Muay Thai Fighter

“The road isn’t always smooth but we are fighters and that’s why we fight through the tough times” Nada Binte Ahmad Khalid, Muay Thai Fighter

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Nada is a physiotherapist by day, specializing in musculoskeletal conditions and sports injuries. She was awarded the SingHealth Allied Health Scholarship from 2009 to 2013 to pursue her studies in physiotherapy, and has since gone on to develop an interest in sports injuries and rehabilitation. The solid foundation she built in anatomy and biomechanics through physiotherapy has put her in good stead to understand movement in her after-hours job – being a Muay Thai fighter. Cheekily claiming this to be her actual full-time job, Nada’s meals, Physio consults, social activities & rest times are built around her training and fight schedules to ensure optimal performance in her sport. Nada was introduced to the art of 8 limbs in 2011, as a way to keep an active lifestyle through her school years. She has since fought opponents in Singapore and Thailand, sporting a total of 5 fights under her belt over the last 6 years. Nada has had her fair share of wins & losses and has had multiple comebacks following injuries and surgery. She attributes her patience, resilience and commitment to excellence as the things that get her back to the grind everyday to prepare herself for that next match. She hopes to inspire women to pursue their passion, break barriers, and most of all, to be better than they were yesterday.

In conversation with Nada Khalid, a professional Muay Thai fighter about her journey and how she is breaking stereotypes

Maisha: You are a professional Muay Thai fighter; please share with us your journey and how you made the decision to take up Muay Thai as your profession.

Nada: I’ve always been an active person, representing my school in basketball, athletics and touch rugby. After ending my last competitive season as an undergrad, I told myself I would focus on being a working adult. I decided that I’d pick up a sport just to learn a new skill and keep fit. That was in 2011. Where I am in Muay Thai now is the total opposite from what I had in mind.

I had my sights on keeping Muay Thai as a leisurely hobby but growing up as a competitive athlete, there was always a part of me that desired to be better. I was consistently working to improve my skills and after a year and a half of training, my trainer proposed that I competed. Since then, I’ve had 4 amateur fights in Singapore. It has been a mixture of wins and losses, successes and setbacks, but my trainers continue to believe in me. With their blessings and encouragement, I took on my first professional fight in Thailand this year.

Maisha: Who is your biggest inspiration in becoming a Muay Thai fighter?

Nada: I’d have to give the biggest thanks to my mother. She isn’t a Muay Thai fighter, but a fighter in her own right. I watched my mother single-handedly raise my elder sister and I from our early teens, ensuring we had a roof over our heads, food on the table and clothes to put on. It wasn’t always easy but she overcame the obstacles with full dedication, courage and grace  – everything we as Muay Thai fighters hope to display in the ring.

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Maisha: Has your career in Muay Thai shaped your life in a positive way?

Nada: Muay Thai has taught me many valuable lessons in life. The countless hours of persevering through the daily grind has taught me the power of mind over matter. Often at training and during a fight, we feel completely drained. However, I have to say I’ve been amazed many times at what can be accomplished if we keep our mind focused on the present. This of course, comes with discipline. I’ll admit there are some days I try to cheat – on a run, skipping a weights session, sneaking in an extra bit of rest, sneaking in candy when I’m on a weight cut – the list goes on. At the end of the day, however, I’ve learnt that the only person who loses in the situation, ultimately, was myself.

Apart from that, Muay Thai has also taught me that the world is bigger than the individual. I used to beat myself up over setbacks, be it a temporary lapse of self-discipline, losing a fight or sustaining an injury that kept me out of training. It is all too easy to get trapped in the vicious cycle of self-pity and hopelessness, but I’ve learnt that no matter how much of a rut we think we are in, there will always be someone else with problems far greater than ours. I’ve learnt to accept that life will always throw some curveballs, but it’s how we pick ourselves up and move on that makes us true fighters.

Above all, the one thing that distinguishes Muay Thai from many sports is its deep-rooted respect for culture, tradition, and the elders before us. Before a fight, fighters perform a Wai Khru, a traditional ritual in which the fighter pays respect to their teacher, who has guided them on their journey to the ring. It reminds us that we would not be where we are without the dedication and effort of those around us.

“A fighter may be physically losing a fight, but it’s how much heart he has to keep fighting that gains him the respect of the people around him.”

Maisha: Have you encountered gender stereotypes in this sport? For example, have you heard it said that Muay Thai is a sport for men, or that women and girls who take this up are unattractive or masculine? Do you find it challenging to find yourself a space in a field dominated by men? How did you overcome this?

Nada: Much of the gender gap in Muay Thai exists largely in Thailand. The famous Muay Thai stadiums of Lumpinee and Rajadamnern are reserved exclusively for male fights. Female fights are often held at smaller scale venues and as with many other sports, smaller prize purses. One instance if gender disparity in this sport I witnessed at my first fight in Thailand. I was surprised to find that as a girl, I was expected to crawl beneath the lowest rope to enter the ring. It turns out that only male fighters in Thailand are allowed to go over the ropes. I believe that this and similar practices stem largely from tradition and culture. While I personally disagree with the different treatment of male and female fighters, I try to respect and adhere to the traditions of the sport in its birthplace.

It is a different story in Singapore, however. Both male and female fights are showcased at local events and while the bouts are still predominantly male, the number of female fights has been in an upward trend in recent years. Also, entering the ring over the ropes would not be taboo for me here. In a sport traditionally dominated by men, the Muay Thai community in Singapore has been welcoming and respectful of female fighters. So in all fairness, there hasn’t been much difficulty breaking into the sport here in Singapore.

Outside the Muay Thai community, however, I have encountered the occasional “you’re a girl, you shouldn’t be fighting” and while that no longer bugs me, it would probably be the “I want to learn Muay Thai so that I can check out the girls at the gym” that makes me sick. Statements like these reinforce the fact that gender stereotypes still exist in our society. Although these views are rather insulting, like most female athletes I know, I keep my mind focused on being a fighter and let my athletic prowess speak for itself.

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Maisha: What do you feel are the obstacles for other girls or women who would want to take up Muay Thai?

Nada: The Muay Thai community has been accepting of girls and women taking up the sport and fighting. However, it is often the opinions of others outside the community that may hold us back. It took a little bit of time for my family to accept the fact that I was fighting, but once they started seeing it as a sport and saw how much passion I had for it, I had their full support. As for dealing with the random comments from others, I guess it comes down to tuning it out and sticking firmly to your own beliefs.

Maisha: Gender roles in this sport have been very traditional. However, in recent years, there seems to be a positive shift and greater inclusivity. Do you agree with this and if so, what is helping to bring that shift? What more can be done?

Nada: The globalization of the sport of Muay Thai has certainly helped to reduce the gender gap in the sport. As I mentioned earlier, the inclusivity has been great in Singapore with the local Muay Thai community and larger society becoming more accepting of female fighters. Thailand has been seeing a growing number of foreign female fighters spending months living in the country to train and build a Muay Thai career. I believe this has also given a boost for local female fighters in Thailand as they are empowered to break out of deep-rooted gender norms in their country.

While the outlook is increasingly positive, much of stereotyping still exists in the birthplace of Muay Thai. In an idealistic world, gender labeling would be abolished. The mentality that girls should be staying home to do the chores while only boys are allowed out to be active would not exist. In that ideal world, anyone of any gender would be able to pursue his or her sporting passion in freedom. In reality, there is still a need for education and breaking of glass ceilings with regards to gender equality, in order to bring about a change in perspective.

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Maisha: What can different aspects of society do to help break gender stereotypes so that each child can grow up to fulfill his or her best potential instead of succumbing to roles pre-cast for them by stereotypes and labelling?

Nada: I believe that advertising and the media play an important role in abolishing gender stereotypes. In an article I came across while scrolling through Facebook, the author highlighted the choice of images for the men’s and women’s section of a popular surf and beachwear brand. While the image for the men’s section was that of an athletic-bodied male surfer riding the waves, the image for the women’s section was a slim, model-esque woman lying on the sand, back arched, clad in a bikini. The author then questioned why the brand, known to sponsor many of the world’s top female surfers, chose to portray women as passive sunbathers rather than active go-getters like the men. To further highlight the stereotypes in the fitness or sporting industry, one just has to turn to the content of fitness articles. While fitness articles written for men are often about strength, muscle hypertrophy and smashing through cardio, articles catered to women are more often about trimming abdominal and thigh fat, or toning up for firmer buttocks. To give them the benefit of the doubt, I believe writers and the media are doing their best to capture their target audiences, but what, I wonder, brought about these stereotypes in the audience in the first place?

I believe family is the most important factor in breaking gender stereotypes, many of which are often reinforced in the simplest of everyday things – the color of our room, the clothes picked out for us, the toys we are given to play with. I recently came across a documentary on YouTube in which two toddlers, a boy and a girl, had their outfits swapped before they spent some time playing with adult volunteers in the social experiment. When the genders of the toddlers were finally revealed, the volunteers were astonished as they came to realize they had subconsciously reinforced gender stereotypes just by looking at the outfits of the toddlers. Most of the volunteers had picked out fire trucks and puzzles for the girl dressed in a shirt and trousers, while dolls and cooking sets were the toys of choice for the boy wearing a dress and a floral headband. It would definitely be interesting to observe the  outcome if children were allowed to pick their own toys, clothes and cartoons.

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Maisha: Nada, thank you for taking time out to share your story. What would be your final message to an aspiring Muay Thai fighter?

Nada: In Muay Thai, respect for a fighter is never just about the skill, but more so, the heart of the fighter. A fighter may be physically losing a fight, but it’s how much heart he has to keep fighting that gains him the respect of the people around him. The road isn’t always smooth but we are fighters and that’s why we fight through the tough times It’s been a pleasure sharing my stories and opinions!

** Article edited by Alia Binte Mohammed Mustafa