Twelve years ago Victor Nagbe was a Liberian refugee constantly in trouble with the law and struggling to find his place as a teenager in a new country.
Now 24, Nagbe has found discipline in a brutal martial art that will see him tested against one of the world’s best fighters in May.
For almost six years, Nagbe has been professionally training in Muay Thai – a martial art that can be traced back to 16th century Thailand, but has now gained a reputation as one of south-east Asia’s pre-eminent sports.
After 67 professional fights, 54 of which were victories, Nagbe said he has gained a passion for the violent yet tactical sport.
“When I’m walking out there, it feels like I’m walking up on a cloud.”
“As soon as I touch the ring, I feel possessed. It feels like someone else has taken over me.”
From refugee to Muay Thai: a fight for discipline
Nagbe’s family came to Australia as refugees when he was only 12 years old.
He said that while living in Liberia, he and his family had to do what they were told and that getting by was tough.
Do combat sports encourage violence or teach respect and discipline?
Martial arts are considered arts, rather than sports, as they effectively use training in fitness and technique as a metaphorical means for developing character.
“When you come here you’ve got a system saying ‘ah yeah, you’ve got child protection’, so you go a little crazy ’cause it feels like you’ve got freedom,” Nagbe said.
“I was a little kid with anger problems. I felt like the world was against me so wherever I went I got into trouble.”
“I was not a good kid.”
After getting into trouble both at home and with police, a friend of Nagbe’s recommended that he try Muay Thai.
“Doing martial arts has given me discipline; when to train, how to conduct myself … it saved me from going in the wrong direction,” he said.
“As as you start doing self defence, you find out it actually calms you down … [dy doing Muay Thai] I stayed out of trouble more and I learned to control myself.”
“With your opponent, you don’t know him. He doesn’t know you and you two are just fighting to see who is better. You have to fight very calmly and be relaxed and composed.”
Now Nagbe is preparing to fight Buakaw Bunchamek — one of Muay Thai’s most notorious fighters — in Hong Kong on May 21.
‘Hungry for more’
Muay Thai is also referred to as ‘the Art of Eight Limbs’, with the fighter’s hands, shins, elbows and knees all used during a fight.
Former Muay Thai fighter–turned–trainer, Dip Yuanjit, took on Nagbe as a student at his Ballarat gym eight years ago.
“He started out very slowly. He came maybe once a week or once a month,” Mr Yuanjit said.
“But we built up [his sessions] slowly. I tried to get him to do the right thing slowly but surely.”
“After every fight he became more hungry and wanted to be a fighter.”
Mr Yuanjit has fought and trained in Muay Thai for 30 years, and said that while it has spread to an international audience, the sport still lags behind boxing.
“In Thailand [Muay Thai] is very popular. Everyday there is competitiond … but Muay Thai is not a big money-making sport compared to boxing. Even kickboxing makes better money than Muay Thai,” Mr Yuanjit said.
Muay Thai fighters, like in boxing, are judged on their technique and the level of control and dominance they display over their rival.
Mr Yuanjit is confident that Nagbe is ready to take on Bunchamek — a fighter who has won more than 11 Muay Thai tournaments in the past two decades.
“He [Nagbe] has got everything; he’s young and he’s strong. [A good fighter] needs to be strong in the mind,” Mr Yuanjit said.
“If he believes in himself, he can beat [Bunchamek].