SCMP Stories about Alain N'Galani & Pierre Ingrassia

(C) SCM Post, 2000-2004

14th November 1999, Jeremy Hansen gets his kicks doing shorinjiryu kenkokan karatedo, 446 words:


Where: Fightin' Fit Health Studio, 2/F, World Trust Tower, 50 Stanley Street, Central (tel: 2526-6648. Email: The studio, which opened two months ago, offers kick-boxing, Pilates stretch classes, acupuncture and chiropractic services, but its emphasis is on martial arts...

11th February 2000, Ong Chin Huat, 273 words:

      Workouts packing an extra punch

14th August 2000, Unus Alladin, 775 words:

      Swiss teacher adds punch to HK martial arts scene

24th December 2000, Unus Alladin, 353 words:

      Fighting fit Hong Kong prepare to host world titles

14th January 2001, Mark Footer, 1009 words:

      Fight for your right to karate

20th November 2002, Niki Law, 511 words:

      Kick boxer to be booted out after losing visa bid

26th July 2003, Steve Cray, 378 words:

      Lessons in life pack a hefty punch away from the screen

16th August 2003, Tim Maitland, 510 words:

      N'Galani's on track for glory

18th April 2004, LAU KIT WAI:

      Muay Thai

25th April 2004, Steve Cray in Bangkok, 572 words:

      Panther gives SAR quick world title

13th May 2004, Steve Cray, 624 words:

      Full contact fighting back with a bang

15th May 2004, Unus Alladin, 288 words:

      Muay Thai a knockout success on its return

15th May 2004, Unus Alladin, 459 words:

      Hong Kong's Panther mauled by Fujian Tiger

18th May 2004, Unus Alladin, 618 words:

      Ailing Panther wants revenge

23rd May 2004, report and portrait by Steve Cray:

      Alive and kicking

14th August 2000

Swiss teacher adds punch to HK martial arts scene

Unus Alladin

Pierre Ingrassia certainly knows his business. Ask him the different forms of martial arts and he knows them all like the back of his hand. Ask him to demonstrate his favourite kick and he will strike the perfect pose.

Which is why fast-talking, no-nonsense Swiss-born Ingrassia, a one-time European champion and former silver medallist at the World Karatedo Championships, thinks Hong Kong is sitting on a goldmine. He believes Hong Kong has the potential to become the martial arts capital of the world.

Encouraged by the recent South Pacific Koshiki Karatedo Championships in Bandung, Indonesia, where the SAR won eight major trophies, including one gold and two silver medals, Ingrassia is convinced Hong Kong could be headed towards more glory. He wants the SAR to start by hosting 2002 World Karatedo Championships. But a lot of work has to be done first.

The performance in Indonesia must rank the best-ever for a Hong Kong team in a major competition, according to Ingrassia .

The koshiki competition system is regarded as one of the most respected and recognised in the world and is on the shortlist for the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004. It is held in traditional format which involves kata and full-contact free fighting (kumite shiai).

Hong Kong competed against seasoned karate experts from around the world, but the local team shone. Rhonda Lepsch, who works for a computer firm, won the gold medal in the women's heavyweight division in the kumite shiai. She also won the bronze in the kata competition.

London-born Angela Manandhar took home a silver medal in the women's lightweight in the kumite, missing out on a gold medal by just one point. Then there's Nancy Yu. She won a silver medal in the kata competition and a bronze in the women's heavyweight kumite/shiai. Other Hong Kong competitors who did well in Indonesia were 17-year-old Michelle Uribe, Anupama Anand and Christine Diguet.

In the men's kata competition, Hong Kong's Richard Brown reached the finals against a field that included world champion Mega Martinez of the United States. 'Look at one my students for instance. Nancy Yu has only been training for half a year and yet she won a silver medal in the kata competition.

'She's very talented and she's got huge potential. I have taught some 600 students in my lifetime and she's a gold medal prospect,' said the 38-year-old Ingrassia, a fourth dan black belt exponent.

Ingrassia said Nancy competed against exponents of the sport and to win a silver medal was a marvellous achievement.

The sport of koshiki, or safety karate, is one of the five different forms of karate. Ingrassia describe it as 'hard and fast'. Exponents wear a safety helmet and a protective padding. He believes Hong Kong students of koshiki could be extremely successful in the international arena.

Ingrassia runs the Fightin' Fit Health Studio along Stanley Street, Central, which has been opened for about a year now. Most of his students are female. 'Women are more open minded. They are quite intimidated by it at first but they make better learners,' explained Ingrassia.

'Before I opened my studios, it was hard for a gweilo to find a place to learn martial arts.

'Hong Kong still seems to be a very sensitive community. My studio is very new and it's a matter of time before we get together with others [associations] to improve our athletes,' said Ingrassia.

Ingrassia added: 'You know Hong Kong didn't win a single bout in the last Asian Games? The problem at the moment is that we're not getting enough support from the Government.'

Like many people growing up, Ingrassia got hooked on Bruce Lee movies. He knew from the first time he saw the kung fu master on the silver screen at 12 years old, he would become a teacher of martial arts.

Eleven years ago, he and Australian Scott Brown started working together in the security business. 'I was born in Switzerland. My father came from Italy and my mother Germany. But they gave me a French name,' said Ingrassia rolling his eyes.

Ingrassia has been bodyguard to such celebrities as Nicole Kidman, Jean-Claude van Damme and Tina Turner. He recalls an incident with Kidman at the premiere of her movie To Die For when he had to call upon his martial arts skills to stop a man who tried to get too close to the star.

'He jumped over the security fence and tried to grab Nicole. I never had to punch or kick him, just disarmed him. It was self defence. That's what it was,' said Ingrassia.

14th January 2001

Fight for your right to karate

Mark Footer

SHIHAN (LITERALLY master teacher) Pierre Ingrassia is an extremely confident man. He has a lot to be confident about.

Business is beginning to boom at his new Central-based Fightin' Fit Health Studio, his students are beginning to prove themselves on the world stage - winning three bronze medals at the last world koshiki karate championships - and he is obviously happy to have made it to Asia.

Half German, half Italian and born in Switzerland, 39-year-old Mr Ingrassia was introduced to martial arts at a very young age. 'I was four years old when my father put me into a judo club.'

After leaving school he did a brief stint in the German police force before realising that the personal protection industry was far more lucrative. He made his move and progressed from the nightclub circuit to bodyguard work.

His interest in the martial arts continued to develop alongside his proficiency as he went on to represent Germany in kick-boxing.

When he attended the 1985 karate world championships in Canada he met, and was impressed by, some of the best fighters in the world - one of whom was to have a profound effect on Mr Ingrassia's life.

Scott Brown had overcome the loss of most of a foot in an industrial accident to rise to the top of his game. When an invitation from Mr Brown to train with him in Australia was offered, Mr Ingrassia did not hesitate.

It was the beginning of a seven-year stint in Australia, a time when Mr Ingrassia headed two businesses.

Coming from a personal-security background, it was a logical step for him to establish Metro Security. The company became the biggest in the business looking after the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Tina Turner, Charlie Sheen and Tom Cruise.

The second business, a karate school, was more aligned to Mr Ingrassia's passions.

It was in Australia that he realised that, while there were devoted followers of the martial disciplines, there also was a large pool of people who did not want to adhere strictly to the customs and who saw martial arts as a way to become and keep fit or defend themselves.

'There are so many different martial arts and there is the fitness industry which is divided from martial arts - I think that is wrong,' he said. 'I am personal trainer, fitness professional and martial artist as well.'

To cater to the demand, Mr Ingrassia developed a series of martial-arts-related exercise and self-defence classes which he taught to schools, large corporations and the police force before moving into lucrative personal training work.

The decision to move to Hong Kong was one of personal ambition. 'As a martial artist, as part of my development I had to come to China - this is where it all originated from.'

Hong Kong was familiar. He had visited many times over the previous years, teaching self-defence courses and attending fitness conventions.

'Hong Kong from the beginning was very busy for me,' said Mr Ingrassia who started out in 1998 at a small, personal-training studio in Wyndham Street owned by future business partner, acupuncturist and aikido instructor Richard Brown.

'I taught him karate and therefore I was allowed to use his space. After three months I became that busy that Richard and I decided that we had to move,' he said

The duo moved into an 800 square foot studio in Stanley Street where Mr Ingrassia found himself working from 6.30am to 11pm, six days a week, to cope with demand. Virtually all business was being generated by word-of-mouth.

Even more space was needed, and premises further along Stanley Street were opened last October after a HK$2 million outfit.

The new studio is as authentic as is possible, fitted out with lovingly crafted wooden interiors and genuine fixtures, including imported tatami mats.

'Our teacher came over from Japan and he actually thinks that this is the most beautiful dojo in the world,' said Mr Ingrassia, who funded the project with three shareholders - all students.

Fightin' Fit employs six teachers and is importing the world karate champion from Japan and the Australian kick-boxing champion to join them. The business has tried hard to recruit Hong Kong instructors but either the quality of the applicants' qualifications were dubious or they did not have the language skills.

The studio attracts mainly expats - so far only 20 per cent are local Chinese. Education in the potentially dangerous fighting classes needs to be coherent, so all classes are undertaken in English.

Mr Ingrassia insists members use their own equipment and is establishing a second company, True Budo, to help them obtain the best products - usually from Japan or Thailand. True Budo is being set up as a trading and promotions company which also will stage martial-arts events in Hong Kong, including the 2002 World Karate Championships.

The studio complex includes two rooms subcontracted to a chiropractor and a specialist in stretch exercises.

'Healing is a big part of our business,' said Mr Ingrassia, explaining their presence. 'Martial arts developed a lot out of the exercise routines of Shaolin and Indian Buddhist monks.

'We have created a good example for a dojo of the future.'

He said a combination of opposing fighting styles, healing practices and a family atmosphere were tied together as a business.

No wonder then that Shihan Ingrassia is confident. Apart from the world championships, he is in negotiation with Olympic authorities with a view to presenting a koshiki karate demonstration at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

His ambition to work in China looks set to be fulfilled when he begins a series of government appointments in Shanghai in February, spending a week every two months instructing 7,000 students and instructors.

Last, but by no means least, his latest business venture appears to be becoming a runaway success.

'The clientele in Hong Kong is the best market for the fitness industry that you can imagine - everyone makes a little bit more money,' he said, before adding, 'We offer the best product in Hong Kong.'

20th November 2002

Kick boxer to be booted out after losing visa bid

Niki Law

A champion kick boxer from Africa who came to Hong Kong to train faces deportation before the end of the week after immigration officials refused to let him stay.

Alain N'Galani, 27, has been ordered to leave on Friday when his tourist visa expires - crushing his dreams of becoming a world champion Muay Thai (Thai kick boxing) fighter.

His application for a training visa was rejected despite pledges of support from his trainer and a financial sponsor.

The 110kg Ivory Coast fighter arrived in Hong Kong four weeks ago from Thailand after trainers there told him Hong Kong was the only place in Southeast Asia, apart from Australia, where someone of his size could train.

'Only Hong Kong and Australia have people qualified to train me and give me a chance to compete,' N'Galani said.

'In Thailand nobody was strong enough to hold up the pads for me to kick and punch during practice.'

He found a sponsor to provide him with food and shelter and a teacher at the Fightin' Fit gym in Central willing to train him for free. All he needed was a visa.

N'Galani is the 2002 Muay Thai champion of both the Ko Samui and Saratani competitions in Thailand, as well as the four-time winner of the African full-contact title.

His trainer, Pierre Ingrassia, said: 'We told the Immigration Department that the government would not have to pay a penny. I also guaranteed that I would supervise him during his stay and drive him to the airport when the three months were over.'

After his training, N'Galani planned to fight in Australia. Another gym had agreed to help train him there after the bout.

The Immigration Department rejected the application, citing lack of supporting documentation.

When asked what further information would be required, the immigration officer said that he was not permitted to reveal what else was needed.

Before a training visa is granted, the Immigration Department considers whether the applicant and the training company are bona fide and if a contract between them exists. The trainer must be reputable and qualified and the duration and content of the training programme must be justified.

A written guarantee is required to show the applicant will receive training, after which he will return to his place of residence.

'We must be convinced that he cannot train elsewhere,' an Immigration Department spokesman said. 'In addition, even if it is just training, we have to consider the indirect impact this will have on the market and the Hong Kong economy.'

Once deported, N'Galani will either have to go to Thailand, where he cannot find proper training, or back to the troubled Ivory Coast, where he claims his personal safety will be in danger.

Mr Ingrassia said: 'After training more than 6,000 fighters, many of whom have ended up winning championships, I have found someone who could win the world kick boxing title. If Alain is forced to leave Hong Kong his future will end.

'In our sport nationality does not matter, achievements do. We will fight for our rights.'

16th August 2003

N'Galani's on track for glory

Tim Maitland

Hong Kong's Koshiki coach claims he will have a world champion in the full-contact version of the sport, after witnessing African Alain N'Galani fighting in competition for the SAR for the first time.

Chief instructor Pierre Ingrassia believes N'Galani, who only recently won an eight-month battle for residency in Hong Kong, showed during last weekend's Japan Open in Tokyo that he will soon become the best fighter on the planet.

'I think Alain will be a world champion in 11/2 or two years' time. I was a world champion and I know what it takes. Alain has what it takes. He's a heavyweight who can fight like a middleweight. He's an athlete, a dancer, an awesome mover,' Ingrassia said after watching N'Galani break over 10 years of domination by fighters from the former Soviet Union, by defeating former world champion Yury Bartenev and Alexei Loukianov, both from Ukraine, before missing out on the gold by a single point against the current world champion Sergey Palbin from Russia.

'He was the smallest person in the heavyweight division at 102kg, around 220 lbs, and was fighting against some monsters,' Ingrassia continued. 'One of the guys from the Ukraine was six foot seven and 300 lbs. Yet I was amazed at how relaxed Alain was. Most people are very tense when they fight. Alain brought something new. It was beautiful what he did.

'No-one's beaten the Russians for a long time. There are so many top athletes from the former Soviet Union and realistically they are professional fighters because they're all from the army. They're soldiers who are effectively sponsored by their governments.'

N'Galani, who hails from Cameroon and is a four-time African champion, fled the civil war in the Ivory Coast for France, arriving in Hong Kong from Thailand where he discovered there was no-one big enough to help him train. However, he won't be able to challenge for a world title for another year, as November's World Championships in Portugal are not on the squad's radar. 'It's too early for us. We're planning on the Japan Open next year and then the World Championships which might be in Russia, although we're still trying to get them staged here in Hong Kong,' Ingrassia explained.

N'Galani wasn't the only success for Hong Kong in the Tokyo competition, the full title of which was the 2003 World Cup Japan Open Koshiki Karatedo Super Challenge. In the women's Shiai, or fighting, category, Nancy Yu won silver and Joey Winderlich bronze in the middleweight division and Rhonda Lepsch took silver in the cruiserweights. The women claimed silver in the team event behind Russia but ahead of the favourites Japan.

Hong Kong's men's team including Ingrassia, Richard Brown and Nissim Tse, were also awarded a special gold for their display in the Kata, or forms, category. 'Our ladies team has been doing well for the past couple of years because we're one of the few countries where the women train hard, but this is the first time our guys have been successful,' Ingrassia said.

18th April 2004

Muay Thai


You may think of Muay Thai, or Thai kickboxing, as underground boxing or street fighting, but it is, in fact, a traditional form of martial art in Thailand.

Once practised by kings and princes, its roots can be traced back to the first Thai kingdom created in the late 13th century. Just as ancient Chinese people learnt kung fu in Shaolin temples, temples were the major venue for ancient Thai people to learn Muay Thai.

'Muay Thai is as emblematic of Thailand as kung fu is of China,' says Tsoi Tung Hiu, the principal trainer at Thai kickboxing studio The Ring in Lan Kwai Fong. 'In the past many Hong Kong people had prejudices against Thai kickboxing, thanks to movies that exaggerated the violence of the sport.'

Tsoi, a veteran boxer and trainer whose students include International Amateur Championships World Cup winner Heung Pak-wing, says that practising Thai kickboxing is actually much safer than playing football.

When engaging in a fight, a Thai kickboxer is equipped with mouth, head, groin and shin guards, body and ankle protectors, and a hand-wrap as well as a pair of 16 oz sparring gloves. Given all this protection, Tsoi says the chances of boxers injuring themselves during training or competitions are minimal.

And this makes Muay Thai a very attractive sport for teenagers who want to toughen their muscles but find going to the gym or jogging a little bit boring. In addition to his normal sessions for adults, Tsoi is also offering classes for young people and children.

'Basically all the muscles of your body will get a workout,' he says. 'You will also sweat a lot more than when you go to gym, which means a faster rate of metabolism for your body.'

Beginners start by learning the fighting stance. Then they move on to practising the punches, including straight punches, hook punches and upper cuts, before proceeding to kicks, such as push kicks and round-house kicks. Muay Thai's steps are simple, involving only forward, backward, left and right movements, depending on whether you are attacking or defending.

Only senior students are taught the most lethal forms of attack - elbowing and knee kicking -moves performed by Tony Jaa in the movie Ong-bak.

Since Muay Thai requires a series of swift movements to be completed with great power, it can improve blood circulation as well as strengthening the heart and lungs. Also, boxers' reflexes will become faster as they are forced to make decisions quickly in a combat situation. 'The movements may look simple, but practitioners must have excellent limb co-ordination to complete them,' Tsoi says.

Above all, Thai kickboxing is not just about combat skills. It is also an art that teaches children about respecting their elders. 'A Thai kickboxer will perform Ram Muay, a ritual pre-fight dance to show respect for their teachers and parents,' Tsoi says. 'Each boxer will have their own dance style according to what they learned from their master.'

For more information, call The Ring on 2526 2989.

13th May 2004


Hong Kong's "The Panther", "Wolf Hunter" and "Goddess Victoria" pose with Nathan "Carnage" Corbett, from Australia. Hong Kong is set for its first display of full contact Muay Thai boxing for 20 years tomorrow night. Picture by Martin Chan

Full contact fighting back with a bang

Hong Kong is set for its first display of full contact Muay Thai boxing for 20 years tomorrow night. The six-bout event at Queen Elizabeth Stadium will see the return of a sport that fell victim to a clampdown on full contact martial arts in 1984 after a fatal accident during a kung fu contest in 1981.

Hong Kong is set for its first display of full contact Muay Thai boxing for 20 years tomorrow night. The six-bout event at Queen Elizabeth Stadium will see the return of a sport that fell victim to a clampdown on full contact martial arts in 1984 after a fatal accident during a kung fu contest in 1981.

The event - called First Strike - will be the punters' first chance to see Hong Kong's first martial arts world champion, Alain "The Panther" N'Galani, in action after he lifted the World Muay Thai Federation super heavyweight title in Bangkok last month. N'Galani, 28, will meet Zhang Qingjun, from Fujian, also known as the "Tiger of Jiang Xu". It will be the first Muay Thai heavyweight championship in China. Although N'Galani's bout is the main attraction, there are five other contests, including women's (108 pounds) professional boxing. Hong Kong's "Goddess Victoria", Tse Hoi-wah, will meet the "Bangkok Wildcat", S. Panadda.

The other bouts will feature Hong Kong's "The Apeman" Ling Kim-fung, against "Iron Fists of Fujian", Guo Shihui (128 pounds Muay Thai); a Thai Gongdet Ronpo Gym fighter against "The Whirlwind of Fujian", Xu Fu The (141pounds freestyle kickboxing); Hong Kong's "Wolf Hunter" Wong Ho-yeung, against "White Phantom" Yohann Bento, of France (125 pounds professional boxing); and light heavyweight Muay Thai world champion Nathan "Carnage" Corbett, from Australia, against Russia's "The Knee Assassin" Mohammad Magomedov in a "Clash of the Titans" contest (180 pounds Muay Thai). The show is a collaboration between Pierre Ingrassia's True Budo fighting stable, Hong Kong Boxing Association chairman Alex Tsui Ka-kit and Jacky Lui of the Khunchieng Muay Thai Society. Presented by MC Mikey, it will also feature a lion dance, breakdancing and hip-hop, and a song and dance routine by Hong Kong's The Rice Girls. Other entertainment is being kept secret. "We've got one or two surprises up our sleeves but I don't want to spoil it by telling you what they are," Ingrassia said.

Tsui said Muay Thai boxing's popularity peaked in Hong Kong in the early 1980s when it rivalled kung fu as Hong Kong's favourite martial art. It fell victim to a blanket ban on unprotected full contact sports in 1984 after a kung fu contestant died following a kick to the neck in 1981.

Tsui said the match had all the necessary protection and both fighters were wearing protective gear. The government of the day reacted by imposing draconian safety regulations that made "free fighting" almost impossible. "It killed the sport overnight because to take on the kind of mandatory protection the government wanted would have turned it into a hybrid sport. Muay Thai has excellent internationally agreed rules and safety precautions anyway, he said. "The government shouldn't be running sport. It should be left to the professional associations."

Tsui, 57, who has been involved with the sport since he was 16, said he had been trying to get the regulations lifted ever since they were imposed and finally succeeded this year after a Home Affairs Bureau working party reviewed them.

Ingrassia said the fight was just the beginning of a five-year plan to make Hong Kong Muay Thai's international capital. "We have a five-year vision," he said. "After October we're hoping for live telecasts and you can expect to see multimillion-dollar investment in the sport."

Ingrassia said the plan was to promote three events a year initially; in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Macau, with another two, one in Beijing and another in Hong Kong, within three years.

"This is the first time full Muay Thai rules boxing has been seen outside of Thailand ... We want to make Hong Kong the martial arts capital once again," he said.

15th May 2004

Muay Thai a knockout success on its return


Hong Kong's "The Panther", Alain N'Galani is pinned to the ropes by eventual victor "Tiger of Jiang Xu", Zhang Qingjun, in the heavyweight championship last night. Picture by Ricky Chung

Alain "The Panther" N'Galani had a surprise defeat. Picture by Ricky Chung

The music was loud, the ring girls glamorous and the applause non-stop. After a 20-year absence, full-contact Muay Thai boxing came back with a bang to Hong Kong last night.

For the crowd of 2,000 at Wan Chai's Queen Elizabeth Stadium, the anticipation mounted through five lively bouts as the main event neared: the first Muay Thai heavyweight championship fight in China, featuring Hong Kong's first martial arts world champion.

Alain "The Panther" N'Galani had lifted the World Muay Thai Federaion super-heavyweight title just a month ago in Bangkok. But, in a stunning upset, the newly crowned home favourite slumped to defeat against the "Tiger of Jiang Xu", Fujian's Zhang Qingjun.

Late in the fourth round of their bout, the Ivory Coast-born N'Galani sank to his knees in exhaustion, unable to fight on.

Dubbed "First Strike", the event marked the return to the city of a sport that was banned in 1984 by the government after a fatal accident during a kung fu contest in 1981. At the time, Thai kick-boxing rivalled kung fu as Hong Kong's favourite martial art.

Last night's show was a collaboration between Pierre Ingrassia's True Budo fighting stable, Hong Kong Boxing Association chairman Alex Tsui Ka-kit and Jacky Lui of the Khunchieng Muay Thai Society. Promoter Ingrassia said it was just the first of several tournaments they planned to stage.

"This is the first time in 20 years that we have had full-contact fighting. It's back and everyone will enjoy the atmosphere," the Swiss-born Ingrassia told spectators.

"I actually fought in that [last] tournament in 1984 and now I have come back. This is a new era," he said.

15th May 2004-B

Hong Kong's Panther mauled by Fujian Tiger

by Unus Alladin

The Panther was beaten by the Tiger in a stunning upset in last night's first Muay Thai heavyweight championship in China at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium last night.

"The Panther" Alain N'Galani, Hong Kong's first martial arts world champion, was expected to easily win his bout against the "Tiger of Jiang Xu", Zhang Qingjun, but ended up the loser after he conceded the fight late in the fourth round in what was a disappointing conclusion to First Strike - Hong Kong's first Muay Thai boxing event in 20 years.

N'Galani, 28, sank to both knees and looked a weary fighter after being dominated by Zhang who won one of his biggest bouts of his career.

The fearsome-looking 220 pound N'Galani, who lifted the World Muay Thai Federation super heavyweight title in Bangkok last month, looked a shadow of himself as he was counted out by the referee. Zhang could not contain his delight after winning the five-round scheduled bout, saying he had felt confident all along.

"I knew he [N'Galani] could be beaten. Few people gave me a chance, but I knew I could do it, especially after the second round when my opponent started to get tired. This is a very big win for me," said Zhang.

N'Galani began fast and furiously from the opening bell, but it was Zhang who impressed with some fine body shots. The Fujian had N'Galani against the ropes in the third round as he pounded the world champion in a corner.

The mainlander was the more aggressive fighter, scoring several excellent blows to the head and caught N'Galani's chin with a superb kick to the head at the start of the fourth round. And then N'Galani just couldn't go on as he needed to rest several times to the chagrin of spectators and his corner men.

The tournament started well for Hong Kong after the "Goddess Victoria", Tse Hoi-wah won a 108-pound boxing bout against the "Bangkok Wildcat", S. Panadda. Tse dominated her opponent with stinging jabs and took the contest by an unanimous decision.

The pace picked up in the second bout when Hong Kong's "The Apeman" Ling Kim-fung won his fight by a technical knockout after handlers for "Iron Fists of Fujian", Guo Shihui threw in the towel in the fourth round.

Hong Kong's "Wolf Hunter", Wong Ho-young, had an impressive victory against the "White Phantom", Yohann Bento of France in a 125 pound bout, winning with an impressive first-round knock-out.

Earlier, Thai Gongdet Rompo Gym won on a technical knock-out from the "Whirlwind of Fujian", Xu Fuzhe, in a start-stop-start bout. In the closest bout of the night, Nathan "Carnage" Corbett of Australia narrowly beat "The Knee Assassin", Mohammad Magomedov, of Russia on points after five rounds.

18th May 2004

Ailing Panther wants revenge


Photo: Alain N'Galani: laid low

"The Panther", Alain N'Galani, has vowed to make a spectacular comeback to the ring after being discharged from hospital yesterday suffering from a serious case of bronchitis - a condition that explained his woeful performance at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium last Friday.

Three days after losing to "Tiger of Jiang Xu", Zhang Qingjun, in China's first Muay Thai heavyweight championship, the Cameroonian-born N'Galani wants to make amends for his disappointment in losing to his opponent in a stunning upset.

N'Galani conceded the fight late in the fourth round in the main attraction of First Strike - Hong Kong's first Muay Thai boxing event in 20 years. The fearsome-looking 28-year-old, who has become a Hong Kong citizen, was expected to easily win the bout, having lifted the World Muay Thai Federation super heavyweight title in Bangkok last month. But he looked a mere shadow of himself after sinking to both knees in exhaustion at the end of the fight.

The fighter was rushed to hospital late on Friday night and doctors confirmed N'Galani was suffering from a serious chest infection brought on by bronchitis.

"I want to return to the ring stronger than before because I wasn't my true self last time," said N'Galani, who grew up in the Ivory Coast before becoming a Hong Kong resident recently. "I went to hospital after the fight and I have just been discharged. I have been told to rest for a few days," he said. "After a few kicks during the fight, I seemed to have lost my breath and I didn't know what to do."

Fujian fighter Zhang was clearly the more aggressive fighter, scoring several excellent blows to the head and catching N'Galani's chin with a superb kick to the head at the start of the fourth round. N'Galani just couldn't go on as he needed to rest several times to the chagrin of spectators and his cornermen before he was counted out by the referee.

Fight co-promoter and coach Pierre Ingrassia said although last Friday's tournament was a knock-out success, N'Galani's failure had been a major blow to everybody.

"We were quite upset because we were building up Alain [N'Galani] and potential sponsors were on hand to watch him. We were all quite disappointed, but there must have been a reason for that [his performance] and we found out why," said Ingrassia. The day before the fight, Alain's breathing was not quite right. He had fought in Bangkok last week and must have fell sick there because everybody was smoking [in the arena]. Unfortunately, I was busy promoting the event and didn't realise he was struggling to get fit. Alain didn't let us down by fighting anyway despite his condition. The Panther was really a sick cat."

Ingrassia said it was "really important" that N'Galani impressed in his next fight and that he needed to make a comeback in a "big way".

"His main weapon during the fight last time was not even used," he said. "His jab is his main weapon, but he was too tired to even lift his arms. He was a world class fighter one day and the next day, he couldn't even throw a combination. We need a rematch against the Tiger.

"The better man won on the night, but we know Alain can fight better than this. We are planning to have him defend his World Championship title within the next three months," he said.

Apart from N'Galani's hiccup and Hong Kong's "The Apeman" Ling Kim-fung suffering a broken nose in his fight against "Iron Fists of Fujian" Guo Shihui, which Ling won, the event was a major success. The six-bout event was watched by a crowd of abut 2,000 spectators.

23rd May 2004

Alive and kicking

He escaped homelessness, political turmoil and even death in Africa before walking into a Central gym, where Alain N'Galani was turned into 'The Panther'. After becoming Hong Kong's first Muay Thai world champion, he suffered a setback, but his survival instincts suggest more glory awaits. Report and portrait by Steve Cray.

The sign on the door says No Guns and there are enough military around to make sure punters have left them at home. Inside, the atmosphere evokes a cross between a circus and a religious rally, with Buddhist rituals taking place alongside shows of physical strength.

This is Siam Stadium in the Omnoi district of Bangkok, and the young men are fighters preparing for another bout of Thailand's national sport: Muay Thai. Before the day is out one boxer will be on his way to hospital unconscious, another will have his cheekbone shattered and a third will suffer a career-threatening injury to his knee.

Siam is a rough and ready venue, much smaller than Bangkok's showpiece arena Lumpini Stadium, where the sport's gladiators have slugged it out down the years. As a capacity crowd of about 1,000 punters settles into the wooden stalls, the day's first pugilists climb into the ring in brightly coloured boxing shorts, wearing bulbous groin protectors and sporting mongkols - symbolic headbands.

But today's is no ordinary event. As bookmakers take bets on mobile phones, a sense of anticipation surrounds the big fight. In the dressing room two huge men, neither Thai, prepare to compete for a super-heavyweight championship, an event rarely witnessed in Bangkok where even the most fearsome fighters are slightly built.

Marek Oravsky, 23, from the Czech Republic, is a double amateur world kickboxing champion with a record of 37 wins from 40 fights and a feared right hook. He stands 1.83 metres tall and weighs in at 105 kilograms. His opponent is Hong Kong's Alain 'The Panther' N'Galani, 28, an Ivory Coast national and four-time African national kickboxing champion. He is 1.78m and 100kg. N'Galani and his coach and manager, Pierre Ingrassia, himself a former martial-arts champion, are a sight to behold as they approach the ring draped in the Hong Kong flag.

The formalities over, the fight begins. Two minutes later it's all over: N'Galani floors his opponent with a kick to the knee to take the World Professional Muay Thai Federation super-heavyweight championship.

But this is more than just the story of a title fight. That N'Galani is here at all, let alone draped in the Bauhinia, is almost miraculous. Asked for his first reaction to the victory immediately after the fight, this hulking tough guy says he would like to thank his mother. And as his story unfolds it becomes clear that without her determination Hong Kong would still be waiting for its first martial-arts champion.

N'Galani's defeat by Zhang Qingjun three weeks later in China's first Muay Thai heavyweight title fight, at Wan Chai's Queen Elizabeth Stadium, may have checked his progress, but he has faced far bigger hurdles. N'Galani saw his family go from riches to rags in Cameroon in the 1980s after his father, who worked as a contractor for Mobil Oil, lost both his legs in a car accident. Waking from a coma, he found his company being sued by the oil giant for loss of contracts; the case saw him wind up in prison and the family lose everything. His mother took some of her eight children to live with a relative in Ivory Coast, a move that set N'Galani on his championship path.

'My mother is a really tough woman. She gave her life for the family,' says N'Galani. 'I remember we were having a fight at school when I was about five. I was getting beaten up and called my older brother to help me and they beat him up too. He was crying. After the fight we went home and told our mother what had happened. I thought she would go to the school and get revenge for us, but she didn't. Instead she said she would teach us how to fight and that we would have to get our own revenge. I don't think we saw the boys again, but she sent us to a club to learn martial arts and that was the beginning for me.'

It was that training that unwittingly involved N'Galani in Ivory Coast politics, stranding him in France and taking him on a voyage of self-discovery to Thailand and Hong Kong. 'I worked for the first president of Ivory Coast, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, for eight years until he died. He took really good care of us, paying us every month whether we worked or not. All we had to say was that we were with him, his big men, and we could carry on training.'

N'Galani had won the African national kickboxing championship four times by the age of 26 and was employed by both Houphout-Boigny's successor, Henri Konan Bedie, and General Robert Guei, who staged a military coup in 1999. Although Guei lost power to Laurent Gbagbo in 2000 he tried to stage another coup in 2002, while N'Galani was preparing for a fight in Paris. The coup failed and Guei, his family and many of N'Galani's bodyguard colleagues were shot. Anyone loyal to Guei was at risk; N'Galani was unable to return to Ivory Coast and most of his family fled to Cameroon.

'I didn't know the coup was coming although I knew the situation was tense. I was in France as African champion,' says N'Galani. 'I was very interested in Muay Thai ... and friends suggested I go to Thailand. I didn't need a visa at the time.'

Muay Thai was a new world to N'Galani, and he remained in Thailand for six months, finally picking up super-heavyweight fights in Koh Samui and Surat Thani. But it wasn't where he wanted to be, personally or professionally. 'I needed to fight, I needed to make money, but I wasn't satisfied at Koh Samui. The people there didn't care about me, they just wanted me to fight, to perform. They were treating me like a dog.

'It was a really difficult time,' he recalls. 'Every night when I said my prayers - I'm a Catholic - I felt that not dying in Ivory Coast was the wish of God. I couldn't cry for myself in Thailand. I thought about my friends who studied for a long time, got diplomas, then went to work as the president's bodyguards to be killed just like that. I felt sad about my situation but I also felt good about being there and being safe.'

And so, with the help of the French community in Koh Samui, which bought him a ticket, N'Galani travelled to Hong Kong and Ingrassia's gym, Fightin' Fit, in Stanley Street, Central. Friends had told him Ingrassia was the only trainer, a former champion fighter and heavyweight, who could help him.

Ingrassia, 43, says: 'This big guy walked in, looking more like a body-builder than a fighter - that was my first impression - and said nothing. He was very quiet and I was impressed by that; as fighters we all have our egos. I took him into a room and said, 'You're big, you're strong, there's no need to show me very much, just move with me.'

When he moved I realised he was a raw diamond. He had all natural moves but didn't know the finer arts. A French businessman [in the SAR] agreed to pay for his accommodation and food, and I said I would provide free training.'

But N'Galani had only a two-week visa. Ingrassia says his lawyer wife, Angela, had suggested they apply for a student visa for N'Galani on the grounds that he was the only coach in southeast Asia who could train him. 'We ultimately found a way. Immigration agreed that Alain would be a professional fighter and his visa would be a work one. But we had to promise at least one fight within three months.' That was much more difficult than it sounded.

N'Galani was trained in full-contact karate and kickboxing, but the only fight Ingrassia could stage was a conventional boxing match against a mainland Olympic silver medallist in Shamshuipo. He lost on points. His next bout was in the Hong Kong karate championships in 2002 and although he fought well he was beaten again.

For N'Galani, with a visa hanging in the balance and a trainer to impress, it was a serious defeat. But Ingrassia brushed it off, saying he knew he would make good. He decided to pitch N'Galani against Russians in full-contact karate in last year's Japan Cup in Tokyo. 'The Russians hadn't been touched for 10 years, but I knew he could do it,' Ingrassia says.

The gamble paid off. N'Galani knocked out Russia's number three fighter in his opening bout, beat another leading contender in his second and, despite a knee injury, lost the championship by only one point to their best man. 'He may have lost, but he danced. The way he did it, and with an injury too, rocked the world,' claims Ingrassia.

N'Galani's bout against Zhang 'The Tiger' on May 14 was eagerly anticipated and he was expected to win the fight easily after his victory in Bangkok. But struck down by bronchitis, N'Galani put in a woeful performance and conceded defeat late in the fourth round. He has vowed to wreak his revenge. 'I want to return to the ring stronger than before because I wasn't my true self last time,' he says.

'He has three or four more fighting years at this level, can win whatever he likes and then, who knows?' says Ingrassia. 'If he carries on fighting his ego will be the only reason; fighters are like that. But there'll be no need for him to. I want to make a film based on the story of his life for a start. He's a champion.'

And N'Galani's ambition?

'I only want to be the best I can for myself and my family,' he says.

'That's all.'