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Kru Pong and Toon: A Traditional Thai Experience in Houston, Texas – Part 1 of 2
- Updated: May 8, 2013
By Felix Rodriguez and Mike Calimbas, TXMMA Staff
HOUSTON, TX, May 8, 2013 – In search of an authentic Thai experience we (Mike and Felix) recently visited the famed gym and restaurant of Kru Pong (Thussayu Phumswarng) and his wife Toon on the southwest side of Houston, TX and got exactly what we expected.
As the owners of Kru Pong Thai Boxing and Thai Gourmet Restaurant, Kru Pong and Toon have long served Houston with their share of Thai culture throughout the years. Through extremely hard work, sacrifice and dedication they’ve developed quite a reputation in both the art of Muay Thai and traditional Thai cuisine. Martial artists from Texas who are seeking an authentic Thai experience don’t need to travel any further than to the city of Houston in order to do so.
Naturally, we had to learn more.
A Brief History on Kru Pong (Thussayu Phumswarng) and Kru Pong Thai Boxing
Thussayu Phumswarng is a two-time Lumpinee Stadium champion known in the martial arts community as Kru Pong. The combination of being a well-tanned at 67 years old along with his infectious smile make Kru Pong look more like a grandfather living in blissful retirement than the seasoned trainer of fighting machines he actually is. As with many things in life though, looks can be deceiving.
Kru Pong is the man considered responsible for bringing Muay Thai to Houston, TX in the early 1980s. At the time Kru Pong was already an accomplished fighter in his own right, but has really come into his own as a trainer and coach during the past four decades. Starting with his efforts in Patumwadee Kai in Thailand, Kru Pong has been responsible for guiding seven fighters in their paths towards a Muay Thai world championship title, and he has continued that tradition of excellence since relocating to Texas in the 1980s. The walls of his gym are covered with championship belts, awards, medals and clippings recognizing many of his past accomplishments as a teacher, fighter and business owner going back nearly 30 years.
Kru Pong’s influence in the development of Texas’ Muay Thai culture is so pervasive that most Muay Thai academies in the state can be linked to him in the same way that actors can be linked to Kevin Bacon through films in the game Six Degrees to Kevin Bacon. Kru Pong has trained a who’s who of established Texan instructors in the art of Eight Limbs that include Metro Fight club’s Saul Soliz, Elite MMA’s Hai Nguyen and Ed Liem, active champions like Nethaneel Mongolia and Alexis Chavaria, and many more.
Kru Pong has had a hand in molding a who’s who in the Texas Muay Thai scene and will continue to leave his mark by introducing people to the art he learned from his own father for as long as he lives. He already put his passion for fighting to the side once when he decided to migrate to the U.S. in search of a better future for his family and he is certain that he never wants to do this again.
Kru Pong and his wife Toon arrived in the U.S. in 1983 and immediately began working as chefs for a restaurant called Thai Pepper in Houston. Although fighting was something Kru Pong could not live without – not being able to put food on the table was something he needed to avoid in order to survive as well. And put food on the table they did. The Phumswarng’s style of cooking was so popular that they eventually were offered an opportunity to branch out on their own in 1995 with the help of some financial backers who believed in them. Kru Pong and Toon took the chance and once their Thai Gourmet Restaurant was established. All the while as business began booming, Kru Pong was able to re-address his main passion, teaching and training others in his country’s style of fighting.
Kru Pong’s Thai Boxing is conveniently located in the same strip mall as his restaurant; both locations share a wall. The convenient location of his Thai boxing academy allows Kru Pong to remain very much involved in the day-to-day activities of the family business while still being allowed to dedicate as much time as he wants to his beloved Muay Thai. The school is a long corridor that is blocked by Kru Pong’s desk. Behind this reception area the academy is divided into three sections; a small area for weight lifting and jumping rope, a section full of heavy bags, speed bags and other types of striking equipment, and the third and final part of the school is occupied by a single ring for Thai boxing.
The school is run in the traditional Thai style. Kru Pong explained that he does not teach a Muay Thai “class” in the classic western sense of the word. Kru Pong’s classes operate more like a well-organized circuit-training machine that is designed to push fighters to the point of breaking while they’re being asked to smile throughout the process. The gym opens from 4:00pm to 8:00pm each day and fighters take turns rotating from station to station so that they can develop and sharpen multiple aspects of their game.
The two constants during our visit with Kru Pong were the thuds of fighters punching and kicking their bags and Kru Pong reminding his tired fighters to “smile please” as they exerted the last of their energy training in their designated stations. Kru Pong’s students took turns doing endless sit-ups and push-ups, lifting weights, practicing hand-eye coordination with a speed bag, working on their clinch work and knees on a heavy bag and then drilled their techniques in grueling three minute sessions of pad work inside the ring. The workouts were very self-directed and required minimal supervision from the old Thai Master who spent his time going from station to station instructing his students to make simple adjustments to what they were doing.
The workouts looked grueling and turned out to be much harder than they looked. We asked to participate in the class after being treated to a dazzling display of pad work by Alexis Chavarria, an assistant instructor at Kru Pong’s academy. Kru Pong nodded while giving us a half smile and then instructed Alexis to shorten the station rounds from three to two minutes in length. Though initially offended by the gesture it turned out that this was a smart and kind move on the part of Kru Pong, who knew that we trained in jiu-jitsu and were accustomed to creating opportunities for resting while in the middle of a ground fight.
The circuit was grueling and unforgiving. Kru Pong kept a watchful eye on each station and directed each person to a new one once the bell rang after every two minutes.
Our training at Kru Pong’s began with a light warm-up exercise that consisted of kicking a heavy bag while simultaneously holding dumbbells and throwing punches with the opposite arm that one kicks. We went from the warm up bag straight to hitting the pads. Pad work on its own is fairly tiring, but hitting pads while being told to smile brings things to a whole other level. Trying to maintain a consistent striking pace without lowering the rate of speed or level of power was exhausting and made us appreciate the demonstration given by Alexis even more once we tried out the Kru Pong Pad working style for the first time. Few sounds have been sweeter than the bell-which brought that first round of pads to an end. A round on a speed bag and another session of pads followed with only thirty seconds of rest between each round.
According to the students who were there that day each person training will do anything from 6-12 rounds of work and around 200 sit-ups in Kru Pong’s stations during an average two-hour workout day. We lasted four rounds -for a grand total of eight minutes of work- those eight minutes felt like an hour of continuous rolling on a BJJ mat, without proper cardio there was nowhere to hide as it became harder to keep our hands up to protect our chins and to generate power and speed for our strikes.
Martial artists from the Houston area owe it to themselves to check out Kru Pong’s Thai Boxing Academy. The man is a cultural legacy and one of the most savvy exponents of his fighting style in the entire country. We would be lying if we didn’t admit that Kru Pong made us feel exposed on our feet, but he appreciated the fact that we tried. Kru Pong was either amused by our struggles or impressed by our effort because he gave TXMMA a standing invitation to come back and visit before sending us off to go try his wife’s food next door.
Coming soon: Make sure to check back for our review of Thai Gourmet in the second part of our feature on Kru Pong and his wife, Toon.
For more information on Kru Pong’s Thai Boxing academy check out their Facebook Page for their address and hours of operation and as Kru Pong likes to say, “Sawadeekraap” and don’t forget to “smile please!”