Prayers, Dreams, and Getting Moulded: Henry-James Thomas
“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t party, and I train four hours a day,” mixed martial arts champion Henry-James Thomas tells me. The 17-year-old gypsy was victorious at the World United Martial Arts British Championships, back in April, and has qualified for the WUMA World Championships taking place in October 2018. “I want to be world champion,” he says. “I want to be a world fighter – that’s my dream.”
Sat in his utterly spotless family home in Chipping Norton (a full length gold-framed mirror opposite us, and one of the largest and most beautiful flower arrangements I’ve ever seen to our right), Henry-James tells me he’s proud to be a gypsy. I wonder what he thinks about the way members of his community have been portrayed in the mainstream media; are the rest of us getting a realistic depiction of a gypsy’s life? Some of the ideas surrounding gypsy culture are “stupid”, he states. For example, he continues, gypsies don’t have to get married young. “You get married whenever you want. I’ve got no intention to get married this young.” As a competitor in martial arts, he also says he has encountered no prejudice: “At the competitions they know I’m from a gypsy community, and they don’t care.”
He’s also a practicing Christian, attending church twice a week, on a Thursday and Sunday. “Jesus,” I blurt out without thinking – for I could never envisage myself setting foot in church that frequently, even if I was religious. I immediately apologise for any offence I may have caused.
He laughs, “That’s alright.” Does his worship help in competitions? I ask. “Before a fight, I have a pray, to keep me and the opponent alright. You don’t pray for your greed, you pray for your needs.”
He’s not actually suffered much pain thus far in his career. “I’ve been kicked in the stomach and that,” he explains, “but I don’t complain. I get back up and get stuck in again.”
If you’re not willing to get hurt, he points out, martial arts probably isn’t the sport for you. I then find out about what effects he’s had on other fighters. One such effect dates back to April this year, where one of his spinning kicks “caught a fella straight in the jaw – that was a highlight”.
He began his martial arts career aged five, and is sure during our conversation to pay tribute to the coaches that have turned him into the success he is now – Ron Francis of Chipping Norton, and Steve Symonds of Witney. He cites his biggest idol, though, as the Liverpudlian Alfie Lewis. “Have you ever heard of him?” he asks me. I confess I haven’t. “Every fight he does is perfect,” I’m told. “Go on the internet and watch. He is fantastic. I met him back in January – he’s a nice fella.”
Having just turned 17, the sportsman now competes in the WUMA adult category – he can find himself facing fully grown men in their 30s and 40s. Also, now he’s reached the age he has, he might be matched against someone in a much higher weight category. However, he says such challenges are good for him – they can mould him as a fighter, for the future.
Sat on the same sofa as Henry-James, seven years his senior, I couldn’t help feeling a bit awestruck and mediocre. There he was, teetotal with his sights set on the WUMA World Championships, being interviewed by a journo boasting stickman arms and an inability to watch a Bake Off episode sober. It’s not great for your self-esteem, but sometimes you just have to accept the fact that certain people are made from stronger clay than you are.
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