ONE Super Series star Yohann Fairtex Drai arrives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia this weekend for ONE: PURSUIT OF POWER ready to showcase his brand of Muay Thai in the co-main event.
Frenchman Drai will face off against Thailand’s “Smokin” Jo Nattawut in a Muay Thai bout at the Axiata Arena on 13 July.
It’s the latest step on a journey that has taken him from the beach in Marseille to the heartland of Muay Thai in Thailand, and on to ONE Championship.
“I was living on the sea or under the sea,” he says, looking back to his time in France.
“I was doing a lot of windsurfing, and when there was no wind, I was diving.”
Back then, he was studying in university, but after less than a year, he quit his studies to pursue his martial arts dream. His parents weren’t impressed by his change in direction.
“When I first joined a martial arts gym, my father didn’t want to pay, so I paid with money I received from a birthday gift,” he remembers.
“I didn’t have support form my parents for what I did. They didn’t see things the same way I do. It was pretty difficult.”
His first brush with martial arts came as a 15-year-old, when he received training in the Russian martial art of sambo.
He tried competing in mixed martial arts, but a hostile stance against the sport by the French government made competing on home soil exceptionally difficult, so he switched his attention to the striking arts. He began training in French boxing, boxing, and K-1-style kickboxing.
“A friend told me to come and try boxing. He wanted to see how I could fight,” he remembers.
“It was crazy. The first time I went there, I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ Within a year, I was better than all my friends at university.”
During that time, he was working for an oil and gas company as a commercial diver, which held back his training and progression, but the work was necessary to support his training.
“I would work for three or four months, and then only train for three or four months, but if you’re a real professional, you cannot do this. It’s not possible in our job,” he says.
He tried training for two months in Amsterdam, but he was not happy with life in the Netherlands. However, when he received an invitation from a friend to head to Thailand, he threw himself into chasing his dream.
“My friend said, ‘Come on, let’s go to Thailand. You will see that it’s great.’ I went with him, and fell in love with this country and this sport. Since then, I’ve been here for more than four years,” he says.
After two years of training at Petchsaman Gym in Pattaya, Drai went to Fairtex gym, where he was presented with a stern test of his credentials.
“I went there, and for two months I trained very hard with them. My manager told me there was a fight in China, and it would be the test to see if they keep me,” he says.
“Yodsanklai [IWE Fairtex] was in my corner, so I could not lose that fight. I fought a Lumpinee Stadium World Champion, and it was a very tough fight.
“His technique was better than mine, but I had a better physique. I won the fight, they kept me there at Fairtex gym, and it’s where my professional career really started.”
That proved to be the kick-start Drai needed, and his career went from strength to strength after that moment.
“It’s so difficult to find someone to invest in you, and have trainers to take care of you and train you every day with the same motivation to make you better. But, I found this in Fairtex,” he explains.
“When I arrived here, I only had my motivation. Okay, I had good power in my hands, but I didn’t know to punch, I didn’t know how to kick, I didn’t know how to clinch.
“I trained harder than the other people, so I learned faster. This is one of my qualities. I will watch people, and I can do what I see quite quickly. I learned a lot here, and I’m still learning.”
His growth as a competitor saw him capture a Super Muay Thai championship and a spot in the ONE Super Series. He’ll make his debut on Friday at ONE: PURSUIT OF POWER against two-weight Lion Fight World Champion Nattawut.
A victory would not only showcase his remarkable evolution as a striking martial artist, it would also see him move into pole position for a shot at a World Title.