Japan’s top female kickboxer treads a samurai path to muay thai fame
A pint-sized Japanese woman with a humble, Zen-like philosophy is taking kickboxing by storm, battering rivals to become a world champion in the violent Thai martial art.
Ayaka Miyauchi, a former dentist’s assistant who goes by her fighting name “Little Tiger,” has captured six world titles in muay thai but insists the true mark of a champion is how they behave outside of the ring.
“A belt isn’t the only thing which defines a champion,” says the 33-year-old flyweight queen.
“A real champion is a champion even outside the ring.”
Though she packs a knockout punch that belies her 1.57-metre frame, Miyauchi looks to the moral code of Japan’s ancient samurai warriors for spiritual guidance.
“Although I’m a woman I want to inherit the samurai spirit,” says the Tokyo-born fighter, who tips the scales at just 46 kilograms.
“My motto is to conquer myself first,” adds Miyauchi, who is dressed in red trunks and a green T-shirt with emblazoned with six stars – one for every one of her world crowns.
Miyauchi works out of a backstreet Tokyo gym just a few miles from where former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was knocked out by Buster Douglas in 1990 in one of boxing’s biggest-ever upsets.
But while Japan has enjoyed boxing success in the lighter weight divisions, muay thai – known as the “art of eight limbs” because it involves the use of fists, elbows, knees and shins – is still a relatively minor sport in the country.
Few people recognise Miyauchi, who is one of around 10,000 kickboxers, professional and amateur, in Japan.
The combat sport is huge in Thailand, however, where she gets VIP treatment and a police escort with sirens blaring as she makes her way through the Bangkok traffic to her title fights.
“I want more Japanese people to know about muay thai,” says Miyauchi, who earns a mere 300,000 yen (Bt130,000) per bout in stark contrast to the megabucks raked in by boxing world champions.
“Hopefully I can introduce it to Japan in my own way,” she says. “That’s my mission.”
Miyauchi’s career in martial arts began at the tender age of just five as a toddler who tried karate.
After flirting briefly with dentistry in her early 20s, Miyauchi began kickboxing and the less delicate procedure of rearranging people’s teeth with her fists and feet.
Since her professional debut in 2007, Miyauchi has racked up 27 wins, including nine knockouts, and 15 losses against four draws. She has only been knocked to the canvas once in her career.
“Her kicks are very strong and heavy,” says Don, a 45-year-old Thai trainer, breathing hard after cushioning Miyauchi’s stinging spinning kicks in a ring flanked by two Thai-style Buddhist altars.
“She has all the weapons – kicks, punches and elbow attacks. She hits almost as hard as a man.”
Often the only woman in a tiny Tokyo gym echoing to the sound of gloves smacking into punchbags and heavy with the smell of sweat and aromatic Thai oils, Miyauchi refuses to brag.
While paying tribute to the boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who died last month, she says sheepishly: “I don’t want to be famous. I don’t look good with a big mouth.”