The Real Interview with Real Fighters’ Eric Haycraft

by Mike LNg

Eric Haycraft and Rob after winning TBA-SA belt

Eric Haycraft has been hard at work in his gym Real Fighters in Kentucky. Eric has come to be known for producing good quality fighters in a place where Muay Thai is virtually an unknown quantity.  Almost always when Eric is not in the gym training a new generation of students he’s on the road testing his fighters mettle and getting them the much needed experience that would be impossible being a home town gym only. Eric’s knowledge of the United States Muay Thai scene and Holland Muay Thai is nothing short of comprehensive and I was very fortunate to have had him grant this interview which trust me was a long time coming.

Question: Many people may not know that you were also an accomplished and experienced fighter prior to training fighters full time. How did you get your start in Muay Thai and kickboxing?

Answer: In the late 80’s I was a junior in high school and like many guys that age, a buddy and I started to lift weights in his garage. We had no clue what we were doing. We just made it up as we went. One day we were flipping through the channels when Bloodsport was on. We really did not care about martial arts but we wanted to be in shape like Van Damme. Then he did the splits on the chair thing. And we started daring the other to do it. Of course neither of us could so we set out on a race to be the first to do it. I stretched every night and three weeks later I could do a full split on two chairs. My buddy told me that I must be cut out for martial arts. So two weeks later I signed up in Kung Fu at a local fire station. Several years later I really enjoyed the sparring but not the forms and I detested the weapons stuff. I found a local American kickboxing gym and started training there. All the while I had started collecting all things kickboxing, magazines, books and most importantly videos. I found a guy that sold boot leg videos of kickboxing and he got me hooked. I remember he sent a video of Ramon Dekkers. At that time I was hooked on the likes of Dennis Alexio and Pete Cunningham and had no idea who Dekkers was. Instantly I was hooked. My American kickboxing gave way to college friends that had Muay Thai experience and we did the best we could. Within a year of watching that first Dekkers fight on tape, I had my first amateur match and left for Holland to train with my idol. That was in 1994. I have been back to Holland at least once a year nearly every year since. Thailand as well and had the good fortune of having some amazing coaches for several years two hours north in Indianapolis. Sakasem most notably.

What were some of the more memorable fights you had in your career as a pro fighter?

When I came back from Holland I was so ready to fight. But nothing happened. I lived in Kentucky and there were no fights. There were barely any fights anywhere except the west coast. I had an amateur fight here and there and then in 1995 or so I met Duke Roufus. He promoted me twice on his shows. My first non-padded five round fights. It was so big time for me then! My first fight I went against one of his guys and won in the 4Th round. My next outing was to be a rematch but once I got there my opponent was MIA. So there was this guy that had just got back from Thailand fighting over there. He had a lot more fights than I did. But I was there and I wanted to fight so I said yes! I was scared to death. That guy was James Cook! I went out there and gave it my all but I just could not maintain the pressure and he took me out. But after that fight I was never scared again. At least not like that. I had some very good matches with guys like Sean Douglas, Dutchman Stefan Butinbik, Zack Day, and several others. I only got to fight twice in my own state and never in my home town. I learned a lot about promoting always being the guy brought in. I learned that you are either the guy being promoted or the guy fighting the guy being promoted. I made a lot of naive mistakes back then. I had 17 fights and in 2004 a disk surgery in my neck helped make it easy to move on to coaching. My experiences made me and continue to make me into the coach I wish I always had!

What sort of things do you feel were the most important things you try to pass along to your students as a fighter?

There are so many. Perhaps the most important is that when you are always the away fighter, you generally are not meant to win. So we have to be ready above and beyond the normal fight level. My fighters at 1 fight are ready for a fighter with 5 fights. My fighters at 5 fights are ready for a fighter with 10 fights, etc.

That part aside I have made my fighters strong in what were my weakest areas. The problems I never got a chance to redeem as a fighter have been vindicated by my team. They don’t make nearly the mistakes I made!

You are in an interesting situation in Kentucky where basically you and your team are the perpetual away team. What are the biggest challenges in being the away team?

As I mentioned before it is all about promotion. Coming from out of town means we don’t generally have fans with us that will buy tickets. So if we get the opportunity to fight in another guy or gal’s home town not only do we have to be prepared for the possibility of a slightly stacked deck but we have to win and make fans. If we can make fans with style and class, then the promoter has some financial incentive to bring us back!

Real Fighters putting in real work

How do you keep your team busy with the additional cost of travel?

This is perhaps the hardest part. I tell all my young amateur fighters that developing an amateur career is not unlike going to college. We have to do it if we expect to be solid pro fighters. We do not get paid for it and sometimes we actually have to pay for it! The closest place we can fight is three hours away. More common we travel as much as ten hours for fights. I offset as much of that as I can for fighters that struggle. But my team are responsible and they have jobs and carry their weight. For big international amateur tournaments our gym members help us a lot. They all kick in to make sure the fighters can take part in their earned accomplishments.

Having seen the evolution of modified rules Muay Thai to Full rules being accepted more in the United States how have you been able to adapt your team’s style?

The vast majority of our team of Muay Thai fighters are amateur. We stay very active so we try to develop very real amateur careers. In boxing it is not uncommon for an amateur fight to have 300 bouts! But in most US Muay Thai and MMA cases guys go pro with a handful of bouts. I try to get my amateurs to near 30 bouts before we even consider pro. That being said most amateur Muay Thai is still modified rules. But of course our pro MMA fighters fight with elbows.

Recently we all became aware of the tragic death of Adrienne Simmons in the IKF event in Florida. There has been conflicting reports from Steve Fossum (IKF president) to Chike Andjua (Adrienne’s boyfriend) and fighters in attendance on how long it took for medical help to arrive. In your opinion how long did it truly take for transportation to the hospital to arrive?

There is some confusion as to how it all played out. Adrienne had actually came to and was talking and seemed to be fine to all in the ring including the doctor. The took her to the back, at that time with no intention of her needing to leave. From the point of the KO to just getting to the back was probably five minutes or so. At some point in the back she took a turn for the worse. Trying to add up the time line, we were presented our belt, went to the IKF photo booth for photos they want for their website, hugged our team, Lindsay did an interview with a vendor and then we collected our stuff and went to the locker room. All of this took thirty minutes. As we were making our way back Steve Fossum came on the microphone asking Marriott staff to call 911. Since the doctor was in the back with Adrienne the tournament had to pause. As we got to the back half of the locker room was closed off. The other teams informed us she was waiting for an ambulance. It had been 35 plus minutes at this point since the KO. We waited maybe another five minutes and they announced that she was airlifted out. I would say 40 to 45 minutes later she was airborne. Now we don’t have precise times as we had no reason to pay attention. The problem was there was no ambulance on site. That seemed to dumbfound everyone in the locker room. We had all assumed there should be an ambulance there.

Commerative Thaiboxing shorts with Adrienne's name

In recent days since Adrienne’s death some organizations have taken upon themselves to use the event as a platform to speak on for behalf of themselves. Do you feel this is exploitative or necessary?

The one thing I never anticipated was the media onslaught and the people with an axe to grind with Fossum trying to use this to get at him. Nearly right away I started getting calls from reporters that wanted it to be some storyline from a movie. I was really disappointed how many reporters were to the point in their research of calling me for an interview and had zero correct information or research. I was asked to do a radio show. I agreed because I wanted to set some things straight but the show was all about trying to slam the promoter. I was given maybe three minutes to speak and they only wanted to hear what they wanted to hear.

There has been much speculation on what things should have been in place that were not at the IKF event. What things do you think the Florida State Athletic Commission and IKF could have done better?

As long as we have a physical sport that entails blunt force trauma to the head there will always be an inherent risk of serious injury or death. Always. Despite never expecting anything to ever happen I think most involved know this. Athletes except these risks assuming that should the worst case scenario arise the full compliment of modern medicine and emergency assistance is at their disposal.

At every high school football game this fall there will be an ambulance there. At nearly every fight event I have ever attended and even promoted there has been an ambulance there. Had an ambulance been there and the outcome remained the same we would all have witnessed a tragedy in which every safety measure had been available. Not having one there leaves all of us with a “what if.”

What lessons or change can we learn from Adrienne’s tragic passing?

I have been thinking a lot about this. This tournament is an open tournament. Which means all levels of amateur fighters are thrown in together. I for one do not take issue with this. I have fighters that I will allow to do open tournaments and those that can partake in tournaments that offer novice divisions. I think part of the problem is the massive disparity in skill levels of fighters across the country. I for one do not think that games based on blunt force trauma to the brain are recreational sports. They are not for everyone. Many of the fighters in these tournaments have a match or two for fun and train a few times a week in a gym on the side. I too have some fighters that have no intention to go pro, however during the time they train to compete they will train at a pro level. Training daily 6 days a week. I think the biggest change has to start in the gyms with the coaches. That is the first line of security for the fighter. Fighters will make bad decisions if left to their own devices.

Coaches should ask in advance if the event has ambulance service on site. I will be asking and any promoter that says no, I will not bring my team.

Lindsay Scheer has been developing very well as a fighter and will now have an appearance in Suriname for the Slamm! Promotion. What things are you focusing on to get her ready for her fight?

I knew very early on that Lindsay had what it takes to go very far. So we set out building a solid amateur career. She has 25 fights now as an amateur. She has fought in Germany, Spain, Holland(twice) and already once in Suriname. This next Suriname bout is a rematch against a Dutch girl she beat last November at SLAMM in Holland. The days after Adrienne’s passing we had to see how everything settled. If she wanted to fight again. She asked me what I thought one morning and I told her whatever she decided I would support 100%. But I told her that is she was going to continue on, we could not take a big break. Coming back would be even harder. So after literally hundreds of emails and facebook notes she knew she had to continue. Adrienne loved this sport and quitting would make all that transpired completely meaningless. So three days later we went back into the gym and got right back to work. She turned a corner this year and training has really been amazing. I think that there is some extra motivation there to make a nice fight for Adrienne also. We asked Chike if we could wear her name on our shorts in her memory and he said he thought that was a great thing.

Is Lindsay prepared to fight so soon after the IKF event?

Lindsay had her first fight in 2007. Now 25 fights later in 2010 you can see how busy we stay. So tragedy aside, we had planned on using the tournament as a tune up for Suriname.

Going back to the topic of training you are noted for being host to Rob Kaman and probably the best international female Thaiboxer in the world Germaine De Ramandie. Do you feel sometimes the Dutch influence in Muay Thai is overlooked?

I think it is misunderstood. You see the Dutch spend a lot of time in Thailand. They understand the Thai style well. They just choose to create something instead of try to copy it. They integrate things very well and overall in fight sports you have to give it to them. For a small country they have an enormous fight history. The Dutch now do full Thai rules shows and are regularly beating top Thais. They are the second best Muay Thai country in the world after the mother-land. I have been working with Rob Kaman a lot these recent years. Ramon Dekkers is my friend he has been over here to my gym. Wayne Parr has been over here. Never Germaine however. We have fought on cards with her but she has yet to come to my gym. I grew up in a state with no Muay Thai and now Ramon Dekkers Rob Kaman, Manu N’Toh, Sakasem and Wayne Parr have all been through my state! I’m proud of that!

Rob Kaman with Eric and Lindsay

Do you emphasize the Dutch method of training more for your own students?

I do. I teach Dutch Kickboxing. Now I have trained in Thailand and had Thai coaches and we integrate all of that in our system but the format is very much Dutch in nature.

I noticed you also have students who compete in MMA in the promotion Bellator among others. How does the Muay Thai teaching differ for them in an MMA context?

It depends on the fighter. The more well-rounded he or she is the less we have to change things. If they have good take down defense and good wrestling and BJJ then they can fight on their feet without fear of being taken down. If their take down defense is lacking or their ability to fight off their back is weak then their striking will be very restricted as they have to not over commit. all of our MMA fighters are very well-rounded. I have no desire to coach anyone that is not committed to being well-rounded.

In Kentucky you seem to be almost the only notable Muay Thai gym there. What things would you like to see change there to make Muay Thai a more viable sport?

For the US audience I think K-1 is an avenue to eventually bring us around to Muay Thai. K-1 is faster paced. It is much more similar to boxing which has a great history here. And if we can make a fan base in K-1 and they see the likes of Buakaw they will want to follow that fighter in Muay Thai as well. In the USA most of the folks running things care less about the sport itself but more about some organization or another.

Muay Thai seems to be largely a bi-coastal phenomenon in the United States. Do you think this will change soon?

No. I think the level grows slowly but as soon as midwest amateur fighters get past a few matches they jump to the more readliy available MMA matches.

In your opinion how is the level of  United States Muay Thai compared to what is going on internationally?

Years behind. Part of it is because most Americans do not care to really do something legit! To accomplish something real. By and large the American fight community is content to have a Hollywood career. Guys and gals with 4 or 5 fights but a killer nickname, a website, T-shirts and maybe even an instructional series out. It is insane. The coaches and fighters that people know about in Muay Thai in the USA are so far from being real international level. There are some fighters doing it of course, I’m speaking generally on a whole. One guy that is doing it for real is Kevin Ross. I respect the hell out of that guy.

In the United States there is an underlying culture among some students of Muay Thai that are insistent on using Thai terminology,wai kru, and titles such as ‘arjan’ or ‘kru’ though the term really seems to be used quite a bit less frequently in Thailand. How important is tradition to you for maintaining Muay Thai’s integrity?

I’m glad you asked and I may not gain a lot of fans for this but here goes. I think a lot of that comes from other martial arts formats that have a ranking system. I have been in Korean schools that teach the students to count in Korean. It adds to the exotic nature and heck it is cool, I’m all about multi-cultualism. But Muay Thai never had a rank system like belts. It is a sport like boxing. To add structure some folks have lifted Thai titles and made them into attainable ranks that students can test for. Kru for instance means teacher. Any kind of teacher. Years ago I found a website something like Kru.com. It is gone now but it was a site for international english teachers in Thailand. That term is not relegated for Muay Thai participants. I’m a bit old school in that to teach the sport you come up in the sport. I know folks that are “Kru,” and they never fought or even trained under a coach that trained fighters. That troubles me. When I trained with Sakasem, I would wai to him because he was Thai! He never asked me to call him Kru. Nor did any of the trainers I trained with in Thailand and I would wai to them too. But when two white dudes meet in the midwest and wai to each other is just weird for me. It’s the equivelent of a hand shake. So lets just shake hands. I have seen white refs speak Thai when two white kids are fighting their first ever fight. The kids did not break right away when ordered in Thai. They are freaking nervous and they don’t speak Thai. I later asked the referee if he spoke Thai and he said no. Ironic.

I have been to maybe 15 countries and I love multiculturalism. I embrace it. When I am among the people in that region. Really at the end of the day I have no problem with folks making Thai cultural traditions part of their Muay Thai.

What can we look forward to from the Real Fighters’ team?

Probably the two fighters people have heard of from our gym are Lindsay Scheer and Pro MMA fighter Brent Weedman. Coming up behind them I have Scott Sawade who is 10-7 and took Bronze in the WKA World Championships in Spain last year as well as won the IKF World Amateur Tournament in 2009. Also Pro MMA fighter, Joe Heink who just signed a 5 fight televised deal with XFC. Another Muay Thai prospect I have coming up is Marcus Mayes at 186 pounds. And a whole crop of young guys looking to break on the scene. Over the years I wore so many hats in the fight game and made a lot of very valuable connections. Now that I have a team coming of age I can call on these connections to help create opportunities for these fighters. Lindsay’s career is the blueprint for our upcoming Muay Thai fighters!

Much thanks to Eric and all at Real Fighters gym. Eric and his team can be contacted via his own site.

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~ by fatsoking on August 27, 2010.

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