A Combat Sport You Probably Haven’t Heard About

Evan Schuring

Evan Schuring, Contributor

Ryan Wirth takes a break following a match of sparring at the gym.
Ryan Wirth (Top row, second guy on the right) poses with fellow teammates following practice.


This story was reported on and written for the Journalism 298: Special Topics course.


Combat sports like wrestling, boxing and karate have been popular to athletes for a long time, but what about Muay Thai? This is a sport some people probably haven’t heard much about, but it takes as much skill as any other traditional sport, perhaps more.

Ryan Wirth, a junior at Saint Charles East High School, has been participating in Muay Thai and Kickboxing for almost two years now. Being a 17-year-old high school student, he found that training for this sport everyday has helped him reach goals sought out for him by people around him. He actively trains at a gym in South Elgin, called Fusion, five to six times a week.

         Muay Thai, also referred to as Thai boxing, is a combat sport. The sport relies on the combined use of knees, elbows and shins. Endurance and durability play a large role in the sport and for Wirth, it was something he thought he should try out. Being different from a traditional sport, Wirth had to adjust to that when he started.


The Beginning


         “I started Muay Thai because I was too small and short for traditional sports,” Wirth said.

         Standing at five feet and nine inches, Wirth’s size is now the least of his worries, but it wasn’t always easy. He found that in a sport like Muay Thai, size doesn’t matter and all that mattered was heart and passion.

         “My stepdad was an MMA fighter,” Wirth said. “He started teaching me boxing in our living room and later signed me up for boxing and a Muay Thai gym.”

         Wirth’s stepfather, Neal Bhardwaj, was motivated for Ryan to become part of the Muay Thai community. Wirth started high school playing traditional sports like football and lacrosse. He found that traditional sports didn’t cater to his size, and he found new hope in Bhardwaj’s idea of joining a Muay Thai gym.

         “I always knew he could be great at Muay Thai if he just worked toward it,” Bhardwaj said.

         Wirth’s inspiration comes from his stepdad, someone who’s been there for him in his life when other people have not. Neal Bhardwaj was the main reason he started practicing Muay Thai in the first place.

         Not everyone in his family was supportive of his decision to participate in Muay Thai, however, and it made Wirth question whether it was worth attempting. His mother, Lisa, has had her doubts since he joined a Muay Thai group.

         “We had long talks about him wanting to do Muay Thai,” Lisa Wirth said. “I was worried about his health and safety over everything.”

         Muay Thai is a combative sport for a reason. You’re thrown into a ring against another opponent who’s trying to exploit your weaknesses. Injuries are part of any sport, but with Muay Thai, it’s vital that proper training is given to prepare for fights. Despite those factors, Wirth’s stepdad encouraged him to try the sport to see where it takes him.


Taking on the Challenge

Most athletes participating in a sport start training at a young age. For Wirth, he was well behind other people participating in Muay Thai. That didn’t mean he was going to believe the odds of him not becoming a successful athlete. The training, though grueling, has become a part of his daily lifestyle.

         “When I’m not training for a fight, it’s your average sport,” Wirth said. “I practice around five days a week.”

         For regular practices, it’s what most people would expect from a combat sport. Being in the gym is a focus for athletes and for Wirth, he spends a lot of time kicking and elbowing pads, working on agility and stamina. On top of that, he spars occasionally to keep in shape against other opponents.

         “Training for a fight is much different than just normal practices,” Wirth said. “I practice six to seven days a week to prepare for fights.”

         Wirth spoke extensively about practice being multiple hours each day in preparation for a fight. Also, to be prepared, Wirth is stuck with a strict diet weeks prior to a fight. The goal for Wirth is to cut weight to be in the best fight shape possible.

         “It’s brutal,” Wirth said about having to cut weight and be on a strict diet.

For him, it’s something he was forced to get used to. Because of the rules, he must stay within guidelines to participate in a fight. Not following rules can lead to disqualification of a fight. Wirth has taken the rules of Muay Thai seriously on his way to finding his success.

On top of the guidelines assigned for Wirth’s training, he also believes it’s one of the harder sports to train for. Being on strict guidelines put Wirth in situations where he’d have to change his daily lifestyle.

“Muay Thai is the hardest sport to play in my opinion,” Wirth said. “It’s just you versus another person and it’s whoever wants it more at the end of each fight.”

Wirth had played team sports like football and lacrosse when he started high school. He realized quickly how much different those sports were to Muay Thai. Football players have teammates behind them to back each other up. In the ring of a Muay Thai match, it’s all you and everything you do has an impact on how the match plays out.

“You don’t get breaks in between plays like you do in football,” Wirth said. “You’re also consistently taking hits from the opponent on top of all that.”

Wirth stressed the importance of always being on top of his game. He spoke highly of the opponents he’s gone up against in the past, and not being able to take long breaks means he must always stay focused, Wirth trains hard to boost his stamina, endurance and durability during a fight.

“You take a lot of blows to the body which can hurt you if you aren’t properly prepared.” Wirth said.

Part of being durable means strengthening the body to hang in with opponents you may face. For Wirth, he’s only been training for close to two years. With time, he has confidence his body will continue to strengthen while also building stamina and durability during fights.

Wirth never expected it to be easy when he started. He felt motivated, however, to excel in a sport not as popular as ones he’d already tried out. According to IBIS World, about four million people actively practice martial arts. Of those people, about 35% of them take MMA classes. Wirth has been determined to stay loyal to Muay Thai, a sport that has attempted to grow popularity inside the United States. The physicality of combat sports might draw people away from them, but Wirth was confident in himself to hang in with other fighters who are established in a combat sport.  


A Typical Day

On days he isn’t training for a fight, Wirth will show up to his gym around seven o’clock at night for a three-hour practice. Walking into the gym, you can smell the sweaty odor from other trainers in the facility. Loud noises shadowed by grunts from other Muay Thai boxers filled the large room on top of that.

         The gym he attends is large and once practice time came; Wirth geared up. For his session of kicking and elbowing pads, He would only wear hand wraps with little to no other protection. For sparring, he would have headgear along with other protective padding around certain places on his body. After watching the beginning of practice, it was easy to see how intense it got.

         The gym he trains at has various pieces of equipment laying around the perimeter. The walls were covered with Muay Thai related flags, while also containing a row of native flags. On that same wall, there lie mirrors spread across it. The gym was rather modern and had the perfect feel of an MMA gymnasium. Rings for fighting were dedicated to one side of the room, while the other was open for other practices.

         A sparring session shows the true intensity of Muay Thai. Once sessions began, the grunts of the opponents echoed across the large room, while it was clear each person wanted to win badly. The fighters were motivated by fellow spectators and were encouraged by their respected trainers throughout the fight.

         “Sparring can be dangerous,” Wirth said. “One time, I cracked my opponent’s ribs from a kick.”

         Injuries happen in any sport, but being in the ring one on one, it’s about fending for yourself and finding the opponent’s weak points. There’s a reason, however, why sports like Muay Thai require lots of strengthening body parts to withstand a blow from an opponent.

         During the sparring match, it was clear how well trained both opponents were. The matches quickly got sweaty and fiery. Wirth kicked and elbowed his opponent while taking blows back. At the end of a round, the opponents went to their areas to cool off. Wirth walked off red in the face with loads of sweat dripping from his body. He was already exhausted from the first few rounds of fighting.

         “It’s important to stay balanced even after taking a blow from an opponent,” Wirth said. “There’s been plenty of times where I get bloodied up from a fight but it’s key to not let that bother me.”

         After a quick break, Wirth was back in the ring for another round. The vibrant noises coming from the ring were intense between the opponents. Wirth steadied himself before another round started and he used the match to enhance his skills in the ring.

         Though the environment of a sparring match seems real, both opponents are looking to improve their skills while also teach each other how to develop skills in the ring. On a day where Wirth isn’t sparring, it’s mostly pad work mixed with working on technique.

         “There’s more to Muay Thai than just the physical aspect,” Wirth said. “It teaches you respect and discipline.”

         There are mutual feelings of respect for each person in the facility. There’s never any judgement between fighters. Wirth also explained the importance of respecting the opponents, something he finds encouraging in Muay Thai. During practices, Respectful gestures are practiced between the people involved. Muay Thai strictly follows the roots of Thai culture, one where respect is vital.

         To finish a daily practice, Wirth would once again practice his endurance and strength. Loud noises of pads being kicked flowed across the room while Wirth smacked and hit the pads his trainer was wearing. He left the ring with sweat dripping from his body and the look of exhaust drawn on his face.

         “There’s days I see him coming home from practice with blood on his shirt,” Lisa Wirth said. “It’s worrisome, but I know he’s getting stronger and working hard every day.”

         This intense type of practice is recurring throughout an entire week. Wirth spars about three times a week in preparation for fights and speaks highly of how well his trainers coach him to be the best version of himself.


What the Future Holds


         One year and ten months into his journey as a Muay Thai boxer, Ryan Wirth has fallen in love with it. He knows that without his parents, the opportunity would not even be possible.

         “My stepdad is the one who got me into Muay Thai in the first place,” Wirth said. “Both my parents have invested so much time and money into training and fights.”

         The journey Wirth has taken has already paid dividends. Through his first 22 months as a Muay Thai kickboxer, he’s been a part of large fighting events. He spoke excitingly of a trip he took overseas where he was able to fight in front of a televised event and crowd.

         “My biggest achievement so far was having my first big fight called the TBA Muay Thai World Expo,” Wirth said. “I was able to make it in the event with only seven months of training.”

         Wirth described the event as an honor and a dream come true. He smiled brightly as he spoke about his accomplishment, but he wasn’t even the proudest about it. His stepdad put loads of time and effort into making trips with Ryan to some of the world’s biggest Muay Thai events. Unfortunately, Wirth has also had some fights cancelled recently due to fighters dropping out. He’s holding out hope, however, that a fight will appear soon so he can start training hard each day.

         “Words can’t describe how proud of him I am,” Bhardwaj said. “It’s humbling to see him follow in the path I took when I was younger.”

         The motivation given to Wirth by his stepdad doesn’t seem to be fading. Wirth has full intentions to continue Muay Thai and Kickboxing at a college level. He has a plan to attend the University of Mississippi, a place where he’ll still be able to train actively.

         Ryan Wirth’s brother, Colin, is a student currently attending the University of Mississippi. Though he has different interests from his younger brother, he pondered the possibility of being able to watch his brother train near his campus.

         “He’s always wanted to be an athlete, no matter what sport it was,” Colin Wirth said. “It will be fun to see where this takes him in college.”

         Wirth’s family has full support in him, and though he just started his Muay Thai journey, he has a bright future ahead of him. Combat sports are seemingly one of the harder types of sports in the world, and Wirth knows he’s a part of that community. In his short career, Wirth has already racked up multiple fights, both locally and internationally. As he continues to train, he’s hopeful that he’ll get more opportunities to fight against other Muay Thai boxers.

         “I can see myself doing Muay Thai for a long time,” Wirth said. “Hopefully one day I can inspire others to try something out of their comfort zone.”