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Part II.  [Part I here, Part III here]      Article by Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

[Part II tells the story of how Kru Natalie came to Muay Thai.  We touch on the difficulties in becoming a female Muay Thai fighter in the US and the  differences between amateur and professional in this country.]

Kru Natalie is perched atop a silver exercise ball, stealing bites of noodle soup between paced, considered strands of thought.  At times she raises the cup to her mouth in a gesture of taking another bite, but lowers it again immediately, placing the cup on the floor, as if the object in her hand hinders her speech as much as the food in her mouth would.  A practiced gesticulator, Kru Nat doesn’t speak with her hands full.

This up and down motion comes to illustrate Kru Nat’s experience in entering the ring.  As a female competitor in New York 10 years ago the options and opportunities for female fighters on Muay Thai cards was incredibly limited.  (In fact, her first opponent was not even experienced in Muay Thai, but was a trained Western Boxer.)  Her path into fighting was marked by these spikes in excitement and preparation, followed by the ebb and disappointment of cancellations.

I ask her about her experience getting into fighting:

Kru Nat: The first fight, the girl canceled before we were supposed to fight. It was less than a year since I started my training – I started June ’98, and that was April ’99. The girl canceled at the last minute, so I did an exhibition match with Emily Bearden, who is a colleague of mine and is much smaller… she had just gotten into Muay Thai.

So that was fun, but I was kinda disappointed; definitely. We tried again in August, I was supposed to fight somebody, again canceled.  I was, like ‘okay, this is not good,’ and then finally November ’99, that was my first fight. 

In the great big city of New York, where anything seems possible, it is still challenging for female fighters to find Muay Thai bouts.  The organization, preparation and execution of sanctioned and unsanctioned fights are still marked by limited opponents and frequent cancellations.  Muay Thai cards very rarely feature more than one female bout in any given event and the odds that one fighter will cancel remains high.  For many women, offers to appear on Muay Thai cards are sometimes empty gestures at the possibility of finding an opponent, rather than a likely outcome.  Kru Natalie fought 20 amateur bouts and has, to date, fewer than a half-dozen at the professional level.  Often times for female fighters in the US, going pro means even fewer fight opportunities.

This “American Pro Freeze”, for instance, is illustrated by the bifurcated paths of two fighters: Sylvie Charbonneau and Amy Davis.  Both women fight in the lowest weight class offered in the US, which is variably listed as under 107 lbs, which may help account for the difficulty in finding fights.  (I too fight at this weight and have experienced great difficulty in finding opponents.)  But the story goes like this: both women hail from North America and they fought one another very early in their careers; both went on to fight professionally.  Charbonneau moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand and Davis is in Idaho Falls, Idaho.  Both are top-ranked fighters in the WIKBA rankings of 2009.  However, Charbonneau has had just under 50 professional fights (in 2.5 years), whereas Davis’ has had 3 professional fights (having gone pro in 2008). 

There is an obvious disparity here in that Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand and fights are held every day; furthermore, there are more female fighters at this weight in Thailand than in the US, and fighting in either country is thought of very differently: in Thailand a fighter has opportunity and is encouraged to fight several times per month, as fighting is not a huge production but a fact of doing Muay Thai; in the US opportunity is less and our attitude toward fights is that they are big productions for which one trains exclusively, causing each event to be infrequent and a treat of doing Muay Thai.  On Charbonneau’s Facebook, she comments that she loves fights because it means she gets the day off from training.  She is able to fight several times per month because she is always training for a fight; in this country one must have advance notice of a fight in order to train toward this particular fight, so one ends up going up and down in training, peaking and resting at extremes.

It’s interesting to me that the US criticizes the now-just-changing attitude held in Thailand that women must not enter the Muay Thai ring because it was considered bad luck – and it’s a valid criticism. However, for a country that holds itself as having a better attitude toward women fighting Muay Thai, there does not seem to be more or even better opportunities for women to do so here in the US.

I ask Kru Nat about her transition from amateur to professional, if she experienced any unexpected changes from one to the other, or if the only difference is that one has a purse and the other doesn’t.  She smiles and says, “yup, that’s it right there.”

Kru Natalie doesn’t see a meaningful difference between amateur and professional, at least in the US.  She advocates for the adoption of a class system, which is used in Europe, which basically orders fighters in class A, B, or C according to experience, rather than capital-gains standing.

I ask her about her own movement into professional fighting:

Kru Nat:  [In the US] anyone can turn pro whenever they want; after their first fight they can turn pro. What does that mean? Nothing.  I had 20 amateur fights before I turned pro – for a reason. Because I knew that if I turned pro I couldn’t fight any of the amateur girls: that was it for me. There’s no turning back.   So thought to myself that I want to fight every woman I can possibly fight because already the options are so little for my generation. Now it’s much better, even at my weight class. But my weight class, at the time, was very difficult, so I wanted to capitalize as much as I could – and I did. It was a strategy for me, it was my strategy, I made my choices. I had a very clear vision.  So I did exhaust the list – I had a list of women I wanted to fight, I went through my list – and when the list was done, though it was not completed, not because I didn’t try, but because they didn’t want to do it, or it didn’t happen and I’m not going to wait around for years for one match to happen – I moved on to pro. The difference is: I fight, I get paid. Is it a lot of money?  Forget it. You still need to have a fulltime job, trust me. It’s ridiculous.

As Kru Natalie explains it, it’s pretty clear that professional Muay Thai fighters – in this country – don’t do it for the money; it’s simply not lucrative enough.  This is significantly different from Thailand, where children begin fighting at an early age and are often the providers for their families through Muay Thai fighting.  In this context, it makes sense to fight professionally as soon as possible.  But Kru Nat is quick to explain that Muay Thai is not a mainstream sport in the US and is therefore not going to result in the kind of money that Football, Basketball, Baseball, or even Western Boxing athletes can earn.  Yet Kru Nat is not advocating for the mainstream popularity of Muay Thai; she doesn’t want it to be mainstream.  She feels that the sport is a “big enough niche that there’s a ton of possibilities… a ton of growth possibilities, but… it’s never going to be a mainstream sport in the US; most sports are not.”

But her feeling that going pro in Muay Thai in the US is negligible does not keep her from noting strong opinions on the unequal pay to male and female fighters, as the subject arose in our conversation:

Kru Nat: Because we are women, they think it’s okay [to pay us less], because that’s the way of the world, but that doesn’t mean that we should be complacent about it, or just accept it. For me I need to push that glass ceiling up all the time, in everything I do. And now as a Kru going into the business and building my own team, it’s going to be men and women.  Lots of women because I know what every woman talks about, why having a female trainer is just more bearable because we understand each other; we are not a different species.

For women fighting Muay Thai in the US, there are usually a lot of plates spinning at once.  Kru Natalie is co-owner of a number of clothing boutiques in NYC and maintains this business while pursuing her Muay Thai.  Returning to the issue of finding fights and her early experiences with Muay Thai since she began her training and then decided to enter into fighting, she told me about how the difficulties lead her into teaching. 

Kru Nat: It was like pulling teeth trying to get a fight, and getting put on the card.   And whenever I had the opportunity, I kinda got discouraged because after a year and half I had more cancellations than fights; it was kind of a joke – it became a joke – I had to make humor out of it because, it really sucked.   I had a fulltime job. I had three stores in New York; it’s hard. It’s more than a fulltime job, and then I had to make time for training, and the fight gets canceled. I mean it happened to everybody, and yes, you get better and better every time, because training, no matter what you’re going to feel the benefits of that, that’s great. But every time to be canceled on, it was like ‘Why am I doing this?’ you know, what’s the point? There wasn’t money in it because I wasn’t making any money, which is good, I think, but after a while it was like ‘okay, I really need to rethink that’.

So that is kind of why I decided to become a teacher, because after a year and a half of that, [I thought] ‘No, I don’t have time for this’. [But] ‘I love Muay Thai’…I know there’s a calling here, so that lead to teaching, I was really curious about it. I went with Master Toddy in Vegas to get my certification, and then I found out about all those female Muay Thai fighters in England or in Europe before my generation, that were really ground breaking, but there was nowhere to find out about it.

So, in the US that feeling of being kind of a pioneer, it’s true. At the same time, I think because of that I really need to do something to catch it on. I need to help upcoming women to not experience the same thing I experienced, to make it better.

When she first began her training in Muay Thai, Kru Natalie didn’t want to fight.  Her background in Karate, Judo, and a great many other sports had equipped her with competitive experience, but she wasn’t interested in that aspect of Muay Thai.  This training was for her and she just wanted to have fun – something that she felt competition squelched, rather than quenched.

But when she tried Muay Thai in New York, she knew right away that she wanted to stick with it.  I know what this feels like, because I knew straight away that Muay Thai had fed something in me that I didn’t know needed nutrients, and it only got stronger.  I ask her what it was about Muay Thai that grabbed her I wanted to know what it was about Muay Thai that captured her heart:

Sylvie: And so the movements in your body just clicked in a certain way, or the aesthetic of it… what was it that really caught you when you first started doing it?

Kru Nat: Well, I thought it was very practical, which Karate is not. I always felt that [with] Karate I couldn’t really do anything with it until I was a black-belt basically –

Sylvie:Because of the katas and stuff like that…

Kru Nat: Yeah, it’s just that I loved Karate but after a while it’s just like ughh, you know, it’s not going to get me anywhere;, and I don’t know if I want to dedicate myself to get to the black-belt level. I just wasn’t in love with it as much [as I came to be] with Muay Thai, so I didn’t pursue it the same way. When I came back to New York I knew I didn’t want to do Karate again, but I knew I needed to do something. And my personal trainer at the time, Shauna was lik,e ‘Those guys upstairs, they’re doing Muay Thai kickboxing, you should really try it because I’m sure you would do really good with it’. And I was like ‘Okay, I’ll try’ and then that’s it, that’s how I got into it.

It’s interesting to think of why one martial art appeals to an athlete over another.  In a time when Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is at an all-time high in popularity, when folks turn on the TV and have a better chance of catching an MMA bout than a boxing match and are more familiar with an octagon cage than a traditional ring, it seems that the appreciation of one particular form over another is not really encouraged.  For instance, the MMA fighters in the WEC and UFC are often listed as having “strong Mauy Thai skills” for their stand-up fight, but one would be hard-pressed to find any good Muay Thai techniques in their repertoire at all.  So, practicality seems to an appropriate term for why one chooses a front kick over an axe kick or a Jiu-Jitsu hold over a western wrestling move (try using a wrestling hold when someone is allowed to punch your face!).  In MMA, moves are chosen based on practicality in a situation, rather than their place in one particular art form.

But Kru Nat isn’t talking about MMA, at all.  She’s talking about the difference in Muay Thai from the bulk of all other eastern Martial Arts, which is that one does not learn techniques in a regimented order, or advance from one stage to another, marked by colored belts or the next set of “katas”, or a specific set of moves.  Rather, someone like Kru Nat, who has practiced Muay Thai for over 10 years and continues to study will still be learning how to perfect her kick, her elbows, and knees.  One isn’t an expert in a shorter time than one studying other eastern Martial Arts, but one is certainly able to apply a battery of techniques and moves that are intended to hurt, stun, or dispatch an opponent without years of training.  Certainly one becomes more proficient at each technique, stronger, faster, more adroit in dominating an opponent – but, like Western Boxing, once you can throw a jab, you can control someone opposing you.

The word practicality alludes to the concept of practice, which, one could argue means that the practicality aspect of Muay Thai invites one to put the moves into  action.  The question becomes then, whether there is a difference between practicing moves, and putting moves into practice, ie. fighting.

I was curious to know how Kru Natalie made this transition to actually fighting.

Kru Nat:Simon asked me very early on if I wanted to fight and I really had to think about that. I mean, I was 32 years old first of all at the time, and I was kinda freaked out about it. I’ve had an old history of getting into sports since I was very young and because I was always athletic I usually did pretty good and I just wanted to do it for the fun of it. I never wanted to do it for competition. But again and again I was pushed into competition, and not asked if I wanted to – I was pushed, forced into competition. And it was a disaster, I never did well because I didn’t like it, I didn’t want it. I just wanted to have fun, you know? So when that happened, that was like… childhood trauma [laughing], I don’t know.  I was like, wow, okay, I’m an adult I can make my own decisions and yeah, why not, it can be fun. So …we tried to set up something.

Sylvie:  And did you get a taste for it, I definitely want to keep doing this, or was it still a hard decision –

Kru Nat: No, no, I was full-on. That was why I asked Simon for two weeks. I said, ‘I need two weeks to think about this and when I tell you my decision it’s going to be a full commitment, or no commitment at all.’ And so I was like, ‘yeah, definitely I want to do this.’ So my first fight was actually here, at Church Street gym.

Sylvie: Who did you go against?

Kru Nat: Colleen O’Brian, she was a boxer at the time, she had only experience boxing. It was a very good fight, I didn’t win… she got a split decision by one point. It was a really good fight. She was really hard and she was a very good boxer. It was the lightest I ever fought – I was, like, 140 or something, and I felt a little light on my feet, and in retrospect I think it would have been a bit different if I was a little bit heavier. So after that I actually decided I should fight around 145, just those extra pounds have made all the difference.

And since then Kru Natalie has been quite consistent.  She’s fought at her lightest 143 lbs and up to 149 lbs, a range of 6 pounds.  In a sport where competitors will drop 20 lbs for a fight, it is noteworthy that Kru Natalie knows her body well and even more so that Kru Natalie, as a woman, is confident and aware enough to maintain a fight-weight that she feels to be right for her own body, over time.  The pressure that women face just in daily culture to be conscious and critical of their weight, moving always toward the “lighter is better” ethic, is not excluded from the world of sports, where women are expected to be slight, rather than built and will exaggerate down to a weight class well below their walking around weight.  This doesn’t seem like a complicated issue in Kru Nat’s mind; she explains, simply, that “It’s just where my body is comfortable.

Part III here



  1. Very interesting and informative interview. Many thanks for posting it. I eagerly await part 3.

    Dan Cucich,
    President, WIKBA

  2. I’m even more impressed with Muay Thai that Kru Natalie, in her first Muay Thai fight, could lose by just one point in a split decision to a woman who was a Western boxer. Kru Natalie’s passion for Muay Thai is obvious when she worked all those stores and still found time for training. Great photos, also. I, too, “eagerly await part 3”.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Circle Contact First, Victory Second About NYFSCContact « Vistors and More Women of Muay Thai: Interview with Kru Natalie Fuz, Part II […]

  2. […] Part III [Part I here, Part  II here] […]

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