Down a nearly deserted back alley in Toronto’s east end, behind an unmarked blue door, Ilia Danef is going through his regular morning routine. He changes out of his dress pants into a pair of athletic shorts, then drops to the floor and starts doing push-ups on a mat. Next he gets up, wraps his hands in red cloth and pops a rubber mouthguard over his teeth. Minutes later, Danef is getting punched in the face.
This isn’t how most 40-year-old corporate lawyers start their mornings—but then, Danef isn’t your typical suit. He’s a practising Muay Thai fighter with a brown belt in karate, and part of a growing trend: more and more otherwise regular people are spending much of their spare time training in martial arts gyms across the country. They aren’t just doing it to lose weight or get fit. People like Danef—with families, gruelling workweeks and other responsibilities—train to fight.
“It’s a completely different lifestyle than I’m used to,” admits Danef, a partner at Heenan Blaikie, one of Canada’s largest law firms. He’s a mild-mannered and approachable man who, despite being officially “over the hill,” looks decidedly youthful.
Today, he’s sparring against his master, an amicable Muay Thai veteran from Bangkok named Ajahn Amnat. Since joining Toronto Kickboxing and Muay Thai Academy to train under Amnat more than two years ago, Danef has fought in two officially organized amateur matches (known in the fighting community as “smokers”). When these are held at TKMT, fighters from gyms across the city are invited to face off in two-minute rounds, although there’s no declared winner. But when sparring against Amnat, Danef must last an extra minute each round—“For extra gas,” as the trainer puts it.
Danef sees that extra minute a little differently. “Especially if you’re getting nailed, it’s really exhausting,” he says, moments before squaring off against Amnat. The two men hop lightly on the balls of their feet. The lawyer is resolute and absorbed; Amnat, energetic and sunny. With each blow landed, the master smiles and laughs, complimenting his student for a quick reaction or correcting him when his posture is out of line. “I’ve learned a ton,” says Danef, panting heavily between rounds. “He takes it easy on me, I think.”
The solidly built lawyer meets with Amnat at least three times a week to work on technique, often squeezing in sessions between meetings, before work or on weekends, when his toddler is napping. “When I get back to the office, I feel completely re-energized. I feel like I’ve been away,” says Danef.
It’s that sense of reinvigoration, says Neil MacDougall, general manager of TKMT, that brings people like Danef to his gym. MacDougall counts doctors, graphic designers and investment bankers among his clientele. “You walk in and you have all this stress on your shoulders. For 90 minutes that stress leaves you,” is how he explains the appeal. “You go home, you sleep like a baby.”
Muay Thai isn’t the only martial art being practised at gyms like TKMT, but it is one of the most popular. It has its roots in ancient Thailand, and is known as the martial art of eight limbs: practitioners use their feet, knees, hands and elbows to strike opponents. “We use everything as weapons,” says MacDougall. “It’s very aggressive.” Nevertheless, those training as fighters aren’t always the macho types one might expect. As MacDougall says of Danef, “A typical lawyer, you know? They’re quiet like church mice.”
And such fighters usually aren’t jumping into the ring solely to hit somebody. Natalie Yip, a 27-year-old fitness trainer at York University, began fighting competitively in 2003; she viewed it simply as the next step in her development as a martial artist. “It was just kind of the next challenge,” says Yip.
Others are simply looking for a good workout. Mehdi Pouroskoui teaches Brazilian jiu-jitsu, kick-boxing and Muay Thai at a gym called KB-ONE in North Vancouver. He says 15 per cent of the people who go there are training to fight competitively, while the rest are there for fitness.
MacDougall and Pouroskoui agree that once people have trained for about a year, they’re ready to take it to the next level and fight—for real. But then the level of commitment increases significantly, Pouroskoui says. “If they have agreement from their families and they are 100 per cent sure they want to do this, I put them through a fight training period, about six weeks before the competition,” he explains. On top of regular daily training, fighters must come three times a week for “hard-core” sparring.
Elias Salibas, 29, knows well the schedule of a fighter. When he has a fight coming up, the restaurant owner trains six days a week. He gets up before work and runs 10 km, then he does at least 150 sit-ups, 50 push-ups and chin-ups at the gym. After he’s finished working at his two restaurants in Toronto, Eat A Pita and Xtreme Taste, he runs another seven kilometres before hammering out the details of his fighting technique at his gym, Siam No. 1, where he enters matches as a semi-professional amateur Muay Thai fighter. It makes for a long day. “If you really want something, you’ll find the time to do it,” says Salibas. “There are no excuses.”
These days, with work and family life keeping him busy, Danef isn’t rushing to enter another bout and is only training three or four times a week. Despite his apparent eagerness and skill, safety concerns him. “I got a young kid at home, I got a mortgage. Sometimes when I’m in a tournament, I think, ‘Should I really be doing this?’ ” Danef says. Although facing off in front of a crowd can be unnerving, competition provides him with a rush unseen in other areas of his life: “It’s a huge thrill.”
Meanwhile, at the law firm, only a handful of co-workers know that when he “pops out” at lunch, it’s to spar. Once he came back to the office with a black eye, but luckily, he says, it wasn’t too noticeable. Spending two weeks on crutches after a sparring injury was a little more conspicuous. “It is a bit uncomfortable to explain that kind of injury to your colleagues at the office or to clients at an important meeting,” Danef concedes. “I try to downplay it.”
And just as his co-workers are largely unaware of his life as a Muay Thai fighter, people at his gym are a little vague on the details of Danef’s day job. MacDougall says, “He comes in, takes the classes, showers, comes back in a suit and runs out to go to trial—or whatever a lawyer does.”