Juan Cervantes is a Newcastle University alumni and Muay Thai world champion, so we sat down for a chat about his time at Newcastle, his achievements thus far and his advice for current students.
How and when did your passion for Muay Thai start?
JC: I started at Newcastle University in 2007 and I suddenly became a boxing fan when Ricky Hatton was in his prime and I was a bit bored of football and rugby. I wanted to start boxing but there wasn’t a club at the time. I stumbled across Thai Boxing and at first I ignored it, but I saw a film called Ong Bak, thought it looked pretty cool and came along to try it.
So Newcastle played quite a big role in developing your interest in the sport?
JC: The uni was a huge part of that, the first year I did Muay Thai at the uni I was a complete beginner, I wasn’t the best technically but I just loved it. I never imagined I’d end up where I am now but it was a hobby that I had a real passion for.
When did you decide to really take fighting seriously and start progressing away from just the uni club?
JC: It was quite a long transition. When I decided I wanted to take it more seriously I started training at another gym outside of the uni, not because the training here wasn’t good but that gave me a slightly higher standard of sparring partners. I decided to have one or two fights, just as something to tell the kids about, but after each fight I was never happy with my performance. I always wanted to do a bit better, I started to think about North-East titles, then getting to UK number one, and there was always something more to achieve.
Do you remember your first fight and how you felt that night?
JC: I remember it well! It wasn’t the best performance at all, I trained ridiculously hard and my fitness was really good, so I thought I’d never get tired during the fight. I went in with the wrong attitude, for some reason I was obsessed with trying to knock him out with a head kick even though I haven’t got the best head kick in the world and I just about managed to scrape a points win. I wasn’t happy with the performance, and that’s why I had another fight to put it right.
On November 3rd you won the WTKA World Championship in Italy, you took the fight with only two and a half weeks to prepare instead of the usual six or more, flew pretty much into your opponent’s hometown and won- were you a bit mad to take that fight, or just confident in yourself?
JC: I would have been a bit mad had I not been training hard anyway. I’d had a feeling that in order to achieve my goals, a lot of those opportunities would be last minute. There aren’t too many fights left for me in the UK at this weight category, and before this fight I wasn’t too well known abroad, so I had this feeling that something like this would come up, and you can’t turn something like this down when it does.
How gruelling were those two weeks of preparation?
JC: They were intense, but nothing that I’m not used to. I’ve had 38 fights now, I’m always in good shape and never let myself get unfit, it’s gruelling but when you get an opportunity like that a lot of it is mental. When you have a fight on the horizon you are much more mentally motivated, it becomes the norm when there is that immediate threat.
How similar do you feel Muay Thai is to the more popular sports of boxing/MMA?
JC: Thai Boxing for me is the ultimate striking sport. You use all points of contact except for headbutts, you use hands, feet, shins, knees, elbows and you can clinch to a certain degree. For MMA fans it’s pretty much a stand-up version of MMA. A lot of MMA fans find it boring when fights go to the ground, so in that sense its more exciting than MMA. It has the potential to really take off in popularity with some of the stuff going on behind the scenes at the moment. It is a brutal sport, but for people who like these kinds of sports it is really entertaining.
What was that world title fight like, in terms of pre-fight nerves and post-fight celebrations?
JC: I was a bit calmer than normal, sometimes when you take a fight on short notice you don’t have time to get to pent up about it. I put a lot of pressure on myself before fights, especially at home in Newcastle because you’re fighting in front of friends and family. I tried to put the fact I was fighting for a world title to the back of my mind. After I won it was surreal, I got mobbed by the crowd which has never happened before, it took me ages to get from the ring because all these Italians wanted photos, so the home crowd seemed to appreciate what I’d done.
You’re fighting again on the 8th of December at Victory IV back in the North-East, you were originally moving up in weight to face Darren Anstey but have since had to change opponent to Joakim Hagg and move back down, what kinds of challenges does this pose?
JC: I’ve got to go back to dieting, and training is easier when you don’t have to cut weight because you can eat well. Dieting hard is quite difficult mentally, but if you get the cutting weight right you’ll end up stronger than your opponent. I suit between 81 and 86 kilos well, I do feel it the next day when I’m fighting at a heavier weight though, it can feel like you’ve been hit by a bus! My original opponent tore his groin in training, and I’m now fighting a Swedish guy who is a bigger scalp.
So this opponent is in the same situation as you when you won your world title?
JC: Pretty much yeah, he’ll be hungry and dangerous, it’s interesting because he fought in America at the same time I was fighting in Italy so he’ll be in good shape.
How do you expect the upcoming bout to go?
JC: I’ve watched a bit of him, he’s decent but nothing special. I believe I have everything to lose by fighting him but he’s still a good name to beat, he’s fought some good guys and is a big name in Sweden, hopefully it’ll be another good international statement for me.
What is it like coming back to Newcastle and coaching students who are in the same position you once were?
JC: I love it, the students have a good attitude, you don’t get the kinds of people who are deluded and think they know it all already. It is weird and nostalgic to think that I came from here as well. Last year we took some of the club to a K1 fight event, which is similar to Thai Boxing, one guy had two fights last year and I’m slowly creating a mini fighting outfit here which is satisfying, especially when you train them from scratch. I’m trying to hep give them the same opportunities I’ve had, and it’s an amazing experience to have a few fights. If you can build that mental resilience through training, deal with the mental pressure of fighting and perform well, you can deal with most things that life will throw at you.
What advice would you have for anyone you coach, or any sportspeople at the uni looking to achieve the success that you have?
JC: Telling students to follow in my footsteps might be a bit weird, as one of the reasons I’ve made it to where I am is because I had nothing else. My degree didn’t give me a lot of job prospects, other than low salary jobs that I didn’t want to do. I’d rather be a little bit poorer and be doing something I wanted to do. If you can try to make a living whilst pursuing your passion, even though that can be a difficult decision to make, its worth it in the long run. Another piece of advice is to not have a backup plan, because when things get tough you’ll just fall back on that! You have to be all in, you have to be willing to make sacrifices, I worked as a doorman for six years, didn’t really have much of a social life but I’m lucky enough to do this for a living now. A lot of people ask me what the secret is, and it’s turning up week in week out, which doesn’t sound amazing but there is a decade of graft that has gone into this.
Juan Cervantes will be fighting at Victory IV on the 8th of December at Dunston Activity Centre. Juan can be found on Facebook at Juan Cervantes, Instagram at jcervantesnk and Twitter at @johnnytheknee for updates. For information on the Muay Thai club contact club president Alex Castellon at A.Castellon@newcastle.ac.uk