Depending on which city you’re in, you can either hear the noise first, or smell the stench before you ever see it. In Tokyo, the sound a kickboxing gym generates is a signature, and it can be heard a minute or more before you reach the entrance. In Bangkok, the distinct smell of a gym can find you as far away as a city block, due to so many gyms being open air affairs, if the wind is right. In either location, the smell and the sound tell you a lot about whether that gym is for real, or a pretender.
I have been kickboxing honestly for seven years, and dishonestly for an additional three before that.
When I walked into Ihara gym in Tokyo of 2003, without even knowing it, I had literally walked into the baddest gym in Japan, and a contender, at that time, for baddest gym in the world. I never thought I would become a pro, but I did. And I never thought I would fight in front of ten thousand people, but I did. I also never thought I could be so let down and so hurt by a location, by a place, but I was.
The smell of an honest kickboxing gym;It reeks. Besides the clear smell of sweat and leather, there is also the distinct odor of Thai sports lineaments. It’s oddly minty, yet an intensely spicy smell, it sticks to everything and it’s almost impossible to get rid of. When I walk into a gym, an honest gym, this smell finds me and not only do my juices begin to flow, but it wraps itself around me in a familiar cocoon and my body instinctively prepares itself for torment.
The sound, also, of an honest gym is really distinct. First, there’s the ring timer. A real gym doesn’t have a little pink muffin, easy-bake oven, timer on a table to tell people when a round is over with a shy little “beep“. In an honest gym there is, without fail, a massive industrial sized ring timer on a shelf, a wall, or a table and it screams the beginning of rounds, the last thirty seconds of rounds and the end. It’s a voice that any serious kick-boxer comes to know well. It shows up in your dreams. It sounds off in your private fantasies, the ones that don’t involve sex. If you know what I’m talking about, there is a chance you’re honest. If you don’t, well, please enjoy your “Kickboxing: for the streets” classes you have on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The next noise that is a hallmark of kickboxing is that, every gym, Tokyo or Bangkok, sounds a lot like a zoo. The wails, the grunts, the screams, the odd high-pitched crescendo “Ooooeeee” and the coaches yelling “UP-UP“. The guttural sound that rises out of your stomach and chest up through your neck and climaxes when your fist, wrapped in smelly bandages and loose gloves of worse smelling worked leather smack, with a satisfying thud, into a two-hundred pound heavy bag and your voice roars. That’s kickboxing.
The last sound, which is subtle; but a deal breaker for fakers and fitness gyms is the slap. There is no slapping noise in an honest and proper kickboxing gym. That slapping noise you hear at Gold’s Gym and at the MMA gym you sometimes workout at is someones foot slapping into a heavy back. Serious kick-boxers don’t do this. The foot will break on the hard, sweaty reality of an opponents tempered shin bone. Real kick-boxers do the round kick with the shin and the resulting sound is a dull, quick “thud”. No slapping and smacking. If someone is making a habit of this sound, I can only recommend that if you are an honest kick-boxer, that you spar with him immediately. It’ll be a lot of fun for you.
The first day I trained, at Ihara gym in Tokyo Japan, I was absurdly schooled in how much I didn’t know.
I was training alongside not only Masato, who would go on mere months later to win the K-1 World Max GP but also the legendary ShinNopadetsorn (possibly THE most underrated and ignored Raja Champ in history) and Fuji Chalmsok, who we all just called “Yuk” and was physically the strongest little man I have ever encountered. I also met Kikkuchi Gosuke, and I only mention him last because, in my opinion, despite his being a champion then, he didn’t come into his prime until two years later. When he was obsessed with showing everyone that he was absolutely the best, months before retiring.
My first lesson there, at Ihara, was instructive and simple and it was prolific beyond anything I could have understood at that time. It contained two points which I would go on to hear hundreds of times, over and over, and I would come to say to those that I coached, over and over.
“Hit Harder. Be Balanced.”
That was it. Simple. True. Deceptively Basic.
When all the components of real kickboxing are boiled down and the tricks and the frills and the gimmicks, so popular in Thailand and with Thai wanna-be fighters, are removed then kickboxing at it’s core is about kicking, punching, elbowing and kneeing harder then the other guys, while maintaining ones balance. That’s it. That’s all it is.
It took me only seven years, and an immeasurable amount of pain, humiliation, sacrifice and glory, to fully understand this. Hit Harder, be Balanced. It says things far and beyond the world of kickboxing, but I don’t try and understand those yet. My mind still builds it’s fantasies in the square circle, almost every night as I lie awake, wanting sleep but not allowing it.
Leaving my gym, was like getting divorced, and having a parent die at the same time. It’s simply impossible to explain what that place meant to me and how much I put on the alter to stay there for so long but I will never regret anything from that temple of men; men who still go where eagles dare. Literally and without devices: The Few and the Proud. I gave a lot, but I took away massive tomes of life experience and knowledge regarding the true sport of the gods. I’m still, six months later, trying to get over it, but I have learned my lessons well. I will never stop kickboxing as long as my legs will carry me to a gym, anywhere. It is, without exception, the most sublime sport, even physical activity, I have ever participated in.
Fakers beware. The real deal is out there.
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Ah man. That’s one beautiful piece, would be even if I didn’t have my own bittersweet connection with the place. I still train there once in a blue moon when I’m in Tokyo (I live in Singapore now) and I have a blast. After 8 rounds on that heavy red bag and 3 on the mitts, all my bones and muscles hurt like hell but in the best, most satisfying possible way. Still, the place is a lot less vibrant than it used to be. Top floor’s closed, there’s never more than 3-4 guys training… It was a special, special place, even when all I did was get my ass kicked by Gen.
Haha…ah Gen. I last sparred with him, ten rounds, just before I left there in November and all Kun and Gen did was continue to ask me “Why you dont have any fights?” “Why are you not fighting?” And I kept telling them, it’s out of my hands. I remember the first time Gen and I sparred 7 years ago. I could barely walk to the train station afterward. When I compare that to the last time we sparred I feel really good and can see how much I learned there. But yeah, it’s just not the same anymore. It’s a wonderful gym, but the fire seems to be gone. It seems that way to me anyway.
Let me know when you’ll be around. Lets get a beer.
Absolutely, will do. Take care man.
I’m a boxer/street brawler but in my dreams I’m a Muay Thai badass givin everyone elbow and knee sandwiches till they can’t eat no more
I have seen elbows delivered that to me looked like they belonged immortalized in the Uffizi Gallery. Simply perfect, crisp and amazing. I love kickboxing.
First time I’ve commented but I love the blog btw. I’m gonna be moving back to Japan in about 12 months, you know any good Brazilian jujitsu places in Tokyo? I know it’s not your bag but thought it was worth an ask
Hey. To be honest, there are BJJ gyms all over the place here. Just google it online. Whats good or not is up to what you are looking to do but I have some friend doing it and I used to train myself in LA. Anyway, you have no trouble finding gyms to suit your fancy I have no doubt.
All this AND he does Muay Thai. All the gyms go though their cycles…. just look at the Miletich Fighting Systems stable – before and now, a mere shadow…. The Wai Kru is one of my favorite sports moments, along with the handshake at the end of the Stanley Cup..
I have been saying it for years and Yosomono agrees, if I wrote a tell all book or whatever, nobody would beleive it. Nobody. My life is that ridiculous.
Have you read Sam Sheridan’s book: “A Fighter’s Heart”? I like to read about “ridiculous”, so start writing, got it?! You could always “self-publish” and sell the shit out of it that way- drums fingers awaiting your tome.
Amazing you should mention self publishing. It’s already in the works. More info coming soon.
Also one of my fav videos is an all elbow KO’s vid. — I love the ones that “appear” to be just little downward flicks right below the ear and they go all straight legged and (s)hit the floor.
Man I have a move I love, guard up, tight, other guy coming in and you just shift the shoulders, step a bit and let your elbow naturally slide up into the persons forehead. slice and dice. Your guard never drops and generally its a big surprise.
The thai ointment gets me going too. But also, the Thai music that plays in the background of a fight. My coach in Japan made me train to that music over and over again for months before each of my fights. I hated it….but boy does it get me going.
Btw, I agree that nothing else I have ever come across comes even close to pushing me mentally and physically past my limits over and over again besides kickboxing. It’s an indescribable feeling.
For me, I have done lots of things that have pushed or challenged me mentally and physically. Kickboxing does this, particularly preparing for fights, but my passion for it might be more akin to the feeling a well trained painter might feel while visiting the Louvre or even more accurately how a veteran Ballerina feels watching Swan Lake. I can appreciate the sheer physicality of it but it’s the subtleties that I can see, which would be missed by a lay man, that shock and awe me. The perfect angle and hip rotation of a kick that had no telegraph. A strong high guard and erect posture that never slips from bell to bell. Teep thrown with the hips and the slight rotation of the hip that makes the kick devastating. The ability to pivot lightly at 45 degrees and almost effortlessly toss an opponent to the mat. It’s a smooth, tight, sophisticated chess match and I just love it.
Found you in my Spam folder. Not flattering my friend. What is WordPress trying to tell you?
Hi, just found your blog and love it!
I am moving to Tokyo in 2 weeks (lived there before for 6 years…) and want to train at Ihara gym. I have done karate on and off (unfortunately, more off than on) for >10 years, and have only been kickboxing for a few months here in Canada and love it.
As I have a very time consuming career, 2 small children, and am pushing 40, I don’t have any aspirations to fight professionally, and unfortunately have limited time to train. BUT I love to train as hard as my body allows (and then some) and have a high capacity for work, pain and learning.
Does Ihara gym allow (heavily tattooed) people who can only train 2-3x per week, and frankly are not all that good at kickboxing?
Ihara is one of the few gyms in Tokyo that doesn’t give a shit about ink. There are several heavily tattooed fellas that workout there. Just go in and sign up. That’s it. If you want to get the treatment tell them “Eric” sent you.
Thanks Eric! I have also recently found your Plan-B blog (assuming this is you) – great stuff, very inspiring and aligned with my own approach to things. I will be living close to Nakameguro and plan to hit the stairs you mentioned in my early morning training as well 🙂
THE STAIRS….awesome workout. That and Ihara and I can promise you will get your moneys worth.