Iman Barlow is a professional Muay Thai fighter from England. If you haven’t seen her fight or even heard of her, despite considering yourself a fan of female Muay Thai you may not be alone. When I learned of Iman and her story my first thought was how have I not heard of this woman? She has a number of titles to her name and is gearing up for a fight against decorated Brit Alexis Rufus. Iman is considered the promising young up-and-comer on the western female Muay Thai scene with experience that is well beyond what her youthful 19 years suggest. In fact, Iman was raised in and around Muay Thai like few others. She began performing the movements and parts of classes her parents were teaching when she was only 2 years old, she fought her first fight in Thailand at the age of 8 and her first pro bout at the age of 12. All told she has compiled over 130 fights (including her “junior” bouts) before she has hit the age of 20. She is perhaps the first and foremost female fighter of a second wave of female Muay Thai fighters that has grown out of the passion of westerners discovering for themselves and exploring Muay Thai in the 1980s and 90s. Iman is the daughter of two such fighters.
I got the chance to sit down with her via Skype from Thailand. I really wanted to find out more about her remarkable perspective – the video of our call can be found at the bottom of this article. And the edited nearly full transcript of our conversation can be found on my post An Interview with Iman Barlow: Pro Female Muay Thai Fighter. You can also download the Iman Barlow Interview MP3 file if you’d like to listen to it on a run like I do with podcasts.
In this piece I just wanted to give a sense of what she is about in the rough sketch; please do read the interview for more context. The YouTube image is very jumpy, but it could be used as a kind of image-enriched podcast. Iman is super expressive and laughs a lot, its good to know how funny she is. A YouTube recording of my interview, which perhaps works best as an audio file with some photo enhancement is found at the bottom of this post.
A Unique Fighter and Experience
With parents who are both ex-fighters and run Assassins Gym in England one might say that Iman grew up in gyms in a way somewhat similar to Thai children who begin boxing at an early age do. Her story is so unique because of the crossover between a very Thai-like experience of “growing up Muay Thai” – Muay Thai as way of life – but as she’s not Thai and is in fact a western woman her experience is singular in a number of ways. At the early age of 8 Iman had her first fight in Thailand – and picked up her nickname, “Pretty Killer” from the owner at Jitti Gym – where her family spent many weeks each summer. As she tells it:
I remember the first time I went to Thailand, I think I was eight. We went to Jitti Gym, and this was when it was the old Jitti Gym down on Koh Sam Rd [sp] and we trained there. We were there five or six weeks and the week just before we left Jitti asked if I wanted to fight – I was only eight, you know, fearless – and I was like ‘I don’t care’. My Mom and Dad were a bit more worried, so they said ‘Yeah, she can fight but she has to wear shin pads.’ And obviously people in Thailand, they don’t fight with shinpads.
But we turned up at this bar, I remember, and all the guys from the gym came along, and it turned out I was fighting a boy [chuckle], I was warming up on the pads – I was REALLY little like – I was warming up on the pads, and the boy was apparently Northern Champion of Thailand, him and his corner started laughin’ at me so that made me more angry. So I went in there – and I had shinpads on and he didn’t – and I got a draw…I was only eight so I can remember if it was actually a draw, or if they just did it, or whether I lost or whether I won, but they said it was a draw . So I was quite happy with that.
This was, incidentally, not the only time that Iman fought against a boy. In her home country of England she’s fought “loads of boys” throughout her youth, she says, due to a lack of female opponents for her to face in the ring. This had been pretty much the norm until the time she was 12 or 13 the physical maturation of boys made it no longer an option. Iman remembers that as a time when she had great difficulty finding fights. She didn’t care who she was fighting, she just wanted to fight:
It didn’t bother me fighting boys or girls. I just loved fighting. I just wanted to fight all the time, so if it was a boy or a girl I wasn’t bothered. If it was a boy it was a probably a harder fight which would be better for me…Obviously I can’t remember half of my fights but, you know, I think the boys remembered me! [laughing]
Iman is very lucky in that she had her mother as an example right from the start – a multiple time British Champion – and indeed her mother was still fighting when Iman was very young. In fact, the mother and daughter duo even fought on the same card once [a great picture below]. Iman’s career grew as her mother’s unfortunately was stopped short by an injury to her ankle which required numerous operations. But you can feel her pride in her mother’s fighting. When I first asked if she had been aware of her mother as a fighter as a child Iman was cheerfully boastful – and rightfully so – about one famed opponent, sharing her same fearless, open to anything spirit:
IB: Yeah, my Mom used to fight. She was like 3x British Champion or something like that…you heard of Lucia Rijker?
IB: My Mom fought her! [laughing]
SV: No way.
IB: But this was at the beginning of my Mom’s career – she was only about 17 – so my Mom had never heard of Lucia Rijker, and Lucia was a few kilos heavier than my Mom, but my Mom went over there and was like ‘I’ll fight her’ …my Mom got stopped in the first round [laughing]…but my Mom was proud to say that she fought Lucia Rijker.
My own experience and that of many of the western women I know who have trained in Thai gyms is that we are aware of our difference on a nearly daily basis. For Iman – living in a Muay Thai family that traveled together and beginning her experience in Thailand so young – I wondered if she had experienced her difference as a foreigner and a female even as a child or whether the disparity became more evident or even grew over time:
At first, because I was only young, I didn’t know the difference between Thais and foreigners. So when I first got there – you know everyone took me on the pads, especially my brother – because my brother was – well, I was eight, he would have been four – and he’s really pale white, blonde hair – and about fourteen years ago there were not that many children over there like that and obviously he got a lot of attention, a lot of people touching my brother’s hair all the time – we were in Koh Samui once, in the sea, and people were running up – in their clothes, fully clothed – to touch my brother’s hair [laughing]…things like that. I think in that way it was a bit strange, but, when I was younger it was all the same, but now, growing up, I’m always classed different over there – as a woman as well – I try to help the Thais out doing things, lifting things, and they’re like ‘No, a woman shouldn’t do that,’ so I have to just sit there being bored.
At first…I was treated just as a kid. But now it’s changed so much with so many foreigners going over there I don’t enjoy it as much as I used to…I think Thais are a bit more wary…
It’s not unreasonable to believe that many things have changed, and quite a bit, in the time since Iman first started training and fighting over the summers in Thailand. Not only have the commercial gyms of Thailand changed, but Iman has too as she’s gone from trying to find as many fights as she could as a junior, to having her first professional fight at the age of 12 in Thailand, to training for big name or big event Muay Thai matches. I asked if her training has changed a lot over the years and whether she has experienced all kinds of injuries over her lifetime of fights. Iman is casual about both. She says she’s been very lucky in that she’s never suffered major injuries, other than a bad back which she got through running Cross Country for school, but she’s in “pain management” now so her back is less of a problem. As for the changes in her training, in short it has grown up with her:
I’d just say, training harder. I’ve got people around me now the same weight, other fighters to spar with…I’d just say going for longer runs, doing more rounds on the pads, training 3 hours instead of an hour and a half, things like that.
I wouldn’t say I’m getting used to it, you know, it’s never easy. If training is easy you aren’t training hard enough [laughing]. I’d never say that I get used to it, it is hard – especially getting up in the morning and going for a run, ‘cause I love my sleep [laughing]…
At this moment Iman’s answer expresses the quintessential teenager, but also the perfect example of being a fighter. Every fighter loves their sleep.
Unlike most teenagers, Iman has a row of title belts hanging on her bedroom wall, including her current favorite, the S-1 World Title (because it’s pink). She does not seem particularly belt conscious though, she lists only the WBC belt as one that would be nice to go after. It is more just a matter of now bringing her name to the world after so long being relatively unknown outside the British fight circle, to show them “where I’m at”. For the majority of her fight path her father has managed her, in practice if not in title, guiding her to success both personally and now professionally. It can’t always be easy having your trainer split into other personal relationships (like many women who are married to their trainers might attest) and Iman’s relationship with her father as trainer is about as emotionally complex as you’d expect, but it’s also incredibly and beautifully simple. When she speaks of her connection to him in training you can feel the love. Asked to name other Muay Thai fighters who were role models or inspirations she thought about it for a minute but could come up with only one definitive person:
…I just say my inspiration – and I know it sounds stupid – is my Dad. Sometimes we don’t get on in the house, but in training me and him on the pads together just click and I just love it, going on the pads with him. Well – it’s hard!…but, at the end I love it. He’s the one that pushes me hard and obviously you need different people to train you to learn different things and that’s why I went to Thailand [alone recently], to learn new things, not just be with my Dad. But after being out there I realized that my Dad is my trainer, and he’s the right person for me to train me for my fights, and I missed him…which was weird [laughing].
Recently Iman has been taken up by two managers, Kieran Keddle and Vinnie Shaw from Fighters Worldwide, who will be able to connect her to the kinds of fights that will make her more well-known on the international Muay Thai circuit. This gives her dad a break and has already set her up for a match against UK Champion Alexis Rufus, whose name has been current in the US due to her recent bout against Tiffany Van Soest on the Lion Fight 8 promotion in Vegas. It’s a good opportunity for Iman to kind of “break” onto the scene in a bigger way as Alexis is a much-respected name coming off a disappointing loss. By many reports Alexis was winning her fight against the highly skilled Tiffany Van Soest before Tiffany’s electric headkick and hand combination KO. And Iman just missed a fight with Jojo Calderwood due to Jojo’s withdrawl due to injury in November, just as Jojo appears to have left Muay Thai for the better opportunities in MMA.
If you haven’t seen or heard of Iman yet it might be because at a young age, due to her experience and skill level, it was hard to find fights for her so her family’s strategy was to keep footage of her fights off the internet so that she wouldn’t scare off the competition. Now that world class competition is in the queue it seems that Iman is more than ready to step onto the visible stage.
[A]nd a lot of people have wanted this fight [against Alexis Rufus] for ages so I’m really looking forward to this fight, you know, to show everyone what I’m about… because Alexis has been around for a while, she’s a lot older than me and people have seen her fight a lot more than they’ve seen me fight so it’s a good opportunity for me to show everyone where I’m at.
With the uniqueness of having so much experience at so young an age I asked her about the advantages and disadvantages of her limited visibility as a fighter and her experience:
The only disadvantage I see is, you know, getting less fights. And the advantage would be like: more confidence. You know, when I got into the ring I never get nervous, and I think my confidence in the ring shows. I’m really relaxed. A lot of people go into the ring and they say ‘I can’t hear my corner, can never hear my corner’. When I’m in the ring I can hear every word my Dad says, whether he whispers it or not, I can hear everything he says, and it just clicks in my brain and I do it…It just feels natural in there. It takes a lot of people a lot of fights to be like that in the ring. I suppose in that way I’m lucky.
What does she expect from the fight against Alexis? Iman is quick to say that’s it’s going to be hard because Alexis is so strong – just do a Google image search and you’ll see how strong – but she’s excited for the challenge. No matter who she’s up against Iman’s training focuses on her own strengths and being well rounded, “I wouldn’t say I change my training a lot for an individual fighter, but I go into the ring wary, I know what’s going to happen and I’m not going to get stunned.” When asked if she thinks people know what to expect when meeting her in the ring, Iman’s confidence remains:
To be honest, I don’t think they do because I’m not well-known and I’ve not got many videos on YouTube – I think I’ve got one whole fight…and a little mini-clip – and I think from that you can’t really tell what I do. And to be honest I don’t even think I can tell what I do, I think that is why I’m kind of different. It’s because it’s not I’ve got one strong point. I come at you at every angle. That’s what I’d say. That’s the type of fighter I am. So I don’t think you can train for me?…Sorry [laughing].
The Full Conversation with Iman Barlow
Below is the YouTube of our Skype talk – as I mentioned the image is a little jumpy but you still get a good sense of it, we had much better video connection than it shows. Iman talks in depth about her experiences in Thailand, her personal approach to training and perpsective on fighting, and her connections to her family. For those who like to read through see my post of the transcript: An Interview with Iman Barlow: Pro Female Muay Thai Fighter. You can download the MP3 file Interview with Iman Barlow here. I want to really extend my thank you to Iman for letting me get a glimpse into her wonderful history with Muay Thai and her fighting passion.