So you’ve always wanted to train martial arts overseas.

You’ve read all about the big gyms with the superstar fighters and coaches.

You’ve seen the social media posts and the Youtube videos but still wonder what it’s like to actually go and train at these exotic and faraway destinations.

So what’s it really like? Do you have to be a world class athlete to train overseas? Is it as hardcore as it looks and sounds?

The Blackbelt Surfer talks to three martial artists who have actually done it and asks for their opinions and some tips on what it’s like to train overseas at some of the best academies in the world with some of the best fighters and coaches.

Yokkao Muay Thai gym in Bangkok, Thailand. Home to Thai boxing legends such as Saenchai and Singdam.

Rob Hill

Rob is a former Australian lightweight MMA title holder with more than 20 professional fights to his name. He is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt who has spent considerable time training in the USA, the United Arab Emirates and Thailand.

Nat ‘The Killapino’ Hills

Nat is a professional MMA fighter and Muay Thai fighter currently on a 7 fight winning streak in Muay Thai.

She has fought on OneFC multiple times and is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu purple belt.

She has trained in America, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia and the UK.

Nat is currently living with the legendary Parr family on the Gold Coast where she is focusing full time on her Muay Thai.

Dave Nagel

Dave is a first degree Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt. With over 30 years martial arts training and coaching.

Dave has spent time training overseas in Brazil, Thailand, America, Japan and Indonesia.

MMA fighter and coach Rob Hill training at Phuket Top Team with MMA legends Phil ‘The New York Badass’ Baroni and former UFC light heavyweight champion ‘Suga’ Rashad Evans.

Where have you trained overseas and for how long at each?

RH – “So I spent 6 months MMA training at Matt Hughes’s HIT Squad in Granite City Illinois in Americas mid west. I also spent 6 months training at MMA Phuket Top Team in Thailand as well as 9 months living in Dubai coaching and training BJJ.”

NH – “I was born in the Philippines and then moved to the UK. I came to Australia in 2011 and started training at LangesMMA.

I’d previously been in Thailand training Muay Thai before coming to Australia.

My first overseas training camp I did was in Bangkok in a small village called Amon Wiwat. I’ve done 2 trips to Thailand. The first was for 1 month in Bangkok. The second for 1 month in Phuket. This was in 2011.

In the Phillipines I trained Arnis for 3 months with grandmaster Nap Fernandez in Pasay City.”

In 2017 I travelled to America twice to train at Jacksons MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

My first trip there was for 2 months. My second trip the same year was for 3 months.

DN – “In 2005 I took my first trip to Brazil as a blue belt to study Brazilian jiu Jitsu for close to two months at Fabricio International in Rio de Janeiro.

I’ve spent time training in Japan, Hong Kong, America, Indonesia and recently (2018) I spent 6 weeks training at Yokkao Muay Thai in Bangkok Thailand.”

Why did you travel to these particular places?

RH – I met Matt Hughes coach Mark Fury around 2010. Mark invited me over to America to train so basically I grabbed the opportunity and went over to the States.”

“The reason I went to PTT (Phuket Top Team) was when I first visited Thailand the only real MMA gym was Tiger Muay Thai.

PTT had just opened and I had a connection with the owner of Phuket Top Team.

This as well as a few personal reasons was why I decided to go and train at PTT.”

“I took a job teaching in Dubai and this allowed me to access many different and high quality Jiu Jitsu coaches over there.”

NH – “I had originally travelled to study all the martial arts styles and their origins. Thailand for Muay Thai, Phillipines for Arnis, Brazil for BJJ etc. I’d been training a bunch of different martial arts styles in England – karate, capoeira, Muay Thai – I picked up the kickboxing quicker and so I decided to go to Thailand to train and fight Muay Thai over there.

The reason I went to Jacksons was I got signed to ONE Championship and realised I needed more female pro fighters to train with. In Sydney at the time there just weren’t enough girls to train with. I was fighting on Brace Fighting Championship and really only had Aussie UFC fighter Alex Chambers to work with.

So looking at Jacksons roster they had the most ‘atom-weight’ and ‘straw-weight’ girls that I could find anywhere. On average there would be 12 girls at my weight training at Jacksons. You just couldn’t find a better bunch of sparring partners and different styles to work with than that.”

DN – “When I went to Brazil in 2005 I was going to train at several academies but when i visited Fabricio Martins academy I stayed the whole time there as I was so impressed with their level of Jiu Jitsu.

With training at Yokkao in Bangkok I wanted to train at a place that was a pure Muay Thai academy and not an MMA gym.

Training traditional  Muay Thai was something I’d always wanted to do. I didn’t know anyone personally who had trained at Yokkao and when I saw the caliber of some of their trainers and fighters I knew that was the place.

Nat Hills second from left standing next to UFC womens champion Holly Holm with coach Mike Winkeljohn centre and UFC fighter Michelle Waterson to the very right of image.

What did you find was the difference between training there compared to home?

RH – “Ok there’s quite a lot of differences between training here at home compared to overseas. Here in Australia we tend to have a fairly relaxed attitude towards many aspects of training that would serve us better if we were to put in more accurate detailed work. There’s reasons why Americans do so well in wrestling and the Thais are the most dominant kick boxers on the planet. The reason is they tend to put in more work required to perform at that level. There are athletes here in Australia that have the same ‘work ethic’ but we are behind a lot of the world in combat sports. We are only just starting to catch up now and are producing guys that are competing successfully on a world stage. Jiu Jitsu athlete Craig Jones and UFC champion Rob Whittaker are great examples of this. Rob for example spent a lot of time overseas training at Tri Star in Canada and the results show.”

“Other than sparring sessions, wrestling and Muay Thai classes overseas training sessions are generally longer and as such more repetitions are done.”

NH – “My first experience in Thailand was pretty full on. The gym was mainly Thais. I thought I was pretty fit in England but when I got to Thailand the level of training I’d done was unlike anything I’d ever done before. For example the Thais had me running 4 times a day before and after my pad/bag/sparring sessions to try and break me for the first 10 days. So yeah that was pretty full on. I actually had a fight at the end of the trip which was in a strip club because my ‘master’ didn’t want me to shame his face or embarrass him because all his fighters were fighting in stadiums so he took me to Patpong road in Bangkok where they have the ping pong shows. That was my first test to see how I went.”

“My second camp was in Phuket at Sinbi May Thai for 3 weeks which was a lot more ‘westerner’ friendly.”

“I enjoyed that camp more as it was more scenic, with nice cafes and beaches nearby. I also did a week at Tiger Muay Thai.”

“If you’ve saved up your money to go on a training holiday then one of the main things is that you can focus solely on is your training for that period of time. The desire to go overseas and push yourself out of your comfort zone is another reason. The ability to focus only on your training as there a fewer distractions.”

“In New Mexico with the high altitude there was an adjusting period. The first few days I felt ok then it starts to wear on you and takes about two weeks to properly adjust to the altitude. There’s not a lot to do in Albuquerque other than a few nature walk type things so its really good to just focus on your training. With regards to the training regime it’s as hard as you want to make it. They have a training schedule and you book privates if you want one on one time. I think the main difference is that you’re always working with high level coaches and athletes/training partners and they’re used to training people specifically for fights. In New Mexico the biggest difference was the altitude and your training partners. It wasn’t uncommon to look up and there’s Holly Holm or John Jones as well as other big names there too.”

DN – “In Brazil the classes normally run for 90 minutes to 2 hours. In Australia they normally run for an hour so that was one thing, the extended training times. Also there were so many good guys on the mats to keep you honest.”

“In Thailand the classes again were around 2 hours in duration. Their focus on conditioning was insane. That was one of the biggest differences I noticed. 30 minutes skipping or running, 30 minutes shadow boxing, 30 minutes bag work and 30 minutes pad work or light sparring. Also the heat was tough. In Thailand it took me around 3 weeks to acclimate to the heat and humidity.”

“Also training overseas you don’t have the distraction that you do at home. You just train, eat, sleep, repeat. it’s great.”

The author hitting the pads with Kru Nok Lek at Yokkao gym.

On being accepted into the gym community.

RH – “I turned up and just did the work. There were people who would turn up and if they weren’t willing to do the work it wasn’t that people would shun them it was quite simply that they’d get beaten up. If you’re going to be disrespectful and not put in the effort required then what happens is your trainers and training partners that are putting in the effort will just beat you up. It’s not fair to myself or my training partners if I don’t go in and put in 100%.”

NH – “it’s like any big gym until you have a fight booked or you’ve earned your place you’re not going to get as much attention as you would at your home gym. So there’s pros and cons to everything. At Jacksons MMA everyone was really nice. The girls team in particular was really good. Michelle Waterson is someone I worked with the most and Jodie Esquibel. Because there are so many people coming and going it takes a while before people will invest in you.”

DN – “The thing I’ve found with some of the more popular gyms with the big name athletes and coaches is they tend to get a lot of foreigners coming through their doors for one session or one weeks training. Not many foreigners stay more than a couple of weeks so sometimes you’re just another face in the crowd. If you invest serious time and put in the hard work then, in time, you’ll be accepted into the inner fold of the gyms community. Obviously if you’re a well respected and humble fighter the crew will give you more attention.”

Also doing some private sessions with a trainer or coach is a great way to get to know the crew and for them to get to know you as well on a personal level. But in the end no matter what level you’re at just turn up, be humble and do the required work asked.”

Dave Nagel (front, right) at Transcend Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Yangon, Myanmar.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of traveling overseas to train?

RH – “If  you’re going overseas to train stick with people that are there to train. Most people are there to train and not party because their goal is to achieve something. Training and partying is very common in places like Thailand. They turn up and after a few days training they’re going and getting on steroids and partying in the clubs acting like they’re a pro fighter. That’s not the right attitude that we want to encourage in young athletes. We want to build the opposite where they’re pushing away abusive behaviour and reengaging in ones that are more beneficial to themselves and the people around them. Other than that ‘breathe and relax’ and make sure you’re fit because you can be technically good in your gym at home but once you travel and get out of your comfort zone and go to another gym, you’ve got different guys with a different set of skills that are on a higher level you’re gonna get beaten up. ‘Breathe and relax’. “

NH – “My advice for first timers travelling overseas to train is to do your research. Read reviews, contact the people there. Find out what the schedule is. Are there any extra fees? Always have travel insurance. Be brave and just go for it because you never know what it might lead to. With going to America I went to Jacksons to train and live in their dorms and ended up staying with Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone at the BMF Ranch and that was just the best experience ever.”

DN – “Fitness. If you think you’re fit you’re probably a way off. My advice would be to get your conditioning in before you leave to go overseas so you can really get stuck into it when you land. With regards to Muay Thai I’d say for a beginner aim to be able to run 2km, an intermediate person 5km and advanced you should be able to run 10km. Also invest some time in skipping. At Yokkao for eg they like you to skip for 20-30 minutes.

“With BJJ depending on what belt level you’re at just make sure your wrestling fitness is decent. Bring at least 2 clean gi’s (uniforms) and just ensure you have a general understanding of mat etiquette.”

“Another thing to be aware of is overtraining and fatigue. When you arrive at a new place you’re often so psyched to train as much as possible that burn out can occur within a couple of weeks. Take your time and ease into it. Train hard, rest harder”

“Also as Nat mentioned ‘be brave’. It does take a bit of courage to save up your hard earned $$, book a flight and go and train in a foreign country. I’ve personally witnessed people of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels from kids to men and women in their 50’s and 60’s training alongside seasoned fighters half their age. Training overseas is a great experience and will leave you with lifelong memories, stories and new friends.”

So there you have it, the opinions and tips from three experienced martial artists who’ve actually gone and trained overseas.

Key points to note are:

  1. Try and get fit before you go.
  2. Get travel insurance.
  3. Research the gym you’re interested in training at. Email them to find out more.
  4. Be humble and just do the work asked of you. You’ll reap what you sow.
  5. And relax. Try and avoid over training. You’re there to learn, get fit and most importantly have fun.

If you’ve been thinking of heading overseas to train what are you waiting for? Go for it!

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