Over the last several years, the advent of MMA, led by the skyrocketing growth of the UFC, has put western boxing on its heels. Muay Thai has been a direct beneficiary of the growth in MMA, as an increasing number of fighters seek to sharpen their stand up skills by learning the Art of Eight Limbs, which utilizes punches, knees, kicks and elbows to mount a devastating attack against your opponent.
MMA training in Muay Thai has introduced its fan base to the fighting style. But an art that is hundreds to thousands of years old, shouldn't have to rely on a sport that's only a couple of decades old to represent it. Enter the American Muay Thai League in Washington D.C. An organization dedicated to delivering authentic Muay Thai fights in the nation's capital. The founder of the league, Josef Pearson has fought and competed in Muay Thai tournaments all over Thailand. He is also one of few Americans who have been allowed to teach Muay Thai to native Thais as well as promote the sport within the country.
Raised in Atlantic City, NJ, Pearson was introduced to wrestling at age 7 where he developed a strong base by competing in area tournaments. By 15, he had begun to acquire some early striking skills from a close friend's father who was a Golden Gloves boxer in the state. With his strength in wrestling and now with added striking skills, Pearson took an interest in MMA at age 18 and started training with a coach who helped him develop his Jiu-Jitsu to go along with his wrestling base. An unfortunate occurrence during a grappling match would change the direction of his future though. Ahead in points, Pearson was caught in an armbar, refused to tap and had his right arm broken. While he healed up fine afterwards, psychologically, he'd lost confidence on the ground with that limb. That incident led Pearson to focus more on his striking. DMV Combat Fanatics caught up with Pearson to discuss his introduction to Muay Thai and the start of the American Muay Thai League.
DMV Combat Fanatics: Josef thanks for speaking with us today. Why don't we start off with you sharing with us how you got introduced to Muay Thai. Even today, it's still not a well-known sport in the U.S., so what spurred your interest?
J. Pearson: Well, I was really competitive growing up with wrestling and grappling and that was actually where I had more of a natural interest. But, I always wanted to do some type of martial art. I dabbled in Wushu a bit. But, I could never get the forms down. (Laughing) I wanted to kick and spar but I had a hard time learning the forms. I enjoyed the contact part of it. But, I felt like an idiot when we got to the other stuff. So I never wanted to go to class because, it was just hard for me to pick up the Kata. I got interested in Muay Thai through a friend in high school. He was Thai and would tell me about the sport but I wasn't really sure I wanted to do it. I'd had some boxing training from my friend's dad but I was still doing grappling because that was my strength. So I'm in a grappling match when I was around 18 and I got my arm broke because I was ahead and I didn't want to tap. I had never got hurt like that before and it affected my confidence. So I just decided to concentrate on standup and begin training more Muay Thai with my Thai friend.
DMV Combat Fanatics: But who was training you at that time in Muay Thai?
J. Pearson: My MMA coach. I didn't really know the difference back then but he was teaching me more MMA style of Muay Thai. We parted ways sometime in 2007. But I still wanted to train, so I looked for Muay Thai trainers in my area and I just happened to get lucky. I found a Muay Thai teacher in South Jersey. This guy's name was Kaensak Sor Ploenjit, he was the only person teaching Muay Thai in the area at the time, which was about 40 minutes from me in Atlantic City. This guy is a legend in Muay Thai. A two-time world-champion, fighter of the year. So I figured if I was going to learn, I wanted to learn from the best. So I would travel down there, take privates and classes with him. And I was like, oh, so this is real Muay Thai. There were small little details and stuff that he was showing me. The more technical aspects and the more I learned the better I wanted to get.
DMV Combat Fanatics: O.K. So you're basically hooked at this point. When did you decide to make the leap to Thailand?
Joe Pearson: Yeah, I was hooked. My Thai friend had moved out to California and we had always talked about going to train in Thailand in the past. We had lost touch for a bit but I found his number, called him up one day out of nowhere and said, let's do it. He had a girlfriend over there at the time who made all of our arrangements for us. I met up with him in Los Angeles and we went over and stayed at the camp for 3 months my first time there.
DMV Combat Fanatics: What was the name of the camp or gym?
J. Pearson: The gym is called Sor Thanikul. It's a pretty famous gym in Thailand, that's produced a lot of great fighters.
DMV Combat Fanatics: But you actually lived in Thailand for a while too right?
J. Pearson: Yeah, I use to go over on three-month VISAs, six-month VISAs. Eventually I just moved over there for a while. I lived there for about two-years with my family. But I went back and forth for about 9 years.
DMV Combat Fanatics: Do you still fight?
J. Pearson: Not anymore. When I was like 25, I suffered a heart attack. I was living in Virginia at the time preparing for a fight when it happened. I was getting ready to go back over to Thailand to compete. I was told I shouldn't fight anymore after that. So I was pretty bummed out. I moved more into training for a while. I got regular check-ups in Thailand, watched what I ate and took care of my body. About a year later, I was able to fight again, which I did. But, I stopped to really focus on promoting.
DMV Combat Fanatics: So what gave you the idea to start the American Muay Thai League here in the states?
J. Pearson: Well, I actually got my experience promoting when I was in Thailand. I was over there with my wife and my kids and I didn't have a job. I had some experience training so my trainer would take me to these gyms to try to find work. At first, they didn't want me to teach any of the Thais, you know. They were like, oh he's a foreigner, he doesn't know Muay Thai. He's not good. So he would take me and have me spar their top guys or hold pads for their guys, and I would get their approval. We would go from gym to gym in Bangkok and challenge these people to spar their guys or hold pads and they would try to like, kick my head off (laughter). So I earned a lot of respect when they saw I could hold my own and that I knew what I was doing. So I became a trainer over there after that, since I couldn't fight at the time, which is kind of how I got into promoting as well. Because, when other promoters would come to our gym they would see me and think I was half-Thai, half-farang. Which is foreigner. They thought I was like, from France or Italy, where they have really good Thai fighters.
I would say, no I'm from America and every Thai person would laugh. Oh, America sucks. America has no good Muay Thai fighters. You know. My trainer would back me up and say no, he's from America and they would say, man he doesn't train or fight like an American.
DMV Combat Fanatics: So that was in a way, like a compliment right?
J. Pearson: Yeah, it was a compliment. But that was what kinda got me thinking... that man, we need to make a change in America. So when I got back to the states, I saw how different promotions were being run with their level of Muay Thai and I was like yeah, I can see where they're coming from. But I don't really blame anyone cause America was just doing what they could. But I had the privilege to be able to go over there for a long time, work in an all Thai gym, I lived in an all Thai neighborhood and I got my experience promoting there first. So I understand the culture. So when I came back to America I was in a position to run a promotion like they do over there. Because the difference over there is that Muay Thai promotion is an established business.
DMV Combat Fanatics: But as a foreigner, why would they let you promote Thai fights?
J. Pearson: Because the gym I was connected to, Sor Thanikul, has a very good and deep reputation. It's probably one of the most well-known gyms in Muay Thai history and they had a very strong promoter there as well, Kleo Thanikul who passed. But he was one of the most well-known promoters of Muay Thai. So just by me being associated with them, they would introduce me to their people and then just networking, you know, I just got to learn more and find the right people to be around. Plus, I pretty much paid my dues over there. I fought in the Temple fights, in the dirt, the Festival of Fights. I fought for 300 baht ($9 US) all the way up to $2,000 US. I trained a team of Thai fighters and we would travel to different areas, different stadiums. So I paid my dues. They respected me for being a fighter, for being a trainer. I was constantly working and I was accepted because I was living like they were living.
DMV Combat Fanatics: Right. This sounds like a movie. Young American goes to Thailand learns the way of Muay Thai, proves himself in battle and has the secrets of the culture passed on to him.
J. Pearson: (Laughing) Yeah, it was a lot of work. But I was blessed to be given a lot of opportunities through my networking.
DMV Combat Fanatics: O.K. So you started the American Muay Thai League in 2013. Why did you pick D.C. as the place to start it?
J. Pearson: Well, I use to live in Manassas, VA and work in Fairfax so I knew the area was very big into MMA and very big into Jiu-Jitsu. But there wasn't a big Muay Thai presence there. Plus being the nation's capital is was a natural place to start. I saved money from my purses and bought my gear, got my license, bonds, etc. I just took the same operations, rule sets and standards that I had learned in Thailand and brought it to D.C.
DMV Combat Fanatics: How often do you plan to hold fights in D.C.?
J. Pearson: Well, the upcoming fight on September 17th will be our 10th fight since we started. But we plan to have 10 fights in all of 2017 alone. With something around 12-15 bouts per fight. We're growing really well right now. The fights are normally sold out.
DMV Combat Fanatics: Do you allow other striking styles to fight in American Muay Thai League?
J. Pearson: Absolutely. I consider it a compliment that they want to fight in our league. But, I make it clear. They must fight Muay Thai rules. There's no negotiation. This is a Muay Thai league, you fight by Muay Thai rules. Not K-1 Muay Thai. Muay Thai.
DMV Combat Fanatics: What is your biggest challenge in running the league right now?
J. Pearson: Initially, it was just finding fighters, you know. The first fight we held I had like 8 fighters come down from New York and I had 8 fighters in the D.C. area. Most fighters early on didn't want to fight Muay Thai. They were O.K. with kicks but didn't want elbows. All of that and we still get that sometimes. I'm not trying to come off as arrogant or anything but I'm really passionate about what I do. Muay Thai is my thing. I want to give people who come to watch our fights a true Muay Thai fight experience. That's my first goal. My second, is that I want fighters to be able to make a living and feed their family in our league. Like the UFC is the end game goal for MMA fighters. I want the same thing for American Muay Thai League. We're not going to be a feeder league for anyone else. This will be a place where Muay Thai fighters want to be.
DMV Combat Fanatics: Last question for you. Who is your favorite Thai fighter of all time?
J. Pearson: Aw man (pauses to think)...that is a tough one. Umm...I would have to say, and this is probably going to sound like the typical answer. But, I have two. Definitely Seanchai because I think he had the biggest impact on me. I seen him fight live. One of the times I was over there (Thailand) in like 2008 or 2009, just some time ago. I was in Bangkok and traffic literally stopped. People where getting out their taxi cabs, running over to stores and shops and stuff like that. I was like, yo, what's going on? Did someone die? Like you know, someone important or something. They were like, no, Seanchai is fighting. At the time, Seanchai was fighting for a couple Lumpinee championships. He fought two guys back to back in two different weight classes and he beat both of them. I was like aw man, this guy is amazing! This guy is really good. Obviously, I started following him after that, so he was one of my favorites. The other guy is someone I know personally. His name is Boonlai, Boonlai Sor Thanikul. He helped train me at the gym and showed me a lot of cool stuff and he is very technical. He was at one point one of the highest paid fighters in Muay Thai. Really good fighter, highly technical. He's like a Mayweather. Really good guy too.
American Muay Thai League has recently signed on Jason Farrell as matchmaker for future fights. You can see DMV Combat Fanatics May 2016 interview with Jason, here. You can find more information on American Muay Thai League at www.amtlpromotions.com.
About the Author:
Darryl Keeton is an avid striking, grappling and wrestling fan living in Upper Marlboro, MD. He holds a black belt in Taekwondo and is also a practitioner of Combat Jujutsu, Boxing and Muay Thai.