In Norway where the ski sports dominates there is also one of the world’s best Thai boxers, Fatima Pinto. Even though she didn’t start training Muay Thai until she was 27 years old she has now, about 10 years later, already managed to win the European Championship, the World Championship and the World Combat Games. She is also the chairman of Norway’s Thai boxing association and has also become a TV celebrity after participating in two martial arts tournaments in reality series format. During one of her weekend visits at Allstars in Stockholm, we took the chance of having a long Sunday breakfast with Fatima to get to know her.
A sailor from Cap Verde
The original plan was to do the interview in Oslo, but it turned out that Fatima was visiting Stockholm this weekend to train with her friends at Allstars. When we meet she has spent two days in Stockholm and her Norwegian is already starting to sound more like Swedish. We start to talk about her family, and even if she’s born in Norway her roots are a good mix. “My mom is half German and half Cuban and got adopted to Norway when she was 10 years old. My dad is a sailor from Cap Verde who came to Norway in the end of 1960s. He got a job in the kitchen at Grand Hotel in Oslo and then met my mother. We have always spoken Norwegian at home, my mother let go of the German language as soon as she came to Norway so Norwegian has always been our common language at home. I still have a lot of relatives in Cap Verde and have visited them twice, even if it was a long time ago now. It’s a fantastic place with such nice people so I hope I can go there soon again.
”I grew up in Nannestad, a small city with only 9000 inhabitants close to Oslo’s airport. My family was one of two colored families in the whole town, but in spite of that I don’t think I’ve ever had any serious problems. Of course we had to deal with some smaller issues and it’s sad that people behave in that way, but I’ve always tried not to care about such stuff. I was one in the friends group in school, not the most popular maybe but I always had people around me and was very social.”
”SHE GRABBED MY PONY TAIL AND PULLED SO HARD THAT I LIFTED FROM THE FLOOR!”
Fatima is the youngest out of four sisters and from time to time it could get really violent between them. “I remember one of the fights I had with one of my sisters, when she grabbed my pony tail and pulled so hard that I lifted from the floor! People usually say that girls are so calm and well-behaved compared to boys, but that wasn’t true for us, we could really fight hard with each other. It’s tough to be the youngest sibling, the others always saw me as spoiled. But we were of course close friends when we didn’t fight and we have great relations today, it’s always fun when we meet. Unfortunately my mother got ill when I was a kid and when I was about 10 years old she got worse which meant that me and my sisters had to stay home a lot to help. Before my teenage years it was okay but when I became 14 it got tougher. I didn’t appreciate sitting at home with the family anymore. I could get really angry, not the whole time and I didn’t show it to my parents, but I felt strongly that I wanted to move from home as soon as I could. When I was 18 years old and finished school I left home and moved to Oslo.”
She studied the healthcare program in school and her first thought was to become a nurse, but when it was time for internship it became obvious that it wasn’t for her. Instead she started working in a kindergarten which she enjoyed and stayed for several years. Even if she liked the work it was toilsome and when she turned 24 she felt it was time for her career to take a new route and applied to the physiotherapist program in Oslo. After 4 years of studies she was finally a certified physiotherapist and has since then worked full time, a challenging and exciting job. “I work mainly with children who has a diagnosis, e.g. CP or delays in their motor skill development. It can be very difficult to identify the problem, it happens that I have to guess and try and quite often I run in to unusual diseases that I’ve never heard about before. But the reward is to see the children’s improvements, especially the youngest ones. It’s an incredibly important job and it’s very stimulating for me.”
The road to the World Championships
Fatima differs from most professional fighters as she found martial arts quite late in life. “The first sport I trained was handball and I played until I was 16. Then I didn’t really train anything organized but still stayed active in different ways. When I was 27 years old I was looking for something fun to train and found Thai boxing, but I only had the ambition to stay in shape. It turned out it was much more fun than I initially thought. The whole package suited me well: strength, stamina, coordination and balance. As soon as you start to see your improvements and get some successful results you get more and more in to it. Many people have asked me if I regret that I didn’t start earlier, but this is how was and there is nothing I can do to change it.” With her big smile she concludes that it went quite well for her fighting career in spite of the late start, which is very true.
”DURING A PERIOD I WAS RUNNING ALMOST ALL THE THAI BOXING CLASSES, WOMAN’S TRAINING AND KIDS TRAINING”
”My first Thai boxing gym was PartnerGym in Oslo where I trained for three years. Then I moved to a relatively new gym named Frontline Muay Thai. Four years later I moved again, this time to FightersLab which is run by me and my partner. Our gym is doing well even if it’s tough to run a martial arts gym in Norway. First of all you have to have another job to make a living, and second it’s extremely high prices to rent facilities, especially since our gym is located very central in Oslo. You have to have a high number of members to make it work and FightersLab has about 200-250 members now. We offer Thai boxing at three different levels, BJJ, MMA, boxing, women’s training and kids training. During a period I was running almost all the Thai boxing classes, woman’s training and kids training, which took a lot of my time. Now we’ve re-structured a bit so that I have time to focus on myself and my fighting. I’m responsible for two Thai boxing sessions a week now, plus the women’s training. And of course it happens that I have to help out with more from time to time.”
Fatima explains that she really enjoys being a trainer and gets a lot from it herself. To the question what’s more fun of training by herself or training others she thinks for a while before admitting with a laughter that training herself is more fun in the end. But when she retires from fighting she can see herself giving more time on training others. It’s a pleasure for her to see other people develop, to come in as beginners and transform to really good fighters.
The person who undeniably has the biggest part in Fatima’s life is Eirik Digre. He has the titles of life partner, trainer and business colleague. I get curious about how it is to live with the person you also run a gym with and at the same time screams at you in each practice to punch and kick harder. “Eirik has trained me since before we became a couple, since 2009 when I started at Frontline Muay Thai. He’s a really good trainer and has trained many of Norway’s best fighters. He was also part of starting Frontline Academy, Frontline Muay Thai and now also FightersLab. But of course it’s easy to mix up the roles sometimes. I think we’ve been pretty good at keeping our trainer and student relation but yes, it happens that the roles overlap. You have to constantly think about what role you are in right now and that’s not always easy, but it works. The big advantage is that we know each other quite well by now! I’m very comfortable and happy about having him in my corner.”
”I COULD FEEL THE SHOULDER SNAP”
After training for a few years Fatima started competing. With a couple of D class fights behind her she quickly stepped up to the big stage. In 2009 she won the Nordic Championship and then went all alone to Thailand to participate in her first World Championship. The year after she fought her way to a WC bronze medal. 2011 would become the big year for Fatima with first a gold medal in the European Championship and later the same year finally the first place in the World Championship. Two years later she solidified her spot among the world’s greatest fighters by winning the World Combat Games, a kind of Olympic Games for Martial Arts, where she eliminated Sweden, Russia and Thailand on her way to the gold medal. Even if the wins in EC, WC and World Combat Games are great competition memories for her, there are also other accomplishments that mean a lot to her. “In 2012 I had a shoulder injury that kept me from competing in 9 months. The injury came from a MMA class and we were training takedowns. As an inexperienced MMA practitioner I fell on my arm and then got my training partner on top of me. I could feel the shoulder snap. That year was very tough for me, but that just made the taste of the comeback even better!” Her comeback fight was against Swedish Therese Gunnarsson and Fatima was happy to win the bout. Another memory that sticks out for her is when she beat Sofia Olofsson in Stockholm 2014 in a WMC title fight. It was a belt she’d had her eyes on for a very long time and it was with great satisfaction she brought it home to Norway.
The Norwegian TV star
In 2012 the reality series Norges Beste Fighter (Norway’s Best Fighter) aired on Viasat. The concept was to bring in the best martial artists from Norway to an elimination tournament with MMA rules. All the biggest disciplines were represented, such as boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, taekwondo, karate, BJJ etc. There was also a certain Thai boxing world champion, Fatima Pinto. “We got to train a little bit of MMA before the show started so we wouldn’t look like complete beginners, but the rest we were supposed to learn there. Each fighter had to go through an audition first to show what we could in both stand up fighting and ground fighting. They chose the people they thought had the biggest potential and our gym actually contributed with three fighters. We got a flight ticket each to Thailand where we got split up in two teams and trained for six weeks. We had challenges between the teams and the winner got to choose fighters for the next elimination fight. I got picked quite late and therefore I only had two fights. The first one was against a kick boxer who I beat and after that I was in the final against Margaret Aase, a BJJ world champion, and lost on an armbar. That was the arm I’d injured a few days before the final.”
“It was awful to see myself on TV! It was a cool experience in a whole, but I don’t like to watch myself or hear my own voice. But I got very positive reactions from people after the series aired and suddenly I was recognized on the streets. I appreciate that people have an interest in what I do and it’s great that I can contribute to increasing the attention around martial arts in a positive context. If I can help with that and also to work against prejudices people have about martial arts, I’m happy!”
Two years later it was time once again for Fatima to be on TV, this time in the reality show Enfusion Season 5: Victory of the Vixen. It’s a Dutch production with focus on Thai boxing and this season they had chosen the 18 best female Thai boxers in the world to fight for the Enfusion title. “It was considerably tougher competition to be selected for Enfusion than it was in Norges Beste Fighter. We lived and trained in Koh Samui in Thailand at SuperPro Samui Camp. It was awesome to train with all these fantastic fighters. Unfortunately I broke my hand in the fight against Sam Brown from Australia. I finished the fight but lost it fair and square. The injury took the whole autumn to heal up and I got a metal plate inserted for it to hold.” When I ask if she would consider participating in a third TV series she laughs and says enough is enough. She thinks her TV experiences were fun and she learned a lot from them but doesn’t have motivation for another one.
To bake a champion
Considering how fast Fatima went from a complete beginner to world champion, in spite working full time, I ask her to describe her training. “The amount of training is naturally limited by my work, but when I have a fight scheduled I train 11-13 times a week. A big part has been stamina training, which I think is important since you can’t perform with good techniques with an empty gas tank. In the mornings I usually do different types of running sessions, e.g. intervals or long distance running. The Thai boxing training is adapted depending on who my opponent is, how her fighting style is and what weaknesses she has. It’s of course different if I’m going to a tournament where I’m going to have several fights and I don’t know in advance who I’ll face. Eirik is a true tactician so we sit down together and set up a strategy that both suits my fighting style and works against the opponent. Then I also have all the basic training with focus on technique.”
”PERSONALLY I’D LIKE TO FIGHT MORE LIKE A GUY!”
”We don’t spar every day, but we have match sparring once a week which means many rounds in high pace and very little time to rest. Then we have other sparring as well but then we keep it a bit calmer and often focus on a specific task in the fight. I don’t have too many sparring partners in my size unfortunately, but you get stronger by sparring with bigger guys which I have to do a lot. Then I have my loyal training partner Anna Tatjana Lie who I spar a lot with. She’s really good and very technical. Giang Hoang used to train in our gym for a while and he’s my size as well. In my opinion it’s a big difference sparring with guys or girls. Not just that guys are stronger than girls with the same weight, but I also this they have a different way of fighting. Personally I’d like to fight more like a guy! With that said I think it’s good to spar with both male and female fighters. Sparring is indeed an important part of training. You can go as hard as you want on the pads, but if you can’t get it together in sparring you won’t do it in a fight either. Then there are people who spar too much or too hard. All fighters get injured, but if it’s starting to become a pattern you better start thinking about how you train.”
Fatima has never had mental training and she doesn’t really feel the need for it either, but she knows many who would need it. “I consider my psyche to be pretty strong. But I know that there are many fighters who struggle with nervousness and really suffer from it. When I feel that I’ve prepared in a good way I’m not nervous, except for that tingling feeling in the stomach that you should have to stay sharp, but when I enter the ring I’m calm. The experience helps of course a lot, I was very nervous in my first fights. I think the change comes when you pass ten fights, then something let’s go inside of you and you can relax in a different way. The advantage for me when I face less experienced fighters is that I can stay calm and think better during the fight, use more tactics and in an easier way find holes in my opponent’s game. But I’m not saying that an inexperienced fighter can’t win, everything can happen in martial arts.”
”A trend I see coming in Thaiboxing is to bring in more specific coaches. Previously people usually had 2-3 different trainers and it wasn’t really structured who did what or what competences were their strongest. Now people are starting to use a strength coach, dietician, mental coach, boxing coach and so on. I think that’s god, as long as the resources allow for it. You have to follow the development of the sport. I think the level in Thai boxing has changed a lot since I started training, especially in Europe. The standard is completely different, especially among girls. You have to watch how the training methods develop in different places to not fall behind. Sweden has always been good with training methods in my opinion, little Norway is looking up to you!”
”I REMEMBER BEING MANIC, WEIGHING EACH PORTION”
It’s mainly in -51 kg Fatima has competed but from time to time she has had fights in -54 kg. The diet has never been a problem for her, even though she’s weak for some sweets. “When I train a lot and eat well my weight is 54.5 kg. When I start my training camp for a fight I lose some weight from the training and in the end I have at most 1.5 kg to cut. Everything with diet and weight cutting has always been quite easy for me, which I’m happy for. It’s often a too big focus on the food in my opinion, people tend to forget that they’re actually going to have a fight and not just cut weight, so I’m happy to be able to handle this part in a relaxed way. I generally eat quite healthy. If I don’t have a fight scheduled I can be a little bit unhealthy and eat sweets, I really like cookies for example! Now I got so much experience that I can do most things out of habit, but in the beginning I remember being manic, weighing each portion. I might not have the widest variation in food, I have the same breakfast every day and then I eat a lot of chicken, salmon and codfish. A little bit of carbs is a necessity in my opinion. If you training a lot I think you benefit from it so that the body has some fuel to use. There is a many diet strategies as there are people on earth, but this works for me at least. My rules are to eat at fixed times, eat small portions but often and then finally drink a lot of water!”
Inspiration, new talents and the future
We talk about how much martial arts Fatima consumes and other fighters she watches and if she has seen any young talents who she thinks can be dangerous in the future. “Josefine [Lindgren Knutsson] is a fighter I’ve trained some with now during this weekend at Allstars. She’s only 20 years old and recently beat Therese Gunnarsson, a fight I was supposed to be in if I wouldn’t have been injured. I think Josefine will be a great fighter, she just needs a few more years to continue progressing but she has already now a huge potential!”
”I watch some Thai boxing and MMA, but then it’s all about finding the time! I used to watch more or less every UFC show but now there’s so many that I don’t have enough time. José Aldo is a fighter I really like. Conor McGregor is a great athlete, a good fighter, but his attitude is not for me. But sure, he gets a lot of attention which gives him the fights he wants, maybe I should try the same strategy? When Aldo and McGregor fought we had a Christmas party at our gym. We had arranged with a projector and everybody waited the whole night to watch the fight, and when it was time we were all chocked by the outcome, to say the least. But that’s how it is n martial arts, anything can happen!”
”I DON’T FEEL OLD TO BE HONEST AND I DON’T FEEL FINISHED, I WANT MORE!”
”When it’s about my own career I hope to be able to fight for a few more years, even if it won’t be many. But I don’t feel old to be honest and I don’t feel finished, I want more! It’s better to go all in now then regretting later on that I retired too soon. But then, I will never leave the Thai boxing completely, it will always be in my life in one way or another. I’m a trainer already now and would be able to move my focus to that part when I finished competing. Thai boxing is such a big part of my identity today and I think that’s the biggest problem for many fighters, that without your sport you don’t know who you are anymore, which makes people afraid to let go. But I still have my fire within, if I didn’t I would have quit already. I also have some goals left to reach, the first one being the World Championship in Jönköping later this year. They raised the age limit from 35 to 40 years which was good news for me. Then there are some fighters out there in the world that I really want to face before I retire. Anissa Meksen is one of them, a great French fighter with background in Savate. Imam Barlow is another one, an incredibly merited Thai boxer who started training as a small baby. Then it would be nice to win a WMC world championship belt too!”
It’s time for Fatima to go back to Allstars for the final training sessions so we end our conversation here. It feels good to conclude that we haven’t seen the last of Fatima Pinto! FighterInterviews wish her the best in the final part of her career.