What It’s Like To Be A Pro Muay Thai Fighter in Britain

On a typical wet English November night, a bell rings sharply in an old church in Hackney. But instead of signalling the start of mass, it pulls Muay Thai kickboxer Georgie Starkie, 23, into a corner of a boxing ring erected in the middle of the former house of worship.

Her cornermen surround her as she stands with her arms draped over the ropes, face set in an intimidating scowl. In the blue corner opposite, a woman sinks onto a stool, her body showing signs of fatigue, and the blonde locks that have escaped her once-neat French-braided hair create a frizzy halo around her head.

Just a few seconds ago, Starkie was stalking her opponent around the ring. The sizeable crowd went into an uproar as she let off a flurry of punches, backing her foe into the corner. Some jabs land, others miss, and the outburst ends only when Starkie’s foe grabs her into a clinch – a move where the two have their hands around each other’s necks – forcing both women to knee each other in the ribs in retaliation.

At the end of the three rounds, the referee raises Starkie’s left arm high into the air, making it clear to those who didn’t cotton on to the obvious that she’s the winner via unanimous decision.

Watching Starkie and her opponent fight is mesmerising; they’re strong, fast, relentless and, to be momentarily superficial, incredibly ripped. So it’s no wonder that Victoria’s Secret models like Kendall Jenner, Sara Sampaio and Adriana Lima are following boxing enthusiast Gigi Hadid’s lead and taking up combat sports to get runway-ready. Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown, 12, is also a fan: she recently told GQ that she practises Muay Thai boxing every day.
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Photo: Rakowska
Georgie Starkie
Starkie’s own six-week Muay Thai fight camp with London’s KO Lynch gym involves a mix of cardio, pad work, strength and power training, sparring sessions, and dieting – but for her, Muay Thai is about more than staying fit.

The 23-year-old is one of the few professional female Muay Thai fighters in the UK. It’s a path that doesn’t pay much and must be balanced with another job. For the driven Starkie, it means taking on a workhorse of a career: she’s a celebrity personal trainer, fitness model, Nike trainer, and a Muay Thai and boxing specialist at Equinox, the international high-end gym franchise.

She’s only two years deep into her professional fighting career but she talks like someone who’s been dreaming of ring success all her life.

“I want to be number one in my weight category,” she says. “That’s the goal.”

Before this point, Starkie never had a goal. In fact, she never thought she would be fighting professionally.

She left her hometown of Wirral and a successful run as a professional dressage rider in 2010, trading them in for London and dreams of becoming a presenter. She worked her way through broadcasting as a runner, then as an editor’s assistant at a post-production house in Soho, finding presenting jobs on the side.

Despite the early call times, Starkie never lost her athleticism and always looked forward to her after-work gym time. Then one day, a friend suggested that she try a Muay Thai class.

One class a week quickly turned into three as Starkie progressed in leaps and bounds. Still, the suggestion of competing in an intramural fight made her hesitate – after all, black eyes and broken teeth never look good on TV. But the more classes she took, the better she got and eventually, “Muay Thai became habitual.”

Muay Thai is a centuries-old combat style from Thailand, often called the “art of eight limbs” as the style uses eight points of contact: fists, feet, knees and elbows. While its origins are foggy, the International Federation of Muay Thai Amateur says Muay Thai was practised by just about everyone in the country, including the military, royalty and the lower class.

Muay Thai is still as popular as ever in Thailand but, these days, it’s the sport of the poor. Thai families send their young sons to Muay Thai training camps in hopes that they can send winnings back home. As such, the locals can’t understand why Westerners would pay to train in gyms or want to fight professionally in Thailand.
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Iman Barlow
“[Thais] can’t understand why you would do it if you don’t need the money,” says Iman ‘Pretty Killer’ Barlow.

For Barlow, a British 12-time world champion, Muay Thai isn’t just a sport – it’s a family tradition. Her mum, Maxine, is a former British champion, her dad, Mark, is her coach and runs the Assassins Muay Thai Boxing Gym in Melton, and her little brother, Thai, is a British champion and a world amateur champion.

“It is cool,” she says of her family dynamic. “You always find someone to [travel] with.”

The Melton-bred 23-year-old started learning Muay Thai when she was two-and-a-half-years-old, watching as her parents taught classes. She had her first fight by the age of four and, by eight, she was training in Thailand during her summer holidays. That’s where she had her first fight with full rules. It was with a boy and the judges called it a draw.

“It’s very unheard of for a boy to fight a girl in Thailand… It’s a man’s sport and it always has been,” says Barlow, “So they don’t really like things like that – especially when girls do well.”

Boys always outnumbered girls in the gym so Barlow often sparred and fought with boys until she was 12 – the age when puberty makes boys heavier and stronger. By then, it was getting harder and harder for her to find fights with girls her age and at her level so she jumped into a new pool of competitors by going pro.

When we meet, Barlow is dressed in a sleek, all-black outfit and matching choker. Without her six-pack abs in sight, no one would ever guess that this is the same woman who knocked an opponent out cold after a swift kick to the chest. Nor would she tell you about it. She leaves that to her friends, who love to bring it up on nights out to embarrass her.

While changes to the rules have made it harder to go pro before 18, Barlow’s not the only British woman to have done it. Christi Brereton, 24, went pro at 13. Then-10-year-old Brereton originally wanted to learn how to box but came across a Muay Thai gym instead. She signed up for weekly classes, where she ended up training with more boys than girls.“I would want to try and compete against [the boys], try to do more push-ups than them, try to prove my strengths,” says Brereton. “I guess as a girl you have to prove yourself more in a masculine environment.”
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Photo: Fred Wonnacott
Christi Brereton
A coach took notice of Brereton’s efforts and encouraged her to compete, unknowingly setting her off into the Muay Thai world. Now, with two world championship titles under her belt, Brereton teaches and helps run the Chaos Muay Thai gym in Devon with her partner and coach, Steve Pender.

Training for a match is a gruelling and time-consuming process but working as a personal trainer or instructor makes it easier to accommodate fight training. Brereton has the added challenge of training around her 4-year-old daughter’s schedule but she says she and Pender find ways to manage. In fact, her daughter is used to being in the gym, and Brereton’s mum and friends are often willing to lend a hand.

Barlow, on the other hand, balances her Muay Thai career with her other full-time job as a teaching assistant at an all-boys school. Her days look something like this: she wakes up at 5:50 am to go for a run and do a quick session in the gym, leaves for work at 8:10 am, gets home by 4:30 pm, and is back in the gym for another round by 5 pm.

“When I first started, I was sleeping everywhere I could,” Barlow says. “I even fell asleep at work. I was struggling. I’m still struggling now but I just get it done.”

She admits that living at home makes it easier; her parents push her and make sure she’s on top of her routine and diet (Barlow swears she can eat a whole tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream).

The balancing act is a must for anyone seriously interested in Muay Thai. Even with the belts and accolades, there’s no money in the sport. Frankly speaking, it doesn’t pull in the same crowd, attention or dollars that boxing or Mixed Martial Arts does.

“I can understand why people don’t like certain sports but I think Muay Thai is more exciting,” says Barlow. “I ask people, ‘What is it that you like about MMA? Do you like it when they stand up? Or the bit where they’re grappling on the floor?’ They’ll say, ‘The stand up’. Well, that’s my sport.”

A fighter with Starkie’s experience may be able to snag £300 to £500 a fight, but there’s no money to be won in a smaller show. Meanwhile, a high-ranking woman can earn somewhere around £1,000, according to Brereton. It’s mere peanuts compared to the cost of training, food, equipment, supporting a family… The list goes on.

“[Muay Thai] is very self-funded so you gotta put your heart and soul and all your money into your diet, your training, your travel because not a lot of sponsors cover those costs,” says Brereton.

She says she’s looking to get into the more lucrative MMA. She also recently signed a contract with the World Muaythai Angels, an all-female promotion company from Thailand known for their beautiful fighters and policy of wearing makeup during fights. She’s set to fly to Thailand in February and compete in a televised fight series. The winner of the series gets the one million Thai Bahts prize (approximately £22,695) and a car.

“It’s not often we get opportunities like this as females,” Brereton says. “[It’s] very exciting.”

Support in the form of sponsorship rarely comes along and, when it does, it's usually on a gifting basis. Barlow receives gloves and equipment from the Muay Thai athletic brand Fairtex, and meals from Gold Standard Nutrition.
Photo: Bernie E Palmore
Iman Barlow
“I’ve never really advertised for sponsorship,” says Barlow. “It’s kind of been offered to me but because I feel cheeky, I don’t know what to ask for.”

Starkie snags private sponsorships from well-to-do clients that happen to be passionate fight fans and are impressed by her ambition. They help to cover her training costs, while she buys Nike workout gear with her staff discount.

Even with all the work it takes to stay in top shape, fights can be hard to come by. Like boxing, Muay Thai matches are organised by weight and experience. Promoters will approach fighters and ask if they want to fight in their showcase. If they do, the promoters will look for women willing to fight, often posting requests on the Muay Thai forum Ax Forum.

Starkie has had three fights in England this past year but says she has trouble getting matches because there aren’t a lot of women in her junior flyweight division. Brereton and Barlow average about four to five fights a year. But with a decade of experience apiece, they have to look for matches and opponents outside of the UK and they take whom they’re given.

Earlier this year, Barlow signed a deal with Lion Fight, an American promoter, and the Dutch promoter Enfusion. The deal will have Barlow competing in two matches in America, two in Europe and two in her hometown of Melton, all in a year. She made her American debut in September and it was televised live on a specialty fight network in the States. She won.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope for women in Muay Thai. All three fighters say they’ve noticed a growing interest in the sport from women. In today’s “fitness-mad” world, as Brereton puts it, it’s all about building muscle, getting lean and earning your six-pack abs. Muay Thai offers the kind of all-around athletic workout that does just that.

The International Olympic Committee recently granted the sport provisional recognition as an Olympic sport. The ruling brings Muay Thai one step closer to the Olympic Games, 25,000 USD of funding a year from the IOC, and access to a number of Olympic programs, including athlete development and anti-doping. It's a seven-year process to get into the Games but a recent change in IOC ruling will give host cities the power to include provisional Olympic sports in their schedules.

"The most common question that I get asked when people find out that I do that sport at that level is, 'Is it in the Olympics? If it was in the Olympics, would you be in the Olympic team?' Well, I bloody hope so," said Barlow prior to the IOC's decision. "I couldn't even begin to describe what kind of feeling that would be, going to the Olympics, even if to represent your country in something huge like that."
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