Tucked away down a narrow driveway behind Falmouth Sports Club is an unassuming, windowless, square building with pebble dash walls.
Aside from the cars crammed bumper to bumper into the makeshift car park outside, the only indication of a human presence nearby is the rhythmic thud of music coming from within. It is unremarkable in almost every way, but this building is where champions are made.
Through a heavy wooden door, inside a brightly lit room with whitewashed walls a single punchbag hangs listlessly from the ceiling, while in front of it, two rows of pupils drenched in sweat are put through an intense training session known as the “pad blast.”
From one end of the room a tall, heavily built man in a black hooded top barks instructions at regular intervals. “Switch!” he shouts, prompting those thumping, kicking or kneeing the pads to suddenly drop to the floor and start doing press ups, while their training partners look on.
Thirty seconds later it comes again. “Switch!” and those on the floor leap to their feet and start pounding the pads again, Rage Against the Machine pumping out of tiny speakers driven so hard that the bass notes barely hold before fracturing into digital fuzz.
This is SO8 - short for Science of Eight - and it is Cornwall’s first, and Falmouth’s only Muay Thai boxing club.
The man in the black hooded top, the ringmaster overseeing the session, is Ian Davies, the club’s founder and instructor, who along with assistant Al Beattie is the godfather of Falmouth’s Thai boxing scene.
Ian started Thai boxing in the 80s after an incident in his childhood which left him badly shaken up.
“I got attacked when I was a youngster, back when I was 11. I got put in a stranglehold and it really freaked me out for a couple of years. Then I stumbled on Muay Thai and fell in love with it straight away.”
He moved to Falmouth from South Wales in 1991, establishing Cornwall’s first Muay Thai gym soon after.
“When I first came down there was no Thai Boxing gym in Cornwall,” he says.
“I’d stopped fighting just prior to moving, and just got into teaching. We started off quite small in the Fit Pit in the middle of town, then when we started to expand we moved to the squash club.
“We could see that the demand was there. People don’t just want to learn Thai boxing. I think they appreciate the level of fitness the guys have and don’t just want to sit on a bike in the gym watching Jeremy Kyle on the telly. They want to do something a bit more involved.”
Involved is certainly the word. Seasoned fighter Andrew Bennett, one of the students taking part in the class, informs me later that he pushed himself so hard during the session that he was sick. “I was really going for it,” he says with a grin.
Thai boxing, or Muay Thai to give it its proper name, originated in Indo-China more than 1,000 years ago. It shares some similarities with regular boxing, but allows kicks, knees and elbows strikes - hence the name ‘Science of Eight,’ relating to the eight points of contact.
The sport has a fearsome reputation, but Modern Thai boxing has overcome much of its bad press. These days the sport is strictly regulated, with most students taking part not to fight, but to get fit and lose weight.
English champion Ryan Mann, one of the small number of Ian’s pupils who boxes competitively, explains.
“Here in the UK we don’t use elbows, that’s more in Thailand,” he says, “but it’s no worse than normal boxing really. The number one thing is safety. In eight or nine years I’ve only really seen two bad injuries.”
Ian agrees: “Some people are put off by the words Thai boxing because they think it’s violent, or dangerous,” he says, “but I’d say 95 per cent of the people who come to training just want to get fit.
“They don’t have to fight if they don’t want to. They take what they want out of it, whether that’s fitness or self protection. It’s up to them whether they want to just hit some pads or learn the art.”
“We’ve just had a lady leave us to join the military, and on an intake of 3,200 recruits for her regiment she came out as the fittest.
“I’ve also got guys who’ve just joined the marines and they’ve been complimented on their fitness levels. They had no intention of fighting, they’re just here to train hard and get fit.”
Ten minutes spent watching the pad blast session and its easy to see the attraction for those wanting to get in shape - it’s tiring enough to watch, let alone take part in - but for those who want to fight competitively, the training regimes can be brutal.
Ryan and brother Ashley Mann, along with fellow fighters Andrew Bennett, Tony Harrison and Max Wright, have all represented SO8 in the ring, and all took part in a recent showcase event in Penzance, with Ryan claiming the English title in his weight division.
“When you’re training for a fight, you probably train a few times a week,” explains Tony. Session over, we are standing in the entrance hall of the gym while the evening’s next class files in. Clouds of steam billow out of the door with each new arrival.
“The pad blast is for pure fitness, but then you’ll maybe go into sparring for an hour. In an ideal world you’ll be running in the mornings and spending some time in the gym too. You do everything you can to give yourself that edge.”
Andrew says: “You get yourself in that mindset where you don’t want to be thinking that your opponent is training harder than you, so you try and eliminate that risk by training as hard as you possibly can.”
“If you’re training for a fight it’s not like you can just go out and eat pizza or have a few drinks,” says Ryan. “It’s hard sometimes, and it can wear you down, but it’s worth it.”
“We love it really,” adds Max. “Even when we’re complaining about how hard it is, at the end you feel awesome.”
Asked why they keep coming back, all four fighters answer in unison, “Ian.”
“He’s just the best,” says Max. “He creates such a good atmosphere here and that’s why people keep coming back.”
Andrew adds: “He’s a great coach, but as you keep coming back he becomes more of a mate. You’re not just a number to him. Some places get hundreds through the door and only want your money, but he’s interested in every single person who comes here.”
Ryan agrees. “Even though he’s nearly 70, when you’re sparring you can see how good he is,” he says with a grin.
“I was fighting one of the best fighters around the other day, but when I sparred with Ian the Thursday before he was just picking me off. I was the one who was supposed to be fight ready!”
The results are plain to see. A national champion, and the promise of more trophies and titles to come - providing the club’s future can be secured.
“The gym itself is pretty successful,” says Ian, “and that’s down to us having a really tight group. The ones who want to represent the gym know what my expectations are and they know they have my respect. Out of eleven first-time fighters we’ve won ten, which is amazing.
“But where we are at the moment, we’re on borrowed time because I understand the building we use is going to be demolished. If that happens I don’t know where we’re going to go really.
“I’ve made a few enquiries, but it’s expensive to rent somewhere. We’ve got so much support though, I don’t want to just drop it all. We want to stay in Falmouth.”
Anyone interested in taking up Muay Thai can contact SO8 through their website so8gym.com or by calling Ian on 07971 864 630.