Ben White was once dangerously out of shape. He would sit around at home, not doing any exercise and had a poor diet. Finding motivation was a challenge, and before long, he weighed 110 kilograms.
More than a decade later, he is lean and fit as he sits in the William Street Gym in Balaclava. White says his life changed when he discovered the martial art known as Muay Thai, a traditional Thai martial art, similar to kickboxing.
“[I started training Muay Thai] in 2003, I was 17 years old, it was the end of year 11 for me,” White says.
From 2003, White embarked on a journey of Muay Thai competition, journeying across the world. He’s seen it all. He has fought in Thailand and all over Australia, competing in 24 fights. White says that Muay Thai has had a powerful impact on his life, both physically and mentally.
“Any martial art of combat sport is good for mental discipline, you want to keep pushing yourself to get better, stronger, fitter,” White says.
“It’s my meditation, if you want to put it that way.”
The origins of Muay Thai can be traced back to the 15th century. The martial art involves a combination of kicks, punches, knees and elbows. The goal of Muay Thai competition is to be as aggressive as possible. When competing, landing strikes will score points, which determines who wins the bout if the contest is not stopped by knockout.
Though Muay Thai has been practised for over 400 years, it only began to gain momentum in Australia in recent years. This was roughly around the time that the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), a mixed martial arts fighting promotion, began to gain momentum in the United States. The influence of the UFC spread quickly, and it became a popular viewing experience for fight fans across Australia.
However, despite all the great benefits of martial arts, there has been heavy criticism of Muay Thai and other forms of aggressive martial arts. They are seen as controversial because they are considered to be training precursors to cage fighting, which was banned in Victoria until 2015.
Since 2013, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) has actively sought to shut down and ban cage fighting in Victoria. It’s all crash and bash they say, vicious violence on an unacceptable scale.
For years, cage fighting was in fact banned in Victoria. That was until March 2015, when the Andrews Government relinquished the heavily criticised ban. This allowed the Ultimate Fighting Championship, to host the first UFC event in Melbourne. This was UFC 193: Rousey v Holm -the mixed martial arts event at Etihad stadium in November 2015 in which a record crowd of more than 56,000 people watched Holly Holm defeated the favourite, Ronda Rousey. It was heavily criticised, but the revenue generated for Melbourne was no laughing matter. The total gate was $6.8 million dollars.
The UFC is looking to host another fight card in Melbourne later this year.
But it doesn’t come without criticism and disgust from the Australian Medical Association.
Katherine Walsh, the AMA’s senior policy officer, said while most sport injuries are accidental, this sports mainly sought to “purely harm your opponent”.
“This style of fighting carries an array of extreme health risks,” she says. “Blows to the head can damage the surface of the brain, tear nerve networks. Concussions can cause permanent damage to the brain.”
Ben White, however, says that this perspective is simply short-sighted. He believes that this type of thinking underestimates benefits that martial arts can bring.
“People think that when you fight, you want to absolutely hate your opponent and you want to hurt them and break their bones. It’s not like that at all.”
White says that respect is a fundamental part of martial arts, and has been for centuries.
“To look at martial arts [and combat sport] as purely a violence thing, is such a narrow-minded view,” he says.
Daniel Herbertson, a trainer at Absolute MMA in Melbourne city, agrees. Herbertson said the self-defence learned from such a martial art, should be enough to encourage people take part.
“Martial arts give people a lot of confidence… you know exactly where you stand in your ability to defend yourself,” Herbertson says.
Before Ben White became fully invested in martial arts, he worked in a corporate job. He sat in an office, questioning his purpose and he had little motivation.
“I was working at Telstra what they call 9 to 5, which is probably more than that. I went to Thailand for a [Muay Thai] training camp and I came back and I decided, ‘look, I want to give this fighting thing a good crack,’” White says.
Unfortunately, his employer wasn’t as understanding. His career leave request was quickly rejected. He remained determined to go.
“[My manager] came back to me and said, ‘no we can’t give you leave’, so I handed in my resignation, packed up within two months,” White says.
White went to Thailand to train and learn about Muay Thai; a move he regards as one of the most amazing experiences of his life.
When he returned to Melbourne, he knew that fitness and Muay Thai would be his career. He then did a personal training course to expand his portfolio. At the same time, he had already started to work for his friend Sy Nadji, who owns his own gym.
A fully credited and experienced trainer, Ben White encourages anyone who’s interested in martial arts to give Muay Thai a good go.
“You don’t have to be fit to start, you just need to start,” he says as his first client of the day arrives at the gym. “Just come in and give it a shot.”