to “The Martial Arts Room.” Usually such places bearing this title are old gymnasiums with mats laid out on a permanent basis and a Judo trophy cabinet. This room, however, was quite different.      

The main feature was a full-sized boxing ring; well matted and raised off the floor. This was a far cry from the makeshift three rope affairs often found in Western Boxing gyms. Outside the ring there was various items of training equipment including a full-length quilted kick bag, two human-shaped dummies for self defence drills, a maize bag, an elbow and knee wall hang and a “Slam Man.” This last item was a martial artist’s dream gimmick, designed to test reactions and stamina. I had always been dying to have a go at one. Along with this apparatus there were neatly stacked piles of Thai pads, kick shields, focus mitts, skipping ropes, bag gloves and sparring equipment. The floor outside the ring was also padded.

The place touched the child in me. I have learnt martial arts in various locations from Freestyle Karate on somebody’s porch to the acrobatic style of Wu Shu in a custom-built Olympic standard gymnasium, but it seemed apparent to me that training here would be a very unique experience. On the first day I visited the room was only visible from the balcony. It was the last of the old squash courts. The others had been reconstructed with transparent walls in keeping with the rest of the hi-tech looking fitness centre. The room was clean and all of its equipment was in perfect working order, but away from this there was an atmosphere contained within the squash ball marked white walls that made its interior stand out from the rest of the centre. Far from being “The Martial Arts Room”, this was “Hayes Thai Boxing Gym.” Before I began my first lesson there it was clear to me the gym was where one person’s dreams had been planted and, as I would soon discover, were cultivated at least five days a week.

Over the next few months I would hear the atmosphere of the gym in the sound of students expelling air from their mouths. It was also audible in their fists, elbows, knees, shins and feet striking pads and in their voices calling out orders such as “jab, cross, rear-leg turning kick.” All of this was done to the soundtrack of a never-ending dance album regularly lamented by Tony Hayes every lesson. “Please will someone bring me a new CD,” he says to his assembled ranks before they begin their exercises. No one ever does and in the words of a very annoying dance anthem, thankfully not on the offending CD, “the beat goes on.” The smell of the atmosphere will always be in the scent of the Thai balm ointment I smelt from the first lesson. This is distinctively different to the usual musty odour of church halls or the stench of germ-killing chemicals found in many leisure centres. The balm symbolises hard work and an attention to looking after one’s body. 

Feeling the atmosphere is a far more complex sensation. On a physical basis it is in the sweat that you feel within the first few minutes of warming up and the occasional bumps and bruises on your shins and thighs. It is also there in the surge of energy you experience midway through your training when self-consciousness leaves your mind and the team spirit of the class envelopes you. The end of the lesson usually consists of one last burst of activity designed to not only improve your all round fitness, but also toughen you mentally. After giving this your best shot you leave the class wishing everyone well and glowing inside with a sense of self-achievement. I like to think the atmospheric sensation returns in the tightness you feel when climbing stairs the day after, reminding you that you have got more from your body than the average person.

The institution Tony Hayes has created is one of strength through individuality and support through teamwork. He encourages each student to develop their own style and promotes private lessons in order to help nourish the club’s freethinking philosophy.  When a martial arts school endorses team spirit I am quick to suspect a brainwashing agenda. Some martial arts associations enforce loyalty through making it a club rule not to train elsewhere. This rule is either due to a business strategy to protect the club’s regular income or is a symptom an instructor’s  “guru” complex (no offence intended to Silat practitioners who call their teachers, Guru). Tony Hayes is both a businessman and a dedicated student of his art. He makes no effort to hide either point. The club is his full-time business and he focuses his training solely on Thai Boxing. However, he exhibits a genuine consideration for his students; figuring if he is going to spend the majority of his life in the gym he would rather be surrounded by trust than fear. It is because of this that many of his students become his friends outside of training and yet display nothing but respect when he teaches. He also encourages them to support each other when they compete and to attend social events.

Students, such as myself, do train in other martial arts clubs. In fact one of Tony’s assistant instructors trains at another Muay Thai club. Although comparisons are made between styles for academic reasons, I’ve never once heard Tony discredit another martial art. It is this open-mindedness that allows his school to develop and keeps the comfortable, if hard-working, environment of his lessons alive.

There are many students who are attracted to the glamorous exercise side of martial arts. They don’t want to go into the full disturbing reality of self-defence or the full contact nature of the sport. This is not a problem in Tony’s class. Muay Thai training is very physical and has a dynamic aerobics aspect to its training. Those concerned about getting bruised are free to join in the class warm-ups, cool downs, circuit training and pad work. No pressure is ever placed on anyone to engage in heavy sparring or to compete. 

There are others who enjoy the self-defence aspect. This is also a productive route, as Muay Thai has a respectable background as an unarmed self defence system tested by the Thai military. Tony Hayes has an intensive course that works on this aspect of training called “Confrontational Management.” This deals with all areas of self-protection such as awareness, judging a situation, psychology, fear control and aspects of the law. This is where the full range of the Muay Thai martial art is explored. This is unlike many other combat schools that teach self-defence as a system completely removed from the essence of their art. 

Amongst the varied people practicing at “Hayes Thai Boxing” there are those who look towards a serious career in the sport. Tony, himself, has won two British titles and excels in teaching ring craft. Thai Boxing is an explosive sport using punches, kicks, knees, elbows and upright grappling methods. It has proven so efficient in competition that many other full contact arts have borrowed techniques from Muay Thai.

In conclusion training at Hayes Muay Thai encourages team spirit, but doesn’t enforce conformity. The sport and art’s nature is designed for the individual, but no one is made to feel alone. I believe such a balance inspires the passion in people to keep training. This is why I make my long distance trips to regularly learn in spite of my two workloads, looking for a new place to set up home and practicing two other martial arts. I’m not the only one either. There are students who make journeys from Banbury, Shipston and Chipping Campden to the Warwickshire location in order to train. 

As we bow before leaving the gym the solution to the question why do most of us feel so passionate about training here becomes clear to me. The answer cannot be found in the reasoning of the mind, but more the feelings of the heart. One glance around the room from the ground level reveals more about the place than my initial observations from the balcony. Amongst the equipment there is writing on the wall, posters and photographs. The writing varies from notices about the equipment to club rules to words of advice to handwritten names of members. The posters show fights of the past and present depicting the glory of Muay Thai. The photographs are often of the members’ nights out and show many happy faces. This all represents both the hard work ethics and the easy-going social side of the club. Positive inspiration is everywhere. Every inch of the place bears the mark of the instructor who founded it and the art that he continues to teach.

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