“There’s still so much to do – I want to cement my legacy as one of the greats, up there with Ramon Dekkers.”
Australian Muay Thai fighter, John Wayne Parr, is more than just a world champion kickboxer. To those in the know Parr is equally a cultural export and a celebrated purist of striking – a fighter who sits alongside his Dutch hero as one of the most influential non-Thai combatants to ever compete in Muay Thai.
After securing a win against Daniel Dawson earlier this year, and signing to the emergent international Bellator kickboxing promotion, John Wayne Parr talks about life as a 41 year old champion.
“Dekkers’ career lasted 20 years there, he’s still the first foreign fighter that’s brought up by any taxi or Tuk Tuk driver. And I’ve been very lucky to be in his shadow. But when an Australian goes to Thailand and talks to the drivers, they always ask ‘You know John Wayne Parr?”
And the answer for enthusiasts of kickboxing must be yes, because the Australian known as The Gunslinger is as famous in Thailand as the biggest stars of the sport. Parr has fought legendary Thais like Buakaw Por Pramuk and Yodsanklai Fairtex, and ascended the heights of Muay Thai in its native country.
On the phone from his Boonchu gym on the Gold Coast, Parr explained how he came to be inspired by ’The Diamond Of Muay Thai’, Ramon Dekkers.
“Every fighter had been to Thailand and suffered severe KO losses, because the Thais were indestructible and their techniques were so strong. Dekkers was the man that opened the opportunity for Westerners to go and beat Thais. He proved that not only we could win, we could knock them out if we hit them hard enough.”
“He was willing to take six shots to give one, and his intensity has never been matched. Every time he fought in Thailand he’d stop the country. Waiters and bus drivers would stop work to watch. It was accepted too, because he was Ramon Dekkers. He was the Muhammad Ali of Muay Thai, and will always be the king.”
The difference between Parr and Dekkers is that Parr actually lived in Thailand for several years training, completely immersing himself in the traditions of Thai culture.
“After a fight,” he explains, “Dekkers would go back to Holland again, but I stayed there and lived in Thailand. I learnt to live their lifestyle; I slept on the floor and pooped in the ground. I learnt their language, and I think they appreciated me embracing their lifestyle. I even became a monk for seven days!”
On first inspection, the Buddhist lifestyle might seem removed from the violence of Muay Thai but Parr can see the similarities. “You aren’t going to have a comfortable bed, it’s the simplest form of being on the earth.”
“As you walk the streets, you can’t swat an ant or a mosquito and you realise that having food and shelter is all that matters. All the stress that we put on ourselves…At the end of the day if I’m nice to you and you’re nice to me…life’s easy.”
Well, I’m nice to you, you’re nice to me. And then, if you’re John Wayne Parr, we elbow each other in the face.
He was given the title ‘John Wayne’ by his Thai trainer at camp Loomingkwan, who also suggested he mime pistols during the traditional introductory Wai Kru dance. This proved an enormous hit with his Thai audiences, as did Parr’s relentless, entertaining style and dangerous combination punching.
“The Thais respect the heart of a warrior. If you can give an entertaining fight for five rounds, and lose in a war, it will be respected as much as a win”, says Parr. “… but if you go into a fight and get a little half-centimetre cut and give up on your stool, you’re a dog, they’ll have no respect for you whatsoever. You’ll be a joke.”
John Wayne Parr is no dog. Training from the age of 11, first in Taekwondo and then Muay Thai, Parr has notched up 139 professional fights across two disciplines. He is a world champion Muay Thai fighter, ten times over, holding belts across a series of promotions and weight classes in boxing in Australia and the Pacific region.
As the runner-up in the enormously popular martial arts reality show The Contender – Asia, Parr fought and lost to Fairtex, his second loss to the Thai legend. Parr has also lost twice to arguably the greatest Thai fighter ever, Buakaw Por Pramuk.
As with everything, Parr is philosophical and positive about the ups and downs in his career.
“Out of 126 (kickboxing) fights, I’ve had 32 losses. I’ve always given 100% but sometimes on the day your opponent is that little bit better. They might have a better game plan, or you could come into the fight with an injury. Of all those losses, I’ve got no regrets because I know I put in 100%, and was beaten by the better man on the day.”
His lack of guile can be misleading though – Parr competes in one of the most violent sports on the planet, his urge to win and secure a legacy has made him a dangerous competitor, even into his 40s.
When asked about the importance of rematches, he counters by saying “Every single fight is important, not just the rematches.”
“Every single fight is like you’re fighting Mike Tyson. Every single fight is going to be a reflection on your legacy after you retire, or make a difference when you come to negotiate future fights with other promoters. So the more you win, the better it looks on paper, the more money you can negotiate for. From a business perspective, you have to win every fight.”
To the average person, when Parr says that every fight is like fighting Mike Tyson, it sounds absolutely terrifying. But does he ever get scared?
The lonely walk from change-room to my destiny. That 2 minutes were all eyes are on you. Before the pain, before the exhaustion, before that feeling of pure joy of the win, or devastation of a loss. Either way, this is the walk I must make to cement my legacy 😈. I have no fear, I feel no pain, I have no emotion towards my opponent besides he is the target. The ring/cage is the question, my violence is the answer.
“You learn to channel the fear”, he says. “I can either be scared shitless, or Chuck Norris confident. Either way I still have to make that walk from the change room to the ring and face my adversary. I can either channel my thoughts positively, or I can go in there negative and create my own boogeyman. If I just rely on my own strengths, I know that I can beat anyone in the world.”
He suggests you never let your opponent into your head. “…Not in the change room, not in the walk out, not anywhere.”
“If I want to be famous I have to beat the famous people, the toughest people.”
Fame, legacy and the glory of competition are key to Parr’s personal mythology. He speaks about it at length in the documentary ‘Blessed With Venom’, and during appearances on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
While his older American opponents like Duane ‘Bang’ Ludwig have transitioned into coaching UFC superstars like TJ Dillashaw with great financial reward, Parr is more concerned with furthering his legacy as a kickboxer, despite moonlighting as a striking coach for Georges St Pierre (GSP) in 2013.
“My time as a fighter isn’t done. I still want to cement my legacy as one of the greats. Training UFC guys is way down in my career.”
He admits he’s interested though, given the level of promotion that MMA and the UFC enjoy.
Parr is critical of the quality of striking in the UFC, and of the attitude of the fans to top-shelf competitors like GSP.
“Georges has a lot of backlash because he was fighting amazing but he wasn’t finishing, which is a big thing in MMA. At the same time, look at Floyd Mayweather – he hasn’t had a knockout in years and he’s the richest sportsman on this planet.”
“It’s fickle – GSP can completely dominate someone, whether they’re a wrestler or a striker, but he just has this thing with the fans where he rubs them the wrong way for some reason.”
My suggestion that the UFC is attracting a more populist, less educated audience got his attention. “Yes, because MMA is so new and they probably came up in that Tapout era, and that’s just a different breed.”
“Muay Thai is very respectful. There’s a lot of Buddhism in it, despite it being a really violent sport.”
Massive thank you to my friend Tom Gathercole @tguns1 who flew to Perth from Melbourne to capture all the behind the scenes footage of what it's like to be in the change room and the lead up till face punching time. So good to have these memories. Rest of clip is in bio 😉.
Parr was happy to take a casual shot at one of MMA’s most violent men, The Axe Murderer.
“When you look at someone like Wanderlei Silva, who identifies as a Muay Thai guy… you watch him striking, and you’re like ‘fucking hell…really?”
I can’t help but laugh, and Parr clarifies. “Sure, he’s amazing, but he just swings for the fences. When you watch his striking you want to dry-retch, you want to throw up in your mouth.”
Parr is a fan of certain UFC talent, though – “I like Donald Cerrone,” he says. “I like Conor McGregor, I think he has good striking. And I like Jose Aldo.”
When asked to revisit his favourite fight, Parr brings up his third outing against ‘Iron’ Mike Zambidis in 2011 – a beatdown that saw the normally vicious and durable Zambidis unconscious on the ropes at the end of the first round, drowning in unending barrage of punches from Parr.
“We actually fought three times and the first time was controversial, with him getting the decision despite me feeling that I’d won.”
“The second fight I beat him in every round over five rounds under K1 rules with no clinching and no elbows. The third fight was the fight when I stopped him in the first round. Between the first and third there was probably an eight year gap, and this was before Facebook.”
“Every time the fight was mentioned on kickboxing forums, the thread would just go crazy. Fifty percent of people felt that I’d won, and 50 percent felt that Zambidis won. So when the rematch came around again, I really wanted to make a statement. On the third fight there was even more bad blood. The referee brought us together at the start of the match, and Zambeidis leant across to me and said ‘Tonight…I’m going to kill you’ I was like ‘What the hell?’
“It made my blood boil. It wasn’t about winning on points anymore, it was about trying to destroy his life.”
During the opening seconds of the round, Parr landed a spectacular front kick to his opponent’s face, knocking Zambidis off his feet and setting the tone early. John Wayne revealed that in fact it was a moment he’d been planning.
“I studied his videos and noticed that every time the bell would ring he’d run across and try to push his opponent into the corner so he could wail away with his hands,” he explains. “For four weeks solid, every single night when I went to bed I tried to imagine what I’d do when he ran across the ring at me.”
“I wondered what it would be – flying knee, this or that. I got to stage where I just thought, you know what? I’m going to throw a front kick to his face – just plant my feet and drive it into the back of his head.”
It worked, and was an early nail in Zambidis’s coffin.
“The bell went and sure enough, he ran straight at me. I knocked him about three feet in the air, and he landed flat on his back. As I’m moving away I was thinking, ‘holy hell, I can’t believe that just happened’, because I’d been visualising it for about three weeks straight.”
“From there on, every time he’d get close enough for me to look into his eyes, I could see how red and bloodshot they were. I knew I’d hurt him. I dropped him with that right hand and from that point it was almost scripted – I couldn’t throw a single punch wrong.”
In the closing seconds of the fight Zambidis hung on the ropes as Parr’s punches completely shatter his defensive resolve.
“Every time I thought he was going to go down, he would hit the second bottom rope and pop back up again. I’d be like ‘He’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone…he’s back up!’ Eventually he fell forward and collapsed. Of my hundred and twenty six fights, that’s probably one of my favourite replays to show people.”
Almost seven years later Parr trains, promote fights, and runs his Boonchu gym alongside his wife, American Muay Thai champ Angela Rivera-Parr and their two children. But the thrill of combat and the sport’s growing popularity have lured The Gunslinger back into competition for the Bellator Kickboxing series.
“I talked to (Bellator CEO) Scott Coker when he was in London with Hans, a friend who organised my Monster sponsorship. Scott used to promote my wife Angie when she was the Superfight for K1 shows. I had a good rapport with Scott already – we could talk about the kids, and how he helped Angie…It felt like we were old buddies. I’m waiting to see how many fights, and how much it’s worth. But it’s pretty exciting!”
With the sale of the UFC, the defection of big names like Rory MacDonald and Chael Sonnen to Bellator, and GSP out of contract as a free agent, there seems to be a changing of the guard going on.
When I suggested the popularity of striking promotions like Glory hints at a return to the classic days of K1 and Pride style competition, Parr got excited.
“I hope so, because after fighting in K1 I felt there was such a big void to fill ” he says. “K1 was getting crowds of up to 20,000 people in the venues and a TV audience of up to 2 million, and that’s not including the rest of the world. It was a different era in 2004-2005. The internet hadn’t hit its stride, now everything is at your fingertips.”
“I really just hope someone can come along and push to where K1 left off.”
He sees how well the UFC manages the personalities and promotion of MMA in social media, and hopes that striking promotions can learn from their attitude.
“With the UFC flooding the market with media coverage and making all their fighters superstars…I can tell you where Alvarez lives, what he eats, and what he does with his Saturday afternoon. You’re invested because you have a personal relationship with all these people.”
“They create heroes and villains, and it all works. When you hear Ronda Rousey is making a comeback, you can’t possibly ignore it. Whereas with Muay Thai you hear that Bob Smith is fighting Bob Brown, and you don’t know these people from nothing. Why would you tune in and not miss it if you don’t know who these people are?”
At 41 years of age, John Wayne is a rarity in combat sport.
Indeed only contemporaries like Mark Hunt are still fighting at the top level of the sport. It must be strange for Parr to consider that he just signed a contract with the second biggest promotion in the world, and is only two years younger than Dekkers was when he died of a sudden heart attack in 2013.
“For Dekkers to go over there and never be knocked out…He won some, lost some, but was always exciting, always violent…I do this because I want to be the best, not because anyone is making me. The only way to prove that is to make the walk to the ring, and beat the toughest people.”
When I remark that he is the only other Westerner to be mentioned in the pantheon of Muay Thai, next to Ramon Dekkers, Parr is quiet.
“It’s so humbling to be respected and to be remembered. I’m as excited as anyone else to find out what is going to happen next.”