An interview with Iman Barlow: “I want to be remembered as the greatest”

Signing up with Lion Fight promotions has launched Iman's career in the United States EMN-170615-102904002
Signing up with Lion Fight promotions has launched Iman's career in the United States EMN-170615-102904002
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Iman Barlow has fans from across the world, diehard followers who would give their right arm to spend an hour or two chewing the fat with their hero.

With dad Mark, her mentor, trainer and manager, as she makes the big fight billboards of Las Vegas earlier this year EMN-170615-102838002

With dad Mark, her mentor, trainer and manager, as she makes the big fight billboards of Las Vegas earlier this year EMN-170615-102838002

Coming from someone considered global Thai boxing royalty, these words may sound like false humility; a hollow nugget of public relations.

But the sentiments are honestly held and from the heart.

As a holder of 14 world titles, Iman is beginning to get what all the fuss is about, even if she doesn’t entirely understand it.

Sat in the lounge of the Barlow family home, with daytime TV muttering away in the background, we are a world away from the razzmatazz and jetset of what has become a truly international career.

The young Iman keen to follow in the footsteps of mum Maxine EMN-170615-102853002

The young Iman keen to follow in the footsteps of mum Maxine EMN-170615-102853002

A week in Las Vegas earlier this year was a prime example of how far Thai boxing has taken her.

A frenetic seven days of public relations, training, celebrity appearances, and an invitation to train at the gym of boxing superstar Floyd Mayweather, all capped with another crushing world title defence.

Yet despite all of this glitz and bustle, Iman remains grounded and approachable.

She holds the supreme confidence of a serial world champion, but is very much her own person.

A family in her corner - from left, dad Mark, mum Maxine and younger brother Thai. Picture: Opposite Images EMN-170615-103050002

A family in her corner - from left, dad Mark, mum Maxine and younger brother Thai. Picture: Opposite Images EMN-170615-103050002

“A lot of people travelled across America to watch me fight - that was crazy!”, she said.

“Over there, they all want to talk to you and have a conversation.

“People were saying ‘it’s such an honour to meet you’. I thought ‘my mates would laugh at that!’”

Take away the self deprecation, however, and Iman is among the hottest properties in her sport.

Iman's happiest moments in the ring have come in front of her hometown supporters EMN-170615-103549002

Iman's happiest moments in the ring have come in front of her hometown supporters EMN-170615-103549002

She has earned contracts with three different international organisations - American promoters Lionfight, Dutch stable Enfusion as well as Muay Thai GP.

Other lucrative avenues are also open on the other side of the Atlantic, particularly the big box office draw of mixed martial arts.

“I have done a lot of interviews with MMA sites and they keep asking if I’m going to UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), but I’ve got no plans to do that.”

For someone pushing the wrong side of 40, describing your 24-year-old subject as a veteran is a bit disheartening.

But in July Iman will chalk up another significant milestone; her 100th senior fight.

This time it’s a trip to Canada to defend her Enfusion world belt for a fifth time.

Offering some coaching to a young Muay Thai Assassin Picture: Awakening EMN-170615-103538002

Offering some coaching to a young Muay Thai Assassin Picture: Awakening EMN-170615-103538002

It’s another remarkable stat in a career loaded with them.

No fighter of any weight, man or woman, had previously defended an Enfusion title more than twice.

Defeats are rare and unexpected enough to create shockwaves through the sport.

Yet despite destroying the hopes of dozens of world title opponents, Iman is still wary of complacency.

“I always think someone’s going to beat me,” she said.

“And sometimes people do give me a good run for my money.

“But at the end of the day I have trained hard and deserve to win more than them. So I make it happen.”

It’s quite difficult to compare the ‘Pretty Killer’, Iman’s merciless alter ego in the ring, with this sleepy early twenty-something.

She has recently woken from a mid-morning nap, countering the effects of the daybreak run which routinely begins her daily training ritual.

The jury’s out on whether the occasional yawn is from the catnap or a direct result of the interview.

“I feel like I’m on the go all the time so when I’m not I make sure I chill,” I’m reassured.

The training regime, particularly pre-fight, is relentless and intense, and like any routine can become monotonous.

But she is experienced enough to know its value, like all athletes fearful of what could happen if they submit to temptation and take a few turns off the treadmill.

And while the once-a-week lie-in is treasured, the idea of a life standing still appeals even less.

“When I’m training, I just think about winning and coming to the end of the fight camp,” she said.

“I look forward to the week off after the fight, but then when it comes I think ‘is this what people do?’

“I train really hard and never cut corners; there aren’t many people who train as hard as I can.”

Thai boxing runs rich and deep in the Barlow blood.

Dad Mark is Iman’s coach, mentor, and promoter, while mum Maxine was a Thai boxer of note, and younger brother Thai is also a senior world champion.

A gym was built at the back of their home, tucked away in the corner of a quiet Melton cul-de-sac, which houses their extended family - the Muay Thai Assassins.

While this may all sound a little homespun, the gym is nationally respected, as well as feared.

It’s not hard to see why the martial art quickly became a way of life for the Barlow children.

Iman began training at two-and-a-half, and almost from the first moment she stepped into the ring, at the age of four, demonstrated a ruthless competitive streak.

There remains a genuine affection for those carefree early days, before considerations of world titles and cash.

“I remember every weekend being somewhere different, going there to compete - Manchester, Liverpool,” she recalled.

“I used to love it; sat in the Land Rover with all my mates, having a laugh and then heading back to Melton.

“I was always doing something.”

Iman swept all before her and by the age of 14 there were only women left to fight.

Having blitzed all of her main junior rivals, she simply ran out of available peers good enough, and brave enough, to challenge.

Annual trips to Bangkok played a big part in her development.

While her peers back home were fretting over boys, Iman spent the bulk of her school summer holidays training in Thai boxing’s spiritual home.

She and Thai quickly became a big draw in south east Asia, with the elder sibling regularly invited to fight in huge high-profile shows for the Queen of Thailand’s Birthday, a big honour for a non-Thai.

In recent years, contracts with international organisations have helped Iman go global.

A trip to China in 2015 culminated in a fight watched by a live TV audience of 100 million.

“The sport is bigger around the world than I thought,” she admitted.

“Since I was 12 I’ve been fighting on big shows in Thailand so it doesn’t really bother me how big the stage is.”

But while you can take the girl out of Melton, taking the town out of the girl is another matter.

Many of her career’s fondest moments remain those forged on big nights in her hometown.

“Being in Vegas felt like a long time,” she said.

“I literally just wanted to come home and see everyone; see my friends and family and tell them about everything I’d done.

“I don’t fight in Melton as often now, but when I come back I enjoy it because it’s when all my friends can see me fight.

“The home crowd goes crazy. They even know my walk-out song.”

Perhaps having a day job also helps keep those powerful feet planted among her roots.

She was described by one American commentator working on her Vegas fight as one of the world’s best pound-for-pound fighters.

But despite her marketability both here and overseas, Iman still needs the income of the 9-5.

For the last two years she has worked as a full-time teaching assistant at Knossington Grange, a therapeutic school for boys.

“I struggled at first to do the work and training,” she added.

“You get up at 10-to-6 for a run, out of the house for work, get back at 4.30, have dinner and then in the gym by 5.

“I don’t have much time for myself, but that’s the way it is.

“And I love my job. It’s more about the relationship I have with the kids.

“They all know what I do, so the boys have more respect.”

It’s easy to argue that a British sportswoman enjoying such sustained international success deserves wider recognition.

Had she excelled in a different sport - boxing for example - she may well be on her way to household name status, if not already there.

But with so many sports vying for attention in the UK, Thai boxing may never go beyond niche status, despite a passionate cult following.

Muay Thai is also becoming big business in the United States, chiefly as a feeder for MMA, and its growing popularity earned it provisional recognition as as Olympic sport last year.

That would be just the showcase to provide mainstream recognition for the Leicestershire fighter.

But Iman knows she will be long retired before any Olympic medals are hung around the necks of Muay Thai boxers.

Not that this bothers her unduly. Personal pride remains the chief motivation, rather than the search for fame.

Being a role model to her fans, while maybe baffling to her, is also more important.

“If I make a small difference in someone’s life or make them want to go to training one night when they can’t be bothered then that’s amazing.

“I’m even more hungry now, not just to win, but to put on a good performance.

“I get to travel to all of these places, I’m top of the bill in front of big crowds.

“It’s really cool, particularly as a woman because it’s a very male-dominated sport.”

While her dad is perhaps more the public face, mum Maxine has played an important part in Iman’s career, both in practical terms as a Thai boxer herself, and also as a strong female role model at home.

“My mother has been a huge part of my journey,” Iman added.

“She was always training when I was younger, and as I got older I became her training partner and she always pushed me to my limits.

“It’s great to have someone I can talk to. She always listens and gives me advice as she has been through the process herself.”

We come to the end of our interview and still the contradictions abide.

Perfectly at home on the biggest stages in major world cities, but a hometown girl happiest fighting in front of familiars at Melton Cattle Market.

The love-hate relationship with training; feverishly committed, but yearning for a lie-in.

Placid and relaxed out of the ring, all-action fury within the ropes.

But then great champions, no matter where they’re from, are rarely one-dimensional.

“I think it’s an addiction. Without Thai boxing I’m going to struggle at being normal.

“I want to be remembered as one of the greatest. When people watch Muay Thai, I want them to remember me.

“My dad reckons I have about five years left; I think he’ll be the one who decides when I retire, while I’m still at the top.

“But I will still be involved in the sport. When my dad’s older, maybe I’ll teach in the gym.”