Former Pride Gym fighter, Frances (Pettit) Watthanaya, proudly managed the first Thai fighter in UFC history to victory on Saturday at UFC Fight Night 162 in Singapore.
Frances was in the corner of 23-year-old MMA fighter Loma Lookboonme when she made history, becoming the first fighter from Thailand to sign with UFC. She then went out and won her debut in the Octagon in decisive fashion.
“She took this opportunity and made it her own,” Frances, a Rossland native, told the Trail Times. “Watching her fight was a thing of beauty, and after three hard rounds she came out completely unscathed.”
The five-foot-one, 105-pound Muay Thai specialist moved up from Atom weight to contend in the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Strawweight division against 29-year-old Russian grappler Aleksandra Albu, a bigger opponent.
MMAmania.com’s preview regarded the young Thai fighter as an “absolute monster in the clinch, sporting slick foot sweeps and a brutal arsenal of strikes that she always seems to find just enough space to throw. She can get more leverage on her point-blank knees to the body than most and those elbows are some of the cleverest and nastiest you’ll see out of anyone … male or female.”
Lookboonme’s extensive Muay Thai background paid off, as she dominated from the start, landing 99 significant strikes compared to 65 for Albu for the victory.
“If it wasn’t for the team at Tiger Muay Thai and my family I wouldn’t have the win I had today,” Loma said after the bout. “I owe it all to my team. It is a gift to have my parents here. They live in the countryside and they are here experiencing a new culture. Having them watch their daughter fight in the largest organization in the world and winning, it’s the biggest gift I could ever receive in life.”
Loma began fighting at the age of eight, and eventually fought herself out of Muay Thai opponents. She battled in over 300 fights, and won every significant title including three IFMA gold medals, an Asian Games gold medal, and an S1 world title. The day came when there was no one left to fight, so she made the switch to MMA and was soon signed by UFC.
“Her transition to MMA has been practically flawless,” said Frances. “However the UFC is the largest MMA organization in the world, it is a huge step up in competition and production. So far, fight week has blown her away (in a really good way). It is like nothing she has ever experienced before.
“I am so unbelievably proud of Loma. She has had to overcome a lot to get to where she is, and really put herself out there. It isn’t only a brand new sport, but a brand new world for her. She proved herself on the world’s stage and I couldn’t be happier for her and her family.”
Loma’s journey began on her family farm in Buriram, in the Isan region of Thailand. Isan is among Thailand’s poorest provinces, and a place where alcoholism and drug use are rampant. Her dad was also a fighter and now runs the Lookboonme Muay Thai Gym, about 70 kilometres from Frances’ Wor. Watthanaya Gym.
“With the help of our monthly donors, we’ve been helping support Loma’s family’s gym for the past five years,” explained Frances. “We’ve formed very close bonds with them, and view them as a sister gym. Our kids are all very close, and I look up to Loma’s parents and often ask them for advice in running my gym.”
When Loma wanted to make the transition to MMA, Loma’s parents asked Frances to be her manager. Her good friend, George Hickman, is the head coach at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, and so she introduced Loma to Hickman and got her set up as a sponsored fighter.
Frances works with coach Hickman and agent Daniel Rubenstein as a team, and, as the only speaker of Thai, also acts as the resident translator. She and Loma have developed a close bond, and Frances’ experience and maturity helped ease the way for Loma’s entry into the UFC. The pair recently trained at the UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai together.
“Loma is an amazing talent, and I feel like the three of us make a really good team. I also help with PR, and am like a big sister to Loma. I think running a gym in northeast Thailand, and my connection with her family has really helped anchor her in this brand new world.”
Frances began her own training in MMA and Muay Thai at Trail’s Pride Gym with owner/trainer Glen Kalesniko at the age of 14. In 2006, at age 19, she moved on to train in Bangkok where she met her husband “Boom” Thanit Watthanaya. The two married and after five years in Canada, they returned to Boom’s village and built Wor. Watthanaya Gym where they train local youth, and help change the lives of the village’s most vulnerable.
“We have an amazing group of kids who are just flourishing,” said Frances. “We currently have around 20 kids training with us, and only about half of them compete. The gym has become a safe haven in the area, where a lot of kids just come to hang out. The kids have bound together like family, you will often see the old kids at the gym helping the younger ones with their homework.”
Frances and Boom have a daughter and a growing extended family of their own, which includes a handful of young fighters living with them full time. The Watthanayas ensure the children attend school, are healthy and well fed, and, while living out of two apartments, commute to the gym daily.
“We’ve out-grown our space and have started a GoFundMe page with the hopes of building these kids a safe house,” said Frances.
Loma has been a beacon of hope, and fighting her way out of poverty and onto the world stage has inspired many young fighters across Thailand, and particularly those in Wor. Watthanaya Gym.
“For Loma to overcome such hardship and come out on top is truly amazing. She’s showing young kids that you really can achieve anything with sheer grit– she is showing them a tangible path they can follow, she’s letting them dream, and giving them hope,” added Frances.
“My kids at my gym absolutely idolize her! They’ve been following her career closely, she really has instilled hope in them. Leading the way, she’s showing young kids in Isaan just how far martial arts can take you.”
Frances and Boom are raising funds to build a gym and purchase a larger home to help give the most vulnerable of Thai children a chance. Go to their gofundme page at www.gofundme.com/f/help-build-us-a-home to donate.