First Person

What I learnt about Arctic Monkeys by getting kicked in the head

As indie frontman Alex Turner reveals his unexpected love for intense combat sport Muay Thai, Kevin E G Perry heads to an LA training session with the singer’s personal coach to explore the appeal of the ‘art of eight limbs’

Monday 10 October 2022 06:35 BST
Muay Thai coach Algernon Lanier with Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner
Muay Thai coach Algernon Lanier with Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner (Algernon Lanier/Getty)

Since he was thrust into the limelight at 20, Alex Turner has cast himself as a writer, not a fighter. Onstage the Arctic Monkeys singer may play the swaggering frontman, but off it he has the bookish air that comes with quoting John Cooper Clarke poems, extolling the virtues of Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker and dreaming up concept records about interstellar ennui.

It’s an image that suits the finest lyricist of his generation, but one that’s hard to square with a devotion to Muay Thai, the intense Thai kick-boxing style known as “the art of eight limbs”. In August, shortly before announcing the imminent release of seventh Arctic Monkeys album The Car, Turner told French paperL’Equipe he’d been practising the combat sport for more than a decade. “I discovered this discipline about 12 years ago, when I was in a nightclub in New York,” Turner said of Muay Thai, which is similar to Brazilian jiu-jitsu or MMA (mixed martial arts). “I was talking to a security guard from the north of England and he encouraged me to train with him. I really enjoy it; it’s good for your body and your head. During the sessions you don’t think about anything else.”

Turner is far from the only celebrity figure to fling himself into the ring. Venom actor Tom Hardy recently won three jiu-jitsu tournaments in the space of a month, while the late chef and travel show host Anthony Bourdain was also a regular competitor. In the L’Equipe interview, Turner played down the likelihood of him ever following Hardy’s Action Man-esque lead. “I have to be honest,” said Turner. “I will never have the level to fight one day in a cage like a UFC fighter.”

Still, even if he has no plans to challenge Conor McGregor to a dust-up there’s clearly something about Muay Thai that has helped Turner stay fighting fit. The singer and I are around the same age, yet the only forms of exercise I’ve ever excelled at have been hiking to and from the pub and crawling in and out of bed, often several times a day. Like many writers, my life has involved a lot more Mai Tais than Muay Thai. I struggle to think of much that appeals less than voluntarily getting kicked in the head by a stranger, yet I can’t help but wonder if this lack of discipline is the reason I’m yet to appear alongside Turner on the Sunday Times Rich List. Maybe there is something of value to be learned in the ring.

At 10 o’clock on a Monday morning I find myself on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles looking up at the façade of the Renzo Gracie martial arts school. It’s covered in a serene palm tree mural, all sky blues and sunset yellows, a momentary distraction from the violent beating I’m pretty sure is waiting for me inside. I’m here to meet Algernon Lanier, Turner’s Muay Thai coach. I find him beneath a long white marquee erected outside to form a well-ventilated workout space. There’s a boxing ring squared off with thick red ropes, and a group of several dozen men and women already sparring with each other on the mats. It feels like stepping into a henchmen’s training montage in a Bond villain’s lair.

Lanier, the school’s head Muay Thai coach, is a tall, lean figure with a commanding presence and little interest in small talk. He makes sure I have a pair of boxing gloves and then sends me off to train with John Cortes, a frequent sparring partner of Turner’s. A former US Army infantryman, he’s shorter than Lanier and built like a tank. He wears bright yellow shin guards and a smile that doesn’t flicker even when the first thing he says to me is: “I’m going to punch you in the head.”

It takes me a moment to realise he’s teaching me a routine: he’ll jab me in the head (or at least deliver a relatively soft blow to my raised glove) with his left hand, then I’ll throw one back so he can block it by raising both gloves to form a protective “pillar”. Next, he’ll hit me with another jab with his left and a punch with his right. Then it’s my turn to do the same to him. We run that routine a few times before Lanier pauses the pounding soundtrack of Rage Against The Machine and Cypress Hill. It’s time to switch things up. Over the next 60 minutes we steadily bring the rest of those eight limbs (two hands, two legs, two elbows and two knees) into the mix. We learn how to stop an opponent’s kick with one foot before attacking with the other, and how to break free of a clinch by kneeing your adversary a couple of times in the stomach before pushing them away and kicking them in the head. The pace is relentless, with the blows arriving so frequently that your mind soon learns never to wander from the visceral choreography. It feels like the hour is over before I catch my breath.

Lanier in the ring: ‘For that hour or however long you’re training, the world doesn’t exist’
Lanier in the ring: ‘For that hour or however long you’re training, the world doesn’t exist’ (Algernon Lanier)

Afterwards, Lanier sits beside the boxing ring and offers his coach’s insight into why Muay Thai appeals to Turner. “We’ve talked about it a couple of times,” he says. “For him it’s a fitness thing, for sure, but it’s also a mental thing. He likes to get his technique sharp. Whenever he’s in town, the first thing he does is say: ‘I need to train three times a week.’ It’s about repetition, repetition, repetition. You’re getting the reps down, then putting little bits together and fine-tuning.” The way Lanier describes fights makes them sound like a sort of physical chess. “What I like about it is trying to outsmart my opponent,” he explains. “There’s a limited range of moves, so I love outsmarting somebody just using those same moves.”

I tell him I now understand what Turner meant when he said: “During the sessions you don’t think about anything else.” There’s nothing like having an infantryman throwing his fists at your face to get you to live in the moment. “Oh yeah, for that hour or however long you’re training, the world doesn’t exist,” Lanier agrees with a smile. “You’re so focused it’s like being in another dimension. When you’re done, it hits you because you’re like, ‘Oh there’s all this stuff I forgot about!’”

I’d thought learning Muay Thai might give me some insight into Alex Turner’s head. In fact, the most valuable lesson seemed to be the importance of getting out of it. I think I’ll stick to Mai Tais.

‘The Car’ by Arctic Monkeys will be released on 21 October

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