S'pore Muay Thai athlete, 28, on fighting despite being banned by parents & last-minute cancellation of world championships

Less than 24 hours before they were due to fly out to Dubai for the IFMA World Championships, Tan Xuan Yun and her teammates were told their participation had been cancelled.

Andrew Koay | June 04, 2022, 05:17 PM

Follow us on Telegram for the latest updates: https://t.me/mothershipsg

Strict dieting, daily 5km runs, weightlifting sessions up to four times a week.

Oh and don’t forget Muay Thai training sessions Monday to Saturday.

That was Tan Xuan Yun’s life for the better part of the last eight weeks.

The 28-year-old had been preparing for the International Federation of Muay Thai Associations (IFMA) World Championships, held in Dubai in 2022 from May 26 to Jun. 4.

It was slated to be her third appearance at the showpiece event — her third opportunity to represent Singapore on the global stage — and her first fight since the start of the pandemic.

Yet, one day before Tan and her fellow Team Singapore fighters were set to fly out to the event, Singapore Muay Thai Federation (SMF) team manager and coach Robert Yap dropped a bombshell in the team's WhatsApp group:

“Guy I have bad news and I know all will be very disappointed but world championships is cancelled!

Sponsors have pulled their funding.

And I can’t change it.

You may call me as I know you want to know why.

But not now after 11:15 pm (sic)”

“I was lost and confused,” Tan told Mothership.

“We were already mentally prepped for [the world championships] — you’re excited actually. And then this thing happened... even to this day I’m like ‘what do I do now?’”

One day before she was due to fly out to Dubai, Tan still had no inkling that the trip would be cancelled. Image from Tan Xuan Yun's Instagram

Looking for a fight

Tan first stepped into a Muay Thai gym in 2014, as a 20-year-old with her first month’s pay from an internship freshly deposited into her bank account.

Having held a longstanding interest in health and fitness — exercise was Tan’s way of dealing with image issues and an eating disorder that she’d had since the age of 11 — trying a new sport which was quickly gaining popularity was a no brainer.

That first session, she recalled, was also the first scratch of an itch that had begun to spread when as a child her mum banned her from watching pro wrestling.

“I think she suppressing me from watching WWE actually sparked my interest more in combat sports. I thought it’s pretty cool to be able to take hits and not flinch,” Tan said.

Now experiencing the first semblance of financial independence, Tan could finally pursue an activity that she’d long dreamt about.

For the 20-year-old Tan, that felt like an accomplishment in and of itself — it was perhaps the first time in her life that she was doing something on her own terms.

“It was a good feeling,” she said, recalling her early days in the sport.

“But of course when you go past that stage, you just want to keep getting better.”

As Tan applied herself to the martial art, it wasn’t long before coaches took notice of her enthusiasm and training ethic.

Soon one asked her what she was in it for — what did she hope to accomplish?

“I said ‘I don’t just want to train, I want to fight’.”

The art of eight limbs

Combat sports and martial arts have carved out their own space in today’s smorgasbord of fitness fads.

It’s not uncommon to find kickboxing or “boxercise” fitness studios that might borrow the parlance and equipment of a particular combat sport but are far divorced from its fighting roots.

Techniques originally designed to inflict damage and punishment are instead used as a fun way for working professionals to burn a few calories — an alternative to spin and yoga classes.

While Muay Thai gyms in Singapore are in no way immune to these capitalistic trappings, they appear to have largely maintained a sense of grittiness.

It probably has much to do with the pure brutality of the sport itself; even for someone like myself, who watches a variety of combat sports, I can’t help but wince whenever I watch Muay Thai fighters kicking the sh*t out of each other.

Also known as the art of eight limbs, Muay Thai fighters utilise their fists, elbows, knees, shins, and even some wrestling to gloriously violent effect.

Such is the mettle needed to compete in the sport that it's not uncommon to see fighters condition their shins by aiming kicks at tree trunks.

Yet underlying what to the untrained eye might seem like a brawl are finely tuned movements and strategies.

To put it all together and execute them under the pressure of someone trying to knock you out requires hours upon hours of intense training.

“The fundamentals for fighting is running and sparring and a lot of pad work,” explained Tan, the last referring to drills whereby a trainer holding punching and kicking pads call out sequences of strikes for fighters to execute.

“But ultimately it's about — day in and day out you have to keep practising. You have to keep sparring and keep learning how to take hits."

Fighting in secret

Taking hits, Tan admitted, turned out to be her weakness going into her first fight, which took place about a year after she first started training.

"I didn't know how to defend myself," she said.

"After the first fight I had quite bruised up ribs, so then my parents didn't want to let me continue fighting."

Undeterred, Tan continued to take on fights, albeit in secret.

This policy of subterfuge was kept for the next 10 or so fights of Tan's career including her professional debut in Thailand.

"I always told them I was going for a holiday," said Tan giggling mischievously.

"So I told myself if I want to fight and if I do not want them to worry — or find out — then I have to learn how to defend myself."

Today, Tan has amassed 18 amateur and professional fights and describes her fighting style and strategy as one anchored on defence.

View this post on Instagram


A post shared by XY | 🍉 (@xuanyun)

In 2017, the coach at her home gym — BXG Boxing and Fitness in Tanjong Katong — brought her into Singapore's national team set-up; at the time he was the head coach of the team.

To qualify for the squad, Tan had to square off against fighters invited from Malaysia.

Her performance at the try-outs and subsequent training sessions saw her entered by the SMF into the 2018 edition of the IFMA World Championships held in Mexico.

"I was very fixated — every day I'd wake up, I'd run and then I'd train twice a day. Just to make up I think for my inexperience too," said Tan, recounting her training regime.

"I was very nervous, but you know when the bell rings you don't have much time to analyse your opponent. You have to just go because you're taking hits."

Tan didn't come back to Singapore with a medal, but the experience made her hungry to improve.

World championships cancelled

This year, the world championships were set to be the stage for Tan's first fight in two years — after the Covid-19 pandemic upended international travel and sporting events.

Together with three other teammates — Cheryl Gwa, Lee De Jun, and Chai Kai Quan — Tan was set to fly to Dubai on May 25.

According to Tan and Lee, before team manager Yap's text message on May 24, there was no inkling that the quartet's appearance at the championships was in jeopardy.

Just three days prior he had texted them a reminder to complete the required medical tests for the trip.

In a conference call later that evening, Yap explained the cancellation had been due to sponsors pulling their funding and unfulfilled attendance requirements at his gym — Chowraiooi Muay Thai in Golden Mile Complex, designated by the SMF as the national training centre.

Yap had earlier informed the quartet of athletes that they were required to attend a daily 1:30 to 3:30pm training slot.

Tan and Lee recalled Yap telling them that sponsors were not happy as the quartet had not met an 80 per cent attendance rate at the national training centre.

In addition, Yap said that a sponsor had been concerned about the team's ability to win medals at the championship.

This had caused the sponsor to back out, leaving a S$12,000 hole in the team's finances.

"There was no breakdown of what was going to happen," said Tan on the training programme (or lack thereof) at that national training centre.

"It was just like, come to the gym, do some pad work, and if there are people there then we'll spar, if not we're done with training.

Honestly I wasn't feeling very confident when I trained there because I wasn't getting enough sparring and technical work."

Lee, 25, who also spoke to Mothership, agreed with Tan that the training programme was not up to scratch.

Lee Dejun was also meant to fight in Dubai. Image from Lee Dejun's Instagram account.

Furthermore, Lee explained that the rigid training timing — right in the middle of the day — made it hard for the quartet to attend.

"As an athlete, I feel it's not fair as we have other commitments. I'm working so it's almost impossible for me to make the 1:30pm slot," he said.

Lee had explained his predicament to Yap who appeared to accept that his attendance would not meet the required 80 per cent.

Tan said mid-way through her preparations for the world championships, she swapped her regular training sessions at Chowraiooi for sessions with her coach at her home gym, who was the former national coach.

Not in the mind to compete

When the athletes were told that there was a S$12,000 shortfall in financing to make up, the team floated the idea of self-funding.

Both the athletes told Mothership that Yap appeared to warn the team against paying for the trip out of their own pocket, making vague references to repercussions should they decide to go ahead.

Yap — who as team manager and coach would have been in charge of handling administrative matters and corner the fighters in between rounds — also made clear that he would not be making the trip to Dubai.

Tan said it wasn't until 4pm on May 25 — about five hours before her flight — that she finally put all hopes of competing at the world championships to bed.

"I had a call with (my own coach) and he told me, 'Just forget about it because you're honestly not in the right frame of mind to compete'," said Tan.

Despite the explanations provided by Yap, questions over the circumstances of the cancellations persist for the team — especially with regard to its timing.

Tan estimated that she had lost between S$3,000 to S$4,000 in income from her job as a personal trainer, because of the time she'd taken off work to concentrate on her preparation.

"Challenges meeting its financial obligations"

Speaking to The Straits Times, SMF President Clement Ong said he was unaware of the issues related to sponsors and training attendance.

He also said the federation was looking into the matter.

A statement from a federation spokesperson admitted that it had experienced "challenges meeting its financial obligations" for the IFMA World Championships.

"As a national sports association during Covid times we have had our challenges in raising funds for our athletes to travel for overseas competitions. Fortunately, since the new administration has taken over in 2018, the federation has been funded by mainly the generous donations of patrons," read the statement according to ST.

The spokesperson also reminded athletes that funding was not an entitlement and their training for the world championships would be relevant for upcoming games.

According to CNA, Yap is now the subject of an investigation by SportSG for his alleged treatment of 2019 SEA Games bronze medalist Lena Tan.

In an interview, Lena said she had suffered injuries from a violent and unsafe fitness assessment conducted by Yap after she'd appealed her dismissal from the team.

"Hopefully one day"

Image from Tan Xuan Yun's Instagram account

Amid the chaos that has engulfed the national team, Tan has tried to remain focused on her own ambitions.

As with many sports, Muay Thai careers can be fleeting — especially when you take into account the punishment one inflicts and receives on their body.

The 28-year-old estimates she has another seven years of fighting left, having already lost two years to the pandemic.

Despite the disappointment of missing out on the world championships, Tan said she planned to compete again soon, possibly in Thailand.

Ultimately her goal is to win a championship belt in the professional ranks.

Yet, Tan hasn't completely given up on the dream of fighting for the national team and flying the Singapore flag.

"I never thought that I would get the chance to represent Singapore," said Tan.

"But when the opportunity showed up of course it was a big deal for me because all of us want to stand on that podium. Hopefully one day, you know?"

Mothership has reached out to the Singapore Muay Thai Federation for comment. Attempts to reach Yap for comments were unsuccessful.

Top images from Tan Xuan Yun's Instagram page