Henry Madini. Picture: SUPPLIED
Henry Madini. Picture: SUPPLIED

The popularity of Muay Thai is growing in SA. Its fans say it is "one of the most sought-after martial arts in the modern age".

Henry Madini practises and teaches Muay Thai as an art, not a street-fighting skill. He draws on his deep understanding of the difference between the two.

He grew up in SA as "a karate boy", as he describes it.

Karate is the Japanese word for "empty hand". Its exponents use no weapons other than body parts and power.

Karate masters describe it as an "Asian system of unarmed combat using the hands and feet to deliver and block blows".

Karate is also widely practised as a sport.

Madini went looking for a bigger challenge. He found it in Muay Thai.

To him, martial arts are a combination of combat and tactical fighting skills learnt and acquired through training, philosophy and discipline. Martial arts are all about discipline — or should be, Madini says.

Muay Thai is a sport and a bloody one at times. Madini says it is also an effective form of self-defence and attack.

The combination of physical and mental discipline is what he believes gives Muay Thai its particular efficacy. He believes that it is a brilliant way for people of all ages to improve health in body and mind.

"Anyone can be a street fighter," says Madini. On a literal level, that is probably true. However, it is also true that martial arts are more technical and philosophical in nature than street fighting.

You don’t pick up that nature by osmosis on the streets.

Muay Thai is a specific style of martial arts that incorporates boxing, kicking and striking with various parts of the body, Madini says.

Fighters mainly use their legs, feet, knees, elbows and fists to strike their opponents, usually in an upright stance.

It originated in Thailand over 2,000 years ago. It came from the battlefield but evolved into a sport, he says. It is now the national sport of Thailand.

To learn about it, he went straight to source. Madini trained at the World Muay Thai Council training camp in Thailand in 2004. He received a black sash Muay Thai instructor’s certificate, the highest professional ranking in the discipline.

Madini has many other martial notches on his belt. He trained with Jeet Kune Do (JKD) master Richard Bustillo in California. Bustillo was a student of famed Hong Kong martial arts master and JKD creator Bruce Lee.

JKD means "the way of the intercepting fist".

Lee created it in the 1960s. He did not consider his art a style as much as "an aggregate of principles for developing the martial mind and body", as one writer put it.

Madini also has qualifications in Doce Pares (Spanish for 12 pairs). It is a form of Eskrima, Philippines weapons training.

He teaches kickboxing and western boxing. Among his titles are South African Lightweight Thai Kickboxing champion and South African Amateur Middleweight Muay Thai champion.

He is expansive about the benefits of Muay Thai. It increases fitness and flexibility. It is an excellent workout for cardiovascular fitness, because it is aerobic and anaerobic.

US Muay Thai instructor and champion Orion Lee says on his website that Muay Thai places "huge stress" on cardiopulmonary systems. With continued practice, the body adapts to the demands of the discipline, he says. Improved cardiovascular performance is "one of the payoffs".

A distinctive movement in Muay Thai is what is known as the "roundhouse kick".

Lee says that learning how to kick strengthens the lower-body musculature.

"Every muscle in your lower body will benefit from practising the various kicks and footwork drills incorporated in [Muay Thai]," he says.

"From muscle endurance, force production, agility, to just plain old good-looking calves, Muay Thai delivers."

It also increases hip mobility and that is crucial as the years go by. Lee says healthy hips can save you from pain and other medical problems later in life.

And while it can seem difficult to believe when you see Muay Thai fighters in action, Madini and Lee say it is good for stress reduction and inducing deep relaxation.

As with any sport or form of exercise, there is a risk of injury. If you train without the proper gear or a good trainer, the risk is even greater. Madini once suffered a broken tibia from a fight. However, the injury rate at his Greenside, Johannesburg, dojo is refreshingly low.

Equipment requirements are basic: comfortable clothes that are easy to move in, a good pair of boxing gloves, hand wraps and a pair of traditional Muay Thai shorts. Students usually train barefoot in his dojo, but don’t have to.

Lee says that practising a martial art allows you to "focus on yourself and nothing else". It also allows you to "detach from the daily grind".

It is all part of learning to "live in the moment" which helps to reduce stress and boost health in body and mind.

• Sboros is publisher and editor of Foodmed.net

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