It’s after work one muggy evening in Hong Kong, and I’m on the mat at Warrior Academy, the city’s Ultimate Fighting Championship-inspired gym. I’ve signed up for a one-on-one class in muay thai, but my punches are weak, my kicks weaker. Jet-lagged, sweaty, discouraged, and gasping for air, I quickly realise I’m a runner, not a fighter.
Tucked into the second floor of a nondescript building on the west end of Hong Kong Island, Warrior Academy is a 10-minute taxi ride from the city’s financial district. Since it opened in July 2016, the center has been gaining in popularity with the adventurous professional set eager for a one-stop shop that integrates a functional gym, a full-size ring for sparring, lots of space for mats, and an in-house kitchen.
Co-founder Tricia Yap fell in love with UFC-style fighting when she was a management consultant in Hong Kong dabbling in fitness. Training herself turned into training others, and she quit her white-collar job at PwC five years ago. As one of the only female mixed martial artists in Hong Kong, she couldn’t make a living just by fighting, but she could use her holistic approach to help women — and men — toiling in offices. The studio and its ilk here are direct beneficiaries of the rise of MMA and the UFC, which in July 2016 was sold to sports and talent agency WME-IMG for $4 billion. UFC itself has more than 100 branded gyms across the U.S., and in New York there are boutiques such as Shadowbox and Work Train Fight
These high-end gyms are a far cry from the open-air muay thai fighting camps in Thailand. On Warrior Academy’s premises is a restaurant called the Elephas, a name that evokes the tight-knit pachyderm communities the center aims to emulate.
The gym even sells a membership for fighters who want to work out and then pick up a post-session meal — roasted salmon, pad thai papaya, curried seafood quinoa — intended to rejuvenate and fuel the body. A single session runs HK$250 ($32), and a monthly membership, including unlimited classes, costs HK$2,200.
On this particular evening, part of Yap’s job is assuring, and reassuring, me that I’m not going to show up at the office the next morning with a black eye. I change into shorts and a T-shirt — no shoes or socks on the mat — in a locker room that reminds me of the boutiques back in New York: light wood, individual lockers, and showers stocked with high-end toiletries.
On the mat, my trainer, Bhurm, and I stretch for about 10 minutes. Then he shows me how to wrap my hands, looping the stretchy tape around and through my knuckles. It’s a simple act that nonetheless makes me feel like a badass.
We practice a combination of moves back at the mirror. One important lesson: Power comes from the entire body, not just the fist or foot. Bhurm demonstrates, then watches me practice over and over again until I start stepping into punches and kicks, using the torque of my body to generate power.
It’s not until he leads me through a punch-kick-uppercut-punch-kick combination, 45 minutes later, that I start to feel better about my muay thai. I’m still not ready to get hit in the face, but show me where to kick and punch, and I’m there.