Q&A: Former Muay Thai champion Niamh Griffin talks to Action81.com

Monday, March 7th, 2011

Before Katie Taylor was a star in the ring, Ireland had another champion in combat sports. Cork’s Niamh Griffin held the World Muaythai Council’s (WMC) Intercontinental Bantamweight title twice and posts a career record of 23 wins, including 3 inside the distance, 8 losses and 1 draw. Now back in Ireland, she spoke with Emmet Ryan as part of Action81.com’s coverage of International Women’s Day. In an extensive feature, Griffin discusses her six year career in the ring and her projects in sport since hanging up her gloves.

Emmet Ryan : Hi Niamh, thanks for joining us on Action81.com. You’re a former two-time WMC Intercontinental Bantamweight Champion but I know a lot of our readers want to know, how did you end up in Muaythai/Thai Boxing to begin with?
Niamh Griffin: I was working in Bangkok, Thailand teaching English in a secondary school there. And as you know when you go to a country where the culture is so different, you want to learn something about what the people like doing. I went to see a few MuayThai shows in the stadiums, and thought it was fantastic but I had no idea that non-Thais could compete.
Then I met two Canadian men who were training in Bangkok. They encouraged me to come down to their gym and see what a training session is like and I was hooked from the first day! That was in May 1998. I had been living there since August 97.

ER: It must have been quite the eye-opening experience. Had you done any boxing or combat sports before moving to Thailand?
NG: No, I would have considered myself too soft! I had just some the normal Irish stuff – camogie, swimming, badminton I suppose, it was easier to take it up in a new country because it seemed quite exciting and “exotic” and so it was less intimidating than walking into a gym in Cork might have been

ER: That mental aspect is interesting. Were there any challenges for you as a non-Thai in gaining acceptance?
NG: It was easier for me in one sense as the gym the boys took me too was already familiar with training foreigners. The owners had two premises – one in the countryside just outside Bangkok for the more serious fighters and one near a tourist area…that’s where I started. So in the beginning, they just want you to have a go and try to do anything – I mean I couldn’t punch in a straight line, doing 20 sit-ups was an achievement, I hated running – you would not have picked me for a fighter!
But the attitude in the Thai gyms is that boxing is a natural, normal thing to do – it’s a job for about 95,000 male + female fighters there so there is less emphasis on machismo, at least that was my experience. For Thais, training without fighting would be like training soccer and not playing a match.

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ER: Tell us about your training was like? Typically what did your day involve?
NG: Training builds up over time, as you get more into it and start competing then it does take over the week. At first I trained maybe two times a week, for about 2 hours each time, then I started running and the training days build up. As a fighter a typical day would be an early morning run, maybe about 5.30-6am for up to 10kms. Some of the men would do more but ten was typical. Then back to the gym for bag-work – kicking or punching the bag and skipping, lots of skipping. The afternoon session typically starts about 3pm in Thailand – after the main heat is gone. Most people run before this too, I usually did a long skipping session as I was coming from work. Then you shadow-box alone getting pointers from people around you. The main work is in the ring with a pad-man, one of the trainers holds focus-pads for you, and also wears a pad around his stomach. This can last anywhere from 25-45 minutes, and is divided into 3-minute sections as in a fight. After that, you can work with other boxers to spar gently or do bag work, and also focus-pad work on your hands. The warm-down is usually more skipping, then sit-ups, press-ups, and stretching moves which westerners would recognise from yoga! This takes between 2-3 hours depending on how hard you want to work.

ER: In the ring you had a lot of success. From your memories as a fighter what stands out to you about the experience?
NG: As you walk up to a boxing stadium, you get the smell of boxing liniment before anything else. Then you see the crowds outside, everyone clutching a list of fighters, avidly discussing their choices. Betting has a large role to play in the popularity of the sport so people walk around the changing areas and examine the fighters to see who looks strong or likely to lose. Inside the big stadiums like Lumpini or Rajadamnern in Bangkok, a big night could draw in thousands of people. The shouting and noise outside the ring is as entertaining as the fights, the crowd makes special sounds for different types of strike. A solid knee is greeted with “Tee, Tee,” meaning push. When someone is on the run, you hear names being called, phones ringing and the metal advertising hoardings are banged on.

ER: The fights in Muay Thai are 5 x 3 minutes rounds and you went the distance in most of your bouts. The fitness required, particularly at bantamweight, must have been remarkable to keep up that kind of pace for 15 minutes. Were there any moments in the fights you had that stand out for you?
NG: I suppose there are two stand-puts – one for a loss and one for a win. That 15 minutes can seem awfully long when you are losing. I fought a Thai woman called Daoprasuk Sitparfar from the South of Thailand in Koh Samui. She was stronger and more technical than me so it was quite hard. There was one moment in the 3rd round when she kicked in quite solidly and I just knew I couldn’t match her but there was about 8 more minutes to go, that is tough to just keep going. But she’s a great fighter so what can you do?
The other moment was more exciting. I was fighting for my first title, it was an outdoor daytime show with thousands of people watching. The first few rounds were even enough and then in the 4th round it all came together for me. I got in a few good punch combinations and then threw a lucky knee and it was all over. The relief, and the sense of achievement, is hard to top.

ER: In addition to fighting Niamh, you worked a lot in promoting fights. What was this like and did working in the sector make it easier to fit in time for training/preparing for fights?
NG: Yes, I worked with IFMA -the International Federation of MuayThai Amateur in Bangkok. I started working with them when I was still fighting. That was easier to fit in around training than teaching in some ways but in other ways was more work. Really it’s hard to work and train successfully at the same time, although that is what the vast majority of western MuayThai fighters do. Maybe working with the federation helped me when I retired as it would have been awful to retire and then just lose touch with the sport completely. I really enjoyed working on the World Championships, watching it grow from a few countries to 107 in 2010. In countries like Ireland, most fighters run in the mornings, then work from 9-5pm and then train from 7pm onwards so you have to be very dedicated.
One of the exciting things about working with IFMA was the growth in women taking part in the sport. Initially the amateur world championships were all male. Then in 2000 they invited 12 of us women for a one-day event held as part of the closing ceremony. The following year, a small number of countries found funding to send women fighters. At the time I started fighting in the normal Thai shows, the women’s fight was always held last so as not to bring bad luck into the ring! This could mean fighting at 2am sometimes. Also at that time, women could not jump over the ropes into the ring; we had to crawl under the lowest rope to enter – a lot less dramatic than for the men.
Obviously none of this applied for the amateur championships but it gives you the context. It was quite radical for IFMA to start organising women’s fights on the same level as the men

ER: That’s quite the progressive step. Since you returned home to Ireland from Thailand you’ve stayed involved in the sport. What sort of work are we seeing over here to develop MuayThai in Ireland?
NG: Muay Thai started in Ireland in the early 90s. There were just two or three clubs at that time. Sean Dillon, now president of the Irish MuayThai Council (IMC), in Carlow was one of the first guys to organise it. And down in Cork Anthony Corkery started what is now a large club while Dave Joyce in Galway also did a lot of work. That said, it’s really been in the last six years or so that there has been a noticeable growth in popularity. The IMC now have 25 clubs around Ireland, and there are about 10 independent clubs. They hold shows in different counties twice a month. So really although a typical club would have a ratio of at least 3:1 people who just train versus people who fight, the fighters are the advertising for the sport. Some of the Irish men also did really well fighting internationally so this helps to raise the image – Craig O Flynn from Cork is probably the most well known.
On the administrative side, the sport is now recognised by the government as a ‘legitimate sport’ so funding will make a difference over the next few years, and this is only my own opinion, but I think the increase in tourism traffic between Ireland and Thailand is a significant reason for the growth in popularity. Ten years ago people just didn’t know what Muay Thai was but now so many have seen it on holidays.

ER: What could be done to get more women involved?
NG: Good question! It’s hard to say why Irish women seem less enthusiastic about it than say in the UK or Holland. We do have a thriving kick-boxing scene here and now of course the Katie Taylor effect is apparently drawing women in to amateur boxing. It is possible that when women see MuayThai fights in Thailand, they see the high standard there and don’t realise that they would start at a lower level. I mean for me, camogie or rugby is just as likely to cause an injury as Muay Thai and both of those sports are popular with women here. The thing is, it is a minority sport so it will only grow with both genders are equally involved as with soccer, well maybe not equally there either yet! Cough!
As I said, the fighters are the advertisement for the gym so maybe women feel they would be under pressure to fight. Of course, the opposite is the case, only people who really want to get in the ring are allowed to become fighters. Any trainer in Ireland would be delighted to welcome women, many gyms even offer women’s only classes now too which is a great development.

ER: Finally while you’ve hung up your gloves, you clearly haven’t lost your passion for sport. You’re blogging now, tell us a little about that?
NG: Yes, I run a blog called Inspiring Sports Women. Much of my work with IFMA centred around promoting women and encouraging promoters or trainers to take on women as well as offering women the chance to get involved. When I worked with IFMA, we received an award from HRH Princess Siriwanwaree for encouraging women to get involved and increase their participation in Thailand as well as internationally. So when I took a step back, and started life as a journalist it seemed natural to continue promoting women in sport. Really the blog is as much to give me a chance to meet great women athletes as to tell other people about them. I know it might seem strange to only blog about women, but to my eyes most supposedly gender-less sports reporting is only about men.

Niamh Griffin writes regularly at Inspiring Sports Women.

6 Responses to “Q&A: Former Muay Thai champion Niamh Griffin talks to Action81.com”

  1. Thanks Emmet for giving me the chance to talk my favourite sport!

  2. What a great story about Niamh. I didn’t realize she was a Muay Thai champ! Great job!

  3. @niamh, It was a pleasure to have you take part.

    @lesley, glad you enjoyed it.

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