Pursuing Greatness With Muay Thai Champ Ognjen Topic
Ognjen Topic may be America’s number 1 ranked fighter and a multiple Muay Thai world champion, currently holding the WKA and WBC North American titles, but he’s not a man satisfied with his already considerable achievements. Add to the list his Lion Fight World Champion title and the “Muay Thai Grand Prix” champion crown, won by defeating the UK’s Paul Barber last year and still Ognjen would look at these as stepping stones to the greatness he continually craves.
Born in war torn Bosnia, Ognjen fled with his family to Serbia before emigrating to America aged nine after his father won a green card lottery. He took an interest in Martial Arts and studied Taekwondo, quickly gaining his black belt, but it was only when he saw a Muay Thai card on TV that he witnessed the sport that was to be his destiny. After twelve years of dedication and relentless training Topic has developed into a much respected and feared fighter with 51 professional fights under his belt. We caught up with him recently to talk about his journey in the sport, how Muay Thai is about much more than winning or losing and his grand visions for the future.
The MALESTROM: So tell us how you actually first got into Muay Thai?
Ognjen Topic: Yeah it started when I was fourteen with Taekwondo, and around that time I started watching boxing and I wanted to get into boxing but my parents didn’t let be box because they thought it was too dangerous, so I did Taekwondo instead, until I was eighteen and I got my black belt. Throughout the whole time I was training in Taekwondo I never really felt like I was doing the real thing, where boxing felt more realistic as a fight sport, and then I was watching TV one time and I saw a Muay Thai fight and I knew right then and there that was what I wanted to do. At that time I’d never heard of the sport before, so I carried on with my Taekwondo and finally I ran into a guy who trained at a school who were doing authentic Muay Thai, that was at age eighteen and I’ve been with the same school ever since then. That’s how I got into that.
TM: Was there anyone who influenced you getting into Martial Arts?
OT: Yeah I was into Jean Claude Van Damme and Bruce Lee. I felt like Bruce Lee stood out a lot because of his explosive power, he was a very small guy but he could generate a lot of force – that always stood out to me.
TM: Tell us about your childhood, you grew up in Bosnia before you went to Serbia, but how much did that period shape you as a person?
OT: I’m not sure really, it’s difficult to pinpoint what shaped me and my mentality. I watched my Mother and Father struggle to give me and my sister the best life that we could have with the resources they had at the time. I think it was mainly them, I learnt so much just by observing them and hearing them. In our culture there isn’t too much dialogue, especially between a son and a father, there isn’t much talk about how you’re feeling, you just went by watching and observing. My dad never gave up, he was always fighting for us, my mother, my sister. He was very mentally strong, then of course my mother too, I saw that in her. When we moved form Serbia to Bosnia, technically we were refugees, my parents started building a house within three days of us moving there, so I saw my Mum carrying bricks and stuff like that up to the second floor of the house working with my Father.
TM: So in many ways your inspiration was your Father and your Mother really?
OT: I would say so, 100 per cent, yeah. They showed me the importance of not giving up, and at the end of the day I always knew everything was going to be okay. it was definitely worse when we first emigrated to Serbia, we were living in the basement of somebody’s house and we didn’t have a bathroom, we didn’t have heating we were sleeping in our jackets in the middle of winter you know. So it was definitely difficult, but everything worked out well.
TM: Ok so let’s talk a bit about fighting and your debut, what was it like stepping into the ring for the first time?
OT: Well my first fight was after two years of training and when I first went to the gym at 18 I told my coaches that I wanted to fight, but they kind of brushed that off because they’ve heard it that many times, but that was my goal I just wanted to fight. And as time passed by they realised I was serious, but the problem was my parents. They had brought me and my sister here to America so we could have a stable job and become something, for my parents fighting is like the worst way you can make money. They have the mentality that is if you’ve tried everything else in the world and now you have no other option, then you literally fight for your life, so for them they didn’t allow me to fight at all.
So I had to wait two years or so until I finally said ‘f**k it, I have to do this’ and I ended up fighting that first time and I really destroyed my opponent and the promoter at the time accused us of having professional fights in Europe, so that was how well I did in my first fight. I was very composed and calm, it was probably those two years of me just training and practising everyday and just studying Muay Thai and watching videos from Thailand and things like that.
TM: You talk about your training there, how different is the training in Thailand to what you do in the States?
OT: Well it’s very similar because here we’re in an authentic Muay Thai gym so in that sense it’s pretty much the same style and the same mentality, in Thailand it’s pretty much the same thing, you just do more of it. So you’re just surrounded by fighters with the same mentality. Obviously it’s a lot harder as well, you do more of it and are surrounded by other individuals that are champions, some of the best in Thailand. So you’re skill is always getting better, always evolving.
TM: How do you train your shins for all the punishment they take? Obviously there’s the stories of Thai fighters breaking their shinbone’s so they heal up stronger, is that true?
OT: Yeah I think breaking your shinbone is a little extreme, you’ll never find any Thai fighter do that on purpose. The only way they do it in Thailand is by kicking the heavy bag and kicking the pads – that’s it. Those pads are all leather, and over time everything inside the bags gets compressed, so they’re very tough. That’s basically how you develop your shins, any other method like rolling pins and all that other stuff, nobody does that. I’ve never seen it and I’ve been to many gyms and no Thai would ever recommend doing that.
It’s just repetition, years of hitting things with your shins and they’ll get stronger. Not only that but they’re never going to be strong enough where you never feel pain. Even in Thailand after a fight they’ll be complaining about pains in their shins, because there’s no way you can condition them fully where you never going to feel something. It’s more about experience, your experience level, where you’re learning better how to target, so you’re not catching an elbow on your shin. So with all the years of training and fighting you’re learning how to connect better with the hard part or the soft part of the body like maybe the ribs, things like that.
TM: You mention experience, how important is that in Muay Thai?
OT: I’m learning that experience is pretty much number one! You can have all the skills but if you don’t have those years under you and the amount of fights as Thais do, it’s very difficult. Experience gives you a different timing, you just know better when to attack, when to defend, you’re calmer in the ring. I’m getting there with the experience but I definitely need more of that training and fighting aspect.
TM: What was it like the first time you fought a Thai fighter?
OT: That was when I was an amateur fighter and I fought this guy and he beat me on points, again it was a great experience and learning curve so i was happy about that. At that time I was just focused on getting more experience, not worrying too much about winning fights, I mean yes I cared about winning, but I knew I was going to lose at some point especially fighting someone who’s fought over a hundred times versus my twenty as an amateur and ten professional fights, you know.
TM: Is it as much about honour in putting in that fighting performance, rather than just those wins and losses?
OT: Yeah absolutely. Because that’s what keeps the promoters eye on you, that’s what keeps the fans eyes on you no matter whether you win or lose. Especially in Thailand, in Thailand losses aren’t looked at as they are here in America, you can get to fight at big shows just because you’re a skilled fighter, if you show heart and put on a good performance. Not only that you want to do it for your satisfaction as well.
TM: How much does the judging vary from America to Thailand. Is there a difference in the way bouts are scored.
OT: Yes. In Thailand you can rest assured that all fights are always scored the same. No matter what stadium you go to, no matter what you know the scoring is going to be consistent. In America you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes you’ll get correct Thai style judging, other times you’ll only get people who only judge kickboxing fights or boxing fights. So you never know what you’re going to get. It’s a lot easier in Thailand, you can rest assured that if you fight a certain way you’re still going to come out with that same outcome, whereas over here you don’t know what the hell you’re getting, you could put on the best show you can put on you know, but it’s a lot more difficult in America.
TM: Maybe tell us a bit about the ritual of Muay Thai, the ring entrances, the music, how important is all that?
OT: The music really does set a rhythm for when you’re in the ring, so round one, round two it’s a little slow then it starts getting a little faster. With the music it helps you know where you are in the round too, especially if it’s the same band that plays. Like in the fifth round, the music changes dramatically, so you know how much you should push, how much you should back off, whether you’re winning or losing. So that helps a bit. You have the ritual before the fight, for me I don’t really have any beliefs, but I do it because it’s part of the sport. To the Thais it does have meaning, Asian culture in general is very superstitious, in Muay Thai they circle around and seal the ring to keep out evil forces, so for them it has more meaning.
TM: What does a typical training camp look like for you? How long do you train for fights?
OT: For me it’s about three weeks. Two to three weeks when I’m here. In Thailand two weeks is a lot of time, because often you don’t know who you’re fighting or when you’re fighting, it just comes out of nowhere that you’ve got a fight this week. I kind of stick with that mentality here, when I know I do have a fight, I know I need about two or three weeks to get into that fight shape, then I’ll be more than ready to get into the ring.
TM: It must be hard to train for a particular opponent when fights come so thick and fast.
OT: In Thailand yes. But here if you know who you’re fighting it’s a lot easier. In Thailand sometimes you find out who you’re fighting a couple of days before, so all you can do is get in there and feel your opponent out and fight like that.
TM: So if you’re in America and know who your opponent is going to be you prepare specifically for them?
OT: Yeah my coach does all the studying. As far as the video goes for me it’s just a point to get the rhythm down of my opponent, to see how he moves. I can get that within one round, sometimes it takes me even less, I just need to see what kind of a fighter he is, is he explosive, is he a puncher, if he’s a kicker, that’s pretty much it, my coach takes it further from there. And then we set up for drills linked to what that fighter does.
TM: What’s your proudest achievement so far in the sport?
OT: To be honest, I’m not proud of any of them, because I feel like I haven’t achieved what I wanted to. I’m just not really satisfied with what I’ve done. But I guess looking at my coaches I think the best moment that we had was when I won the WBC National title, just take a look at my coaches faces that night, that meant a lot to me because I knew that I’d made them proud and that was it. I think if I’d won some even bigger titles maybe, but I think my mentality will always be the same, I’ll never be satisfied with what I’ve achieved because I feel like I can always do better.
TM: That’s a good mentality to have. What was it like beating one of Britain’s best exponents of the sport, Paul Barber, last year?
OT: That was a good win for me because he’s one of the best over there. It was a satisfying win, but again I feel I should be in there more with Thai fighters. I’m only really satisfied when I fight a Thai guy, to me they’re the best and I only want to fight the best out there.
TM: How big is the sport in the States? With it being added to UFC Fight Pass that should help it become even bigger.
OT: I definitely think it’s getting bigger. I get phone calls often from gyms, MMA gyms or Jiu Jitsu gyms that are looking to do a Muay Thai programme, I get phone calls and emails from them, even to coach and teach. That shows me the sport is growing because obviously there’s a need for it. That’s never happened before and that just started last year. It makes me happy that I know the sport is going in the right direction. So we’ll see what happens in the future.
TM: Have you ever tried MMA? Is it something you’d consider?
OT: No, I’m just not interested in that sport at all. Jiu Jitsu seems very interesting and It’s definitely a good sport to know. I feel with Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu, you can’t go wrong with those two sports to be a complete fighter. But I haven’t achieved all the things I want to in Muay Thai, so until I’m satisfied with that and I’ve achieved things that I want to achieve then I wouldn’t switch into any other sport. I’ve still got a long way to go in Muay Thai.
TM: What do you make of fighting crossovers? The biggest recently obviously being McGregor v Mayweather. How do you feel Muay Thai works against other fighting styles?
OT: It’s like comparing swimming and diving. They both involve water, but they’re two different sports, two different energies, two different styles, two different rhythms. It’s interesting to see, I like it, I’m not against it. But if you’re asking me is an MMA fighter is going to win against a Muay Thai fighter, I don’t think so, if it’s Muay Thai rules and if both guys are paired up equally. The same thing goes for MMA, is a Muay Thai fighter going to win in an MMA fight with the ground game involved, absolutely not.
TM: You’ve said you’re never satisfied, what does the future hold for you? What’s next?
OT: Well I’m going back to Thailand this year. So I’ll be fighting over there and I at least want to be ranked in the stadiums.
I can definitely do it because I’m hard working, I’m talented in the sport, I’m athletic and when you have those combinations I just don’t see myself losing in that aspect. If I don’t get ranked and the guys are just too good, then I will be content with that because I know at least I tried, but I can’t go on without trying it’s something that has to be done. But I feel like I’m going to have a big chance, like I say I’m hard working and I don’t quit and when you put these things together you’re going to have somebody that’s successful.
TM: We always ask for a piece of wisdom for our readers. Is there anything that comes to mind? Something you’ve learned from your time in the sport.
OT: I’d say the biggest thing is not giving up. I really do believe in that. There’s millions of other words I could use like sacrifice and discipline, but I’ve been doing this for 12/13 years and just maybe last year I started really making a mark on my sport, getting my name bigger, so twelve years of hard work, discipline and dedication. I love the sport, I’ve just kept going forward and have never given up. I feel a lot of people just end up giving up in life because they don’t see fast results and they don’t want to wait two years or four years or like I said twelve years without something happening, they just end up quitting. So I think that’s the biggest thing for me.
Check out the latest news from Ognjen on his website – HERE