Ancient Martial Art Growing in the Capital

Energy is about to burst through the walls in the basement of a building located at 433 Bank Street. As you open the door and descend the stairs, sounds of punching, rope slashing and heavy breathing start to get louder. The picture clears up as you step into a well-lit gym.

A couple of sweaty men are punching sturdy bags. The mirrors on the wall reflect some men lifting weights. Right in the middle of the room, one of them is wearing a square pad on his abdomen, while the other is aiming for the shield with his kicks. Newly arrived trainees begin their workout with a skipping rope.

The clock signals: time is up. A young, fit man hastily comes forward. He introduces himself as Sacha Hijazi. He then introduces his wife Chantelle and baby daughter Madelyn – they have been sitting on the floor just around the corner.

Hijazi offers a tour around the spacious room. As he shows us around, he explains that the gym is almost fully renovated. There is still a smell of fresh paint and new equipment in the air. A bright blue mat covers the entire floor.

Welcome to Sacha Hijazi’s dream: Ottawa Fight & Fitness gym.

Hijazi has been an instructor at several martial arts gyms for seven years and a personal instructor at various fitness outlets for five years. He is also a Canadian Amateur Muay Thai champion. And now, he is opening his own gym to teach this martial art.

Muay Thai, also known as the Art of Eight Limbs, is an ancient martial art that has been practiced across Thailand for thousands of years. The name Muay, translated from the Sanskrit expression for “to bind together”, describes the Thai version of kickboxing. It engages punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes.

Many legends surround the origins of Muay Thai. One of them tells the story of Siamese soldiers who lost all their weapons in a battle and had to defend themselves with their bodies. As myths were told and heroes emerged, Muay became a part of Thai culture, a national sport, and a form of public entertainment performed during celebrations and festivals.

Hijazi discovered this sport on TV in his Ottawa apartment. The fierce yet elegant moves of fighters in the ring caught a 20-year old Hijazi’s attention. The next day, he was signing up at Bob Carver’s Thai Boxing Academy. Since then, Hijazi says he has been “hooked.”

Vigorous training followed: 10-kilometre, then 20-kilometre morning runs, working out techniques in the gym, and at last, solidifying his skills at evening practices. Soon after, Hijazi started competing in rings across Canada and abroad. He spent time in Thailand – four one-month trips to seven boxing camps. The payoff? On April 26, 2008, at the Nepean Sportsplex, Hijazi was pronounced Canadian Amateur Muay Thai Champion.

Now the big black leather belt he fought for that night is hanging on the gym’s wall, among other awards, diplomas, certificates and commemorative boxing shorts. Hijazi says he has been collecting them because he always dreamed of opening his own gym.

Throughout all those years, while competing in the ring and working as a fitness instructor, an idea of what the gym he wanted to open took shape. Unlike big gym chains, it would be local and small; trainees would receive personal attention. One thing he knew for certain: what he does best, Muay Thai and functional fitness, would be the foundation for his own gym.

“Functional training,” Hijazi explains, “means that when you leave the gym, you’re better equipped to play with the kids, lift heavy boxes, do some gardening and generally perform better in life. It’s also good for professional athletes who want to improve their performance. Muay Thai is the most efficient of martial arts: it’s simple; it’s practical. It doesn’t matter what walk of life you’re from or what your profession is, anybody can do it. It’s a great workout that emphasizes core strength. But it doesn’t only strengthen your body; it also strengthens your spirit. Muay Thai provides tools to tackle life obstacles off the mat too.”

Hijazi explains that Muay Thai has changed his life, and he is sure this martial art will change the lives of many others. Despite common views on boxing as violent and bloody, Hijazi says, Thai boxing is different. It’s about respect, moral ethics, discipline and self-control. Based on his own experience, Hijazi says the sport helped him release aggression and focus his energy. He says Muay Thai made him develop a strong work ethic and taught him that “things don’t come easy.”

These lessons came in handy when he opened his gym. It was not a simple process. Among the many common obstacles to opening – and renovating – a new business, hired contract workers left the gym half-done. And if not for the support of his family, friends and devoted trainees, Hijazi would never have been able to complete the gym and already have some fierce and disciplined practitioners training.

Tariq Ismail, 22, has been training with Hijazi for five years. He says Hijazi has changed his life: “I just moved from Toronto. I was walking around my neighbourhood, and I saw Bob Carver’s Thai Boxing Academy. I walked in and there was Sacha training. He was a beast! I was like… I want to be like him.” Since then, Ismail lost 60 pounds and earned himself a Throwdown In O-Town belt. He is preparing to leave for Thailand, where he will train in a boxing camp for several months.

Angélique Bossy, 30, is from France. She had never tried boxing before coming to Ottawa. But nine months ago, when she met Hijazi, she found an activity that she can enjoy after her post-doctoral work at Natural Resources Canada. “When I first came in, I felt so small with big guys around me,” Bossy laughs. “But I am a strong character. Lots of men can lift 200 pounds, but I don’t care. I like that here you set your own goals.”

But for women who are uncomfortable about training with men, Ottawa Fight and Fitness offers a special female-only class. Hijazi has prepared different levels, ranging from beginner to advanced, as well as additional courses in Kettlebell and TRX – special training programs. Hijazi says everybody should come and try. Official classes started on January 2, 2013.

Hijazi is excited that, at last, his students and new trainees will have a place where they can learn and master Muay Thai, expanding the culture of the ancient art in Ottawa, all in a family-like setting. “The gym is a big part of my life,” Hijazi says, kissing his six-month old daughter. “But she’s the biggest part of all.”