I’m becoming like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, a crumedgony old man. I don’t have time for people that don’t put in the effort themselves.
Spread out in the vastness of Torrance, California (population 147,000) are seemingly endless strip malls and chain stores. Driving through the suburban desolation is to see a series of signs, of box-like buildings and people going through the routine of every day life. On the corner of Hawthorne and Sepulveda is another series of shops. The row seems like all the others with a gas station, a Chinese restaurant, but tucked away at the end is Boxing Works, a Muay Thai gym with a 20 year legacy. Inside the gym is Bryan Popejoy, a tall, fair skinned, choir boy sort of man with a gentle Midwestern demeanor and a furious passion for Muay Thai. I sat down with him and talked about his long love affair with the sport, being involved in the golden era and what’s to come of the passion that has changed his life.
How did you get into fighting?
I had been training for about a year, a year and a half, and I wanted to see if this was something that I could apply. I wanted to take it out of the theoretical level and into the actual.
Where were you training out of at the time?
I was training with David Rogers out of his garage in Normal, Illinois.
What was David Rodgers’ background?
He had a Jeet Kun Do background which meant he trained a lot of different martial arts, Thai boxing being one element. When I was training with him, that was what I was drawn to. We were in a college town and so in the summer there’d be only one or two of us left and I’d gotten to a point where I didn’t want to focus on the other martial arts he was offering and I wanted to train specifically on Muay Thai. I was basically Dave’s only training partner so that’s what we did. I was selfish. I apologize.
Did you fight in Illinois?
I first fought in 1994 in my hometown of Bloomington, Illinois. This guy named Bruno Davis opened a kickboxing gym in my town and decided to put on a kickboxing show. It was smoker level stuff but for our place it was like, “Oh Wow!” It was a big deal. I won that.
How long were you in Bloomington for?
I stayed with Dave and then started meeting with people in Chicago in order to try to move myself along in terms of Muay Thai. I went up there to train, spar, and learn more. Through them I was given an opportunity to go to Thailand for the first time. I had to get out of my town; I loved Muay Thai so much and it wasn’t in Bloomington.
Who were you training with in Chicago?
I trained with Rick Sallo. He had the Aiki Training Center just outside of Chicago. Aiki doesn’t exist anymore, but the same group of guys operates out of a gym called Evanston Boxing Club, in Evanston, IL. There were amateur, above the waist kickboxing fights at the time and they had started to add some Muay Thai fights at the time. It was pretty “Wild West” at the time. They were just bringing in people willing to try anything. It was crazy to see Muay Thai in its infancy here in the states.
When did you go to Thailand for the first time?
I went to Thailand for the first time in 1995 and stayed for three or four months from January to April. I was really lucky. It was a fantastic time for the sport over there. This was back in the old VHS days and so everyone would collect video tapes of fights. I remember seeing this one guy, I had no idea what his name was, but we called him “The Bigheaded Guy.” It ended up being Jongsanaan. Everything he did in the ring resonated with me. I loved his style, I loved the things that he did and I was fortunate that the first camp I trained in-depth at was Fairtex. At that time Jongsanaan was still fighting in Thailand so I got to see him fight Orono for the Lumpinee Lightweight title. Being able to there at the time when guys like Jongsanaan, Orono, Sangtanoi were fighting was amazing. Tickets to Lumpinee were cheaper and after we were done training we would hop in a taxi and go all the way from Bangplee to Lumpinee Stadium.
What was the camp like originally?
The camp was on Philip Wong’s very nice estate. The camp was pushed over to the side. The house was very ornate while the camp was what you would think of when you think of a Thai style camp. The guys weren’t given amenities that are a lot more prevalent these days. It was a lot more hardcore then.
Did you fight in Thailand on that first trip over?
Oh no, no no. I was scared to death. No chance. I trained consistently though. Looking back, such is the benefit of time. I didn’t realize that things were tiered and that I wouldn’t be put in with one of these Super A class killers. The way we looked at things there were the Thais and than us. Once you stepped over the line that would be the level you’d be fighting at. Looking back, that was so naïve and was so far from the truth. So I didn’t fight. Of course now I think I should have stepped up earlier.
What happened after you came back from Thailand?
Going from a town with 50,000 people to Bangkok and seeing life outside my bubble made me realize I had to go somewhere else. I was 23 years old and needed to see more of the world at the time. The trip had opened my eyes and made realize that if I wanted to continue on with Muay Thai I would have to leave my hometown and leave the limited opportunities it presented.
In November of 1995 there was a Fairtex in Arizona and I had trained there briefly. My previous roommate was a Canadian named Jason Unger and he was teaching at Fairtex. He put in a good word for me and I ended up moving out to Fairtex Arizona to help teach some of the beginner classes. That lasted til 1996 when they closed that down. There was a little bit of a gap before Alex Gong opened up the location in San Francisco. Wayne Gregory who was the GM for Fairtex at the time moved to Indianapolis and brought Bunkerd with him. I’d been in a long distant relationship with the woman who is now my life and she lived in LA, so I moved to Urbanus Los Angeles.
Did you start training with anyone out here in LA?
No. Initially when I got out here. When I lived in Bloomington I lived with my mom and had small jobs; I worked in a skateboard shop, a hotel doing cleaning (which I don’t wish upon anyone ever) and in Arizona I lived in the camp. When I was in California though I had no job, no car and no money. Before I’d been set up. So that was about a year trying to get my act together in order to survive. Every gym that I could find at the time was up in the Valley like Muay Thai Academy. My Brother-in-law, Ajarn Chai, was flying around doing seminars – he didn’t have a school. I found a little gym in Hermosa beach that had some heavy bags and wasn’t too far. I went in and just kicked the bag. That was the extent of my training for a while. A whole lot of hitting the bag and shadow boxing.
You fought out here in LA ?
By the summer of 1997 I had a little job, I was getting around a little bit and had a need to fulfill. I called Muay Thai Academy and asked when their next show was. They gave me a date and I showed up. The training was less than optimal. My friend David Leitch, he’s notable stuntman today, had moved out to LA from the Midwest. He was a real good athlete with a solid Muay Thai background and it just so happened that he found the same gym as me, Boxing Works. He was able to train with me for the first few fights out here until he got more work.
When did you transition from fighting into coaching?
Not long after my first fight out here in the summer of 1997 the owners of Boxing Works decided to sell the gym. It seemed like a no brainer; I liked fitness and my family was involved in it so my wife, her sister, and myself pooled our resources and bought the gym. To be honest, we probably started a little too early. A lot of people think that once they have a gym they’ll have a place to train all the time so some of it was simultaneous. I was teaching people for fun and fitness but I wasn’t really coaching people for competition until I was done fighting in 2001.
What was your fight career like?
I did a few more smokers in LA then got on a show with Van Nuys who had a pretty good, consistent show. I had a few pro fights and went with the IFMA team to Thailand in 2000. The majority of my fighting was in between 1997 and 2001. I didn’t really have that long of a career. I probably had about 20 something fights in total.
How do you feel your past fighting career has influenced your coaching?
For me I had a lot of the normal fears; I didn’t want to get hurt, I didn’t want to get knocked out but the big one was that I didn’t want to be embarrassed. I didn’t want to go out there and gas out. So I’d make a mental checklist to make sure I’d done all these things: did I train hard enough, enough volume training, enough roadwork etc. As long as I went in and had done all those things I knew that I would do okay as long as I was matched with someone whose levels were similar to mine. So I try to convey that same idea to my fighters. “Okay we’ve done all the work, you’ve ran, you’ve done all these things, and I’m not going to allow you to be put in over your head, so you should be fine. You just gotta go in there and do what you were trained to do.”
How would you describe yourself as a coach?
I’m a minimalist. I’m not a big time yeller. I’m not a screamer. I don’t get crazy super passionate and I try not to be negative, although that does creep out sometimes. I don’t tell people that they suck or anything but I don’t tend to praise. When things are good and they’re doing something fine I’ll just say “okay you’re doing fine.” If something needs to be worked on though that will be brought up. That’s where I’m negative. I just don’t praise as much. I’m pretty laid back but I don’t have the time nor patience for the people that aren’t at least partially motivated. I have four or five people fighting now and that’s fine by me. They all know what to expect and I don’t need to walk them over to the jump rope and hand them the jump rope. I’m becoming like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, a crumedgony old man. I don’t have time for people that don’t put in the effort themselves.
What do you get out of coaching?
I like seeing people learn, and then apply what they’ve learned. I enjoy being a part of some incredibly happy moments. Of course, there are some rough, sad times as well, but that is all part of the game as well.
What are your strengths and weaknesses as a trainer?
I think this is common, but I’ve “been there” before, so I know how they feel. I can empathize with my fighters. I’ve felt all the things, physical, mental that they are feeling. I think that helps them in some way. I think I have a good grasp on balance, in terms of how much is enough, when to push, when to ease off.
Weakness? I get tunnel vision. I sometimes focus in on a certain “thing”, and obsess over it. That “thing” can be a technique, a concept, it can be almost any “thing.”
How does Muay Thai training and coaching here in the States differ from Thailand?
That’s a really good question. Training, at least as far as a fighter is concerned those differences are easy to spot. Here, most people have a job or are going to school, or both. They have other responsibilities, where as in Thailand, training and fighting is your job. Here, you have a life outside of the gym. Training volume in Thailand is typically more, with the boxers doing 2 a days, often running twice a day.
In terms of differences in coaching –that is pretty complicated. There are differences in relationship, status, coaching style, coaching methods, there are so many possible things to discuss.
In terms of say methods, I think coaching/training here, often is a bit more creative or at least more varied. Now, is that better, worse? That’s an entirely different discussion.
How do you develop a game plan or a strategy for a bout?
I try to watch the opponent’s fights, if available. Then I look for holes in their game that can be exploited. I try to figure out what their weaknesses are and if my fighter’s strengths will take advantage of these weaknesses, if not, then I try to develop other skills to take advantage. In certain situations, I don’t even try to make a real game plan.
What’s your favorite accomplishment?
From my own fights, I’d have to say winning my division in the IFMA tournament in 2000. But, I get a greater sense of accomplishment from someone telling me that I’ve made a difference in their lives, that somehow something in what is now my “daily routine” has impacted them, that’s a really great feeling.
How do you feel Muay Thai has changed since you became involved in the sport?
It’s so much more known and readily available. The internet has made things easier in finding fights. Before we would have to trade third generation video tapes that were all grainy that we would watch. It’s easier to find training. It’s easier to go to Thailand. When I trained in Thailand that first time it was pay $100 a month to Apidet to sleep on a pad in this backroom. Now you can spend $100 a day. The Thais weren’t looking for that foreign market and people didn’t realize that was possible. Now I can’t think of another place that doesn’t want foreigners coming in.
What’s the Southern California Muay Thai scene like?
It’s a pretty small community. For the most part everyone gets along, or maybe that’s just me. I get along with everyone. There are a lot of people that have a real Thai style which is really positive especially for preserving the sport and not having to reinvent the wheel. There could always be more shows but at least there are shows on a fairly regular basis, every six weeks or so there is something. I of course wish there were more shows of course.
You’ve judged Muay Thai bouts before, what was that like?
Laughs. So far it was just the one. Bryan Dobler of Double Dose Muay Thai in Fontana had some contacts with the IKF who are running the amateur Muay Thai events in California. He asked me if I would help out as one of the shows how I was at as one of the judges for the event couldn’t make it. So I became a judge that night. Prior to that I had gone through a judge’s course that was at Bryan Dobler’s gym and put on by Kru Rex and some other people. They felt I was adequate enough to judge. I’ve only done it once. I was happy that all the decisions that night were all consistent. The biggest difference was one point in a few of the bouts. We were all on the same page. Will it happen again? I’m not entirely certain. I’m not opposed to it. I complain about it, judging, enough that I guess I should put my money where my mouth is.
Who are some people that you have worked with that went on to have some success?
I trained with Mark Beecher for a while, he was out here working at an oil refinery in Carson California. Mark’s been around and the last place he’d trained before California was Ohio. He was a purple belt in Jiu Jitsu about 10 years ago and he had a good Muay Thai background already. He was living around here in Torrance and was going to Huntington Beach to a gym down there. He wanted to fight but the gym wasn’t getting him fights. He ran into a guy at an LA Fitness that went to Boxing Works and the guy referred him to me. Mark came in and said “I want to fight.” For whatever reason I was like “Okay.” At the time I didn’t have anyone fighting at the time and was just teaching classes at the gym.
How long were you a part of his career for?
We started in 2002 til 2004, or 2005, whenever he moved on to Vegas. He transitioned into his professional career when he moved to Vegas. He had a really good opportunity out there. There’s nothing wrong with refinery work but it’s hard on the body. He went on and took on a Muay Thai program out there. He hated the refinery. I foolishly had this blue collar fantasy and I worked there for 11 eleven months. It was hellish.
How do you structure your fighter’s camps and programs?
A lot of the time you don’t have a ton of lead time to have this long camp. With boxing, especially world titles, you’ll have a long camp. With Muay Thai things pop up so quickly that it’s difficult to have a solid camp all the time. I’m lucky in that the people that I have are here consistently and so my fighters are usually in shape and ready. To be honest with everyone I do things a little differently. I’ve got one person that is doing weight training, while with another it’s more traditional long, slow Muay Thai routing.
Where do you see Muay Thai going in the States?
It’s grown quite a bit in the twenty years since I’ve stuck my nose in it. I think there’s a lot room for growth. I think there has been some growth from Mixed Martial Arts even if the guys on TV are wrong, the so so’s “Muay Thai” isn’t really world class. At least now more people know what it is. I think that the sky’s the limit. I think there are things that can hold it back.