The face of Tanko’s latest recruit, Dean James, has been splashed all over the web in recent weeks, with several major publications picking up his inspiring story. But, new found fame aside, Dean remains the modest and masterly fighter he’s always been. He came to visit us at Tanko HQ during the Easter holidays for a debrief in the wake of his win at Muay Thai Grand Prix 3.
Not everyone believes in the concept of kindred spirits, but even the biggest sceptic would have difficulty denying Dean James & Muay Thai were destined to find one another from the very beginning.
Many fighters who partake in The Art of Eight Limbs do so because they enjoy a particular facet of the sport. For some, it’s the tactical nature of combat. For others, it’s the influence of Eastern culture. But for Birmingham-born Dean James, it’s everything. All it took was one tiny taste of Muay Thai in his teens, and he was drawn to the sport like a bear to honey. He immersed himself in everything the discipline had to offer, and as Muay Thai began to have a profound effect on him, he in turn began to have a profound effect on Muay Thai. Within a matter of years, Dean became part of British combat sports history – etching his name on three World Titles at three different weight levels.
Needless to say, Dean’s Easter Holiday visit to Tanko HQ is a highly anticipated one, and we’ve just moved past mid-morning when he pulls into the car park. Upon arrival, he steers into a Director’s Space before thinking better of it; whizzing around the corner to search for another place to park instead. After a few minutes, he re-emerges – this time on foot and wearing a nervous grin. “I didn’t think parking in a Director’s spot would be the best idea!” he chuckles, proceeding to push open the door to Tanko HQ.
After his car park faux pas, Dean climbs the stairs to the top floor and shakes several hands along the way. Once he’s settled himself into an office chair and cracked open a can of Diet Coke, the first port of call for conversation is his victory over Hakim Hamech at Muay Thai Grand Prix 3 – his first competitive fight for the best part of a year.
“Obviously, I’m pleased with how it all went.” Dean says coolly, one arm wrapped around the back of the empty chair sat beside him. “It was great to have a comfortable victory. I’ve still got some stuff to work on though”.
“As for Muay Thai Grand Prix, it’s a really good show. They don’t feel like a promoter, they treat you like a proper person. Everything runs smoothly and all the timings are great. But, best of all, putting on a good show is what they care about the most.”
“Some promotions are driven by money; you can feel it when you’re there. But not Muay Thai Grand Prix. I’d definitely like to fight there again. One hundred percent.”
This is nice news to hear. Western Muay Thai fighters typically take weeks off between fights, but Dean ended up spending several months out of the ring after being beaten by Thai fighter Wuttichai at The Main Event in 2015. It was a huge disappointment at the time, but it’s proven to be a defeat that’s opened an exciting new chapter in his career. Dean learnt lessons from this bout that changed him, and if the defeat proved nothing else, it certainly revealed his passion for the sport was still burning bright.
I remember thinking – “That is never going to happen to me again”
Sitting up slightly, Dean thinks back to that fight. “I started great. I felt good in the opening rounds. Then…to lose it…” He shakes his head in disbelief. “I came out astonished. I couldn’t understand what had just happened.”
He knows now, though.
“My downfall was getting frustrated during the fight. I got too emotional. As a technical fighter, I spend a lot of my time looking for good opportunities. I saw them, but for whatever reason, I didn’t take them. Before I knew it I’d lost the fight. I got ahead of myself. It was the first time that’s happened to me and I remember thinking – ‘That is never going to happen to me again’.”
There’s a flicker of defiance in that last statement, and it’s jarring. Unless Dean is training, his deeply-embedded “fighter attitude” is almost untraceable, so when a hint of intensity bubbles to the surface in ordinary conversation, it’s tricky not to be slightly taken aback.
Dean was due for a rematch with Wuttichai at Muay Thai Grand Prix 3, but the Thai fighter was forced to pull out with only a few weeks remaining and was subsequently replaced by Hakim Hamech – a fighter from the widely-respected French gym Nasser Kacem. Dean wasn’t too aggrieved when the rematch was scrapped. Sure, his chance to take on Wuttichai again had been scuppered, but for Dean, this fight was always about much more than the man he was up against. It was about him proving to himself that he could come back from defeat and produce a performance he was proud of.
They may not look like it when they’re in the ring, but fighters are only human, and they are as susceptible to illness and injury as the next person. Muay Thai event organisers understand this is par for the course and something that nobody has any kind of control over. Dean, on the other hand, has a pretty impressive record when it comes to committing to fights and has only ever had to drop out of a handful of them.
I’m not a lottery fighter. I don’t get banged up.
““I’m not a lottery fighter. I don’t get banged up.” Dean says calmly. “I like to think I’m quite clever when I’m in the ring, and that might be one of the reasons I don’t get too many injuries. Of course, you can be unlucky too. Anyone can get injured, it’s just one of those things, and unfortunately he (Wuttichai) ended up having to pull out this time.”
Did Dean know much about Hakim Hamech – the man who stepped in to replace Wuttichai?
“We were actually meant to fight one another two years ago but it didn’t happen. I was hoping I’d come across him again, so I was actually quite glad to get the call and hear he was my new opponent” Dean explains. “I guess the preparation changed a bit, but otherwise my approach was just the same. I trained hard and used visualisation techniques like I normally do. Thankfully it all went to plan. I thought Hakim would do certain things and he did.”
Hakim Hamech was by no means an easy man to beat, but Dean is completely uninterested in lining up a series of lesser opponents to keep the winning streak going. To Dean, a flawless fight card means nothing when you’re tackling mediocre opponents, and he wants to spend the next few years sharing the ring with the best Muay Thai fighters his team can find.
I’m not interested in ‘safe’ fights
“I’m more than happy to take the big names” Dean declares, waving his hand as if inviting these fighters into the room. “I’m not interested in ‘safe’ fights. I want to fight someone who will scare the life out of me, someone that makes me get out of bed to go running at 5am. When you fight someone who’s better than you, you tend to raise the bar. If you head into a fight as the strong favourite, you might not train quite as hard or prepare quite as well.”
“People can write you off when you’re losing, but I’ve proven I’m not down and out. I actually feel like I’ve got years left in me. I’m never going to apologise for losing anyway. As long as I’m personally happy with how I performed. Connor McGregor impressed me after he lost to (Nate) Diaz. He said all the right things and managed to get the media on his side. That’s how you handle defeat.”
It’s interesting that Dean brings up McGregor and the UFC, especially given how different that type of combat sport is to his own world. Is MMA something Dean knows much about?
“Yeah, I do watch MMA” Dean nods. “I’ve fought Pan (Panicos Yusuf) under MMA rules in the gym before”. He snaps his head to one side and mumbles quickly under his breath: “I got tapped out.”
A lot of martial arts fighters consider moving between disciplines to see where they’re best suited. Panicos grabbed the bragging rights under MMA rules in a friendly contest, but is professional Mixed Martial Arts something Dean has ever seriously considered?
He thinks about this question for a second or two, gazing up at the ceiling as if the answer might be floating up there somehow.
“I dunno whether I’d suit MMA” Dean eventually confesses. “To be honest, I’m not that kind of star.”
In many ways, he might be right. There aren’t too many Mixed Martial Arts athletes out there who are as subdued and mild-mannered as Dean James. MMA stars, for the most part, thrive in chaos. For a great example, we needn’t turn far. Just look at Dean’s fellow Tanko athlete Brendan Loughnane. Like Dean, Brendan is head over heels in love with his profession, but whereas Dean prefers to remain out of the spotlight, Brendan is more than happy to embrace it, and looks very much at home when he’s in it – cracking jokes and reeling off cheeky remarks with a nudge and a wink.
Dean suddenly slaps his thigh and shakes his head with laughter. “I’m just thinking about some of Brendan’s interviews” he explains, slowly composing himself. “He really cracks me up. He’s such a character. I’m nothing like that in interviews. But that’s what I mean about MMA. I’m not really that sort of person.”
Dean’s specific personality is just right for Muay Thai – a sport where many fighters tend to walk and talk with a quiet dignity. The intricate differences that separate one martial art discipline from another may look small to the common man, but Dean never felt quite the same way about the likes of MMA, Judo or Boxing as he did with The Art of Eight Limbs.
The first time I saw Muay Thai, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
“I find a lot of martial arts appealing, but it was Muay Thai that made an impact on me” Dean says enthusiastically. “The first time I saw Muay Thai, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. After learning more about it, I discovered how much my character was suited to it. All my values fall right in line with it. I love Thailand the country. I love the culture of the sport. I love the ‘flicky’ nature of the moves. Everything. Muay Thai is just…” he pauses for a moment, before shrugging and saying: “Me. Muay Thai is just…me.”
The strong sense of community in The Art of Eight Limbs is another element that drew Dean in from the start. Between his training sessions and his teaching job, he also coaches Muay Thai at Pra Chao Suua gym in Birmingham – and it’s something he’s clearly proud of.
“There’s a real nice buzz about the place at the moment” he crows. “It’s so great to be a part of a good team. I’ve actually trained with my coach Tony (Myers) for ten years now, and we know each other so well. If Tony’s at ringside and tells me to take a shot, I’ll take it. I’ll always trust him and listen to him.”
“Panicos” he says, without a moment’s hesitation. “I admire Panicos (Yusuf) a lot. He’s a terrific fighter. Liam Harrison too. The guy is fighting the very best every single time he competes and he always makes a decent account of himself.”
Along with Panicos and Liam, Dean himself has been revelling in the Muay Thai world for over a decade now, but what are his plans for the future?
“I just wanna continue what I’ve been doing.” Dean says. “I wanna keep enjoying it. I wanna keep challenging myself by fighting the best. When it starts to feel like a chore for whatever reason, be it family reasons or a battered body, I’ll walk away. Until then, I’ll keep fighting.”
He takes a sip of his drink and smiles.
“Right now, I’m loving every minute.”