By Fergal Barry-Murphy

Men enter the ring over the top rope, women go in under the bottom rope.

WHEN Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu gave up her life in New York to move to Chiang Mai in early 2012 she had one goal – to become a professional Muay Thai fighter. Twenty months and 53 professional fights later, that goal has changed – next stop, 100 fights.

“I started out wanting 50 fights but I’ve altered that to 100 because I’ve gone past the 50 fight mark already,” she says. “I think that if I get 100 fights or even close to that I will be one of the very few Western females, if not the only Western female, to accomplish that many fights in Thailand.”

Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu. Pic: Piyarat Jeasukon.

For the most part Sylvie fights at small venues in central Chiang Mai. She’s also a regular at local festival events in the outlying towns of the northern Thailand province, and occasionally travels down country for big events. So far, she’s holding her own, with 34 wins, 16 losses, 3 draws and 24 KOs.

At 5 feet 2 inches (1.52m) and 47 kilos, Sylvie doesn’t cut an imposing figure, but the results of a gruelling training regime and a steely determination are plain to see. The battle wounds are also there, front and centre. Her nose, broken three times in the last 18 months, angles slightly to the right and her right eye is still swollen from a fight four days earlier.

“Yeah, that’s from an elbow,” she says. “She was a southpaw and I kind of walked in with my arm to come around her and she popped me right on the top here. The swelling was the size of my hand.”

Muay Thai, then, is not a sport for the faint of heart. The training regime alone would strike fear into most. A 6.30am start is followed by a 7-14km run and three hours in the gym, then it’s all repeated in the afternoon – six days a week. And one thing can be certain, the Colorado-born fighter doesn’t do this for the money.

“I make about 3,000 baht ($95) per fight and about 1,000 baht of that goes to the gym. If I’m on a really big card that’s on TV I can make up to 20,000 baht before the gym takes its share. I think my total winnings would be somewhere around 165,000 baht ($5,180) since I started,” she says.

Although the funds are welcome, this is a journey based on a deep passion for the sport, a love affair that began while she was living in New York about five years ago.

“I discovered Muay Thai through watching the movie ‘Ong Bak’. I’d never seen Muay Thai before but when I saw Tony Jaa doing those movements I just completely fell in love with it. I fell in love with it in a way a person might fall in love with ballet or something, I didn’t think of it as fighting, I just wanted to do those things, they looked so beautiful.”

Sylvie in training at Lanna Muay Thai. Pic: Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu.

Regular Muay Thai training in the US only fuelled Sylvie’s love of the ‘sport of eight limbs’ and after a stint training in Chiang Mai in 2010 she and her husband Kevin decided to return in 2012 so she could pursue her dream of fighting professionally.

With 50-plus fights under her belt, Sylvie has earned respect in Chiang Mai Muay Thai circles, and is now even recognized by passers-by on the street.  In the beginning, though, things weren’t so easy and this respect has been hard won. Proving herself at her gym – Lanna Muay Thai – was the first step.

“I contacted Den [her coach] before I came here and let him know how serious I was and that I wanted to fight a lot,” she says. “He kinda said, ‘okay, okay, we’ll see what we can do when you get here’. When I did get here I was very serious, I wanted to fight right away and they really weren’t certain about it. I think for the first six or seven months they weren’t sure I would keep with it, but now they’re completely on board.”

The fight board is up at Lanna Muay Thai gym. Pic: Fergal Barry-Murphy.

Today, Sylvie fights more than any fighter at the gym and has even become a role model of sorts, her record often used to encourage the male boxers to take on more fights. Even so, Muay Thai remains a male-dominated sport, something that is unlikely to change anytime soon and brings its own set of challenges.

“Being a woman in this sport is always going to be difficult, you’re always going to come up against obstacles that are not moving. At least they’re not moving in my lifetime, they might for the next generation,” says Sylvie, who turned 30 earlier this month.

“A lot of the sexism you come across is the same sexism you find everywhere, it’s not particular to Thailand, but there are elements that are very particular to Thailand and very engrained,” she adds. “For example in my gym we have two rings, one is only for men.”

There are also all kinds of social and cultural taboos relating to how women can interact with males at the gym, as well as some age-old superstitions.

“Men enter the ring over the top rope, women go in under the bottom rope… The ring is protected through amulets and magic and things like this… Women’s heads cannot go over the amulets or it negates them, so I have to crawl under that bottom rope so not as to affect the magic of the ring. It’s the same reason why I’m not allowed in the men’s ring in training.”

Despite the challenges female Muay Thai fighters face, the women’s sport is gaining popularity. Twenty years ago women were not allowed fight in the ring. Today, there are more women fighting than ever, with live televised events on the increase.  The rules for women are the same as for men, the only difference is that each round is two minutes instead of three. Gambling on women’s events is particularly popular, a sure sign of their growing stature.

Sylvie’s training schedule doesn’t leave room for many other hobbies, though she does have one other passion – blogging. Her website documents her journey in impressive detail through words, images and video, while she has built a faithful following on social media networks.

“We started out with my YouTube channel which began when I first started Muay Thai. If you look at the channel it’s almost the exact length of how long I’ve been doing Muay Thai. I started it when I was training with Master K, my original trainer in the US…. It got huge and now it has over a million views. From there it spread to Facebook… and when we decided to come to Thailand the idea was to make a website that brings all of the different kinds of social media together,” she explains.

“For the most part though, because this is such an unusual experience, I wish that more women who are here would document what they are doing too, so it would encourage others to do the same.”

With 43 fights to go to the next milestone, Sylvie’s Muay Thai quest is far from over.  In many ways, though, the dream has been already realized, the rest is about enjoying the journey.

You can keep track of Sylvie’s progress on her blog, Facebook and YouTube