Mia Kang believes the best way to beat your demons is by launching a full-frontal assault.
That’s one of the reasons why the 28-year-old Hongkonger will next month enter a muay thai ring on the southern Thai island of Koh Samui for what will be her first professional fight.
“You face your fears and your insecurities,” says Kang. “It’s like Mike Tyson said – everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face and muay thai doesn’t give you any place to hide. You have to face up to everything.”
The experience will be about as far from Kang’s day job as it’s possible to get. The Korean-British model has emerged among the most in-demand in her trade in recent years, scoring a spread in Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit edition this year and leading campaigns for the likes of the Guess label.
To the casual observer, the very nature of Kang’s work might suggest a woman completely at ease with herself – and with her image. But looks can often deceive.
Kang reveals she has battled years of issues involving her weight and her self-image but it wasn’t until she dedicated herself to the Thai martial art last year that the situation started to change.
“First, for about four years, I was just interested in the fitness side of muay thai because it is an incredible workout,” says Kang. “My family have a home in Koh Samui and last year I was taking some time away from work and every day I would drive past this little gym and see the young fighters training on the side of the road. One day I just stopped off there and asked if I could try.”
The coaches were apparently impressed enough with Kang’s attitude during a workout that they invited her back.
“They suggested I move in and do it properly and so I did,” says Kang. “A 10-day holiday turned into a six month training camp. I’d trained before but with no real focus on techniques and this time it was all about technique and learning the skills and sparing.”
So it was six months of six-day-a-week routines, starting at 7am with a 5 kilometre run, then two hours of training – including shadow-boxing, glove and bag work and sparring – then a rest and a repeat of the morning schedule, with special attention on whatever the coaches believe might be an individual fighter’s weakness.
The results were gradual but life changing, says Kang, after years of dealing with health issues caused by weight fluctuations. Kang estimates at one stage she was around 86 kilograms, before dropping to around 43kg.
“I had years of problems with my body and my sanity and it’s something I will always have to deal with,” says Kang, a “heavy smoker”, too, before last year’s fight camp.
“The workouts were so intense I just forgot I smoke,” she says. “It’s high-intensity training and you just train, eat and sleep. I’d never had muscle before. My body completely transformed.
I have been a size zero and a size 14 and I’d never ever felt comfortable in my own skin until I found fitness and health through muay thai and honestly I am just so comfortable with my body now. However it continues to evolve, I can just embrace it as, honestly, I have never been so happy with who I am.”
Kang is now about to leave her home in New York for a pre-fight camp with legendary muay thai fighter Saenchai in Bangkok that is expected to last around a month. She’s taking a two-month rest from modelling overall – one to prepare for the fight and one to recover. Maybe.
“Hopefully there won’t be any need for training as I’ll have knocked the bitch out,” she laughs.
Kang’s opponent will be decided a few weeks out from the event, and sparring sessions will have her ready for battle – a challenge she welcomes, despite what they must think back at her modelling agency.
“I’m not a fragile girl,” says Kang. “I’m fine with being hit. The only problem has been with my job and I’ve had a few times when I’ve had a fight set up and I’ve had to cancel. I can’t turn up with bumps or a black-eye.”
Sports Illustrated will be filming the fight and Kang’s prep-work for a documentary which she hopes will educate and inspire.
“I’m actually one of the most insecure people in the world and I just hope by sharing my story that a lot of people – a lot of young girls – won’t have to go through what I went through,” says Kang. “I now nourish myself in a completely different way. I know how to fuel my body. I honestly don’t care what size or weight I am.
“That number has nothing to do with who I am. I eat according to the activities that I do – and that has brought me a new level of sanity that I had never experienced before.”
Kang had previously taken time away from modelling to pick up a degree in philosophy and economics from the University of Bristol in the UK and a master’s degree in finance and financial law from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
She says her family has not exactly been thrilled with her plan to turn pro at this stage of her life – or maybe at any other – but the positives, for her own personal development, far outweigh any other considerations.
“When you are standing in front of an opponent, you have to have 100 per cent self confidence – not 95, not 99 but 100 per cent belief that you have the ability to beat that person,” she says.
“You can’t explain it until you do it. It’s a real ego check. There are times when you get the s*** kicked out of you and you wonder what the hell you are doing. But it builds so much strength inside you. It’s an amazing journey that muay thai takes you on.”
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Fighting fit