1-ON-1: Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu
SYLVIE: THE FACE OF WOMEN’S MUAY THAI SPEAKS
Chances are, you’ve at least heard of her name. She runs a blog called 8limbs and has earned quite a large following over the years. She’s what you can consider someone who has made history, and she will continue to do so. She is Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu.
After hitting her goal of 200 fights (and accomplishing it a year earlier than she had projected), she has the most number of fights in Thailand of any foreigner. With no signs of slowing down, she’s bound to make history again in another few years when she hits #300, which is a truly impressive feat no matter where you’re from or what style of combat sport you practice.
What has she done to get this far? What does she credit this success to? Sylvie expresses her answers thoroughly and articulately in this exclusive interview with Muay Thai Guy.
-All photos courtesy of 8limbs.us and Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu.-
MTG: How many years did it take before you reached fight #200? What obstacles did you encounter on the way there?
SYLVIE: I had my first fight in 2009, but I didn’t start fighting prolifically until I moved to Thailand in April of 2012. From that point forward, I have steadily maintained an average of about 33 fights per year. My complete fight record is here.
The biggest obstacle in terms of process has been booking fights. What I am doing is simply not something that has ever been done and could not be done through a single gym. Eventually, only through gradually becoming more proficient in the Thai language (text messaging has been a godsend), growing in reputation as a fighter, and developing direct relationships with promoters all over Thailand, have I been able to make this kind of fight rate possible by booking my own fights.
In that vein, I’m also very fortunate to be small-bodied. Something that was a big drawback in the West because there are so few opponents my size, in Thailand has been a boon. Due to my small size, as my skill increased, I’ve been able to take on bigger and bigger skilled fighters, so there is almost always a fair match-up possible.
Overcoming the opinions of how much I should be fighting, as judged by my male trainers, has also proven a challenge at times. I was very fortunate to have started at a very fight-friendly gym in Lanna Muay Thai, up in Chiang Mai. It’s probably the most fight-friendly gym in Thailand, with a long history of female fighters (the owner, Pom [pictured below], was a fighter herself back in the mid-90’s), going back more than a decade before I got there. But even then, in the beginning, my trainers didn’t completely understand how much I wanted to fight. It took time to convince them, repeatedly showing them that I could bounce back fast, train hard, [and] be up for a fight very soon. As they came to believe in me and trust that I could handle the fight load, fighting frequently became easier. But it took time.
The same difficulty arose again when I moved to Petchrungruang Gym in Pattaya about 2+ years in. I had to prove my intentions all over again. It was moving to Pattaya that really progressed into me booking my own fights. I never did that up in Chiang Mai, as that city is a hotbed of female fighting. In Pattaya, there were far fewer opportunities for female fights and in the years I’ve lived here, those few opportunities have decreased. It ended up being a blessing in disguise because I realized that if I wanted to keep fighting a lot, I had to figure out how to create my own fight opportunities. My crowdfunding supporters have been a huge part of this; it just would not have been possible without people supporting me.
Provisionally, I got the formal blessing from my trainer to book everything outside of Pattaya and slowly my trainers have gotten on board with my methods. Now they are incredibly proud of me, and I have my trainer’s complete blessing to fight pretty much anywhere and anyone, but this was gradually earned with continual displays of respect and gratitude on my part toward Pi Nu and his family.
There is a kind of rhythm of difficulty in finding match-ups. There are periods when it becomes harder for me to find fights, if I’m on a winning streak or gaining attention/recognition, sometimes opponents don’t want to fight me. This is usually overcome by taking pretty steep weight/size disadvantages, which has proven a good way to keep finding good fights. After a few losses (something that inevitably happens with some of the size disparities I take on), more reasonably sized opponents become more accessible.
MTG: How have you adjusted to fighting so frequently in Thailand?
SYLVIE: I’ve been doing this pretty steadily for well over five years now, without taking time “off,” so the process of how I deal with it has been washed over by time. I don’t recall a time when it was different.
When I was in Chiang Mai, the fights were more evenly spaced, averaging every 10 days for long stretches. That’s more than enough time to recover from any small and common fight injuries, like sore shins, black eyes, aching muscles, etc. You just get back to work and the body adjusts.
When I moved to Pattaya, I started having to deal with different circumstances, the most significant of which are 1) cuts, which require more time for healing than a bruised shin, for example, and 2) traveling for fights, which means I have to group my fights close together and then have a few weeks in between. So rather than averaging every 10 days, I might fight three fights in four nights and then have 10-20 days before another one – something like that.
It was never incredibly hard and it’s never been very easy. It just is what it is. I’ve never gone into any fight at 100%. So if I’m fighting two nights in a row, I kind of feel like I’m going to be sore from that first fight anyway, so I can be sore at home doing nothing or I can be sore in the ring doing what I love. It’s a pretty easy choice.
Physically, I do think that there is a certain kind of hardness that comes to the body going through what I’ve gone through over time. Thais refer to this as your “bones” (gra-dook), like a solidity and weight to your pain threshold. If you touch an old Thai fighter, you can feel this. It’s like they are made of lead.
For the first few years, it was really important to treat my shins with hot water massage, pressing out every swollen lump and injury. This kept me training hard and ready to fight at a moment’s notice. But I honestly hardly do those treatments anymore, as they’re not really necessary. My shins swelled for maybe two and a half years, now they don’t any longer. Even after shin clashes, I just won’t have the same lumps and dents that require treatment, and the lumps and dents I do have are in the bone — they’re permanent and I don’t feel them. I’m kind of always hurt, as in sore, but never injured.
Mentally, fighting is just incredible. It’s never easy to handle the losses, but when you’ve lost over 50 times, you develop strategies on how to process it. Like anything else, you’re better at things you’ve had experience with already, so I’ve been very lucky in being able to fight the way I do in Thailand and just get back into the ring whether I just won or just lost. But for optimum performance it also requires a lot of mental conditioning — just as you have to condition your body to your craft, you have to condition your mind for it. In general though, fighting and training go hand in hand. I don’t even know how people do it, fighting once every six months. It would drive me crazy!
“My main goal is to get people to dream that dream, and to follow that dream… And God, I hope that it’s bigger than mine too! I hope that when I’m 50 years old, looking back, that there’s some chick with like 200 fights in Thailand – looking at me like, ‘That’s all, Sylvie?'”
–SIZE & STRENGTH–
MTG: How much weight do you usually give up? How does this weight difference affect you in the ring? Are there any advantages you have despite being smaller when this happens?
SYLVIE: It’s not uncommon in Thailand to fight at your walking around weight, so most match-ups have a disparity of a kilo or two. Promoters do their best to make competitive fights for gambling and entertainment, so even with no weigh-in, match-ups can be very fair and good.
My size disadvantage has become much more consistent over the years, mainly because I have shown that I’m able to meet that challenge. But I also take fights with substantial and unusual size disparity because those are the fights available to me. For instance, in my last 20 fights, my opponents have averaged more than 53 kg, which means I’m giving up about 14 lbs. For someone who walks around a little over 100 lbs., that’s a substantial challenge. It definitely is a factor in fights.
I do think fighting so many big opponents for so many years has affected me, both positively and negatively. It’s made me very tough and allowed me to create an inside clinch style that is capable of handling bigger opponents. But it’s also probably made me much more conservative and closed as a fighter, as I really have to brace for impact and be mindful of power, ready to absorb it.
I think I would have developed a different style if I’d been fighting people my size, or as Westerners by circumstance often do in Thailand, people smaller than myself. I’m working on growing beyond this limitation though, reinventing my fight style under the inspiration and lead of my favorite fighter, Karuhat Sor. Supawan. I reckon that fighters develop at all different rates and because of the path I’m on, it’s taken me much longer to be able to purposefully work on this style I’m focusing on now. But I’m also grateful for having all the experience I have in order to use those tools in developing myself. There’s no downside to being an ugly duckling.
MTG: To date, who has been your toughest opponent? Anyone you’d love to rematch? Anyone you’ve fought a bunch of times and are not interested in fighting anymore?
SYLVIE: There really has been no “toughest opponent.” It feels more like it has been a parade of highly-skilled, physically bigger opponents that I just try to grow from. It’s one after the other, it’s all the time, so there aren’t really particular stand-outs.
Wanderlei Silva once said something about how he’d fight whoever was in front of him, like “They change his name, they change his size” — it feels like that. Though, I always love fighting long-time WPMF champion Thanonchanok Kaewsamrit, a few weight classes up. She’s very good with her hands, and has an awesome fight energy and style. And she’s a cool person, which makes a difference in how enjoyable it is to fight someone in the ring, honestly. I have beaten her but she’s gotten the best of me a few times, often in very close fights.
I also think it would be fun to rematch Saya Ito, the WBC 105 lb. champion. We fought on the Queen’s Birthday maybe four years ago. It was a fight that I think really triggered growth in both of us: for me because of the win, my first on a big card, for her because of the loss. I’m a Saya fan and I know she respects me, we’ve even trained together before, so it would be a cool development in our story together to fight again.
I’d also love to rematch former WPMF champ, three weight classes up, Nong Biew Sityodsian, who is currently one of the hottest fighters in Thailand. I honestly thought I had little chance against her. She’s just very tall and big and a knee fighter herself, but by all accounts I was winning the rounds until she cut me and the ring doctor ended the fight. That would be a real challenge to try to pull off the victory against her.
As to fighting opponents many times, over the years I’ve had a few opponents with whom I’ve had many fights. I’m a big believer in repeated rematches — not a rematch, but like six or even 10 rematches. These are good for you as a fighter. Each of you have to grow and develop. You can’t get away just with your strengths, so I really don’t mind lots of rematches.
On the other hand, there are rare opponents who I’ve grown a little tired of fighting. On example is Gaewdaa, who I’ve fought several times in the three years I’ve been in Pattaya. For a while, a promoter would just put us against each other, mostly because she was his fighter and it’s hard to find a Westerner small enough to fight her. On many of the bigger cards for female fighters, they’re matched only against Westerners, so having me in his pocket to match against his fighters means money for them. But our fights were very uneventful. She just anti-fights me, holding me as soon as possible and stalling out the fight against the ropes. That is a tactic — it is a skill, but it’s a boring fight both to be in and to watch, so I’ve steered away from those 3 round kinds of match-ups they like to set up. She’s a very good fighter, but styles make fights and our styles don’t make very interesting fights.
MTG: How do you deal with time off between fights? What keeps you motivated to keep going?
SYLVIE: What time off? (laughs)
I don’t have a lot of time between fights, generally. Sometimes, after a string of fights in just a few days, I’ll be pretty tired and think that I want a bit of a break to just train and work on some things before fighting again. Without fail, after nine or 10 days, I already get hungry to fight. The longest I’ve gone between fights is maybe 40 days, when I broke my hand. I kept training, but a gap in the schedule of fights produced a fight layoff. I ended up fighting with it broken for a few months, probably re-fracturing it slightly over those months.
Usually my training and my fighting just go together… [so] staying motivated isn’t really a long-term issue for me. I’m just obsessed. I’m driven to improve. I watch these legends and their Muay makes my heart ache. Wanting to find that within myself never wanes.
MTG: What’s next in line for you? Any specific titles you want to win, or number of fights you want to get to?
SYLVIE: I’m waiting a few months before I announce my completely new goals. I’m a believer in setting huge, “impossible” marks for oneself. A goal isn’t worthy unless it just feels like it’s not possible, or at least highly, highly unlikely. All my goals have been like that. Even my first goal of 50 fights felt absurd.
I can say that I’m probably going to shoot for 400 fights, which I think would really stretch the imagination of what people feel is possible for a female fighter in Thailand or really anywhere in the world. When you stretch that spectrum, you trigger new ways for other people to think.
In the end, these aren’t personal achievements; they don’t mean much on a singular, personal level. For me, it’s about doing things that can forever change how Muay Thai is thought of, for women… but also for men. For this reason titles and belts really mean very little to me. Winning a title does not really change the sport much, it doesn’t change anything for anyone else. But – and I’ll say more about this in a few months – I think I’m going to set my sights on two “titles” or belts that I do think will change the sport, forever. These are “impossible” goals.