The Question of Legitimacy
With the increased popularity of mixed martial arts, and perhaps a more open mindedness culture toward such previously scorned upon activity, the market place is sprawling with folks that are raking their heads to choose a gym for the start of their new journey. With the growth of MMA, there is also an increased growth in the number of gyms; adding on to the already seemingly infinitesimal choices available. It should be good for the consumer; being spoilt for choices, and then eventually settling into one that seems right.
Most people will factor in several typical consideration factors: distance, convenience, comfort, service, etc. But one important factor that we’ve seen elude most newbies, is legitimacy. If you're tuned into MMA development and happenings outside of Singapore, legitimacy is a huge issue now with the birth of what’s loosely termed McDojos. But with social media justice, most of these McDojos get exposed pretty quickly and violently, sometimes ending in challenged fights that end up badly for the fraud.
On the whole, martial arts gyms in Singapore are well-run and organised affairs. If you turn up at local fight events, underneath the raucous cheering and shouting, people are respectful towards each other. Sure, there are a icy glances from time to time, or lingering stares from the corner of eyes, but mostly, people are confident but very cordial in their individual gym t-shirts, everyone a member of separate tribes. Sometimes, there will be quiet nods from gym bosses to one another, acknowledging each other’s existence and fiefdom, a recognition of each other’s legitimacy and age.
It is a thorny thing to speak about legitimacy. There are so many ways to define it. A trainers’ extensive decorated fight records as a basis for the gym’s legitimacy, state-of-the-art facilities; good quality punching bags, fancy weights equipment, beautiful shower rooms and finally another can use its own history to be a source of legitimacy: the gym having existed for so long or is one of the oldest in Singapore must mean that it is doing something right. There are many subjective factors and there is no wrong answer; legitimacy means the place conforms to common law or rules, there is some metric for people to compare against and come away thinking, “Yes, this place can be trusted”.
It is no easy feat to identify the ‘legitimacy’ of a place. Certain martial arts like Taekwondo have the advantage in that they are covered under many layers of organised systems and skill vetting that it is rather easy to find a legitimate Taekwondo academy. Though do note we are talking about the legitimacy of the system of Martial Arts and finding a place that has the knowledge and ability to teach you the Martial Art and not the effectiveness of the Martial Art itself.
An art like Muay Thai does not have the systems and years of formal development like Taekwondo has, such as its belt system and a worldwide organization dedicated to managing and promoting Taekwondo. It simply isn’t in the nature of Muay Thai, where a determination of one’s skill is not represented by your ‘rank’. But rather a ‘if you’re good, then you’re good. If you’re not good, train till’ your good” kind of attitude. But these d
ays people are trying to create some form of formal grading in Muay Thai with the inclusion of a level or colour grading system. Which simply doesn’t fit anywhere into Muay Thai.
What most grading systems that are currently in place for Muay Thai currently lack is the non-consideration of the actual skill level of the trainee. Many ‘Muay Thai certification’ courses are simply 3 - 5 day crash courses on how to hold pads or teach with complete disregard for the person’s individual skill and knowledge of Muay Thai.
Combat sports and teaching it has the disadvantage of a trainer requiring at least some modicum of actual fighting knowledge, and if not, at least some kind of years-long training under a gym specifically tailored in teaching people Martial Arts. As there are many other factors that go beyond simply teaching someone how to kick in order to teach them what is “Muay Thai”. Which, not to say that there aren’t people who have never formally fought who are good practitioners and trainers. But not anyone train Muay Thai for a year or 2, pick up a pair of pads, go for a 3 day crash course on how to hold them, then hang that piece of paper in a frame on your wall and call yourself a ‘Muay Thai Trainer’.
A trainer’s journey has many roads and for most, it starts with a fighting career, amateur or not. Then moving on to learning how to be a trainer. So to find out the legitimacy of a gym, one maybe should not look to just the ‘certifications’ of said gym’s trainer. But rather the gym as a whole. Their achievements, their online presence, their personality, and deeming from there, whether or not this gym can be trusted.
For those who are hesitant about joining martial arts gyms— if you’re a parent of a child or if your parents are uneasy about letting you learn contact sports from total strangers— find a gym that you can trust and meet the people running the gym. Find out if the instructors are properly vetted: are they employed with the correct paperwork and identifications or are they temporary trainers on visa runs and can leave any time they want? Observe if they have processes in place, if the operations team is in touch with all aspects of the gym. Do research on their communication channels: are there people responding to queries promptly? Is the hotline manned and responsive? Drop by to ask questions and put in face-time with people you are thinking of spending some evenings in a week with. Basically, do some homework to ascertain if the place is for real, as you would for other establishments, be it a dance school or a tuition centre or a martial arts gym.
Better still if the gym has an active social media presence, so they are held accountable to public opinions. One might also consider starting off with more mainstream and commercialised gyms. As they are well-known, they are keen to safeguard the standards of their classes and overall reputation, and uphold professional conduct. Sure, the Hollywood boxing movies paint a nice picture of dingy gyms, hidden in a small corner of the third floor of an industrial estate, bare concrete and gritty, and tattered punching bags swinging in the dust. The dirtier, the shadier, the cooler, the more badass. But reel life is glossy and toothless. In reality, some small and shady gyms are really just that: shady. With no oversight and hidden from public scrutiny, they can be dubious and disreputable.
Whatever your choice ends up to be, make sure to check whether a gym and its staff seem trustworthy. As instructors of martial arts are often held in high regard by students, there have been instances when instructors have abused the trust and deference to authority that others have placed in them. The physical proximity also render students vulnerable to people with bad intentions. In a more regulated and legitimate environment, the probability of harassing and/or criminal behaviour is lowered; there are multiple levels of checks to ensure the professionalism of staff and there are simply more eyes all around.
Learning martial arts is an empowering and enjoyable journey, but it can also be fraught with unseen risks. So find a place where you feel safe to train in. A comfortable environment where you feel confident to vocalise to the staff at any time. Keep your eyes open. Grab someone to train with you too, or make friends with other students. If at any time you feel uneasy, run and tell someone of your experience and talk it through. Seek a nucleus that you can trust and thrive in. Martial arts is an individual journey but a communal experience, so find a place with like-minded people to make it fun-filled and meaningful.