"In Thailand they say, 'Today, I have money. Tomorrow, you have money. Everyone eats.'"
One of John Wayne Parr's greatest accomplishments is being known as one of the nicest guys in combat sports. Yet he is completely unforgiving in the ring. "The day of the fight, I have bad intentions. I want go in there and destroy people," he told me. That is the kind of paradox that summarizes the Gunslinger: Humility out of the ring, unwavering self-confidence inside.
Mr. Parr is a multiple time Muay Thai world champion. He is considered one of the best Western Muay Thai fighters of all time alongside legends like Ramon Dekkers.
He is known for his fierce fighting style and courage shown in the ring.
He spent four years training in Thailand, and he did so in the 1990's at a time where there were very few Western fighters. He was celebrated and was embedded in the Thai culture, so he knows the country like very few Westerners ever could.
In this part of the interview, we spoke about his time in Thailand and his unique perspective on the Thai culture.
I hope you guys enjoy!
What was the typical day for you in Thailand?
It was super tough. We trained from 6 am until 9 am, then we have breakfast around 10. You sleep during the day. Then in the afternoon we start from 3 and end at 6:30 pm. Then we shower, have dinner, and go bed.
"In the middle of the night, you might get an arm or leg thrown over you. You quickly swish it off before things get intimate."
You're expected to train harder than the day before.
Do you keep the same training regime?
Yes. Exactly the same. Nothing has changed, since 1996.
I wanted to talk about when you first moved to Thailand. You moved there when you were 19 years old completely alone.
Can you talk a bit about that experience of arriving to a new country?
The first thing I noticed was that the toilet was a squat toilet with no toilet paper. They had a hose instead.
To shower you just splash yourself with water and soap.
I slept on a wooden floor for four years in a dorm that you might share with 8 or 10 other boxers side by side.
In the middle of the night, you might get an arm or leg thrown over you. You quickly swish it off before things get intimate [laughs].
How did Thais react to you? Back then, there weren't many Western fighters.
I was the first Westerner ever accepted into the camp I was at. It was a big deal. In the town I lived, there wasn't another Westerner around. People freaked out when I first got there. It was just so strange to see a Westerner in that part of town.
Sometimes I'd go two or three months without seeing another Westerner. I felt special because I was the only whitey.
Thai fighters have been training since they were very, very young. And on top of that, you couldn't contact your friends and family while you were there.
Did you go through any periods where you doubted the path you chose?
It was probably after my first fight with Orono. I had to get 21 stitches above my eyebrow. That was very painful. He must have gone through a nerve ending.
The very first time that I fought, I was seventeen years old and a Thai knocked me out in 30 seconds. I developed a fear of fighting Thais for about two years.
Then I got the opportunity to move to Thailand. So when it came time to fight my next Thai, it was a bit daunting. Also, it was my first fight that I was allowed to throw elbows. Just before I got into the ring, one of the Thai gamblers came up to me and said that if I win by elbows, he'd give me a tip of 1500 Baht. I threw non-stop elbows for four rounds until I knocked him out.
Sure enough, the gentleman came up and gave me my 1500 baht. And that got me over my fear of fighting Thais with elbows.
I then went on to win my next nine fights in Thailand, which helped catapult me to the top five in Lumpinee stadium. [Note: Lumpinee stadium is one of the most, if not the most, prestigious stadiums in Thailand].
Did you ever want to leave Thailand?
It crossed my mind, but fighting became such a way of life.
I'd hate training because it was so gruelling. Then I'd have a fight and win. I'd be on TV and in the magazines. I would get recognized. So that would make me excited to fight, but as soon as training camp started, I'd start hating it again. It was just this evil cycle that I couldn't get off of.
Who's Richard Vell?
Richard Vell is like a father figure to me. He accepted me into his family.
He sent me to Thailand, and if I was really down and out, he'd put a couple of hundred dollars in my bank account. Sometimes when I returned to Australia, he'd give me little incentives like a brand new pair of Oakley's, a pair of jeans, some after shave. It just made you feel so special. It really made you want to perform to make him happy.
He's a very important part of my life. Without him, I wouldn't be where I am today. I can't thank him and his family enough.
Mornut Borbud was your first Muay Thai trainer in Thailand. What kind of man was he?
Crazy. He was full on crazy.
He had one leg and he was very angry at the world. He expected the very best of his fighters. Whether it be in training, fighting, or just as human beings. Which is good looking back on it because he made us strong. As soon as we finished training, we'd have to go to our rooms to hide.
In Thailand, child abuse isn't frowned upon. So if the fighters weren't performing, they could get punched in the face, the stomach, or get something thrown at them. It was just a normal part of life. There was nothing you could do or say that was going to change it.
No matter how well you were doing, you were always made to feel like dirt. Even if you win, there no were congratulations. You should have fought better. It was hard.
Do you think that made you a better fighter? Would you train your own fighters like that? [Note: Mr. Parr owns a gym in Australia].
Definitely not. You can't treat your fighters like that over here. You wouldn't have any clients.
But in Thailand, you either perform or you go back to the streets. If you're a ten year old kid with no family, the gym becomes your new family. That's your only source of shelter and food. You become the camp's property. You're training and fighting for your own survival as an eight or nine year old kid.
That's how you become tough.
If you have a good camp, you start earning prize money. You start putting money away, buying your own school books, your own shoes, your own toys, your own bike. So you learn the value of money. A lot of Westerners don't leave home until they're in their mid-twenties or early thirties. Whereas in Thailand they might leave home at eight. And you might not see your parents again for 15 years.
When I say you're property of the camp, you're property of the camp. You're not going home on the weekend.
You send your prize money back to your parents, but they're not coming to see you. They don't give a shit. You're expected to make money.
You are a very well respected Muay Thai fighter in Thailand, so as a Westerner, you have a very unique perspective on Thai culture.
I was lucky enough to go in a different era as well.
When I got accepted into the camp, I was accepted as a Thai, so I didn't have to pay a monthly fee, like you would have to now. I lived at the camp for free, trained for free, and ate for free. But I was expected to give 50% of my prize money. Now when Westerners go, they're expected to pay fees upfront.
The Thais don't care if Westerners leave. Whereas for myself, the Thais had to train me hard, to make me as good as I possibly could be. So that my prize money would rise to a standard that they could survive on as well. The money that they spent on me eventually came back ten fold.
It's kind of like racing horses. You have to buy a horse, pay their vet bills, have it looked after, and get jockeys to train her. And you hope that one day that horse will win the Kentucky derby.
It's worth it for them to have a few fighters that don't make it to have one or two that do make it on the big stage.
"Life is very cheap there. So if you happen to die in the process, they don't care."
What are the major differences between Thais and Westerners?
Thais are super friendly. They are amazing. Thais could have a hundred Baht in their pocket and they'll look after you. If you're walking down the street, and you look lost, instead of giving you directions, they'll say, 'Hop on the back of my motor bike. I'll take you there myself.' Or if you look cold, they might give you a spare jacket.
They believe in making good Karma. If I win a thousand Baht, I'll treat all of my friends to dinner. Whereas Westerners will only pay for themselves. In Thailand they say, 'Today, I have money. Tomorrow, you have money. Everyone eats.'
It's about sharing. Everyone is poor, so when a little bit of money comes in, it's about everyone having a good time. At the same time, don't make them angry.
As happy as they are, if you do push them to the limit, they turn very evil. Instead of street fighting, they might pick up a pole, a knife, or a gun. Life is very cheap there. So if you happen to die in the process, they don't care.
Sounds like a very extreme culture.
What lessons did you take from Thailand and bring back to Australia?
I've been extremely poor. I've even had to borrow money from Thais. I've slept on the floor for four years. I used my hand to wipe my bum for four years. I've lived in a foreign country where I couldn't speak their language. I fought for my own survival, and now I fight for my family's survival.
I know I can handle whatever life throws at me. I've seen adversity, and I've succeeded.
If you enjoyed this talk with Mr. Parr, please check out my interview with Firas Zahabi, head coach of Georges Saint-Pierre.
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