Interview with James Cook

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James Cook is a busy man. He plays in a band, doing classic rock gigs in San Francisco, works for a law firm, and is preparing to take the bar exam to become a full time lawyer. In the ring, Cook is even busier with over 50 professional Muay Thai fights, twenty amateur boxing fights, five professional boxing fights, and a recent handful of MMA fights. I was able to get a hold of Cook over the telephone to chat in between his work out and a show that he was playing in San Francisco to talk to him about his career, his match with Malapet, and the future of competitive fighting sports.

Lucas:How did you get into Muay Thai?

Cook: I was surrounded by people doing Muay Thai in the late 80s, early 90s. At the time I was going to the Minnapolis Martial arts academy. I was professionally fighting out of there for a while. In 1996 I was involved in the Prince’s cup. I did well, beating a couple of Thai guys. I was the only American to win.

Lucas: You’ve expanded and done some boxing as well as MMA how did you get involved in that?

Cook: I’d had a bunch of amateur boxing fights, about 20, and when I became a professional Muay Thai fighter I started doing professional boxing. I did all my pro boxing bouts under Golden Boy productions. I’ve had 5 or 6 boxing fights. I started doing MMA later on as the money was better. There is more stuff to do in MMA. There is more opportunity to be creative and to develop. The sport is still in its infancy.

Lucas: How did you get involved with Fairtex?

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Cook:I had been a professional Muay Thai fighter for some time and met Alex Gong on a card we fought on together. In 1998 he and Ganyao asked me to fight for them. In 1999 or 2000 I moved to San Francisco as I got a job out here. Fairtex didn’t have that many fighters at the time, and they wanted more. Coincidentally I was scheduled to fight George Testsui of Fairtex at one point, but we didn’t end up fighting.

Lucas: How many Muay Thai bouts have you had?

Cook: I’ve had in the mid 50s, which is a fair amount for an American.

Lucas: Where do you feel Muay Thai is at in the states?

Cook: Muay Thai to me is a little outdated. Americans aren’t that good at Muay Thai. Europeans are better. That’s why I’ve mainly fought overseas. Here in the states there aren’t many opportunities to fight, so when the fights do happen they suck. Of course there are a lot of things that go into it. There are more sponsorships in Europe, there are more fans… For pro fighters like me, the fights are few and far between. Europe doesn’t match up to the states.

Lucas: Why do you think that Muay Thai hasn’t caught on more here in the states?

Cook: I think that the people that are into Muay Thai are already inclined towards it. They are into the Muay Thai music that plays already, that gross music that sounds like cats dying. There isn’t enough of a show here in the states. You can’t create the same stadium effect of Lumpini, with its live band, here in the states. Americans aren’t very good at the Wai Khru either, its ugly. Every camp in Thailand has a different wai khru so its interesting. I also think that Muay Thai has sexist overtones. Lumpini, one of the biggest Muay Thai stadiums, bans women from its rings. MMA has more female fighters. Muay Thai is pretty esoteric. Its okay if you’re already into it though.

Lucas: What has traveling internationally to fight been like?

Cook: I’m spoiled, I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve seen a lot of fights in Europe and Asia. I know what good solid Muay Thai is. I’ve seen great styles develop like Dekkers’, or Rob Kaman’s. Dekkers’ style is effective is great against Thais. Americans haven’t come up with an effective style of Muay Thai. We just brawl. Our fights are so ugly.

Lucas: What do you think of K-1?

Cook:K-1 is not violent enough. You can’t elbow, or clinch, and no knees to the head. The big guys are too oafy.

Lucas: What do you feel you got out of your boxing?

Cook: I got better hands. Boxing is a completely different sport. I learned that I liked to fight. I hate fighting outside of rings, in clubs. Yet I like fighting sports and to compete. Its fun.

Lucas: Jongsanaan is your main trainer now, what is he like as a trainer?

Cook: He treats me a little different. He wants shit to be perfect all the time because I’m fighting at a high level and he’s going to make some money every time I fight

Lucas: What was your training like for this fight with Malapet?

Cook: I did the same routines as usual. This time I’m working with Ganyao. I do a lot of conditioning. I know how Malapet fights. Our last fight was close. A lot of people came up to me and said, “Oh you won man,” but I thought he won fair and square.

Lucas: When did you last fight Malapet?

Cook: It was a few years ago. Actually it was a week or week and a half after Alex passed away.

Lucas: How did this fight with Malapet go?

Cook: I lost. The fight was stopped in 4th round. I got broken ribs in the first round when I caught a kick. They tried to stop it in the 2nd and 3rd. By the 4th my rib was sticking out too far. Fun fight though.

Lucas: What did you learn from boxing?

Lucas: How do you prepare yourself mentally for a fight?

Cook: I watch Survivor (laughs). Actually its all in the training.

Lucas: You’ve fought at Lumpini what was that experience like

Cook: I got a standing ovation. I lost a close fight. The Thai judges look for something different than American judges. The Thai judges look for more substance. They want a guy that looks clean, that has really good technique. I saw a lot of fights. A couple of guys from Fairtex were there, they ended up helping corner me, Ryan Roy and Mike Regnier.

Lucas:What is your strongest attribute in your fights?

Cook:It depends on the fight. Usually though conditioning is my thing. I’m always in good shape.

Lucas: What characteristic do you think a great fighter needs?

Cook: You gotta like to fight. You have fun with it. Sometimes people freak out about fighting while others do it and make it look easy. I’m 40 I’m still fighting, and at a high level. If you’re going to fight as long as me, you have to have discipline in other parts of your life. You can’t drink. Your body has to be used to the training.

Lucas: Where would you like your career to go?

Cook: I’ll take any Muay Thai fights. I’d like to keep fighting until I’m 45, so still fight for a while. I want to do a lot more MMA. I think its a great sport. MMA puts on a show. Its more accessible. I like it that women are included. I’d like to coach. I’d like my kids to fight. I’d like to stay involved.

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About Author

Born in upstate New York Matt Lucas moved to California in 2004. He eventually settled in the Bay Area and began training at Pacific Ring Sports under Mike Regnier and Ganyao Arunleung. He currently lives in Oakland California and recently published his first novel, The Boxer’s Soliloquy.

30 Comments

  1. kudos for a good q&a, especially to james for being frank. i felt his k-1 opinion was spot-on, what did others think about his comments re american muay thai ? the remark about the music rankled me a bit, but i guess that’s what he meant, that it’s too oriented towards purists…

  2. Yea, I agree with James Cook, I think that there is too many brawlers out here in the states.
    Some people tend to forget, you’re putting on a show, you’re not here just to beat the other guy… You’re trying to do it with style…

    I think his view on K1 is right on, and the music, well we can’t all have live bands playing the Thai music…. We use what we have.

  3. I’ve fought 4 times in the US (3 amateur Muay Thai; 1 amateur ISKA kickboxing rules) and he’s definitely right about the American attitude, the poor (if performed at all) wai khru, and the brawling. The fights I’ve been to have ranged quite a bit. I got heckled and cursed at the first time I performed the Wai Khru. The 2nd time people were more respectful (they didn’t yell/curse at me, but they talked through it) but didn’t seem that interested either. The American attitude towards Muay Thai seems to be interested in the brutality but none of the art. The US is much more inclined towards MMA (especially the MMA bouts that verge on professional wrestling-like antics). Most of the fighters I’ve seen (and all the ones I’ve faced – being a heavyweight) have been brawlers. They are very punch-heavy in their fighting style. They don’t keep a good guard and throw 90% haymakers… I’ve seen fighters out of a couple camps (mine included, thankfully) that pay attention to the history, do the wai khru admirably, have good technique, and show some art…. But they’re definitely few and far between.

  4. did that he just say ‘sounds like cats dying’? thats the mutherfucking music. who the fuck does muay thai and enjoys it cus of the music? dont even know wtf he was getting at. not very articulate for a man of his credentials. good luck with the bar.

  5. SE you never cease to amaze me with your choice of words. commenting on someone else’s articulation after reading your first sentence leaves me for a lack of words. His comments on the music does surprise me though. great interview!

  6. SE,

    lmao and couldn’t agree more… the more i though about it the more his music comment ticked me off. the music is something you gotta accept, if you’re fighting. i personally LOVE it (even have a cd of it) and see it as part of the culture of the sport, matter of fact part of what makes it more than a sport…he’s a boxer too, if he doesn’t like ring card girls or the ten-second warning does he stop boxing ’cause of it?

    his comments about the general lack of quality mt here, and twin’s and tex’s follow-up words, are telling though..there seems to be a lack of quality stateside mt coaching … the reason why is open for discussion…all i know is that here in chicago (w/ 2.5 million people) there’s not any real mt schools here just some thai expats w/ questionable pedigrees, day-long seminar grads and people who went to a camp in thailand for a few days…along with hybrid stuff…

    anyway, good stuff from all and kudos to you for keeping it real :)

  7. Good interview, I agree with Cook on the state of American MT. I think part of it might have to do with the way smokers/amateur fights are held: no elbows, shorter/fewer rounds, and shin guards. I am speaking from my experiences in my own region of course. But dramatically reducing the length of the fight and adding in shin guards is a recipe for a brawl: no need for pacing or proper timing to avoid being checked, might as well go all-out.

    Jumping on the tangent: I like traditional Muay Thai orchestra. I hate the American use of ring girls.

  8. the one and only reason smokers turn into brawls is because the fighters are inexperienced. even for an amateur full contact fight. plus the adrenaline and nervousness of never having fought/ in front of people. my gym has sent over eager students to fight smokers with < 2 months of joining the gym.

  9. I personally love the Muay Thai music, like Celtic said… Some of the MT instructors aren’t Thai, so you aren’t going to really learn how to fight at a pace, and mostly likely you’re going to get a brawler. Sometimes it’s just the un-experienced fighters tho, when they get experience they start pacing themselves and actually look less of brawlers.

    Out here in the West (cali) we have some gyms that are owned by Thais and run by Thais, I’m not saying they are better/ worse, but they seem more relaxed, same with the community, they are more into fighting muay thai with a pace, instead of brawling.

    But even then, with a Thai run gym, they are still some brawlers in the gym, it’s just how most Americans are. As for the ring girls, I think it’s for the drunk people at the fights, lol, they seem to get a blast out of it, and they just keep buying beer and forget all about the fight…

    (excuse my post if it’s crappy, I am really tired, and I felt I had to post something.)

  10. Unfortunately with the advent of MMA’s rise as the new American combat sport, Muay Thai will continue to take a back seat. The only way people seem to learn about Muay Thai is that it’s use in MMA. However, I believe it’s seen by MMA fans how devastating it can be when used in MMA- the elbows, knees and kicks, and looks much more beautiful than a punch, IMO.

  11. I agree with tong po and I also agree with james that the music is annoying if you aren’t used to it.

    Some people here seem to forget that fighter bashing isn’t allowed and that someone of Cook’s calibur needs to be respected. He’s been carrying the torch for American fighters since the 80’s. He has the right to not like the music.

    As for the main reason why MT is so small in the states, it’s the people in charge of the fights that degrade MT. The CA commision, the promoters, and the vast majority of the coaches do not know MT. Almost everyone involved in setting up fights in the US is a former Western style boxer or American style kickboxer.

    What will it take for this to change? For those of us who currently fight and coach the style of MT to step up when we get our turn and change how things are done. The best chance we each have is representing the sport professionally until we are the coaches and are bringing up the next generation.

    In 10 years things will change, but we have to start now and be committed to the sport for the long haul. Long term committment is not something Americans are very good at, but it is my sole goal as a Fairtex fighter/trainer to fight, coach, and then ref/judge MT for the next 30 years.
    We have to help eachother as a US team instead of all the gyms in the Bay and throughtout the States trying to break down the other gyms. Being competative will help, that’s why we’ve started doing inter club sparring again since the ban of smokers. That’s just a first step though.

  12. Yea, the inter club sparring has been going around here as well… And it’s really good, you know, sparring someone you don’t know, from another gym will give you that slight bit of experience, since it makes you think a bit more.

    Hopefully smokers will be back next year, and that way most amateurs won’t get knocked out as bad as a few months in some of the fights….
    And I agree, we’re all trying to improve muay thai in the states, so we should all work as a team, so we can progress and have everyone improve their game and what not.

  13. Talking with James was pretty interesting as he comes from a point of view that is not only experienced, but also critical of muay thai. Perhaps most of the older fighters don’t let it out so much but I thought that what James said was insightful.

    Its obvious that Americans are brawlers, the reasons for this are clear: lack of proper training for many fighters, lack of fights (most people evolve out of brawling after a few bouts), the amateur/professional fighting circuit currently is geared toward boxing/kickboxing and not enough monetary support (sponsorships, deals, financial incentives) to make it feasible for fighters to progress.

    While James may dislike the music of muay thai. I thought his comment was just funny. I can see someone describing the music as a cat’s dying screech! Ha! The odd winka wonka ding a ding dong of bout music is certainly not part of our culture. I enjoy the music myself, but a big part of why I enjoy Muay thai is for the culture it has exposed me to.

    I plan to continue doing interviews with trainers, fighters, and other people surrounding the muay thai community. If you have any questions you’re interested in me asking, or ideas by all means let me know. I would also encourage people to take on their own tasks, interviews, articles, art, videos, etc.

  14. why do people in america have some sort of pride for american nak muays? i never root for them. thais are always the ones i idolize and look at as the pinnacle of MT skill. then next as far as passion, is the dutch. then australia and other euro countries. americans are lazy and undisciplined compared to other countries. the only people that need to hold down muay thai are the thais. i could care less how good america does as far as muay thai.

  15. I personally don’t have any American nak muay that I idolize… I personally like the order you have up there SE, and I agree… But there is some good American nak muays, not the best, but they are skilled and disciplined…… But they’re rare cases.

  16. I don’t idolize American nak muays, but I would like to see MT get stronger here (and the surest sign of a stronger MT community in the States is a few top notch nak muays).

    Another reason MT hasn’t taken hold in the States (at least in my region: Texas) is the state boxing commissions. Boxing used to be king. It saw a precipitous decline in the last 25 years, more so in the last 10 with MMA becoming so popular. My hunch is that the boxing commissions block MT events b/c they fear they’ll cut into the already smallish pie that is the fight fan base. If they can just give them boxing, they’d love that. Since MMA is unavoidable, they don’t want to share the pie with any other players. They say MT is too dangerous, but I think that’s the real reason.

    I also want to comment on the sub-thread here about Thai vs. Non-Thai teachers. Obviously having a Thai teacher gives you a more well rounded MT experience (the Thai culture behind MT, the religious subtext, the historical background, etc). But I don’t think having a Thai teacher gives you a better chance of learning pace, timing, and patience in the fight game. Having a GOOD teacher gives you those things. My Khru is American. He learned under Ajarn Chai and MT wasn’t his first martial art, but he gets timing and pace. He gets subtle use of movement (not a boxer’s or kickboxer’s movement, but not standing in front of your target and absorbing punishment). He translates that to his students by teaching them to feel out their opponent, to vary power and speed attacks, to build with the rounds, to use combos so as not to just try to kick the leg (and get your shin smashed in).

    I’ve also seen some Thai schools’ students charge their opponents like a damn bull: no skill, no art or grace.

    Having a Thai teacher definitely gives you some things having a farang teacher cannot, but it’s not the end all be all either.

  17. america is also plagued with massive amounts of obesity. i seen maybe 2 or 3 thai fighters that LOOKED out of shape in my muay thai viewing lifetime. not that it matters either way.

  18. thai boxing in America!
    i am more than likey a bit older than all of you,and have been involved with thai boxing starting back in the 80s. i traveled to Thailand in the mid 80s and trained at fairtex on and off for a few years, before there were tv show paying guy to follow them, or web pages to blog about the pain day to day. i promoted the first muay full rules fights in Philly and brought the guy from fairtex to the US in the 90S with the goals of showing all of us in the states what muay thai is all about.
    i was at James Cooks last fight Dec 5, and i have had one of my fighters face him back in 2001, he is a great guy, and a great fighter. as a promoter and a trainer i must admit that his comet about muay thai in America hit a nerve. at the same time its true! but why! why are thai boxers in the states for the most part on the week side. its not your coaches fault, its not the fighters fault. its your boxing commissions we here in the states are not allowed to fight! in Europe they start training at a young age, and they start competing yong so by time your 18 you may have 20 plus fights and then turn pro. here in the states{ i am going to just talk about AZ were i live}. the boxing commission will not let amateurs fight till there 18. some stats it a bit easer some states its a lot harder. how can you compare a fighter in his prime at 18 who has been training for 10 years and fighting. with another who just had his first fight. we in the states are 20 years behind Europe and so far behind Thailand its not worth talking about.
    but is getting better there are muay thai shows going on all the time now in AZ, NV, CA, NY, OK, just off the top of my head. there are promoters like my self a cross the US pushing for reform to allow kids to compete.

  19. Another thing I dont think anyone has mentioned is the amount of sports everyone plays growing up in the US. Growing up in the US you play baseball, basketball, football and soccer for your school which leaves just about no time for anything else. Most athletic kids will chose to pick one of those sports so he can play with his friends. Those kids that do train as kids only do it part time to allow for the other organized teams they’re on. So by the time people get around to martial arts they’re already out of high school or college (18 or 24 yrs old). By then you’re at least 8 years behind the Thai fighters..

    I agree.. we’re 15-20 years behind Europe…

  20. agreed, MuayThaiMex – if Americans participate in combat sports when they’re young, it’s usually Karate or some such thing, and even then just for a year or two, and nothing that’s thought about as something to be taken seriously, or to be developed over a lifetime. Martial Arts in America is kind of like “Soccer” – thought to be for kids, but not something you do when you’re older, and have “grown up.” by the time most of us realize that it is in fact something we want to do, and devote tons of time to training, we are already in our 20’s (like i was) or even later. that’s not to say that the Thais don’t already have the genetic advantage, though ;)

    also fully agree with Tong Po’s response to SE: to categorize all Americans as lazy and undisciplined is both offensive and ignorant (the two usually go hand-in-hand). if that’s the case, how do we win more medals than any other country in the Olympics almost every year?

    every country has lazy and undisciplined people. of course i admit that there is a massive disparity between skilled Thai Nak Muays and American ones. who’s going to argue that? but to imply that it’s simply because Americans are lazy is absurd. it’s pretty similar to “Soccer,” really – if you watch the MLS vs. any other league in the world, sure it’s not as exciting to watch, and the level of play may not be as high – but does that mean that it’s because the players don’t work as hard in training, or lack discipline? not necessarily. one thing is for sure, though, it’s not a widely supported sport, which means it’s hard for them to devote a lifetime to it from the time they were 6 or 7 (like football for much of the rest of the world, or Muay Thai for the Thais), when all you have is people on all sides of you telling you that you’re not going to go anywhere with it.

    American Nak Muays are not exactly raging around the world dominating everyone in their path, but there are tons that are very skilled, and train for all the right reasons, and with nothing but love and respect for MT. so i see no reason why they should be called lazy or undisciplined just because they’re not winning belts in Lumpini.

  21. let me correct myself, americans are lazy, undicsciplined and fat in general compared to other countries. get the fuck over yourselves.as a general statement compared[KEY WORD HERE] to other countries americans are lazy. its not like im not american, im just not an idiot when it comes to facts. pls do cry about it with your delusional arguments some more.

  22. yeah my arguments are super delusional. that’s why you don’t have any real responses to them. to just make unsubstantiated blanket statements will not win you any arguments, not that you’ve ever cared about that before, so i see no reason why you should start caring now.

  23. i agree, twin. personally i don’t see why we can’t just all agree we love MT (which is why we’re a part of this board), and celebrate that fact, rather than having 3/4 of the discussions turn negative, but such is the nature of the internet these days.

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