Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. – Theodore Roosevelt
Two days ago I had the distinct pleasure to spend the afternoon at Eminent Air Boxing Gym in Bangkok talking with Muay Thai Champion Melissa Ray, in the best possible environment I could imagine. We had a wide ranging back and forth conversation on many topics. Melissa has held four different Championship Belts during her career and has retired due to injuries in 2011. She has recently taken up training again. Where it will lead is uncertain but she is healthy enough to reconnect with her passion, which is Muay Thai. Her CV includes a Ph.D in neuroscience as well as professional Muay Thai fights in seven different countries.
Melissa and I talked about winning and losing, rivals, the psychology of a rematch, the East vs West way of looking at competition, athletic careers and what makes a good one and the wai kru ceremony at the beginning of each match where the fighters pay respect to their teachers. We also talked about living in Thailand as a farang; what it is like to choose the road less traveled and how, sometimes, not everyone back in your home country is understanding and supportive when you take that road. During the course of our conversation I was reminded of one of the most influential books I have ever read – at the age of 11 years old – about one of my favorite athletes. It was written in 1965 about Rhodes scholar and Princeton All American basketball player, Bill Bradley by John McPhee. Its title: A SENSE OF WHERE YOU ARE. I left with a belief that Melissa Ray has an awareness and an appreciation of where she has been, where she is and who she has become due to the competitive sport of professional Muay Thai. I would later learn that her favorite book when growing up was another from the 1960s: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD written, not surprisingly, by a literary female champion, Harper Lee. Thailand Footprint is pleased to welcome Muay Ying, Melissa Ray.
TF Thank-you, Melissa for agreeing to be interviewed. Where did you study for your Ph.D and what is it in?
MR I studied for my PhD in Neuroscience – the study of the brain – at Newcastle University, UK. During my research project I used various laboratory techniques to analyse human brain sections for the levels of the neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, comparing normal healthy cases with patients with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia with Lewy bodies, Parkinson’s disease and autism.
TF When did you first come to Thailand? How long was it before you stepped into a Muay Thai gym and what was it, exactly, that hooked you on the sport?
MR My first ever visit to Thailand was a short trip in 2005, when I competed in the WMF World Amateur Championships in Bangkok. I first came to Thailand on a longer term basis in May 2006.
I first tried out Muay Thai in my early twenties. It was a Muay Thai class held at a sports centre rather than in an actual Muay Thai gym. As a sufferer of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), I have always had some issues with my weight (as described in my blog post Hormones and Muay Thai), and a typical unhealthy student lifestyle during my first degree had not helped my condition. I decided to try out Muay Thai after resolving to lose some pounds and was hooked from day one. I was never particularly interested in sports as a child or teenager but somehow Muay Thai captured my imagination. I loved the endorphin rush I got from the vigorous exercise and the release of aggression when hitting the pads. And sparring appealed to my competitive side, I suppose. I was also fascinated by the cultural aspects of the sport, including the “wai kru”—a ritual dance performed before a fight to pay respect to one’s teachers and family members.
TF I heard that females are not allowed to compete at some of the big arenas, like Lumphini, if true, why is that? Is it politics? Will that change in the future do you think?
MR Women are not allowed to compete (or even touch the ring) at stadiums such as Lumpini, Rajadamnern, Channel 7 and Omnoi because of age-old superstitions and beliefs that women are unlucky. Apparently, these beliefs were reinforced in the 60’s or 70’s, when a female journalist stepped into the ring at Rajadamnern and several boxers were seriously injured that night. I do think there will eventually be change and that women will be allowed to compete in the major stadiums in Thailand, but that could be some years away. The current Lumpini Boxing Stadium is scheduled to be demolished in 2014 and a new stadium in under construction in Ramintra Road. My hope is that women might, at some point, be allowed to fight at the new venue. Such a change would really symbolize progress for women’s Muay Thai.
TF Tell me about competing on The King and Queen’s birthday’s – that must have been quite an honor – tell us about the atmosphere, the environment.
MR Considering the restrictions placed on where we are allowed to compete in Thailand, I believe that for a female Muay Thai fighter, to fight on a King or Queen’s birthday event at Sanam Luang is the highest honour, and there is no better venue for atmosphere and exposure. On these dates, the entire Rattanakosin area would be swarming with people paying respects to their monarchs, with the streets adorned with light displays, and various stages set up for musical and dance performances. The area where the Muay Thai fights were held would tend to be rather chaotic, and there would often be last minute changes to the program order, but the disorganisation kind of added to the energy. The crowd would always provide an enthusiastic reception to a spirited fighting display, regardless of a fighter’s sex or nationality.
TF How long did you compete, what titles did you hold and why did you retire and to where?
MR I think I competed for about 8 years in total (from my first amateur bout to my last bout in June 2011). I won the WPMF 126lb title, the S-1 126lb title, the WMA 57kg title and another WPMF title at 126lb. I also won silver medals in the amateur European and World WMF championships. I stopped fighting because of two relatively serious injuries. First I tore a group of tendons in my arm (requiring surgery), then I tore a posterior cruciate ligament (no surgery but a long rehabilitation). The knee injury sent me back to the UK for 5 months last year but fortunately I was able to return “home” in December 2012.
TF What question do you most hate being asked and why?
MR I have always hated answering questions about my record. My record is not perfect (41 professional fights with 27W, 13L, 1D, by the way)—I can admit to having had good and bad days in the ring. In the West, people can be quite judgemental about records; however, I don’t believe a boxer’s fight record necessarily provides an accurate reflection of their fighting abilities. For example, a friend of mine has had a few losses in a row against top Thais in his weight division. Another fighter might have had a string of easy KO wins against lesser opponents but—according to his record—looks the better fighter on paper. People say you learn more from a loss than from a win and that’s certainly true. I’ve also heard people that if you’re only winning fights, you’re not fighting good enough opponents. That also can be true in some cases.
Another aspect a record doesn’t reflect is when a boxer may have had to take fights when he/she was carrying an injury or suffering/recovering from an illness. It’s not always easy to pull out of fights because of the hassle it creates for the promoters and the gym. For the Thais, financial obligations might also come into it—no fight means no purse for the boxer, and no income for the gym.
TF With your educational background I am going to guess that reading was important to you at an early age. Tell me about your earliest memories of reading and what books stand out among the ones you have read? Do you have time for reading now?
MR Very much so. I can remember every Saturday during my childhood my Mum, siblings and I would catch the bus into the town centre to visit the library, and I would take out the maximum 5 books to read within the week. I was extremely studious at school and my parents would encourage (bribe?!) me to do well in my end of year exams by paying me some money for every A grade. When I was growing up my favourite book was To Kill a Mockingbird. Now I rarely have time for reading for pleasure—maybe only when travelling, when I don’t want anything too demanding on the brain. The last book that made a lasting impression on me and I would highly recommend reading was “Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice”, which includes personal experiences from the author (an ex-table tennis player), as well as elements of sports science and psychology.
TF What did you do to replace the void of Muay Thai when your injuries occured – when you couldn’t go to the gym and get that endorphin rush?
MR When I had my knee injury I started my blog Muay Thai on the Brain. I think writing about Muay Thai helped me to deal with not being able to participate in the sport. Now my knee has much improved and I take every opportunity I can to train, so my writing has been rather neglected of late! Although I have not fought in two years, Muay Thai very much remains a major part of my life and I can’t imagine ever choosing not to be involved in it.
TF Professional writers often use the boxing ring as a metaphor for life. Everyone admires and respects people whom do the hard work, which is necessary to get into the ring; those that take their swings and can take a hit. Those participants that get knocked down but keep getting up. We cheer our champions and we root for the underdog. You’ve actually done and been all those things and I commend you for it. Thank-you, Melissa for sharing your world of Muay Thai with me here at Eminent Air Boxing Gym. It is such an important part of the culture in Thailand. It will remain a memorable day for me. I wish you well with your training and good luck in avoiding any future injuries.
MR Thank-you, Kevin.
For a very informative blog on Muay Thai and updates on the progress of Melissa Ray’s training please visit Muay Thai on the Brain – Musings of a Muay Thai Fanatic by clicking on the banner picture, below: