Exclusive Interview: The Dynamo of Slovakia
The Dynamo of Slovakian Combat Sports, Martin Belak.
Martin “Dynamo” Belak is a pioneer of combat sports in Slovakia. A powerhouse of resources, ideas, initiatives and promotions, enabling sports like Muay Thai, Kickboxing, MMA and Lethwei to grow in his country. He has produced some of the biggest fighters to come out of that region of Europe: multiple-time WMC and I-1 World Champion Vladimír “Dracula” Moravčík and multiple-time Kickboxing World Champion Lukasz Plawecki to name a few.
Belak has promoted Muay Thai from amateur level and up to professional level, and over the last few years he has developed a passion for Lethwei.
In October Marshall Fighting Championship will kick off their inaugural event in Slovakia – Martin Belak is the promoter.
FIGHT SPORTS had the privilege to sit down and talk to Belak during his busy schedule of being a husband, father, gym owner, trainer of fighters and promoter.
Here’s what Belak had to say.
FIGHT SPORTS: So Martin can you tell us how it all started? I mean you’ve run your own gym for many years and have even run a Muay Thai amateur league, managed pro Kickboxers, pro Muay Thai fighters, pro boxers and seems to be leaning more towards Lethwei these days.
Belak: I grew up during the socialist regime in Czechoslovakia in a pretty populated neighborhood with lots of high-rise buildings. It was a neighborhood where we grew up spending most of the time outside, playing games, going on adventures, and it was not unusual to settle disputes between boys with fists. There was also a large gypsy population, and fighting them happened on a daily basis.
It was difficult for me since my older brother wasn’t living in the same town as me, and I grew up without a father. So I had to learn how to take care of myself at an early age.
I grew up watching old Kung fu movies, and I was impressed with the skills of the fighters. When I was about 10 years old I joined a local Karate club. I continued practicing Karate until we emigrated from Slovakia to Canada.
FIGHT SPORTS: Very interesting. So fighting from an early age.
So you started your combat sports journey when you were 10 years old: where did it go from there? I mean you’ve basically been involved with all the full contact combat sports.
Belak: When we left Slovakia we moved to Austria, before we moved to Canada. In Austria I met Roman Novotny, who was a silver medalist from the European Championship in Judo. He taught me the basics of Judo, and when we arrived in Canada, I was searching for a different martial art – I wanted to train something which was the most effective, and I tried several different styles like Takekwon-do, Hung Ga Kung fu, Kempo Karate and different other bu***** styles.
Actually living in Canada gave me a great advantage because there were many immigrants from Asia, and among them there were lots of practitioners and masters of different martial arts. They opened up many gyms, and you had a direct access of the pure form of any martial arts style. I ended up training in Ronday’s academy in Kitchener. At first training Karate, then Kung fu, but eventually I was lucky and discovered that they practiced full contact Kickboxing in the back of the gym.
I started attending different tournaments throughout Ontario, and was pretty successful in fighting in the Kumite – but it wasn’t really full contact. During this time I won a whole bunch of tournaments and I favored myself as a pretty good fighter until I got reality checked in Kickboxing training and full contact sparring.
My fancy style didn’t last for too long, and I got beaten up pretty bad. So obviously I started to train Kickboxing and wanted to learn the most effective contact version of the sport. During this period the movie Bloodsport came out, and I was really carried away by the character called Paco, and I wanted to learn more about his style, which was Muay Thai.
The nearest gym that was practicing Muay Thai at a serious level, was in Mississauga. The gym was Siam No.1, and it was owned and run by the Thai Suchart Yodkerepauprai. It was a three hours bus drive from where I lived, so I saved up some money and went there for the first time to train for an entire week. I was instantly blown away by the intensity and the reality of the training. And funny enough that is the first time I met Clifton Brown, famous Muay Thai fighter from Canada – he was just a beginner at this point though.
Since then I trained Muay Thai and boxing: I trained Muay Thai whenever I had saved up enough money to travel to the gym to train for at least a few days. Boxing I trained regularly at Kitchener, Waterloo, as the quality of boxing was pretty decent.
Lennox Lewis actually used to train in the same Ronday’s Academy before his win at the Olympics in 1988, and he also went to the same school as me.
My struggle to fit in didn’t end in Canada though, and as an Eastern European I also got in lots of scraps. But this time it was different, as I knew Muay Thai, and it helped me a lot, since it is very realistic and very compatible to street fights.
FIGHT SPORTS: Wow: that is awesome. I’ve met Suchart and Clifton on several occasions. Clifton Brown actually became a world class Muay Thai fighter – I interviewed him right after he got engaged…. and got knocked out by ‘Gibi’ at Thai- & Kickbox SuperLeague in Lisbon, Portugal back in 2005.
So when did you actually start thinking about opening up your own gym?
Belak: To make a long story short, I was just looking for the most effective and realistic striking combat sport, and given the circumstances I ended up training Muay Thai. After I moved back to Slovakia, I wanted to continue training in Muay Thai, but all I could find were Kickboxing gyms. You know training in American style Kickboxing also called Full Contact: no kicks below the waist line.
I ended up training with guys from a local gym called Leopard Banska Bystrica. They got really interested in Muay Thai and wanted me to teach them. You need to understand that this was around 1994, and Muay Thai wasn’t known in Slovakia at the time. Although I wanted to continue fighting in Muay Thai myself, I ended up coaching and training other people. And more and more people started coming to my gym, and slowly competitions started to appear in the Czech Republic, so we started attending these events, and we had great success.
So this is when my gym Firegym Muay Thai Camp was created – in 1996.
FIGHT SPORTS: Fantastic. So you were one of the pioneers.
I’ve been following you for more than 15 years, and I know you’ve been promoting quite a few shows. How did you get into the promotion side of things.
Belak: Since Muay Thai was not really known in Slovakia and surrounding countries we had to make our own shows. s Muay Thai was slowly gaining popularity, and there were new gyms popping up all over our country.
First we started promoting amateur tournaments back in 1998, and after about two years of successful amateur development, we started to promote professional events. The situation in Slovakia from 2000 until 2010 was the Golden era of Slovak Muay Thai, and lots of good fighters come from this period: they were competing at international level and also fighting at the Lumpinee and Rajadamnern stadiums in Bangkok, Thailand.
So yeah we started making our own shows, because there wasn’t enough events for the fighters to stay busy and have regular fights.
And it wasn’t about the money! Many promoters or organizers of fighting events will tell you that if they make a small profit from a show, they are happy. Unless of course you are laundering money or being lucky enough to find a good sponsor, which is committed to the long term in the development of the sport. Simply put, there were right people at the right time, who were willing to develop the sport and sacrifice their own time and money.
FIGHT SPORTS: Yeah promoting is hard work. But it sounds like you guys didn’t accept the situation, and went on and created possibilities, and basically created a foundation for combat sports in Slovakia. Very cool.
You’ve produced several world class fighters in your gym. Can you tell us about the entire journey with a student: you know when you first meet them, and then you actually see the progress and development, and also talk a bit about how that make you feel?
Making a world class fighter from scratch is a very difficult and long process. Of course you can make a shortcut and put your fighter on gear (steroids), but I was never a fan of this. Realistically, when you have somebody starting from the absolute beginning, it takes you about 1,5 to 2 years to get the fighter to the level where you look at his style in the ring and think “she/he really knows how to fight”.
And from the first fight experienced must be gained in the ring and adopted. Weak points have to be erased and mistakes needs to be avoided and never repeated. So it is a lengthy journey. Lots of times you have to tell a fighter things, the fighter doesn’t want to hear, or you make your fighter do things that she/he doesn’t want to do. Slowly you have to navigate the career of the fighter, and give him tougher and tougher opponents, until the fighter reaches a good international level – it takes about 5 years.
I was lucky to work with a generation of fighters, that were not so hooked on social media, and they listened to me and trusted in me and my decisions and my way of training.
The list of my fighters is very, very long and there are many of them who achieved considerable success on the international level. And you have to remember that Slovakia is just a small country of 5 million people. But to mention a few of the guys who made it big, I can mention Rudolf Durica, who was the first Slovak fighter to win the WPMF title in Bangkok, Thailand. He also won numerous other titles and was well known for the fact that he could out clinch the Thais.
I also have to mention Vladimir Konsky. He was the first Slovak fighter to beat a Thai from the Golden Five, Khem Sitsonpeenong in China. He also had a lot of wins against other top Thai fighters.
And “Dracula” who you know. Vladimir “Dracula” Moravcik was also a famous and very well known fighter from my gym. He achieved multiple titles in Muay Thai and Kickboxing
I also train a Polish prodigy called Lukasz Plawecki, who I first met in 2015 after he fought Superbon in Slovakia. After we started working, our cooperation has brought him five world titles in Kickboxing in various organisations. At the moment he is pursuing a career in professional boxing.
The list of names from Firegym Muay Thai Camp who deserve a mention is really really long, and I apologize for not mentioning everyone. But who knows: maybe one day I will get around to writing a story about our journey – The Journey of Firegym.
One of the aspects of having international level fighters is travelling all over the world. It can be very nice but it can also be very tiring . Most of the time you arrive at the hotel after a long flight, and you are too tired to go anywhere, so you just sleep at the hotel. You have to watch over your fighter in order for the fighter to make weight. And when the show is over, sometimes you are lucky and get half a day or a day to see the city you’re in. These trips are usually lots of fun but also hard work: stress from making weight, watching TV in the hotel room in languages you don´t understand and generally taking care of your fighter. It can also be challenging if the organizer is not competent or is unreliable, and often I have to take care of things which should be handled by the promoter.
FIGHT SPORTS: Yeah I get that: it was the same when I was doing ringside commentary in various European countries, so I know exactly what you are talking about.
Right on to something completely different: Lethwei. When did you see or hear about Lethwei for the first time, and were you interested and hooked on that style of fighting immediately?
Belak: As I always tried to study and catch new trends, of course I had heard legends about Lethwei – Myanmar (Burmese) boxing. When I was in Thailand to train Muay Thai on a regular basis, I got hold of some videos and CDs of fights from Myanmar showing Lethwei fights. I was mesmerized by the intensity and pace of the fights, which seemed to be very different to that of Muay Thai. The striking was also different as in Lethwei they seemed to prefer hand strikes as they didn’t wear gloves. Headbutts were allowed and different throws (than Muay Thai) also had its magic.
In 2009 when Myanmar started to allow tourist visas, me and my wife went to visit Myanmar. We wanted to see real training and fights with our own eyes and also write an article about it, since Lethwei was still unknown internationally. There was also a lot of mystery surrounding the sport.
It was difficult but we were finally allowed to go and witness a real training session at a military gym in Yangon. This time around being an ex-socialist country citizen was actually an advantage, and we got invited to a big show in Yangon, where Tway Ma Shaung was fighting for a title. I would say that I had never seen anything that raw, brutal and intense in a ring as the Lethwei we witnessed. From what I have seen and experienced, Lethwei is the top of the food chain in stand up fighting. Preparing fighters for a Lethwei fight is way different than for other styles, since in Lethwei there are only a few rules and you fight without gloves. So naturally you have to take into consideration that there WILL be injuries. That requires mental toughness and a lot of durability, and I have to prepare my fighters for all of this. I also consider Lethwei the best discipline for stand-up preparation for MMA, which is also proved by the huge success of Myanmar fighters in MMA in ONE Championship.
FIGHT SPORTS: Very interesting indeed.
And you still promote, right? I’ve read something about a new Lethwei promotion, and that yo are actually going to promote the first event ever in Slovakia in the near future. What can you tell us about this?
Belak: Yes, there is a new global promotion called Marshall Fighting Championship – MFC. It is actually mostly a MMA promotion but with Dave Leduc as the president of the promotion, you can expect some serious Lethwei fights. The first show ever is taking place on the 29th of October 2022 in Brezno, Slovakia. The venue is a historical cars museum called Double Red Cars. We are happy to be a part of it as co-organizers and our fighters from Firegym are getting some really good fighting opportunities in this promotion.
The main fight of the night is going to be a title fight for the World Championship in Lethwei between our fighter from Firegym Michal Kosik and the Canadian fighter Daniel Lariviere. Michal Kosik has already fought in 4 Lethwei fights with 2 wins and 2 draws (in traditional Lethwei rules you can only win by KO – if there is no KO the fight ends in a draw).
We will also be seeing an American MMA fighter with an impressive record of 10-1, Cole Ferrell. And another Lethwei fight will be contested between our young fighter Ivan Hatala and an opponent from Poland, Krystian Niewinczany. The thing with Lethwei is that it’s very realistic, especially when it comes to what it actually means to be a fighter. It’s not an Instagram hashtag, you have to be a real tough fighter to get in the ring without gloves, fighting with headbutts, all kinds of throws, and the only way to win is to knock your opponent out. It’s not about looking fancy and having a tong of followers on social media, but about having the fighter mentality and the courage to actually do it.
We have known Dave Leduc for a few years now. He made two Lethwei seminars at our gym, and we are on the same mission of developing Lethwei outside of Myanmar. My wife and I have been building up Lethwei in Slovakia and Europe for a few years now. We made the first ever full Lethwei rules fights in Europe in 2015 at Kunlun Fight Slovakia. We had fighters from Myanmar flown in to fight. After that event we made three more shows with Lethwei fights on the card. We were ready to start developing Lethwei in Europe before COVID-19 started, but the stupid pandemics put our plans on hold.
We developed rules and regulations, even for amateur Lethwei (yes you heard it right: amateur Lethwei), for the fights to be very dynamic, and most importantly so that people can experience Lethwei in a safe set of regulations that focuses on the safety of the fighters. But we would like to focus on developing professional Lethwei, which I personally think will be the future of fighting sports. If you look at Lethwei, even in today’s MMA, most of the people don’t want to see ground fighting, as most people find it boring, and often people do not understand what’s going on (on the ground). Lethwei is actually a more dynamic version of stand-up MMA with fewer rules and no gloves. It’s as real as it gets. There is nothing tougher: lots of people say that Lethwei is too brutal, there’s too much blood, but if you look at it this way: bare knuckle boxing wouldn’t even make it to the screen a few years ago and now it’s the fastest growing style of fighting in the US. And there are loads of blood in bare knuckle boxing.
FIGHT SPORTS: It does sound brutal, but I get what you’re saying about ground fighting in MMA. Took me YEARS to appreciate what was going on during MMA fights, when they hit the deck.
So after the inaugural Lethwei show, what’s next for Dynamo?
Belak: We will be working hard on pushing Lethwei in Europe and worldwide, and obviously raising more fighters.
FIGHT SPORTS: Nice.
Right my friend: it’s been a pleasure and extremely interesting. On behalf of everybody at FIGHT SPORTS I’d like to wish you guys all the success now and in the future. Thanks for taking the time out to enlighten us all on the life of the Dynamo of Slovakian Combat sports.