Interview With Muay Thai Institute's Mark Hampton
Meenal Prasad, Jared O'Gorman, Michelle Goh, Tom Sheppard, Rua Druce, Vicki MaGuire and Joey Brincat are just some of the champions that have emerged from one of NZ's best set up Muay Thai gyms: Muay Thai Institute. Mark Hampton is one of the trainers behind the successful production of these warrior champions, but by his own admission is only one part of a team that works together to train them.
Also a top promoter of Muay Thai and MMA fights in the region, I met Mark at his gym on College street in Wellington to find out how it all began,
comment on the current state of the sport, and what the plan is for the future.
NZF: Good morning Mark, so when did you start training and when was your first fight?
MH: I started back in 1991, and had a handful of fights before I started teaching. To be honest, I really enjoyed teaching more than anything else. When Master Tan (who started VUW Kickboxing in 1988) moved away I helped Mark Norton, who was running the gym, and then just kept on helping out. Ever since then we've got bigger and bigger. By 2008 it was apparent that we needed more space, so Jon Williams and I decided to get a full time gym.
At the new gym we are really are fortunate because we've got 20-odd bags, two full-size rings, and a fully-matted area, so everything is here.
NZF: How was your first training session? And how about your first fight?
MH: My first training session was awesome, I was put in for sparring with Mark Norton and took a beating. I [Mark Hampton] remember the next day I was absolutely knackered and sore - I could hardly walk - and I thought: "that was awesome! I've got to come back for more." When I came back, Master Tan was surprised and looked at me and said "Wow you came back?"
My first fight was nothing to brag about; it was a good experience. The fight was against Steve from Opotiki, and ended up being a draw, which annoyed me because I still think I won it to this day ha ha. It was nerve-wracking, but good fun and a good fight.
All I remember was touching gloves, then I said "after you," and he said "what?" and I hit him. I thought that was quite funny. The Wellington scene has changed a lot since then.
NZF: What do you think about the fighting scene in NZ?
MH: I think it's fantastic, and I think Muay Thai is in a really good space at the moment. I think the advantage that NZ Muay Thai has over other codes like boxing or karate, for example, is the fact that there is no organised structure. It's an organic structure made up of a collection of individuals who want to actively promote the sport as much as they can in their own region because they love the sport. I think that works best because then all the clubs and promoters work really hard to put on the best shows they can in their own areas.
NZF: Do you have any advice for young people who want to come to a gym and step into the ring?
MH: Have fun and train hard. If you're not having fun, then why do it? Even at the professional level in New Zealand, unless you're at the very top, then you should just have fun with it. At the end of the day, it is a really hard game so having fun in the sport is important. I also have to say that you don't have to fight. If you just want to do the sport to train for self defence or fitness, that's fine; there should be no pressure to do something either way. I really don't mind if people fight or not in this gym. It's interesting though, we've had quite a few successful female fighters here over the years, and most of them have started off just training for fitness and fun.
NZF: How important is mental preparation before a fight?
MH: I think mental preparation is everything. Realistically, the fitness required isn't that high - not once you've had a few fights. It all becomes mental pressure and all the days and nerves leading up to the fight, as well as before the fight; that's the stuff you really need to work on. You need the confidence in your defence, confidence in your training, and confidence you'll do well. All the other aspects are just an extension of your mental preparation.
NZF: How high do you rate sparring as a training technique?
MH: I rate it very highly. Sparring is where you test what you've got and what you need to work on, so it's really important. It's the closest thing to fighting, but at the end of the day sparring is not quite fighting. Personally, I think pad work is much more important than sparring because in pad work you can hit hard and be hit back really hard. Whereas in sparring, if you do that you can't walk the next day, regardless of how well you've gone. So if you spar hard, you tend to limit yourself.
NZF: Who are some of your most promising fighters?
MH: We've got a lot of fighters at the moment that are doing really well. There's Jared O'Gorman (Former NZ Champ), Joey Brincat's (Pro) doing really well, Meenal Prasad (NZ Champ), Vicki MaGuire's coming back into the mix, Michelle Goh (NZ Champ), and James 'GK' Oconner - a fighter I think people should start to look out for. He's had eight fights with seven wins, and is starting to get into his stride. There's also Ian Charlton, Rua Druce (NZ Champ), Tom Sheppard (North Island Champ), and Jordan Wehrman - who I think is really going to come into his own.
NZF: What makes a great fighter?
MH: Someone who wants to win. Some people are gamers - they raise their game on the day - while others are just driven and want to win. Some people don't mind being hit, which is a really good asset to be honest because when you fight you will get hit, so you need to be able to deal with it. It's up to the individual who wants to do well. It's an unusual sport because a lot of it's about skill, and yet for a large proportion of champions it's really about will. Daniel Tai, for example, I think lost his first eleven fights, but came back and became one of the best heavyweights around.
Drive and determination is important. It's not an easy game, and you will get hit, you will get hurt; it's that simple. If you don't really want it, you won't be around long enough to get good.
NZF: What's the next show you are promoting in Wellington?
MH: It's called Triple Impact, at the Lower Hutt Horticultural Hall, and it's going to be the biggest show we've ever put on. We've been moving towards having Muay Thai and MMA in our shows, but this time we're adding professional Boxing on the card as well. It will be the first time it's ever been done in Wellington, and we're really excited about the show. It's going to be a very big night, and we've never put a card together that is so exciting. One of the main events is a New Zealand title between a current New Zealand Kyokushin Karate champion and a former New Zealand Boxing champion. Both are doing well on the Muay Thai circuit at the moment.
Back in the 90's, we would only have maybe two fights in Wellington a year, which made it hard for fighters to have opportunities.
Which is why we started to move into running more shows. This year we're going to put on six or seven shows so, along with other shows in the region, we're going to have fifteen shows in the area. This will help to raise the standard in the region.
NZF: What is different about your gym - MTI?
MH: We work as a team, and believe that Muay Thai is a team sport. Both me and Jon Williams, who is the other trainer at MTI, know that to improve one person will improve the team. It's the same when people fight, to get to that stage they need to have training partners, sparring partners, people to help warm them up and their team mates in the crowd. We really don't see Muay Thai as an individual sport - you compete alone but you need the backing of a strong team.
We are not a gym that just caters to fighters. If people want to fight, that's fine, and if they don't, that's fine as well. We've had quite a few good fighters over the years, and I'm really quite proud of that, but we really just want to help people train in Muay Thai. At the gym we've got a really high class facility: we're lucky enough to have two rings in the gym, 20 bags and full floor matting. I don't think we're better or worse than other gyms, and we work hard to give the best training we can.
NZF: Have you been to Thailand to train?
MH: I've been over a few times, and I lived in Bangkok for a year. I really enjoyed training there and learned a lot. It's different because you have more time to train and you have a single focus, which makes it one of the best places to train; the more of our guys who want to go over there and train the better. If you are training six to eight hours a day, in a professional environment with people who've had 200-300 fights, you have to improve.
NZF: What do you enjoy most about training?
MH: I like seeing people develop and improve. One of the best things is with the female fighters: a lot of them come in, and perhaps they're a little bit shy and not confident, but after fighting they become really confident - regardless of how well they do. It's just brilliant to be a part of that experience. I really believe that we are a team here, and all we want to do is improve people; whether they are a New Zealand champion or someone who just wants to lose a little weight.
One of our fighters - ‘Little' Richard Davy - is absolutely fantastic. He lost 51 kilos training here in a year. Now he's amazingly fit.
NZF: Any future plans for MTI?
MH: We're going to continue to learn and improve and get bigger.
We really want to keep pushing the events because if people don't have the opportunity to fight, the sport won't improve. Also, we're trying to take fighters to go away as much as possible. This year we're taking people to Auckland, Palmerston North, Nelson, Sydney. We'll fight pretty much anywhere, anytime; as long the guys want to fight and have the time
NZF: Great, thanks Mark and good luck with the next show.