An Interview with Iman Barlow: Pro Female Muay Thai Fighter

Above is my Skype interview with Iman Barlow. The image quality is very jumpy but the audio is good. The edited transcript (for clarity) can be found below, and...

Above is my Skype interview with Iman Barlow. The image quality is very jumpy but the audio is good. The edited transcript (for clarity) can be found below, and my Introduction to her is here in my post: Meet Female Pro Muay Thai Fighter Iman Barlow. And if you’d like to listen to the interview on MP3 you can download the audio file Interview with Iman Barlow.

My Interview with Iman
“Growing Up” in Thailand and Fighting Boys

SV: Last time we talked you were giving me some background of growing up and going to Thailand with your family. If you could just start there, you said you started fighting when you were just ten so it was always something you would do. Do you remember the first time you went to Thailand?

IB: 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 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.

SV: Is that the only time you ever fought a boy?

IB: No, I’ve fought loads of boys in England.

SV: Really? When you were little?

IB: Yeah. I fought a lot of girls obviously, but it comes to a point where there was no more girls left to fight, or they wouldn’t want to fight me. So went onto boys about my weight. But when I got to about 12 or 13 that’s when boys start to mature and I started to have to not fight boys anymore so I wasn’t getting that many fights around that age.

But yeah, I fought loads of boys. I remember fighting one boy. I had just finished a Cross Country – because I used to be a runner – and come to this Inter Club my Dad was running, so it was with shinpads and everything, but he was a Kickboxer.

So like, ‘Do you want to fight Iman?

‘Yeah. We won’t wear head guards then.’

And my Dad says ‘No, I’d wear a head guard if I were you.’

‘No, no. It’ll be alright.’

My Dad says ‘No, wear a head guard, honestly.’

‘No, no. It will be alright.’

But my Dad made him go in with a head guard. And after the first round I think I kicked him in the first round and  his head guard came off, I just kicked his head guard off and kicked across his nose and broken his nose [laughing].

I was only about 12 I think [thinking about]..probably younger than that, probably about 10. That was a funny story.

SV: Was that weird to you that you were fighting boys or that you were running out of girls to fight?

IB: No. 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]

SV: I read somewhere you had over 100 amateur fights, and that you are around 60 professional fights.

IB: Yeah. I’ve had around a 100 Junior fights, probably more. You know I had my first non-shin pad fight, my first full Muay Thai rules fight when I was twelve, in Thailand. We used to go to Thailand for the Summer every year. We used to go for six weeks and I would try to get 2 or 3 fights in while I was there in Thailand in six weeks. So I’ve had a lot of experience and traveled a lot, and had a lot of fights.

SV: But the majority of your fights have been in England, or did you fight a lot in Thailand?

IB: Most of my fights have been in England because I only was in Thailand about a month and a half of the whole year…so I’ve had about 30 – maybe more – fights in Thailand.

SV: You’ve told me that your Mom and Dad trained. Did your Mom fight as well?

IB: Yeah, my Mom used to fight. She was like 3x British Champion or something like that…you heard of Lucia Rijker?

SV: Yeah!

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.

Iman and her mom

Iman and her mom

SV: Were you aware of your Mom having been a fighter when you were little, like when you first started?

IB: When I first started my Mom was still fighting so there’s a few photos of us together, I think once we fought on the same show and there’s a nice photo of that. Then my Mom I think hurt her ankle and she had a load of operations on it, and she can’t really kick very well and take a kick and things like that. That’s why she stopped fighting.

SV: When you went to Thailand with your family did you perceive yourself to be treated differently…as a Westerner…as a woman, or as a child…or did you just kind of just fit in with the rest of the kids?

IB: 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, and all they want is money – in a way…

Training  and Fighting Now

SV: How has your training changed? You’ve almost – literally – done this your entire life. So obviously when you are a little kid you train differently than now when you’re getting ready to fight Alexis Rufus…So how has it changed over the years?

IB: I’d just say, training harder. I’ve got people around me now the same weight, other fighters to spar with…[Mom walks in]…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.

SV: Do you find that you get used to it as you go, or is it still really challenging every time?

IB: 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]…

SV: You must have had many small – and larger – injuries all through your life. How have you dealt with injuries as you progress?

IB: Well, to be honest I’m quite lucky. The only problem I’ve ever had is a bad back, and that is from when I used to run, Cross Country. But that is sorted and I’m in pain management, I’ve got my pain under control. Apart from that I’ve never really had anything really bad. And you know, after a fight, if I have any bruises if it’s been a really hard fight I straight away put ice and counterpain on, and take Arnica tablets. You know we hit it straight away.

A lot of people fight and they’ve got bruises and injuries and they don’t treat them. They just go out and party, but we go straight on so I can get back to training as soon as I can.

SV: How many days do you take off after a fight before you get back to training?

IB: Usually, if I fight on a Saturday I’ll be back to light training on a Tuesday. But that is usually because I want to keep busy so I always got a fight lined up.  But sometimes I take two weeks off, it depends if I have another fight in the pipeline or not.

SV: Do you have particular fighters you want fight, you know names you want to fight or there are titles you want to go for or events you want to fight on?

IB: Um…not really. I just – and I know obviously I’m fighting Alexis Rufus at the O2 and a lot of people have wanted this fight for ages so I’m really looking forward to this fight, you know, to show everyone what I’m about you know, because Alexis has been around for a while, you know 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

…But out of the belts I’d say, I’d really like the WBC one – it’s really nice – but I’d say the S-1 World Title, I love that, its pink. [Sylvie laughing]…I’ve got that one, but I’d love to win another one cause I love it. [laughing] I’ve got it hanging up in my bedroom [mutual laughter]

SV: So you have new managers now, your Dad was your manager for a long time for you, and you said now you have two new ones?

IB: Well, you know really my Dad’s been my trainer and he was just organizing fights for me – he wasn’t really – I don’t know if he was my manager [laughing] he just did it all – but now we’ve been offered so my Dad can have a break. Vinny and Kirin have good contacts around the world because they commentate on K-1 around the world – so they’ll just be getting me wicked, brilliant opportunities, so I’m looking forward to it.

SV: So you want to become really well known?

IB: Yeah, definitely. I feel like I’ve been doing it for ages, and a lot of people don’t know me, which is fine by me. But I want them to know me by seeing me fight and thinking ‘Ah, she’s wicked.’ – not just over the Internet and not knowing what I’m all about. I want them to see me fight.

SV: Do you have fight videos up anywhere? If someone found your name and they Googled ‘Iman Barlow’ would they be able to find fights of yours, be able to see you?

IB: Um, I think there is only…I think that’s another reason why people don’t really know who I am. We didn’t like putting videos and stuff on YouTube, when I was younger, we struggled to get fights. I don’t want to get to a certain age – you know I’m 19 now – I don’t want to get a few years down the line and not be able to fight after the age of 24 because I can’t find a fight. I would be awful. But obviously there are places I’ve not been to fight, there’s girls from Japan, Australia, America, Canada – there’s everywhere – I’ve only really ever fought girls in Europe and Thailand. But you know, it’s expensive, you can’t afford fights and things like that.

SV: I find it amazing because I didn’t know who you were, and then I kind of found you online fairly recently – maybe 6 months ago – and I’m like ‘My God, how do I not know who this woman is?!’ You’re incredible. And there is nobody who has your same story. And I just think it is amazing that you are fighting people around the world who have been doing this from 3 to 10 years, and you’ve been doing it since you were two. It’s unbelievable.

…Do you see any advantages or disadvantages of having the story that you have, of having always done this?

IB: 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.

SV: How do you feel about the growing popularity of MMA and that a lot of people who would like to be doing Muay Thai are going to MMA in order to make money and be on cards? How do you see the popularity of Muay Thai vs. the popularity of MMA?

IB: Obviously MMA has grown a lot more popular than Muay Thai, the same as K-1. K-1 is more popular than Muay Thai. And I just say I think it is more entertaining for people to watch K-1 rather than Muay Thai because of maybe the clinch. Sometimes they find it a bit boring.  But for me, I’m a bit gutted that people have gotten into MMA cause I – you know, it’s alright but I’ll always do Thai boxing. You know maybe – you know there’s a girl Jojo Calderwood, she was a Muay Thai fighter. Then I think she struggled to find fights in Muay Thai so she moved to MMA and is really successful in MMA. So, I’d never say anything bad about it, but, who knows where it would lead, but I do Muay Thai for the love and not for the money. But…sometimes you need the money [laughing].

SV: I’d actually really love to see you fight JoJo because she uses her Muay Thai a lot in her MMA fights and you almost never see clean Muay Thai in MMA – it’s like they don this really half-assed kick because they don’t want to get caught or something. Seeing the two of you do actual Muay Thai would be awesome.

IB: Well we were supposed to fight in November just gone. That’s why I came home from Thailand. I’d come home to fight Jojo but I think three weeks before the fight she was injured, so the fight didn’t go ahead. I don’t know if there will be a fight for the future or not.

SV: Did you ever want to be anything other than a fighter when you were growing up, or you just always knew?

IB: I have no idea, you know. You know when people grow up and they are like ‘I want to be a Policeman’.  I’ve actually never known what I wanted to do, and I still don’t know now, that’s what’s so scary. I’m 19 and I don’t know what I want to do [laughing].

SV: That’s not old to not know what you want to do. There are people who have been in college for 7 years and they don’t know what they want to do [laughing].

IB: Yeah, I’ve not even got – like – an interest in anything else…apart from shopping [laughing]. I haven’t even got any style so I wouldn’t get far [laughing]. I used to want to be a surgeon, and then my Mom bought me this video about stuff like that and I’d seen loads of blood and I was put off, so I didn’t think I was going to get very far in that department.

SV: Are there fighters who you look up to or admire, or styles that you emulate or anything like that?

IB: Well, to be honest. I never know what I’m doing but I always seem to be busy so I never go to a lot of shows around the UK so I’ve not seen many people fight. And I know it sounds bad, but I don’t really like watching fights on YouTube either because I don’t find it interesting watching them on YouTube. I’d rather be there live. So I don’t really know. I like Thai style, and obviously Julie Kitchen is a massive name in Thai boxing and she’s done a lot for female Muay Thai. There’s a lot of good fighters I’ve seen out there…I wouldn’t say a particular one.

Iman and her father

Iman and her father

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 [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].

SV: Do you find that you can separate being a fighter from your social life? Or like, your Dad and you have a disagreement in training and then it is done when you go to dinner? Or it all kind of blends together?

IB: I think it all blends together, because it is who I am. You know, with my mates…it’s just me. I’m not the most glamorous of girls, cause I’m training nearly twice a day, every day. So there’s not point in…washing my hair, straightening it. If I’m not going out and I’m training later I’m just wearing tracksuit bottoms [laughing] – so my mate are used to it and they know that’s who I am. I’m lucky that some of them come and support me…but some of them love their drink too much, so they do that instead.

SV: Pretty much your whole family is familiar with Muay Thai. It’s part of your livelihood.  You grew up with it, both your parents did it, your little brother does it. Do you find that it is something that is in your family all the time? Do you advise your little brother in fighting? Or if he decided to stop the way you did for a time at 16 would you advise him to do it? How do you deal with that?

IB: I just think it’s around everywhere. Obviously we have the choice as to whether we want to do it or not. And obviously I’ve made the choice that I do. Before I was like ‘I don’t know if I do. I don’t know if I’m doing it because I want to do it.’ But now I’ve realized 100% I’m doing it because I love it. And I think it’s the same with my brother. My brother used to play rugby and my dad used to be a rugby player, and my brother turned around and by brother said ‘I don’t enjoy it anymore Dad’, so he stopped playing rugby you know. But he loves Muay Thai as well, he’s going to the World Championships, he turned around and found he’s the heaviest in his weight category and he’s ‘I’m going to win it, I’m going to train to win it this year’ – so you know, I think we all love it.  You know, there’s times when you’re like ‘oh, it do my head in!’ , but damn you love it.

SV: Are there ever times when you and your brother ever have to make weight at the same time?

IB: No. I’m just the one who has to make weight in my family [laughing]. My brother’s too skinny, he needs to put weight on, so I’m really jealous of him…Well, wait till he’s older and then he’s been losing more weight and I’ll be laughing at him.

SV: Do you like fighting in the West, or do you like fighting in Thailand better? They are pretty different.

IB: I’d say I like fighting in the West, because Thailand…I just think…it  just does my head in that you can win the fight blatantly and they can still class it as you lost or you drew. And there’s a difference between being a sore loser and actually winning…It just irritates me – you know you’ve won the fight when all the gamblers are booing the other girl, and that’s happened to me twice out there. And I know you say that you should win the fight convincingly then. But sometimes it is just not enough for them. I don’t understand how it can happen.

SV: Because you know that things can go differently in Thailand do you change the way you fight at all?

IB: No, I don’t think I do. I just think I go out, straight from the start, and I think my fitness is what makes me win the fight, I out-pace everyone else – I’m not sure, I just think I fight the same in Thailand as I do in the West, definitely.

SV: Do you have any pre-fight rituals that you do all the time, like before a fight?

IB: No, I don’t really. I make sure my wedgey is pulled down, and that’s it [mutual laughing]…I just think that when you come out in England – the big up here entrance – so I like coming out and getting the crowd going and then as soon as I get in the ring – that’s it. As soon as I’ve done my Ram Muay – Wai Khru that just puts me in zone and calms me down. So I love doing my Wai Khru – I know a lot of people find it boring, but I love doing it.

SV: Did you learn it from your dad, or did you learn it in Thailand?

IB: I learned it from Jitti Dumram, so from Jitti Gym Thailand, and I learned it when I was – I must have learned it when I was around twelve – and that’s where I got my fight name from – the “Pretty Killer” in Thai it’s called Suay Pukaa  – I got that from Jitti, I got that when I was eight years old after my first fight [laughing]…so I stuck with it.

SV: You have an Old School Ram Muay from back in the day, that’s good.

IB: Yeah. Mine’s just simple though. You’re supposed to be graceful in that, but I’m just like an elephant so I try my best [mutual laughing].

SV: So if you were to introduce yourself to people who don’t really don’t follow Muay Thai that closely or don’t know female Muay Thai that well how would you introduce yourself to people?

IB: I’d just say: I’m 19…I’m funny [laughing]…I’m stupid [more laughing]…and I don’t know how I fight, but I do!…nah, I’d just be saying that I’ve done it for a long time…ah…-

SV:  – Well, how would you introduce Alexis Rufus if people were like ‘Who are you fighting?’?

IB: I’d say ‘I’m fighting a well-known fighter from England. She’s strong. She’s from Star’s Gym… and she’s really strong…[laughing]…I don’t know she’s just really strong…and it’s going to be hard! [self-depreciative laughing, mutual laughing].

SV: Do you train specifically for people? When you knew you were going to fight Jojo, or you knew you were going to fight Alexis do you change the way you train?

IB: No,I won’t say that I change – you obviously – I’ve watched Jojo and Alexis fight you can kind of pick up on what they do – whether they are strong with their hands and come forward or whether they are technical, so you kind of know what to expect when you get in the ring – so 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, do you know what I mean?

SV: So you know what you’re coming up against?


IB: Yes, exactly.

SV: Do you think people know what they are coming against when they fight you?

IB: 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].


You can read my introduction to Iman in: Meet Iman Barlow

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