It was sometime in April last year, when Yilong began scratching his head a lot, and then, slowly began to pull out his hair on a daily basis. Classes were going well and growing, members seemed happy, the trainers were doing their best every day. But as he was our de-facto Ops Guy (Yilong is our head of operations), there would always be anxieties brewing in his head, a small gloomy voice that spoke of what-ifs and what-can-be-betters.
I knew, and he knew as well, that if we sat around being contented, or perhaps complacent, about the current state of classes, it would not be long before the Supreme Leader rained down his dictatorship, to make us think and plan further, and to make sure all this was sustainable.
It was clear to us that the need for a trainer who has vast experience and seniority was the way to go; a long-term solution, instead of the usual trainers on holiday rotations that other Muay Thai gyms in Singapore use. So we proposed the following idea to the Supreme Leader: a full-time trainer with the experience and knowledge to lead the Onyx Muay Thai fight team, and with the versatility to adapt to the Onyx environment and members and elevate the current Muay Thai product.
Which led to the biggest question of all: how exactly does one find a Muay Thai trainer?
The answer seemed straight-forward and simple to me. Singapore was just two hours away from Thailand, the birthplace of Muay Thai and the zenith of the martial art. It shouldn't be that hard; there should be thousands of trainers available!
But it was hard, it was as tough as nails.
The recent popularisation of Muay Thai and MMA meant that it is now a time, an era, that people could just go to Thailand, pay a certain sum of money, get awarded a certificate, and then start calling themselves "Kru" after only a weekend of "seminar" or "course". Which meant that a good, experienced and legitimate trainer is hard to find. Not to mention, he/she would have to fit in to the Onyx vibe, be okay with living away from loved ones and family for most part of the year, be comfortable living in Singapore with a foreign language, start in a new place where no one knows you. The task was becoming daunting.
To make matters worse, both Yilong and I knew that the Supreme Leader has a long-standing stance of not hiring Thai trainers. We were a little sweaty in our armpits when we first sought his approval to look into Thailand. Luckily, he didn't say much, and just gave us a simple nod.
We proceeded, and I tried to help Yilong as best as I could. I sent emails to several Muay Thai organisations, some of whom kept a registry of teachers and asked if they would be able to give us recommendations. After an infinite amount of emails, correspondences, LINE messages, the language barrier coupled with the looming doubt of uprooting their lives to Singapore, we exhausted all the leads that we had.
Yilong was initially mulling over the possibility of hiring a champion, you know, a "world champion" who was probably decorated with Lumpinee or Rajadamnern belts. Surprisingly, finding these champions was a relatively easy task. He figured that such a move would bring instant recognition and unparalleled skills to the gym. He combed through his contacts, and after some time, managed to get leads on a few superstar names. Discussions were underway, and after some "talks" heavily aided by Google Translate, they considered making the move to Singapore.
I was ready to pounce at the computer, to fill up the necessary permits and paperwork. However, the Supreme Leader instantly disagreed and opined for a proper trainer. Yilong and I didn't quite understand the notion of "proper trainer", and we asked further. His point was that champions did not make themselves. Instead they were the culmination of individual hard work and community effort: it was the trainers behind the champion who really mattered. Those trainers who stood in the furnace to forge their students' limbs of steel, those trainers who put them through the paces every day, pushed them to grow week by week, and watched over them over the weeks, months and years. The quietest people are behind the loudest names, and so, we tried to listen.
Yilong walked the ground, canvasing the opinions and knowledge of his friends and contacts. Upon a strong recommendation from a very trusted friend, he reached out to a calm and unassuming trainer from Meenayothin Gym in Bangkok. Meenayothin has produced multiple champions and world champions, including names like Aikpracha and Wanheng Meenayothin, the latter of whom is gunning for Floyd Mayweather's record of 50 undefeated professional boxing record (Wanheng is currently 49-0).
Trainings at Meenayothin were renowned to be very strict, very tough, and highly disciplined. And the person of interest was the head trainer of Meenayothin. It sounded right up our alley; someone who has lived and breathed old school trainings, someone who has whipped and whacked talent into the shape of champions for many years, someone who has what it takes to nurture and groom individuals with grit and determination. As Singaporeans like to say, "wait for what?", we quickly arranged the logistics and awaited for his arrival a month later.
We were worried, of course, about whether the new trainer will adjust to the Onyx way of life, whether he would follow through on his decision to uproot his life. So on 31st July 2017, we waited for his flight to land, and for his ride to reach Onyx.
From a distance, standing at the gates of Onyx, we saw his luggage first, a small and nondescript navy trolley bag. Then, we saw him, the new trainer.
It was Pi Keng walking up the pavement, tanned and compact, smaller than we had imagined, but tough. He seemed easygoing and smiled at everyone shyly, going around to shake everyone's hand. We smiled back and talked. Pi Keng just nodded politely, but it was evident that our accents were too thick to comprehend at the moment.
Of course, everything must have been overwhelming and strange to him at that point in time, so we gave him time and space to orientate, while we went on with our Onyx life as usual. A while later, Pi Keng found a corner to settle down, and asked for the WiFi password. Then, he tucked his leg under him on the chair under the umbrella and surfed on his phone. We were genuinely worried if he would be able to fit in. At that point in time, we knew one thing for sure: Pi Keng was a man of few words.
Before Pi Keng's first class in Onyx, he was brought up to speed on how classes were like here. He nodded and didn't ask many questions. Then, class began and we realised why. He instantly understood how things run. It was instinctive, it was second nature to him. He put on the bellypad and pads quickly, without flourish. It fit like a glove. Upon the first kick, and the first punch, you could hear the satisfying sound of the pads, of flesh and bones slamming repeated into the hard leather of the pads. He barely blinked and smiled the whole time while holding pads. This was Pi Keng in his element and enjoying the moment. We finally understood and stared at a real life example of what the Supreme Leader often told us about: a body that flows with Muay Thai blood.
Then, suddenly, his now-famous catchphrase tumbled out: "POWER! No power! More power!". He grinned as the member gasped and struggled for breath. It was settled; he is one of Onyx now.
Pi Keng, or Kru Keng is with us for sometime now, and if you've been training with him, you'll know that he's a low key and humble man. It took time for him to warm up to us as well. Over time, we learnt more about him and his background. He started doing Muay Thai when he was 5, and he used to do 1000 sit ups a day. That he had also spent a full decade training some of the biggest names in Muay Thai and Boxing. That he also had groomed and raised fighters to their professional debuts. Over time, we also found out that he is actually not that quiet, he has a wicked sense of humour, along with a playful love of sweeping members and "torturing" them during padwork.
And so, despite the odds, we found someone whom we've all grown to respect and admire greatly, as well as have loads of fun with. We hadn't known where to look and it was so tempting to find people from headlines and billboards. But sometimes, it is better to take a chance on people who have been doing good and quiet work. Because you can't go wrong with experience, with the hard-earned and hands-on knowledge of time. Because you never know where you will find family - it might just be in the pint-sized guy with a benign smile, who can crank your neck down and bring you to your knees within 3 seconds, who cackles at you to punch harder and kick faster non-stop and gets you smiling too.