It’s 4:30pm – while most might be winding up for the day, Michael “The Beast from the East” Pham, Amro “The Handsome Killer” Ghanem and a group of members from the Team Tieu Muai Thai squad are firing kicks and punches at breakneck speed against the blaring noise of grime.
Pham, 29 started his career doing boxercise classes, and was introduced to Muay Thai by his cousin Philip Tieu. From here, one of the biggest Muay Thai teams in the UK was born.
Meanwhile Ghanem, 23, found his way into combat sport through kick boxing which he did when he was a child, having grown up in Milan near to where legendary kick boxer Giorgio Petrosyan had a gym.
“He’s an absolute beast,” says Ghanem. “I always looked up to him and I always wanted to be like him.
“Nobody can beat him, he’s the doctor.”
But Ghanem chose Muay Thai over kickboxing when he came to the UK four years ago to work at a nearby hotel, and a Google search led him to Team Tieu.”
One of the selling points for Ghanem was that while in kickboxing you’re only allowed to punch and kick, in Muay Thai knees and elbows can be used, hence it being known as “The Art of Eight Limbs.”
By contrast Team Tieu started off with jite kune do, or stick fighting, which was started by Bruce Lee and incorporates a range of different fighting styles.
Over the past 8 years Pham has been practicing Muay Thai on and off, but it wasn’t until the last four years that he decided to dedicate himself more seriously to the sport.
Despite the momentous rise of Mixed Martial Arts from relative obscurity Pham admits that when he tried his hand at it, he felt “like a fish out of water” but is optimistic that Muay Thai can go in the same direction as MMA.
“It’s getting there, hopefully the next three years it will be big, and that’s Muay Thai fighters getting good pay,” beams Pham.
And while in MMA or boxing fighters might trash talk each other in the run up to a fight, that kind of pre-fight hype does not really suit Muay Thai.
“It’s more of a respect thing in Muay Thai,” says Pham.
This culture of respect in Muay Thai stems from the Buddhist culture in its country of origin: Thailand.
Ghanem also believes that Muay Thai teaches discipline.
‘‘I think everyone has his anger inside and I found freedom in Muay Thai so every time I fight or I hit pads, it just makes me feel good.
He continues: “It makes you more confident in your life, you don’t lose your control quite as often, it makes you think – it makes you become a better person.
“I think Muay Thai would be a really helpful sport for kids while they’re growing up.”
Despite Muay Thai being about respect, Pham thinks that trash talking will help to boost the sport’s popularity.
“I think that’s what it needs. It would be more exciting as well – that’s what will sell it more,” he says.
Alluding to last year’s boxing match between veteran boxer Floyd Mayweather and MMA challenger Conor McGregor, he said: “He [McGregor] sells the fight and then Mayweather’s a trash talker as well so it was just perfect.”
Pham, who has now fought five professional fights, admits that trash talking is not a part of his weaponry and may never be.
Currently ranked 11th in the UK, he is on the fringes of competing with the best fighters in the world.
“The next four or five years I need to be busy just constantly fighting, about five fights a year and put more work in. I already do but I got injured in my last fight, so I was off for eight months and just about three weeks ago I had a comeback.
“That was for a European title, so in the second round I got cut, but I carried on just played it smart tried not to get into a war, just keep scoring.
He continued: “I had a good cutman, so the cut man just slapped a lot of Vaseline in there and he handled it well. Praise to my cutman!
“They see what you can’t see so you do your own thing and they’ll just point out small things that I can’t see so it’s important every fighter listens. The worst thing is getting a fighter that doesn’t listen. That’s the most frustrating thing for a coach.”
When I ask Pham about weight-cutting he shakes his head: “Yeah, I love food I love to eat.”
“I usually cut about nine kilos, nine to ten.”
“The first four [kilos] are all right, body fat, and then when it gets to the last three, four it’s hard but then that’s water.
“Cutting weight sucks but it’s got to be done. It’s a skill as well. Every fighter’s got to know how to do it. If you can’t cut weight then you’ll be fighting a giant.”
Pham walks round at 76-77kg but comes down to 67kg for his fights.
“If you’re doing it a lot it makes your kidneys and organs work hard because when you’re cutting the weight you can just feel it in the bath.
He leans back and makes a hand motion on his chest. “I was just sitting in the bath, I could feel my heart racing.”
While there are full Muay Thai rules in the A class which Pham fights in, in the B class you can knee to the head and there is full contact, in the C class you can’t knee to the head.
Ghanem, who is a C class fighter, is not yet ranked in the UK but his biggest achievement to date was fighting at the Muay Thai Grand Prix.
“Since day one when that show came up I always dreamed about it,” says Ghanem.
Like Pham, Ghanem has been out for an extensive period – a motorbike crash left him out for 17 months.
Ghanem had been “hitting pads with one arm”, and was initially told he shouldn’t be fighting for nine months. After only three it was announced that he would fight Sean Baxter on 18th November of last year.
“He was the Raw Combat League champion and he has a couple of titles. Back then I only had two pure fights and he had about ten and then at the weigh in he was much bigger than me,” says Ghanem.
Ghanem weighed in at 62.8kg while Baxter was 62.6kg but Ghanem thought that his opponent looked a lot bigger.
“If I had to fight him with power he probably would’ve beaten me but because I’m cleverer and I was scoring more, I just beat him,” explains Ghanem.
He continues: “I knew he was strong so I was listening to my corner and just playing it clever move around and I just beat him clever.”
Both fighters seem to exhibit a certain intelligence in their fighting as they continue to forge their careers in Muay Thai.
“The Art of Eight Limbs” could yet become the combat sport of the future.
Featured image and all other images: Tomas Meehan.