While Emma was always interested in pursuing Muay Thai, she was intimidated by the fact that she had no previous background in athletics or martial arts. After graduating from University in 2010, Emma went on a trip around the globe. One of the stops was Thailand, and this real exposure to Muay Thai allowed her to fall in love with the art.
When traveling to her next destination, she committed to the dream of teaching, training, and fighting in Thailand. Eight months into her new journey, she stumbled onto the world famous “Master Toddy’s gym.”
Fast forward three years, she’s now the longest-running member of her gym. What made Emma pursue her passion with total abandon? What are some of the hardships she’s had to face? What drove her to keep going? Read this interview, and find out what persistence, the power of belief, and being a fighter means.
1) Hi Emma, going through your blog, Under The Ropes, it’s clear to see that you’ve went after your Muay Thai dreams with total abandon. What was it about the art that initially captured your attention, and what was it that made you fall in love with it?
It’s difficult for me to pinpoint a particular aspect or event that sparked my love for Muay Thai, or a time when a spark occurred, I just remember loving it. I’d wanted to try it since my first trip to Thailand at eighteen years old, but never had the confidence and was intimidated by what I imagined the gym environment to be like.
When I graduated from university four years later, Thailand was my first stop on my solo backpacking trip and I was determined to finally try Muay Thai, although that intention was kept hidden from most people at the time. Something about being on my own, away from home in a new place where I knew no one allowed me to shed my insecurities and finally jump in. From then on, it’s been all about Muay Thai.
What makes it so captivating is that there is beauty in so many aspects of it; the movements, the culture and traditions that go with it, but I think the main thing that draws me to it is that it’s such a challenge for me. I was always very academic and could easily be building a career in something that I excelled at in school right now, but that wouldn’t help me grow the way that this does. It constantly pushes me out of my comfort zone and forces me to adapt, and I love that.
“ I’m going to teach you everything. I can see that you want to fight. You don’t talk about it, but you have the determination. I’m going to teach you everything and then you’re going to fight” — Master Toddy
2) Master Toddy gave you these amazing words when you showed up to his gym with your luggage and ready to move in. Eight weeks later, you had your first fight. You must’ve held onto these words closely and used it as a driving force. Can you elaborate just how important it is to have a coach who believes in you, so that you in turn also believe in yourself?
I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a trainer who really believes in you and invests in your progress. If I hadn’t had that, I can’t be sure whether or not I would have had the confidence to fight at all. I count myself very lucky to have Master Toddy as my teacher because I know how rare it is for any fighter to receive such wonderful words of encouragement, let alone a female training in Thailand.
It’s true that Muay Thai isn’t a team sport, but you can only go so far on your own and having a great team and the right trainer for you are incredibly important. I can’t imagine doing this with anyone other than Master Toddy because he’s given me so much, not only in terms of technical skills but also life coaching and emotional support.
“Master Toddy told me that I was improving in small increments every day, and said ‘don’t think about the things that you’re not doing right, think about the things that you’re getting better at and doing well.’ If I approached it any other way, I would find it frustrating and disheartening, which would just be silly. I think the same applies to fighting.” — Emma Thomas, Under the Ropes: “Does Your Record Really Matter?”
3) I think martial arts have a heavy emphasis on continuous improve in increments. Through so much trial and error, and so many successes and failures – a martial artist grows. I think this is a great perspective to approach the journey and a great life lesson. [Side Note: Check out Chatri Sityodtong’s Ted Talk: “How to Achieve Greatness in Life”]
You’ve mentioned several times that you’ve became a better person due to your experiences. What are some of the greatest lessons and developments that you’ve gained from Muay Thai?
I think that forcing myself to do things that are difficult for me have been a real source of development. The ‘old Emma’ was incredibly shy, would never stand up to anyone and could think of nothing worse than being on a stage in any case, let alone performing and art that I didn’t see myself to be particularly good at with a person who was trying to hurt me. I was always in the background, but that’s not the case anymore. The main thing that I’ve gotten from Muay Thai is that it has made me more confident and sure of myself.
“Muay Thai was a passion of mine that all my friends knew about, but none understood. Outside of the gym, I struggled to find common ground with people when I spoke about it.” — Emma Thomas: Under The Ropes, “First Fight”
4) Muay Thai has been heavily ingrained into your identity, shaping who you are and what you experience. You’ve noted how incredible this journey has been, but also some of the hardships.
For example… the loneliness caused by the rotation of foreigners going in and out of the gym and country, plus the pressure of societal conformity and judgements of friends and family…
How did you deal with the disapproving peers that were detrimental to your pursuit of happiness and dreams – a pursuit especially foreign to so many people that aren’t involved in martial arts?
Living at the gym and spending most of my time away from those people made it much easier to deal with them than it could have been, although that is not to say that it wasn’t difficult. In the beginning, those voices were much more prevalent, but as time has passed, I’ve gradually separated myself from naysayers and negative influences and now have a much more supportive group of people around me.
At times when those negative voices have come from my family, I’ve always just quietly put my head down and kept moving, knowing that I don’t need approval or understanding from anyone on the outside to do what I do, because the people on the inside, at the gym, are with me. After that, it came with time as they started to see how committed I was and that I could actually do it.
“That first year or so was particularly difficult and I remember a significant period during which I felt consistently depressed. For quite a while, I was the only long-term fighter at the gym and the only female, and wasn’t meeting anyone that I really connected with. On top of that, I’d been forced to let go of a lot of people in pursuit of my dream here, some of them because of circumstance and some of them out of choice because they were detrimental to my happiness or didn’t approve of what I was doing.” — Emma Thomas, “Three Years of Living And Training At Master Toddy’s”
5. At times, while you had no one to share the experiences with, did you ever come to enjoy or find beauty in the solitude? Or were these times of discomfort, looking back, perhaps blessings in disguise used to become a stronger person?
There were definitely two sides to the coin. At times, being alone made me unhappy, unconfident and self-critical. However, at other times, I embraced the way that it enabled me to focus on my own goals and development without distractions or disapproval. I look those lonelier times as necessary sacrifices that were made in order make headway towards my goals, as well as important growing experiences. I’m happy to say that I now have a wonderful circle of friends here and rarely feel lonely the way that I used to, partly because of them and partly because I’m stronger than I used to be.
“Settling down, doing a 9-5 and ‘living for the weekend’ is all well and good for people who are content in doing so, but at this stage in my life, I’m looking to do something different. It’s difficult to achieve extraordinary things by living an ordinary life. ” — Emma Thomas, “Does Fighting Change you?”
I’m often asked my friends and family at home why I don’t go home, settle down and get a ‘career’, but while those ideas seem practical to many, they’re terrifying to me. Here, training is the first thing I get to do when I wake up in the morning, and that’s every day. I’m not forced to squeeze it in a few evenings a week after work, doing a job that doesn’t satisfy me.
When I do work, I have the pleasure of doing a job that I also love, teaching English in the evenings and on weekends, so I have the best of both worlds. While not everyone may see teaching or fighting as practical pursuits, and none would say that they are ones they would have predicted me to do, they are ones that give me fulfilment enough to know that I don’t need to steer my path in any other direction as of yet.
I quite often say that if I died tomorrow, I’d be content because I’ve already done so many things that I wanted to do in life. Not everyone has that luxury, nor the bravery to go after what they want from their lives. If I was to undertake a ‘conformist lifestyle’, doing the things I feel obligated to do rather than the ones I’m passionate about, life wouldn’t be half as interesting. It’s actually something that I’m quite fearful of; getting trapped in the rat race, losing sight of what’s important to me and living a life that I perceive to be boring. That being said, there’s plenty of people that hate the idea of being in my position and have no idea how I do it. Whatever it is that floats your boat, go for it.
“My sole intention of setting up Under the Ropes was to put something out there for other women in the sport, and to have received the response that I have has been wonderful. Not only that, but it has enabled me to form friendships with like-minded people that I may never have met otherwise.” — Emma Thomas: The Joys of Having a Female Training Partner II
7. Setting up “Under The Ropes” must’ve been a big step forward, so few fighters have done something like this! Putting out your experiences in such a transparent manner is both personal and intimate – were you by any chance inspired by Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu of 8limbs.us?
What were some of the benefits derived from setting up a website and sharing your experiences? Any words of encouragement for other Muay Thai enthusiasts to step forward?
Before I set up my blog, I was concerned that my voice wouldn’t be valued because I saw myself as ‘no one’. I was a no-name fighter with almost no experience. At the same time, I knew how much I would have appreciated another female voice in Muay Thai, because it was always something that was lacking. Muay Thai can be a very lonely sport, especially as a female, and just the presence of another person can make all the difference.
I came across Sylvie’s site while I was at home for a couple of months after my first three-month stint at Master Toddy’s. I was slightly unsure of the longevity of my next step, but I knew that I wanted to go back, keep teaching and fighting and build a blog to share it all. Seeing how transparent and honest she was about her entire journey, starting as ‘no one’ just as I was, definitely inspired me. I contacted Sylvie and mentioned my intentions of setting up a blog to her and she responded very encouragingly.
The response that I’ve had from many others since then has only inspired me more and helped to push me further. It’s also helped to solidify my self-belief. Sometimes, all you need is for someone else to tell you ‘you can do this’. It’s wonderful to know that my voice has helped others and to have made connections with so many like-minded people. There are more female fighter blogs popping up now and I get excited every time I see one. I urge anyone else who’s thinking of putting their voice out there to do it – you’ll be surprised at what echoes back to you.
“There are countless stories of people who’ve used Muay Thai as a tool to help them turn their whole lives around. For some, it’s a drastic change, and for others it’s very subtle, but no matter where on the spectrum it falls, it makes a difference. ” — Emma Thomas, “Does Fighting Change You?”
8. You mentioned that since starting your Muay Thai journey, you’ve grown more assertive and confident. Another change is embracing your inner introversion. How much of this would you attribute to training and fighting?
When I look back at how I was before I started fighting three years ago, I’m surprised at how far I’ve come. Even when I look back to just one year ago, I can see big changes. My life here is a constant source of growth and although fighting is definitely a catalyst for that, it’s also caused by the things that come with moving to another country on my own – leaving my comfort zone, meeting new people, forcing myself into and through difficult situations and coming out of the other side.
My teaching work has also produced changes in my personality. There are people back home who can’t believe what I’m doing now and how much I’ve changed, some of which are not so approving of those changes and I’ve subsequently drifted away from. Still, that’s just a part of growing up and finding out who you are.
9. Some people fight in combat sports for the money, fame, and glory. You’re fighting for the experience, passion, and love. What is your definition of a fighter? What is your ultimate goal in this passionate pursuit?
It might sound strange to say, but I don’t have an ‘ultimate goal’. Lots of fighters dream of winning certain titles or fighting certain opponents and that’s great, but I have never been driven by those things. My only aim do what I enjoy. That, and to keep growing and improving. For as long as I continue to enjoy it, I’ll keep doing it.
That being said, I’m open to any opportunities that come my way and I think that having a positive attitude and a great work ethic always brings those. Those things have already taken me a lot further than I ever thought I would go in this sport already and have brought me some wonderful things. I’m just very grateful for the chance to be here and to do what I love.
“In a short documentary on Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu called ‘Fighting the Dream’, she also addresses this topic, stating that ‘It’s not about perfection, it’s not about your record. It’s about adjusting from piece to piece, from game to game, to see what your holes are and how you want to change.’ I agree with this sentiment entirely.” — Emma Thomas, “Does Your Record Really Matter?”
10. So many people categorize a fighter as some sort of extreme winner. Or at least, they assume that a fighter is not a good one because they’re not an extreme winner. To me, a fighter is someone who gets up repeatedly, fall after fall – anyone who shows a fighting heart and spirit is a great fighter. After all, the dictionary definition of a fighter is: “someone who does not give up: someone who continues fighting or trying.” This is in my opinion what separates a fighter from one that is not, despite talent, experience, or athleticism.
As someone who dove into the deep end in Thailand with 8 weeks of training and no previous athletic or combat sports experience, what’s your take on dealing with losses – something that’s so deeply personal and seemingly detrimental to the psychology of so many in the west?
I have never understood the huge stigma attached to losing a fight. This is due in part to my personality but also because I’ve spent the entirety of my fighting career (aside from one fight) so far in Thailand and because of my huge lack of experience in comparison to my opponents, haven’t been able to have an ego about it.
There are a few reasons why losses are not such a big deal here, one being that fights occur so much more frequently here that fighters can’t afford to get hung up on them and another being that they just can’t afford to if they’re fighting for a living. It’s just another fight, they get up and keep going. If you’re in the West and only fighting a few times a year, it will weigh a lot heavier on you. When you’re fighting as often as they are here, it’s almost impossible to avoid losing now and then, so it forces fighters to stay humble. The fight industry here is also a lot less egotistical than it is in the West, where many believe that being undefeated is the ultimate achievement.
While an undefeated fighter may be truly great, they may not necessarily be greater than another fighter with a less impressive record simply because of those numbers alone. In fact, those numbers that seem so definitive in the West provide very little information about that fighter. They don’t say anything about the calibre of opponents they’ve faced or the tribulations they’ve gone through. They don’t say anything about what the actual experience of those fights was like. That’s why no fighter should worry about feeling or looking bad because of a loss.
Of course, losing doesn’t feel good, but you have to approach it rationally. It’s true what they say, that losses make you better, but only if you want them to. You won’t just automatically start winning if you power through a losing streak without making adjustments, you have to work for that. With every fight comes a learning experience, if the fighter is willing to take it.
“I’d always believed that I wasn’t at all talented when it came to Muay Thai or athleticism, and that I had to work much harder than most just to become proficient. In doing so, I’ve ended up outlasting and exceeding some of those people. They are the people who, along with many back home who went straight out of school and onto paths that haven’t fulfilled them, tell me that they wish they could do what I do.
Of course, not everyone has the same dream and I respect those that are different to mine, but the truth is, anyone can do it. It’s not about luck or anything of the like, I’ve just made conscious decisions to do things and then gone out and done them. That’s just it. Hard work and persistence trumps talent, eventually.” — Emma Thomas, “Three Years of Living And Training At Master Toddy’s”
Kenshin’s Final Words
Emma is sharing her story and journey with the world, and I definitely urge everyone to check it out. I set this interview up after being captivated by her thoughtful blog – Under The Ropes. This interview also turned out to be one of my favorites!
In a short amount of time, Emma transformed from shy to confident, non-fighter to fighter. She is living her own dream – not the dreams of society or giving into the pressure of expectations. Having built a strong social circle of support, she grows stronger everyday, both mentally and physically.
Her story is as inspirational as it is motivating. I hope that everyone who enjoyed this interview will support her in whatever way you can! Visit Master Toddy’s, follow Under the Ropes on Facebook, or send her a message of support – Emma is super approachable!