Panicos Yusuf: The Eternal Muay Thai Student

The best of the best never stop learning. Panicos Yusuf talks to the Tanko Management team about his visit to Evolve MMA gym, his upcoming fight at The Tanko Main Event, and the importance of continued education in Muay Thai.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about life is that you never stop learning. You can be top of your class, a leading academic or a certified specialist in your field; it doesn’t matter. There’s always more knowledge out there sat waiting for you to grasp. This goes for anything – even combat sports. Panicos Yusuf is a sagacious Muay Thai fighter with decades of experience and a long list of honours to match – but even he hasn’t mastered everything there is to know about The Art of Eight Limbs. The key difference between Panicos and other less successful fighters is the way in which the Tanko man readily accepts and embraces his role as an eternal Muay Thai student: a fighter who’s always eager to learn and never willing to settle with what he already knows.

“I want to be a student again. That’s my intention.”

Over April, Panicos traversed Asia in his quest for a deeper understanding of Muay Thai, stopping off at the reputable Evolve MMA Gym in Singapore along the way. The double champ already has his own workout centre – All Powers – which is essentially his second home, and training at Evolve MMA officially made him the “newbie” again. As soon as Panicos pops into Tanko HQ to tell us about his trip, the first thing we ask him is whether it felt strange being a fish out of water for the first time in a long time.

He’s shaking his head before the question even reaches its conclusion.

“That’s exactly why I went out there” he says adamantly. “I want to be the new guy. I want to be a student again. That’s my intention. I can’t learn lots of new things at my own gym. The whole point of me going away was to learn new things about the sport and also about myself.”

From the moment he walked through the doors at Evolve MMA, Panicos knew this would be no ordinary training camp. Like many of the bigger, better gyms, Evolve is inhabited by a diverse range of venerable combat sports athletes most days of the year. About fifty of these fighters teach classes here. Evolve don’t offer budget classes or cheap rates, but they do offer open access to state of the art fight equipment and the best teaching money can buy. The glossy training spaces are encircled by plush, prestigious, pillowy surroundings you’d expect to find in a luxury hotel. In the vein of a champion fighter in training – they’ve cut no corners. No expense has been spared. The result is a five-star establishment for five-star fighters. Thanks to the mediation of Stuart Tomlinson at Warrior Collective, Panicos Yusuf struck a deal with Evolve where he’d train in their camp for two weeks in preparation for his fight at The Tanko Main Event. He spent the following fortnight training in Thailand before travelling back to the UK.

***

Students have a reputation for grabbing some shut-eye whenever they see an opportunity to do so. Perhaps this reputation is justified. It’s not long to go until The Tanko Main Event kicks off, and the eternal Muay Thai student Panicos Yusuf looks ready to take a nap right here in Tanko HQ. “I know I don’t look excited for my fight right now, but I am, honestly” he reassures us, a smirk rising from one corner of his mouth. “I’m just tired, man.”

It’s curious. For all the things that separate fighters from ordinary folk, the sight of this drowsy Muay Thai champion is perhaps the perfect portrait of an athlete as an “other being”. Here he is – a matter of days away from the biggest fight of his career – and Panicos is so self-assured in his own skin that he could happily curl up in the corner and shut out the world without so much as a second thought. When the time for comes for his fight: he’ll be ready. That’s all there is to it, and that’s always been the case for Panicos. He knows what he’s capable of and is at peace with his progress. He’s been learning every single day, and will even learn a little more as the fight draws closer.

Pan prefight

Believing yourself an all-knowing expert on a subject can be a naïve line of thought – especially when that subject is Muay Thai. The Art of Eight Limbs is one of the most expansive, detailed and intricate sports in the world, and Panicos is under no illusions about how both he and rest of the West currently remain behind the East in terms of knowledge and ability.

“As Westerners, we only have a tiny fraction of these guys’ experience” he says bluntly. “In Thailand, they live and breathe this thing. They effectively live in the gym from Monday to Saturday. It’s a different world. I got a taste of the Thai world (albeit in Singapore) by training with champions at Evolve”

“In Muay Thai, a tiny little change makes a massive difference”

“In terms of education, this (Evolve) was the best training camp I’ve been to. When you get to a certain level, there isn’t really anything else you can learn in terms of technique. It becomes more about subtlety: how to set up a kick or how to move your foot a certain way. In Muay Thai, a tiny little change can make a massive difference. That’s what the guys at Evolve specialise in – those essential, tiny changes”.

Pan also cites the dedicated one-to-one tuition as another element that made Evolve stand out from the catalogue of training camps he’s visited over the years.

“I got a lot of attention there (at Evolve)” Pan explains. “A lot of gyms in Thailand are great, but they have a lot of Stadium Champions training in them, and it’s difficult to get the kind of attention you need in order to develop as a fighter. In the past, I’ve had to wait behind twenty fighters before I got to have a go on the pads. Evolve, on the other hand, have trainers dedicated to helping you.”

Panicos also believes the Evolve training camp has mentally prepared him for bigger challenges in the future.

“The guys I’ve been fighting these last few years haven’t really challenged me mentally, I don’t think. In the past, I used to finish a fight and feel pumped – staying up all night and still be buzzing until the next day. I want to experience that buzz again, and the only way I’ll get it is by being challenged mentally by a fighter with a strong Fight IQ.”

As obvious as the term “Fight IQ” may appear to be on the surface, it has deeper meaning when stripped down to its bare bones.

“The fact is you can train the body to be SAS-ready and still not win a fight. If you haven’t got it mentally, you’re finished.”

“This refers to how smart a fighter is when they’re in the ring” Panicos explains. “It’s not like any other sort of intelligence. Your Fight IQ is the ability to see what’s coming, as well as the ability to adapt in the ring depending on how a fight is going. It’s also your ability to remain mentally tough before, during and after the fight is over. The fact is you can train the body to be SAS-ready and still not win a fight. If you haven’t got it mentally, you’re finished. That’s why it’s so important to work on developing your Fight IQ – and I learnt more about that at Evolve.”

Pan kick

“I know I’m physically good enough to fight the Stadium Champs, but my Fight IQ would be tested against these guys. They’ve fought hundreds of times and seen every mental trick in the book a million times over.”

***

There appears to be no “official” or “agreed” retirement age in Muay Thai. Whereas footballers tend to consider hanging up their boots when they approach their mid-thirties, Thai kickboxers are apparently less keen to permanently place their mitts to one side when they reach a particular age.

Pan is a prime example.

In fact, when asked about retirement, his response echoes that of a certain Mr Dean James – who had been sat in the very same Tanko HQ seat no less than two weeks earlier.

“I’ll quit when my passion runs out.” Pan states matter-of-factly. “I still want to fight the active stadium fighters in Thailand. I still want to take on the champs.”

It seems a bruised body isn’t the catalyst for triggering retirement. Walking away from the ring is more to do with the mental side of the sport – how you hold yourself, how you feel and how “ready” you are to take on your next opponent.

Staying mentally strong means being able to adapt to any situation, too. An unfortunate turn of events in the build-up to The Tanko Main Event meant Kongsak Sitboonme – Panicos’ original opponent – was forced to drop out of the fight. Scotsman Keith McLachlan has since stepped in to replace the Thai. McLachlan is no southpaw, but his incredible record on British turf speaks for itself. Named “Fighter Of The Year” for 2015, McLachlan has the potential to present Panicos with the kind of onerous mental challenge the Tanko man has been craving.

It’s a little ironic, really. To be a legend in sport, you need to remain an eternal student: prepared to learn whatever you can from whoever you can, regardless of how experienced you may be.

That’s Panicos Yusuf down to a T.