This article was originally published in International Kickboxer Magazine, May/June 2016
Roy Wills and Toby Smith have been the best of friends most of their lives. They met at kindergarten and have spent much of their time since hanging around, playing sport and going to school together.
Blair Smith, head trainer and founder of ‘The Pit’ Muay Thai gym in Perth, is the common link between the boys and their burgeoning careers as fighters in the international Muay Thai scene.
Blair, himself a veteran of over twenty-five fights and holder of state and Australian Muay Thai titles, opened his own gym in 1998.
“It was hard to get fights back then,” says Blair, “There wasn’t much going on. I had about two fights per year. Heaps of people asked me to train them, so I decided to open my own gym. It was part-time; I still had a full-time job at the time. I was working as a front-end loader driver.”
At the age of five, Toby was often found wandering around the gym.
“He didn’t really ask, as I remember; he just put the gloves on. He was watching all the time, so I thought, ‘Let’s do it.’ Nothing serious; just let him muck around. He was a sporty kid. He picked it up naturally.”
Getting the boys training was a practical method of getting them out of the way. Says Roy:
“My first memory of Toby would be him playing with dinosaur toys at kindergarten. I also remember going to the gym after school, and to me back then it was a fun thing to do with my friend at the time, more than something serious.
“I remember we would make up games and mess around at the gym sometimes and Blair would get angry and yell at us for getting in the way.”
Muay Thai is essentially a game of sorts, and the boys were soon absorbed by the business of learning the rules in order to participate.
“Blair Smith met my parents [at the kindergarten] after they discovered we had become friends. Blair told my parents that I should come down and try some kids’ Muay Thai at his gym, which was inside an old church in Jarradale.
“I remember training on the wooden floor, doing everything that all the adults had to do, like sparring without shin guards and kicking the edge of a car tyre to make our shins strong.
“I trained with him and a couple of our other school-mates for around seven years and Toby and I both had a lot of demonstration bouts at the small shows Blair used to promote back then.”
“I met Roy at school,” says Toby, “and we have been life-long friends. He’s a good, honest, humble bloke.”
These personality traits are essential for two boys to grow up schooling and training together in close proximity, considering they also have to spar one another.
“They spar every week at a respectful pace,” says Blair. “Toby is a lot bigger.”
“It’s annoying sometimes if sparring or clinching gets a bit excessive, [Toby] will usually get the upper hand pretty quick, due to his size and experience. That’s about it, though. Other than that, we get along fine.”
Part of the success of their relationship is certainly due to their differences as fighters, both physically and stylistically. Roy fights at 63.5 kilograms, while Toby fights at middleweight, as his father did, between 73 and 76 kilograms.
“Roy is more of a technician; a strong kick fighter, very Thai-style, very slick, sometimes a little lazy for the Australian scoring system,” says Blair. “Toby’s more aggressive. Roy’s more of a points fighter; Toby’s more of a KO fighter.”
Toby’s approach is a consequence of what he sees as his strongest asset; his heart.
“I’ll die before I lose,” he says, and anyone who has seen him fight would find it hard to be convinced otherwise.
That will to win-or-die-in-the-attempt is indicative of Toby’s toe-toe-toe, walk forward style, where most of the action comes from elbows and knees deployed as part of a strong clinching game.
“I’ve always been a fan of game, walk-up fighters with a strong clinch, punch, knee and elbow [style]. I try and push all my fighters toward that,” says Blair, “but most of them can’t do what he can do for five rounds. They don’t have the fitness or mental toughness. Toby just doesn’t care; he doesn’t care about getting hurt or about his own body or his own safety.
“He just wants to hurt them. In doing that, he takes a lot of damage himself. He’ll just push, push, push, and doesn’t care if he dies on the way. That’s why I want them to retire at twenty-eight; I want them to retire on top and own their own gyms. I don’t want them to get banged up because they keep going.”
One of the more remarkable segments of footage doing the rounds of Facebook in recent times was an excerpt from episode four of season two of Warriors of the Mongkon. Forty-five seconds of slow-motion highlights from Toby’s fight against Superbon Banchamek in late 2013. The clip is suffused with macabre glamour, as graceful as it is brutal.
“That was a brutal, brutal, brutal fight,” says Blair. “They were both cut up; both had stitches in their faces after – Toby had more… [but] he finished stronger. He doesn’t care,” says Blair, returning to the subject of Toby’s approach to a fight. “Even though he’s out-skilled a lot of Thais, he overwhelms his opponents with pressure. They can’t handle it; that’s how he wins.”
That willingness to lay down one’s own safety comes at a significant cost.
“When I fought Thanasak Topking on Domination in Perth, I took a lot of leg kicks, but kept pushing the pace. After the fight, I turned pale and nearly passed out. They had to put an oxygen mask on me and tried to get me to go to the hospital. I pushed my body to the brink to get that win.”
When asked what he means by ‘the brink’, Toby’s explanation is simple.
“It means I was prepared to push myself – no matter what – to get the win. I think I fainted from shock, I don’t know. I was told to go to hospital, but I went home and chilled.”
“After the fight, he was so exhausted, he was given an oxygen mask. People were trying to swarm him to say congratulations and I’m pretty sure all he wanted to do was lay down and get a Big Mac.”
“Watching Toby fight makes me proud,” says Blair. “As far as injuries go, I’m not fussed: we both know the risks and what happens in the ring is destiny. There’s nothing anyone can do to change it. You touch gloves and fight. If you get cut, you get cut; if you get KOed, you get KOed. If you’ve done everything in the gym, what will be will be.”
Roy has had his own opponents put him through the ringer, also.
“My toughest opponent would have been a guy who, at that time, went by the name of ‘Siam Chai’. He had recently moved to Australia after marrying an Australian woman and I was his first opponent here. I’d had about twenty-five fights by that time.
“I felt as though he wanted to make a show of how strong and skilful he was. Although he beat me convincingly, he wasn’t able to stop me. But they were definitely some of the hardest kicks I’ve felt in my fight career.”
While it would be hard to see past the interests of your own son, Blair is careful to ensure that he treats all his fighters – and their prospects – with equal weight.
“Both Roy and Toby have very different styles, but I train them the same. We work on everything, every day. I address their careers pretty much the same. We don’t dodge anyone… I don’t want either of them to miss an opportunity. I want them both to retire at twenty-eight. They both started young; I want them to finish on top, not washed up.”
Both boys have had stints in Thailand, training at some of the country’s most well-respected gyms.
“After school, I got my roofing carpentry apprenticeship and pretty much left for Thailand straight away; I had the money saved up,” says Toby. “I was in Thailand for three years, back and forth [to Australia]. I trained at a few different gyms; Kaewsamwrit, Eminent Air. They’ve each got their own styles. Some are good clinching gyms, some are strong knee and kick gyms.”
“We started going to Kaewsamrit Gym a long time ago, before it got too touristy,” Blair says. “Now, I send the boys to all different gyms. We are always checking new gyms out. I try to steer them away from the island Gyms.
“Island gyms are too touristy with too many distractions for young boys. I’ve been sending boys to gyms just out of Bangkok where there are no distractions. One boy just went to Kiatphontip; another will be going to Sangtien Noi’s soon. These gyms are more for the fighter, not so focused on the tourist dollar.”
The experience of training in Thailand was transformative for Roy.
“I went over to Kaewsamrit three years ago,” he says. “Before I went, I didn’t really have a style. I picked it up at that time. They had a focus on power shots and kicking. It was a lot different to what I was used to. It’s so intense, that volume of training. You train six days a week, twice a day, for a total of about seven hours. It’s basically your work.”
Toby and Roy fought most recently on Road to Rebellion in Victoria on March fifth. In his bout, Roy met Kurtis Staiti, formerly of Australia, now training and fighting out of Lamnamoon Muay Thai gym in Thailand. Staiti is at the top of his game, having recently won the Max Muay Thai four-man tournament in Thailand.
“Kurtis beat me on points, out-kneeing me in the clinch by a fair margin,” says Roy. “He’s a tough customer, that’s for sure, and I think he will definitely go far in the sport. He’s in a great position at the moment, being able to train full-time and mainly staying in Thailand, so he has every opportunity to be able to rise to the top of the Muay Thai world.”
Roy and Blair are on-song in regard to his shortcomings.
“Roy’s only real weakness is his clinch game, something Kurtis Staiti exposed on Rebellion. It’s something we will definitely be working on in the gym.”
Road to Rebellion was Toby’s first fight in over a year, since he conclusively defined the arc of his own career and that of Australia’s other distinguished middleweight, Wayne Parr.
“Toby had a year off after the JWP fight,” says Blair. “He was mentally exhausted. At twenty years of age, a year off couldn’t hurt. He is now back in Australia with me, looking stronger than ever.”
The Rebellion fight saw Toby return to form, securing a comfortable win over Max Muay Thai Golden Belt champion, Eakchanachai Kaewsamrit.
Both Roy and Toby are in their early twenties, and the future looks bright for both fighters. They continue to improve and take on the best opponents the sport has to offer, both internationally and at home. Toby will fight Dieselek Topking Boxing on Domination in Perth in April, while Roy will have to sit this one out.
“I was supposed to [fight], but because I got cut on Rebellion, I had to withdraw because I couldn’t train properly. The stitches were in for ages; I just got them out. No clinching, no sparring, it’s still a bit tender. If I got hit or [suffered a] head clash, [the cut would] probably open up again. I’ve just had to take it easy.”
Regardless, The Pit, while supporting a small stable of fighters, will continue to provide the international Muay Thai community with some of its most exciting fights.