above, video: Saya Ito talking about her career arc, and a little about how our relationship unfolded
Saya Ito grew up as a “child phenom” in Japan, nicknamed the “Muay Thai Genius” due to her youth and success as a young fighter, winning almost 100 fights before she turned pro. Last year she took the 100 lbs WPMF title off of Japanese superstar Little Tiger. The latter had been holding that title for some years and is a protected fighter, so Saya dressed in her school uniform (still in high school) and attended a press conference where Little Tiger was being interviewed and stood up in the audience to call her out, “why won’t you fight me?” It was unbelievably badass, especially in Japanese society. So Saya beat the champ, took her belt, and then Little Tiger got an immediate rematch and title shot – Saya beat her again, even more definitively. Saya’s foot was fractured their first bout and she was eventually forced to take some time off to let it heal, but the fight organizers wanted to give Little Tiger yet another immediate shot at the title – seems someone in Japan really wanted Little Tiger to have that belt again. Saya, as she says, “didn’t see the meaning” in having to beat Little Tiger yet again, so she just vacated her title and let Little Tiger win it back off of somebody else. She had spoken up against bullshit to take the belt, defended the belt, and then when faced with more crap gave the belt back – thank you very much. These were ballsy moves on Saya’s part and gave me a bit of a thrill, reading about it all.
Now Saya’s foot is healed, she’s graduated from High School, and she’s poised on the starting line of her comeback. This video above is a short TV segment to promote her upcoming fight June 18th 2017 – the video was sent to me because, in it, she says it was losing to me at the Queen’s Cup 2014 that woke her up to some weaknesses in her game. As a result she came to Thailand to train with me; this really surprised me. We were both at the O. Meekhun camp (Phetjee Jaa’s gym) at the time, so I actually just assumed she’d come to train with Phetjee Jaa. Here I was training with Phetjee Jaa, a phenom in Thailand, considered maybe the best female fighter in Thailand in terms of potential, and also Saya Ito, also a phenom, the girl I beat in a huge event that convinced me for the first time I could face the best in the world at my weight. It turns out we were maybe three of the five best 100 lb female Muay Thai fighters in the world, all together.
a commenter paraphrase translates the video up at the top for me:
Says she’s a Muay Thai genius who became a world champion at age 15. She started it at age 4 and never been defeated but got beat really bad in her third pro fight (with you). It really brought her down since she had never had such a hard time in the past. So she sought you out to train under you. Says you taught her techniques and everything which built her confidence and she has not lost a fight since.
The above includes the voiceover, below Charlie Jewett loosely translates Saya:
Saya says: I had fought pro three times, won them all, so after I thought that I’d like to train with her, so I talked to her and found out that she trains in Thailand, so I decided to go train with her, I learned a lot of technique and skills from her, and I haven’t lost since (laughter)
What’s kind of interesting about Saya saying that she was coming to train with me, rather than what I had assumed, that it was Phetjee Jaa she was looking to, is that it changes the meaning of what happened in her two extended visits to the gym. The first time Saya came out, Phetjee Jaa was still under 40 kg and so both Saya and I were not reachable opponents for her. It’s pretty mentally tough to seek me out after a big loss and want to train with me, facing her weaknesses directly, especially at her age. And all was pretty good with the three of us training at the camp together. However, the second time Saya came out it became a very different experience. Jee Jaa had grown a bit and Saya was still outside of her fighting pool – size wise – but was coming within reach. I suspect it was because of this that Jee Jaa’s father sidelined Saya pretty hard at the gym. He wouldn’t let her clinch with us, only with a 25 kg little boy or with another westerner who had no clinch experience, and was regularly minimizing her in Thai, a language she does not speak but surely should could sense and hear. She had become a threat. My relationship with the gym was on a turning point as well (I see now, probably for similar reasons) but I was bold enough to work with Saya anyway – skipping any gym protocol, refusing to leave her sidelined, showing her how to position her arms for a better lock, how to off-balance just before a knee. These are just small things, but things that can make a huge difference between fighters who aren’t clinchers in their hearts. She drank it up, got better, and went and beat Little Tiger, and in fact is on an 11 fight win streak now.
It would have been pretty easy for me to let Saya be treated like shit at the gym and just keep my head down to do my own work. Keep in mind, at the time she was very likely the next 100 lb WPMF world champion in my weight class. If that’s a belt I wanted I would probably have to beat her one day. I had already beaten her in the clinch and if she stayed sidelined it would make it much easier for me to beat her again. If I really cared about belts, my path was clear. But there’s nothing meaningful in that, for me. My strengths are due to my focus on what feels good to me, but the skills don’t belong to me. Jee Jaa’s father hindering a possible opponent for his daughter – without there even being any talk of this fight happening in any near future at all – is bullshit. It’s only bullshit and nothing else. On a global scale, women are far behind in the clinch, when compared to men, and it’s because nobody teaches us. Ironically, by not letting Saya clinch with Jee Jaa, her father was hurting Jee Jaa also. It’s more meaningful to me to make all women better, every single one of us, than to try to hoard advantages like they are secrets, and just use tricks or moves to beat unsuspecting opponents inflating our records. Recently I taught a former opponent of mine how to get out of my clinch lock, literally the day before we faced each other in a fight (albeit a bit by surprise) and I had in the back of my mind as we waited for our turn in the ring, “okay, so I taught her an escape and how to knee me in the face… let’s keep an eye on that.” But seeing Gwangtong excel at a long clinch just because it was natural to her was a greater feeling than any dominance I’ve felt – due to disparity in skill – in the ring.
So all of this is to say that it’s incredibly meaningful to me to see this clip of Saya, talking about how working with me changed the direction of her fight path. Losing to me altered her course, just as winning over her altered mine – it was a big fight for both of us. But it was the re-connection after that fight that has had greater significance for both of us. Saya and I are opposites to one another. Saya is this child-phenom who grew up in Muay Thai, fighting boys from a young age, celebrated as a prodigy; I’m precisely not that: I came to Muay Thai in my mid-20s and have had a shorter career, abeit very concentrated. I’m a clincher; Saya isn’t. I don’t speak Japanese and Saya doesn’t speak English, so we might never have been able to communicate this gratitude to each other directly. But it’s in the community of female fighters and it’s reachable for all of us. It’s the we that is the true advantage. And me, I’ve gained a fight sister.