Caley Lewis on Muay Thai

I’m a single woman living in Perth. Maybe I’ve been watching too many crime shows, but I’ve become concerned about my safety. I figure it’s time to learn some self-defence, should I ever find myself in trouble down a dark alley. Increasing my chances of escaping an attacker – and getting seriously fit in the process – seems smart.

That’s what I tell myself as I walk to my first lesson in Muay Thai kickboxing, willing the nerves to settle. It’s not that I know I’m in for a pounding. I’m more nervous about everyone in the gym being super fit, lean, Kung-fu fighting machines. When I walk in, one woman is doing chin-ups, pulling herself up by her body weight as if she weighs as much as Victoria Beckham’s arm. I feel conscious of my extra padding (and I’m not talking protective gear) as I head for the change rooms.

Muay Thai developed as a form of hand-to-hand combat for the Thai militia, who used it, along with short-range weapons, to protect themselves against invaders. They used their fists, elbows, knees and feet to add eight bodily weapons to their advantage on the battlefield. Today’s practice varies significantly from the ancient art, but it’s still known as “The Art of the Eight Limbs” – using eight points of contact, as opposed to the two points used in Western boxing.

I’m far from being a soldier, but I’m kitted out for battle. Armed with wraps to protect my hands and wrists, padded gloves and shin guards, I’m ready to rumble. My opponent is another woman of similar height and build – I’m relieved to see people with the same newbie, terrified look on their face. I’d been told that Muay Thai is one hell of a fat burner; that the intensely aerobic workout of kicking, punching, twisting and turning will change my body and make it sweat buckets. My body says, “Bring it on”.

The instructor gets us going with punching jabs – my partner deflects with padded guards held at face-height. I feel my heart rate jump instantly and my body begin to warm up. I’m right handed, so I’m told to stand with my left leg forward and right leg back, which opens my hips and gives me a sense of balance. I work a combo of left and right punches, keeping my gloves at chin level for protection should my opponent suddenly lash out at my face (this is the protective fighter stance and should be adopted between each move). We take turns swapping gloves and pads, so we both get a good workout. After a few rounds my arms feel heavy from all the punching and constantly keeping them held high.

Next, we learn some footwork: high kicking an opponent, who deflects with her shin guards. Sweat trickles down the side of my face and the small of my back. I keep going, alternating left and right until my legs are burning too. We do more leg and arm combos, twisting and turning. Half an hour in, my T-shirt is soaked with sweat. I’m grateful for the extra water I brought with me. Looking around, I can see the experienced fighters’ skill, their bodies testament to the toning benefits I can already feel starting to take effect. Watching them motivates me to keep going, despite my burning muscles. I can already tell this is where I want to be. I want to come back for more, do the pad work, learn how to spar and grapple and maybe have a real Muay Thai fight one day. But that’s a hell of a lot of hard work away. Today I focus on getting the skills right. When it’s over I feel exhausted, like I’ve worked every single muscle group. But I’m also rushing with feel-good chemicals, which drives me to sign up for lesson number two.

That motivation is called into question the next day when I can barely move. I hurt everywhere! But I start going three to six times a week. My body tones up incredibly fast; I begin to see my abs, and my arms and legs get definition. I also start to pick up the skills needed for my first spar.

After a month I’m ready. This is possibly more nerve-wracking than my first class – my opponent is an 85kg Canadian man with a take-no-prisoners attitude. It’s about all I can do to remember the skills I’ve learned to protect myself. Points are awarded for skill as well as correct, hard and accurate strikes. I’m grateful that I’ve learned enough to keep his attack at bay. I come out of that spar wanting more.

Eleven years on, I’ve had 19 professional fights, and all I think about is getting to the next level. And I pity the fool who ever tries to fight me in a dark alley.

Caley Lewis is World Muay Thai Council (WMC) 57kg State (WA) champion, WMC 57kg Australian champion and World Professional Muay Thai Federation (WPMF) 56kg World champion. She instructs Muay Thai at Riddlers Gym in Perth.

LIFE-SAVING MOVES: Use martial arts-inspired tactics to kick an attacker to the kerb