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Juniper Muay Thai cultivates mental resolve and empowers fighters of all skill levels.
Illustration by Kati Lacker
I’m suited up in my boxing gloves, sweat dripping down my back as I listen to George Pitsakis, coach and co-owner of Juniper Muay Thai, explain the combination for tonight’s class.
“Muay Thai is all about spacing and balance,” he says, serving a punch-kick-elbow sequence meant to knock an opponent off-center. As a consistently spazzy person who tends to fall over without even moving, I laugh to myself. My lack of coordination is just one of the many reasons training at the tight-knit boxing gym in South Philly continues to humble me (and sometimes puts me on my ass). Yet joining Juniper might just be the single best decision I’ve made in my adult life.
Muay Thai is Thai boxing. An ancient martial art and combat sport, it has the punches and hooks of classic boxing with the added elements of kicking and clinching, making it a bit like stand-up wrestling. I hesitantly joined Juniper in 2019 at the urging of my partner, who has practiced martial arts all his life and thought my natural strength and love of team sports would make it a good fit. He correctly predicted that I would enjoy hitting shit as hard as I could, but what surprised us both was my immediate hunger to completely immerse myself in the sport.
This is due in part to Juniper’s approach to teaching. Pitsakis and Joe Logan, the head coach and other co-owner, offer a women-and-femmes-only class four days a week during which they accommodate the needs of everyone from true beginners who are putting on gloves for the first time to a handful of fighters competing in local amateur bouts. Where other women’s kickboxing programs often center cardio or self-defense, Logan and Pitsakis, both former pro fighters, emphasize the fundamentals without making any of us feel like we’re secondary in a male-dominated sport. There’s no condescension here, only patient coaching that has taken more than one of my classmates from first-timer all the way to the ring for an amateur fight.
I’m still regularly challenged by my notable clumsiness. That’s also what has drawn me back to the mat night after night. With other activities, like running or yoga, I often felt like I was fighting against my body’s natural size and shape. In muay Thai, the fact that I’m almost six feet tall, with thick legs and broad shoulders, gives me something to throw behind a cross-body punch or switch-kick. I measure success by watching the angle of my foot shift correctly for a kick, or as I learn to string together more complicated combinations, like a jab-cross-hook-leg kick.
In the middle of class, when I’m suited up in gloves or holding pads for a partner, there’s no space in my brain for anything but the absolute focus needed to follow the combination of the day. The classes are an antidote to the loneliness and distraction of working from home — a workout that cultivates mental resolve, connection, and support from the community of women who gather each night. For most of us, muay Thai is the rare true hobby: We do it because it empowers us, and because as we get stronger, we celebrate each other not for how our bodies look, but for what they can do and the strength they contain. Which, it turns out, is a lot.
Published as “I Tried It: Saved by the Bell” in the July 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.
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