MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) has become a hot topic in Yangon, partly thanks to Aung La Nsang aka the Burmese Python. As part of consequences follows, more people have shown interest in learning it. But what does it take to become an MMA fighter? What qualifications does a person have to acquire? Nay Thiha talked to Joey Kyaw or Soe Wai Yan Kyaw, an owner-cum-coach of Transcend Fitness Yangon. His trainees Tom Sanders and Luke have won gold medals in their respective weight classes at Myanmar’s very first amateur MMA tournament held last month.

As a kid, Joey had always been into fitness and martial arts. But growing up in a developing country like Cambodia, there were not many places for him to train until he moved to Melbourne for his studies in 2009. When he relocated back in Yangon 3 years ago, he opened a mixed martial art studio, Transcend Fitness.

“At first, I just opened it, and never really planned on coaching. But as I started helping out my customers, one thing led to another and here we are now,” he recalls.

Since MMA training encompasses many martial art techniques, there are many skills to be learned. A proper professional MMA fighter, for example, can have 3 or 4 different coaches working with them. They might have a striking coach, a BJJ (Brazilian jiu-jitsu) grappling coach, or a coach for strength and conditioning then a nutritionist.

The same goes for the members at Transcend. They have Lethwei coaches that take care of their needs, BJJ coaches for grappling training, and fitness and also conditioning classes.

“It’s a very collaborative effort from all our coaches when we sent out those guys like Tom Sanders and Luke to compete.”

Joey and Tom.

Joey believes that people have different personalities and the fighters have to use them against the opponents. 

“It is a form of art – sort of self-expression. You express yourself through the moves you make in the ring. We have to let them express themselves. That’s why it’s called ‘martial art’. Trying to change and mould them in the way I want them to be wouldn’t help anyone.”

As a trainer, Joey has to deal with many people due to their different learning capacities. Some might pick a move up in 5 minutes. Some members might need a few days for their body to adjust to the movement.

“In terms of injuries, it is a part of the game. If you train hard every day, it’s normal to get injured. You just have to work around it. If you sprain your wrist, then you focus more on kicks. You hurt your ankle, maybe more boxing,” he explains.

Throughout his career, the most memorable moment for him would be the first time he coached and cornered for an MMA fight in Yangon.

“About two years ago, Ms. Bozhenna “Toto” Antoniyar was working as a boxing instructor in our gym. And she was offered to fight MMA in One Championship. So as a team member, I helped to prepare and corner the fight with the assistance of our MMA coach Zay Yar Oo. It was a nerve-wracking but also very good experience, especially because we were pushed into one of the biggest MMA promotions in our careers.”

Joey and team members.

When I ask him about the fighters he admires, he responds quickly “the Burmese Python”.

“I met Ko Aung La personally about 4 years ago. I found him to be quiet, soft-spoken, humble and honest. After 4 years, even with all this fame and popularity he has achieved, he doesn’t let it go to his head. He’s still that same humble and honest person I met 4 years ago. I admire that in him.”

Some people in Myanmar see fighting as a negative sport. When I tell him about this, he replies calmly.

“I think that is changing as MMA becomes more popular. Now we have all these incredible role models like Ko Aung La and Ko Phoe Thaw (Phoe “Bushido” Thaw). Thanks to social media, people see what’s behind the scenes and understand that fighters are regular people like you and me, not just brute savages. It is our job to be a better role model – to represent ourselves and our sport well.”

He reveres hard work and dedication among many things that make a fighter.

“Fighting is not always so glamorous like you see on TV. Hard work, sweat and blood go into every fight, every competition. And there can only be one winner at the end. So most of the time, people will end up disappointed. It takes a lot of heart and dedication for a real fighter to pick themselves up and keep going, especially when things are not going well in life.”

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