In the new Metro, contributing writer Amberleigh Jack writes about training as a Muay Thai kickboxer. Simon Wilson went along to her first sparring session.
Amberleigh and I drove through industrial Penrose on the Great South Road, one car following the other, and found the gym. A little red door next to a roller door. Our photographer Vicki Leopold, the world’s most wonderful enthusiast, was there already. Inside, a boxing ring was jammed to one side, there were posters, worn and scuffed gear piled onto shelves, soft mats on the floor.
And a bunch of really tough-looking women in satin shorts and singlets. Lethal Ladies, they’d called the afternoon, and Amberleigh, I’m sure she won’t mind my saying, seemed just a little frightened. I would have been too. I was there to watch, but she was there to kick and hit them, and try not to get too hurt when they kicked and hit her.
Despite the regalia, it didn’t quite seem credible. These women looked tough, but they behaved lovely, all warm and friendly. They didn’t even strut.
Over a year ago, I sat down with Amberleigh Jack to discuss what she might write for us next. She’d already done an extraordinary account of her battle with eating disorders, and then – because she wanted a challenge – she set herself up to do standup comedy, and wrote about that. Now she wanted a new challenge. “And nothing like jumping out of a plane,” she said. “I’ve done all that shit.”
So we decided on Thai kickboxing. Her life got lurched around shortly after, but she hung in. Now, 10 months after starting the training, here she was at that little gym in Penrose, trying to find the courage to get in the ring with women who have been national and world champions.
There’s a Hurricane sponsor’s logo on floor, painted straight over a Mad Butcher’s logo. The women wrap their hands, slip in their mouthguards, tie on their shin-guards and footguards. Some of them, but only some, wear headgear too. One girl skips hard, others shadow box. There are some little girls here too: it’s a family thing, kickboxing.
Richie Hardcore, all tats, Amberleigh’s trainer, warms her up. He’s a former champion himself, not big but very forceful, with a body pulled tight around a big set of fully sprung coils. He stands still, but it’s like he’s always coming at you, getting bigger in your vision just because you look at him. Richie’s got FIGHTING SAVED MY LIFE on his T-shirt, and tattooed on his skin, and he’s also got the most disarming, lit-up-from-the-inside smile. I bet he’s incredibly dangerous, in all sorts of ways.
They take a team photo: there are lots of nerves now. Amberleigh’s not the only one not quite sure where to look. Her first bout is with a former champ, and the disparity is good: the experts know how to look after the novices better.
Rochelle, the champ, gives Amberleigh a hug, talks calmly to her and starts jabbing. Amberleigh looks petrified, but she jabs back, and tries her kicks, and warms to it. They fight another round, this time going harder and faster, and Amberleigh falls on her arse. It’s not a knockdown, she tripped, but still. Richie’s on the side calling: “Let it go, let it go, get into it.” She kicks hard and hurts her own leg.
They spar for two-minute bouts in sets of two. By the time Amberleigh finishes, maybe a dozen bouts later, she’s exhausted, but grinning too.
Why is she doing this? Because she really wants to. Amberleigh came into the office today to pick up some copies of the new Metro – we sent it to press yesterday afternoon and here it is already. She’s on crutches this month, and yes, it’s because of kickboxing. But she’s also grinning. She’s written a bloody good story about it all, and Vicki has taken bloody good photos to go with it. It’s a good issue all round, if you ask me, and their work is a standout in it.