The sport of Muay Thai has grown internationally over the last few decades. With the rise of MMA, Muay Thai has become known as one of the core arts Mixed Martial Artists tend to use. Many fighters and trainees get the opportunity to travel to Thailand and train for a short while; some of them even take fights while they are there. A small number of international fighters immerse themselves in the Muay Thai culture, and the elite few may see success in the ring in Thailand training and fighting professionally. Ilya Grad is one such fighter.
Grad was born in Russia and moved to Israel at the age of four. He has accrued fifty-four professional fights (37-17), many of which were against high level opposition including some of the most prestigious tournaments in the sport and some 50+ amateur Muay Thai bouts. Grad’s Muay Thai journey started in Israel. He enjoyed fighting and started training at the best Muay Thai gym in the country. Within three years, he had beaten all his opposition and struggled to find opponents; as a result he was competing internationally as an amateur and fighting in some professional matchups.
“On my second trip to Thailand to compete in the world championship, I decided to stay and not go back to Israel. I knew if that if I really wanted to be serious about the sport, the highest level of competition was in Thailand. I went to a gym in Pattaya, and soon after had my first professional fight in Thailand. In the first round in Thailand, you go lightly. You don’t put a lot of effort in, which is different to competing as an amateur. The first round you show your style, you also see the opponent’s. Betting is an important part of the sport, and in the first round people are placing bets. I made $150 for that first fight. My coach bet on me and made over a thousand dollars on me. It was through taking fights that I sustained myself. Pattaya is a small place and soon people got to know me and who I was, so he didn’t get as good odds anymore. <laughs>”
A trip to one of the stadiums in Bangkok is a great activity for any Westerner to undertake. The spectators are very passionate about betting;
“Everyone there loves gambling, and their favorite thing to do is bet on fights. You will see a little old lady in her sixties and she’s betting. She will know the rules better than me. Everyone knows the rules and the scoring system and how a fight is won. At big fights, eighty to ninety percent of the people watching put money on, so the emotions are high and the crowds are really behind their fighters.”
Living as a professional fighter, Grad was dependent on fighting to obtain money; and should he be injured, the injury would interfere with his earning potential.
“I would fight every three weeks. Mostly it depended on the fight before. If the fight had gone five rounds, it would take longer to recover. You want to keep as active as you can, because you don’t want to lose your cardio and power. Everyone starts out getting $100-$150 dollars, even in the biggest stadiums like Lumpinee and Ratchadamnoen in Bangkok. You have to prove that you are worth more, and over time your pay goes up.”
After starting to fight in Thailand, Grad moved around the country and changed gyms.
“For the first three to four years, I was moving all the time. You have to find a trainer who cares. People come and go, and Westerners come for three months and then leave again; so they don’t have the incentive to invest in you. Trainers get twenty to thirty percent of your prize money. I met my trainer in Koh Samui; he then moved to Bangkok where he still is, and I moved with him. I’ve been with him for five years now. He travelled with me to my fights around Asia as well.”
As well as the actual fighting, the training schedule for a professional fighter in a camp places high demands on the body.
“One thing that stands out about training and fighting in Muay Thai in Thailand is the seriousness and the toughness. It’s such a tough sport. Your body breaks. You start your day with a 10 kilometer run, you work pads, and you clinch for an hour. Your body breaks, the same as in the fight. The level of toughness is high, and it is a lot that your body has to endure. The Thai fighters are like machines, they keep going and they start very young. When you see the young kids fighting, they’re very good. They mainly kick, and they don’t have much power in their punches, so they mainly use their legs.”
In gyms in America and Europe, sparring sessions vary in intensity, with most gyms incorporating at least some hard sparring. In Holland for example, most gyms have heavy sparring extremely frequently. Training in Thailand is different to that.
“It is very technical sparring; they fight so much they don’t need the same intensity we do. What I will say though is they box hard. They put big gloves on and stand there and exchange blows. They throw heavy shots like single power body shots. You get very tired doing it. It’s not about technique, and it trains your mental toughness.”
Thailand has many gyms and a large number of high level gyms across the country. One question for a Westerner wanting to go and train there is how does the training across camps vary?
“The fundamentals are the same. Each camp has their own style with regards to small things. Some camps have very good hands, others have good clinch, and another camp could be more technical. Also in each camp, each trainer has their own style.
“There isn’t a lot of teaching. You do it, and the coach corrects you. That is very different to how Westerners are used to learning on the whole. If you are a foreigner, they may teach you one time and not show you again. If you want to fight, you fight. They send you out there if you want to. They get money for your fight; but for Westerners, trainers aren’t usually invested.
“I stuck with my trainer as he wasn’t like that. He worked with me, he taught me tactics and the skills to win fights, and I beat top professional fighters based on strategy and tactics.”
A lot of the highest level Muay Thai fighters are famous in Thailand, but not well known in the West.
“The very famous Thai guys aren’t the best guys. Guys like Buakaw couldn’t keep up with the best guys now. Fighters in their thirties are well past their prime, and most stop in their mid-twenties.”
Unusually for a Westerner, Ilya Grad has competed in some of the most prestigious events it is possible to compete in professionally in the sport of Muay Thai.
“I was in the Toyota Cup, which is one of the biggest tournaments; I fought on Channel 3 and Channel 5 TV as well. Each time the fight was against a top Thai guy, I’d win the first round and they’d not want to kick and punch with me and [so they] go straight for the clinch, throw the knee, shoot nasty elbows and they didn’t stop. The clinch game in Thailand is so much better than the clinch game in the West. They really are masters at it at a high level, and that is an area that Western fighters often struggle against when facing a decent Thai opponent. My last fight in Bangkok was for the King’s Cup, which is the most prestigious tournament you can take part in.
“This is the highest level of the sport, like the NBA for basketball or the NFL for football. People would be surprised what the pay is at that level. Muay Thai fighters don’t get paid anywhere like the highest level athletes in other sports.”
It is clear talking to Grad that he has a strong bond with his coach and the upmost respect for his teaching.
“My coach cared about teaching me, and cared about pushing me. The guy wouldn’t let me train at half speed; if I was hitting the pads at seventy percent power, he’d throw the pads away and start calling me names in Thai because he demands excellence. He didn’t take my bullshit; even if you are sore, it doesn’t matter, you have to keep going. The times that I didn’t have a fight camp with him when I was travelling and things, I lost.”
For Grad, one of the most important things that a fighter develops in this kind of training is mental toughness.
“If I train someone, I do the same thing. I make the person dig deep. I’ve been training with Alex Morono helping him get ready for his Legacy title fight. With Alex, we never let him play his own game. We put him in difficult situations that he’s not comfortable with, and we try and break his game; so that he feels as if his game doesn’t work. We change sparring partners regularly, and make him do intervals between the changes, whether that’s sprints or kicking pads. It will vary. It puts him outside of his comfort zone. In fight camp, you shouldn’t feel like you are doing well. When I felt I was doing really good in camp, I lost; and when I had a tough time in training camp, I won. It’s true what they say, ‘Train hard, fight easy.’ I don’t think there’s anything he hasn’t experienced in training his opponent can do in the ring. [Morono would go on to win by submission in the first round to capture the Legacy Welterweight title.]
“In Thailand in a fight camp, you train in the morning and then the afternoon. The afternoon session will be three hours long from beginning to end, and you jump from one exercise to the other with no rest.”
In America there tends to be a clear delineation between amateur and professional events. For example, in most states if you have been paid to fight in a combat sport, you are considered a professional fighter and no longer an amateur. In college football, there are strict rules as to what compensation a player can receive to maintain amateur status. In international Muay Thai, it is not that clear-cut. Top professional fighters also compete in amateur tournaments, and it is common to see superstar professional fighters from the highest level of the sport represent Thailand in the IFMA World Championships. For example, multiple-time world champion Valentina Shevchenko fought professionally at Legacy Kickboxing in Houston, and then flew to Thailand to compete as an amateur in IFMA.
“Often the amateur fights are tougher than professional ones. When you compete in the world championships, you are facing the top opponent at that weight from that country in your class. When you take a professional fight, you could be fighting anyone unless you are fighting at a high level. Countries like some of the Eastern Bloc countries give their fighters scholarships to take part. If they win, they get a bonus that for them is a considerable amount of money. Some of those guys like the Russians and Ukrainians are very tough and very determined. You will also get the top Thai fighters taking part; a lot of the Thai team comes from the military with superstars in the team as well.”
For many aspiring fighters, their goal is to follow in Ilya Grad’s footsteps and train and compete at the highest levels in the sport; but how does one go about doing that?
“If you are serious about fighting as a professional, you have to go to Bangkok. If you want to learn and have a good time, go to the islands. If you are one-hundred percent serious and you want to be surrounded by the best fighters in the world, go to Bangkok. The attitude is different. You want to go to a gym with less Westerners. When they get commercial, they don’t care about training you properly. Even then you have to train like the Thai fighters, and live like them for many months to prove yourself. There are lots of good gyms with high-level fighters around; if I was to recommend a gym to someone, I would recommend the gym I trained at, Elite Boxing in Bangkok.
“In reality, very few people in America have that level of experience. If you compare it to basketball, Bangkok is like the NBA. Many Westerners have visited to train, but not fully immersed themselves and reached a good level in the art. Fighting in Thailand, it took some time to get to the big tournaments, so I took a lot of fights all over Southeast Asia.
“I won three professional world titles, one in Hong Kong, one in Singapore and one in China. I got to the semi-finals in the Toyota Cup and competed in Max Muay Thai, which is a big professional series of tournaments. When I fought the Kings Cup and Max Muay Thai tournaments, I actually made it to the finals. I won fights against the Westerners, but lost to the Thais in the finals. It is very hard to beat the top Thai guys in their own country. Also, when the Thai fighters go to fight in Europe or America, they barely even train. They are that good! They don’t take European fighters seriously; but when they fight in Thailand, there is a certain level of pride involved. They would hate to lose to an ‘outsider’ especially when there’s a title and big prize money involved. ”
One thing Grad can’t stress enough is that to be at the highest level in Muay Thai, you need to train alongside the highest level fighters and compete at the highest professional level.
“Even if you are a pro and a prospect, you must go there and live with them and train with the best fighters in the world, so you can aspire to be at that level. People don’t understand this. They see an American fighting a Thai, and they think it’s the top level. Westerners don’t come close. The highest level fights are Thai versus Thai fighters. To really understand Muay Thai, you have to live in it. You have to breathe it, and you can’t go there and easily understand it.
“Muay Thai is a martial art, and what they do in America is strip it and simplify it without understanding it. There are some guys, like the Thais in California, who really do know the art. To really understand what it is, you have to be there a long time. In coming to America, I really feel that I can have an impact fighting in Muay Thai here. I bring something extra in my experiences with me. Maybe one day I will pass the knowledge I have on to others. Muay Thai to me is like a science. I feel people here in America are very open and really want to get better, and I really appreciate it when people want to get better. There’s a lot to work with.
“I attended Legacy Kickboxing and really enjoyed the event; I really hope to fight for Legacy. Watching the fights, I wanted to get in the Legacy ring myself. One way or another, I hope you be able to demonstrate a high level of professional Muay Thai in competition here in the USA.”
(Photos courtesy of Ilya Grad.)