The Gym Above The Restaurant: Master Woody, the Other Thai in Manchester
Rebel. Fighter. Bouncer. Chef. Coach. Legend. We Talk To Master Woody, proud owner of Luktupfah Gym, probably the best Muay Thai fight factory in the world.
Photos courtesy of the author
Fact: Thai people using Thai spices, Thai ingredients and Thai know-how best cook Thai food.
It's much the same thing with Muay Thai kickboxing. Take Mr. Chinawut Sirisompan aka Master Woody, the venerable subject of this rambling tale. He can cook up a storm in the ring, and the kitchen, because he happens to be Thai, and proud of it.
Right now, Woody's the big boss of the number 1 fight factory in Bangkok. Luktupfah Muay Thai camp was just voted best boxing gym in Bangkok... So I guess that makes it the best damn gym in the whole darned world, right? But long before his family run gym in Bangkok got voted crème de la crème, Woody had another camp, one in a gloomy, rain drenched English city called Manchester, a kickboxing gym above a Thai restaurant.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when Woody wasn't cooking up Pad Thai for customers in the "Siam Orchid," he was holding Thai Pads for would-be kickboxers upstairs in the "Muay Thai Center of Excellence." A kickboxing gym above a Thai restaurant, what a KO combo! Some people might not even want to leave the building. Me included.
A wee blip in time before the gym above the restaurant, Woody was a budding professional nak muay (kickboxer) in Bangkok, Thailand. Woody and his best buddy, Master Toddy, were fresh from prominent roles as high kicking Oriental bad guys in the 1974 James Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun.
At that time in Thailand, fighters fought because they were super broke and needed the money. Woody and Toddy didn't have that issue. They came from solid bourgeois families that were not too keen about them boxing to say the least. But the James Bond film had opened a big door to the west where Martial Arts were booming. The two lads knew Muay Thai and Tae Kwon Do, spoke perfect English, and so getting a visa from the hoity-toity Consular Section of the British Embassy on Wireless Road was no problem at all.
After a 12-hour flight from Bangkok, the fearless duo fetched up in London, England's capital city. No sooner had they sat down and enjoyed their first cup of tea came a lucrative job offer from an old Thai pal up North, in Oldham, a rough, tough, working-class suburb of Manchester. The gig was simple enough. They were going to work as doormen at a popular nightspot called Baileys. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty.
The violence of the English on a night out greatly surprises foreigners who come to live and work in England. Woody and Toddy were no exception. And working the door of the rowdy nightspot, the magnificent two soon made a name for themselves dusting up soccer hooligans and have-a-go types. The new Thais of Baileys soon got wise to the war cry of the Manchester thugs: "Go get the chinks!" Unfortunately, ten times out of ten, "the chinks" won and the lime juicers ended up knocked out in a back alley, covered in dog shit.
The timing of their arrival was both a curse and a blessing. This was England in the 1970s. The United Kingdom was "the sick man of Europe," the economy was shot, unemployment was high, the government unpopular. All the young dudes were Kung Fu Fighting and Karate chopping on the soccer terraces in the daytime, and having a pint and a fight in the pubs and clubs at night. It was all a bit Clockwork Orange and licensed nightclub doormen, like Woody and Toddy, were on the front line of this mindless yet peculiarly English form of violence. Beating on these drunken clubbers' wasn't exactly glorious, paid-up, prizefighting like back home in Thailand either. But the two foreigners had to make an honest living and this was just an occupational hazard. A nightly one, as Woody remembers.
"The club had a 'red light system' – a red light bulb in the corner of each room. If the red light went on, we had to run up and down the stairs looking for the trouble in platform heels."
Love sometimes blossoms when you are far from home. Woody met his future wife at Baileys. She was a regular clubber, liked Woody, but, being English, was a bit unsure about the Thai tough guy. She soon got the message when he saw her sexily dancing under the club's glitter ball with an amorous bloke. Woody, in platform heels, went over and head kicked the would-be suitor.
Woody still chuckles with half embarrassment at this memory from youth. "I KO'd the poor guy out!"
Sometimes the fellas that you beat up on come back. They don't return for payback. They come back to learn. Many of the bag punchers and mirror athletes that Woody and Toddy KO'd with Muay Thai combos ended up becoming competitive club fighters at their gym (at that point in time a run down, derelict mill). This pattern was one of the strange, cultural differences between Thailand and England that Woody came to love.
"If you are a doorman in Thailand," says Woody, "and beat the shit out of someone, there will be someone who wants to get you back. Me and Toddy would mess these drunkards up. The next day, we'd be in town and see guys that we had beaten up the night before. Instead of them wanting to stab or shoot us like Thailand, they would say hello and show utmost respect. We kind of understood it at the time. But, even now, it's a hard concept to grasp."
At Woody's first proper gym in Oldham, "Rama Camp," he gave most of these aimless, insecure men an outlet, a discipline, a direction, something bigger and better than being a mere "street fighter." Woody and Toddy were making dragons out of snakes, and spreading the name of the street lethal and ring deadly art of Muay Thai far and wide.
And in London, where I was growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, other than my club, there was not too much quality Muay Thai to be had for an angry young man of the world. Manchester up north was the place and Toddy's was my go-to gym. But what did I know about Master Woody the other Thai in Manchester? Not that much it must be said. But somebody I knew did. Back then, there was a fella called Vincent Jauncey who ran a Muay Thai gym in London with strong connections to Woody's camp. A crazy assed kid from my old school, "Mad" Max Adams, the first nak muay that I ever met, used to train and fight out of Jauncey's stable, and knew Woody very well indeed.
Max was impressive. In the ring and on the street, he was the punisher. And Max could do flash, show off shit, like jump up and boot the high ceiling of his expensive Notting Hill bedroom (much to the chagrin of his long-suffering parents upstairs). Big assed right round kick aside, old Max had a mean teep (lead leg front kick) which, in the ring and down the pub, always got him out of the quicksand. That, he once bragged in a post-training session of spliffs, beers and ultraviolent computer games, was one of the appetizers that "Woody was mad about... serving up dudes with a teep to deliver a big round kick or an overhand right." Hmm, wasn't that like the same kind of food that I was eating over at Toddy's gym-without-a-restaurant in Manchester? Give or take the odd spice and proportion of ingredients, yes.
But unbeknownst to Max, me, and a lot of other amateur nak muay in London circa 1991-2, there was a big problem with Triads in Manchester's Chinatown. They were going around trashing restaurants and businesses. One day, Woody bumped into them on a shopping trip at his local Chinese supermarket. They were shaking down the owner in front of customers. Woody, keen to set a wrong right, and get served, went up and forcibly ejected them from the premises. "I used to go to that supermarket all the time and the owner didn't even know me," Woody recalls. "After that incident, I went on to become best mates with the guy."
This knightly deed, however, put Woody on the radar of the Triads, who turned up at the restaurant one night demanding protection money. Undeterred by wild threats and vague promises of physical violence, Woody laughed it off and said, "Not a chance."
Being Thai, he took the offensive and began distributing leaflets round the other businesses in Chinatown to raise awareness about the intimidation. It was, however, a two-pronged strategy. Woody rustled up fighters from his gym, and cooks from the restaurant, to go looking for the Triads who were shaking down the hood. And, much like the limey hooligans of Baileys, the Triads ended up knocked out in a back alley, soaked in dog's piss. Legend has it that Woody took out one of them with an explosive round kick to the head, and the hapless Triad soldier ended up getting his jaw reconstructed in the local hospital at four in the morning.
That was then and this is now. No longer introducing English soccer hooligans (or Chinese Triads) to Muay Thai, these days the sprightly and youthful 62-year-old is a roving ambassador of the sporting Martial Art with an alphabet soup of honors. Woody's the chairman of the Kru Muay Thai Association, the promoter of MBK Fight Night and the president of the World Muay Boran Federation (WMBF). He recently set up the World Muay Thai Organization (WMO) with Iranian fight promoter Sasan Ghosairi, and tours the world giving seminars and preaching the gospel of Muay Thai. Now that he's the gaffer of the number 1 gym in Bangkok, and, quite possibly, the world, the once overlooked master of Muay Thai is in much demand. Hallelujah!
So, if you want to eat authentic Muay Thai, it's best served, with or without platform heels, by the likes of Master Woody, the three star Michelin rated chef of hard knocks at Luktupfah gym in Bangkok. It's only a plane ride away.