Sam Ballantyne: Natural Born Fighter

Photo courtesy of Brock Doe Fight Photography. https://www.facebook.com/BrockDoeFP?fref=photo

International Kickboxer Magazine, May/June 2015

Sam Ballantyne was born in Slough, England in 1989 and made the move to Australia two years later. He, his mother and brother settled in Bunbury in Western Australia and it wasn’t long before he found his calling.

“My earliest memory of any fight or confrontation [was when] I was seven. I hit a kid at school ‘cause he hid my bag in the lost property box.”

Sam’s mother wisely sought some kind of constructive outlet for his energies.

“My mum enrolled me into a karate class,” he says. “I lost interest after a few lessons because of the [greater] emphasis on patterns and less on sparring… what I referred to as fighting.”

Sam’s inability to concentrate led to him being diagnosed with ADHD.

“Basically, ADHD is a chemical imbalance in the brain. It means you lack the chemicals to help you concentrate. That, and the fact I was hyper-active.”

School presented a number of significant hurdles.

“I didn’t agree with school; the way it was taught and what was expected. I remember reading something once, ‘If every animal was judged on its ability to climb a tree, then how’s a fish supposed to make it?”

“School made me into a fighter. If I didn’t want to fight, the other kids would beat me up. Some people have it born into them, but I had it kinda made in me. School was rough. When I went.”

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Regardless of the tempestuous events of Sam’s youth, sport was always a constant.

“I played several sports growing up; AFL for two years, which I didn’t like much. Then, I found hockey. It was fast and intense, so it served me well. I played for four or five years until I was thirteen.”

Hockey and Muay Thai do not seem natural relatives.

“Hockey is fast,” says Sam. “You get hit a lot; it’s surprisingly high contact. That gets your attention. I felt like I belonged there.”

During Sam’s teenaged years, things begin to go sideways.

“I started using drugs and lost interest in sport from thirteen to seventeen. I spiralled downhill into a lot of drugs and dealings with the police; at one point, I was facing time in juvenile detention, but I was let out on a suspended sentence.”

Whether it was anger, frustration, desperation of a combination of the three, Sam’s direction was soon to change.

“When I was eighteen, I went to the PCYC in Bunbury to try a boxing class, but I only went for a month or so because of the lack of intensity. I was soon back on the streets.

“I started to drink a lot and I gained about forty-five kilos; I was sitting on the scales at one hundred and fourteen, my biggest.”

For a man who holds two WMC titles at seventy-six and seventy-nine kilos, that’s a considerable way overweight.

Shortly after, Sam found his way back into a fight gym and, as is so often the case with fate, it came in the form of a fortuitous mistake.

“I went to a gym offering Western boxing, Muay Thai and BJJ. I went for the boxing, but turned up on the wrong night. The Muay Thai trainer was a short English guy, who I related to well because I’d grown up around English accents.”

Finally, Sam had found a gym that could satisfy his appetite for intensity.

“I sparred the first night I was there. I was terrible; all over the show, but I [knew I] was going back. I think the second week, I got knocked out.”

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As Tarik Solak once said, ‘That’s how you build heroes. They either stop before they start, or go all the way.’

“Nothing deterred me,” says Sam. “I knew I wanted to fight, and I was in my element. I used to go to the fight shows alone and sit up in the grandstands and wish it was me. The crowd and the look of winning pulled me closer.”

Constant training gave Sam focus and outlet for his profound reserves of energy and consequently, his life began to change.

“I had gotten down to ninety kilograms. Every night [at training], I was the first to arrive and the last to leave. I’d do everything the fighters did, even if it took me half an hour more.

“Eventually, I got down to around eighty-three kilograms and they asked if I would be interested in fighting. I said, ‘Absolutely!’ So, I was booked for my first. I won by KO, thirteen weeks later.”

Sam’s other constant, change, was fast at his heels.

“My trainer and the gym owner fell out, so we moved to a place called ‘Eight Weapons’, with Paul Foreman. I had five more fights out of their gym, winning four, two of those by KO.”

Again, Sam’s luck was about to change – for the worse.

“Due to the council not approving ‘backyard gyms,’ we were forced to close the doors, which saw me back out on the street. I started hanging around my old mates and using methamphetamine.”

Things started to go bad very quickly after that.

“My friends were either going to jail or psych wards. Things were changing and I knew I had to change, [so I] packed my stuff and moved to Perth. I had a bag of clothes, nothing else.”

In addition to his bag of clothes, Sam had a firm idea of who to go and see; Blair Smith.

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“After six months of training, I had my first fight, which I won by KO in the third.”

Sam then fought for a AMF state title against Andy Regan.

“It was a war; one of the hardest things in my life. I won on points.”

They eventually rematched for the WMC title and Sam made the outcome conclusive, stopping Regan by way of knockout.

“Then I fought Michael Wikertoa at seventy-nine kilos and beat him on points.”

Sam’s success meant he had to step up to a higher standard of competition and consequently, he began to lose a few.

“Blair moved out of his house and opened a commercial gym. The move didn’t suit me, so I moved on to a gym called Kao Sok, run by Blair’s promotional partner, Darren Curovic.”

Sam was rolling; he met Jason Altman in the squared circle to contest the WKA Australian title.

“I absolutely dominated. I had Altman on the ropes and dropped him. The ref argued it was a foul. [Jason’s] ear was bleeding, [so the ref] let him recover and we exchanged elbows. I got caught and lost by KO.”

Disappointing as that outcome was, Ballantyne persisted.

“I kept fighting, making it to twenty-seven fights, losing my last eight or ten. I considered retiring.”

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While all fighters appear on paper as the sum of their wins, losses and draws, their true quality is read in terms of their opponents.

Ballantyne’s losses were close together, but appear on the gradient of vastly stiffer competition. Many of these figured as honourable losses.

“I fought Disellek Topking in Thailand. He’s a four-time world champion and former Rajamadern Stadium champion. I was rated the heavy underdog in that fight, but I took it to him every round.

“I think I may have won the fourth or the fifth, but I was dropped with a head kick and lost a very clear points decision.”

Also on the roll is Victorian, Chris Bradford.

“I knew nothing about Chris, except for the fact that the fight was scheduled at eighty kilograms for a Commonwealth title. When I rocked up to the weigh-in, I was astounded by the size of him; he was a foot taller and a foot wider [than me]. I lost by KO by leg kicks, but I definitely held my own and took it to him. It’s one of my proudest fights.”

A good trainer is as much a psychologist as anything else, and Ballantyne’s trainer, Darren Curovic, had read his charge correctly.

“Darren insisted I take a hard fight with Kim Olsen – my dream fight – instead of an easy one. I travelled to the Sitmonchai gym, in Bangkok, Thailand.”

At that time, Olsen held a WMC intercontinental title at seventy-six kilograms, the jewel in the crown of a fearsome reputation. Consequently, Sam’s training included a significant amount of mental preparation.

“I worked a lot on mental stuff; confidence boosting, affirmations, and visualizing the fight.”

It must have worked; the results speak for themselves.

“I went to Sitmonchai to help me sharpen my hands and low kicks. I ended up clinching most of the fight, anyway – the thing I was most scared of against Kim. I won a dominant four or five rounds on points. A lot of people counted me out of that fight.”

The outcome has changed everyone’s opinion of Sam Ballantyne – including his own.

“I beat the number one [fighter] in Australia on a convincing points decision. It’s given me a new life in Muay Thai. I have my dream back in focus; fighting around the world and winning a world title.

“I’ve now had twenty-eight fights – two of them pro boxing – for seventeen wins, ten losses and a draw.”

Sam sees a universality in his story that stretches beyond his own achievements in Muay Thai.

“Two of my friends that I did drugs with growing up killed themselves, and one was murdered. I still catch up with some of them and while some are doing well, some aren’t doing well at all.

“I’m not sure if you want to put this in because it’s personal and kinda disturbing, but if I can deter anyone from drugs and getting into to combat sports, it’s a win.”

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