By: Matt Lucas
Photos by: Victor Alvarez
Precision. Grace. Dedication. Three simple words that only begin to describe female Muay Thai technical phenomenon Janet Todd. The Southern Californian native is one of the most active Muay Yings (Female Muay Thai fighters) on the west coast and recently was awarded the bronze medal at the IFMA (International Federation Muay Thai Amateur) in Belarus after three successive bouts in as many days.
Todd wasn’t always a boxer though. She began Muay Thai as a fitness outlet while studying for her master’s degree in Aerospace engineering. Her boyfriend, now husband, brought her to a Muay Thai gym run by Albert Malatambam and Eric Sandahl in San Luis Opisbo. Todd had been athletic in the past, having done cheerleading in high school, but was inactive during her initial college years. After one of her first sparring sessions in which she was dropped with a liver shot, Todd decided she wanted to do the same time others.
Born to a mother who immigrated to America from Japan and who works as a yoga teacher and an American father who is a muraist, Todd was destined to be an artist. Her canvass is the ring and she began her Superflyweight (112lb-115lb) artistic career successfully in 2009 against Victoria Beltran.
“I felt good, got a TKO with a body shot. My technique was not very good. I was a bulldozer. I am definitely a different fighter now,” Todd said. After her initial bout, she had a long layoff as it was difficult for her to juggle studying for her master’s degree and work. She was able to find a balance in 2013 during her first week of work at her current job. Todd fought for the USMTA 120lb title after another boxer dropped out. The last-minute replacement saw her strap the belt around her waist and she has been active ever since.
Todd now trains regularly out of Boxing Works in Hermosa Beach California. The gym is operated and run by Bryan Popejoy, who is also Todd’s head coach. Popejoy is one of, if not the best, current Muay Thai coach in America and has an excellent Muay Thai lineage having trained in Thailand and been a long term member of the TBA (Thai Boxing Assosication). “Bryan is constantly studying Muay Thai,” Todd said. “He has an eye for the little detail. Take a little step to your right and hit the pad and all the sudden I have a lot more power in my punch.”
Popejoy’s accomplishments can be seen in Todd’s stablemates such as Jackie Buntan(pictured below with Janet), Victor Alvarez and Nathan Ward all of whom have a technical nak fimeu style. Todd contributes her success to having a good community around her. “I’m really fortunate with my training partners and to have a coach that invests so much time into me,” she said.
Her support is buttressed with a committed work ethic. Todd trains with utmost dedication and despite having a full-time job is still putting in regular sessions twice a day. “My work out depends on my work schedule and meetings. I train sometimes during the days then return to work. After work is finished I will go back to the gym but I do include some variety. Two days out of the week we do conditioning with Nick Curson of Speed Sport which has really helped me out. I will sometimes visit other gyms to spar.”
Boxing Works may be her home but Todd has also trained abroad and spent some time in preparation for an IFMA tournament in August of 2015 at Golden era Muay Thai fighter Saengtiinoi’s gym in Pratut Thani, north of Bangkok. “That was different. I felt like I died multiple times. It was hard pad work for five minute rounds and when you weren’t on the pads you were on the bags. I saw some similarities between what Saengtiinoi does and what Bryan teaches me, especially this matador style move in which I step to the side and counter. It was really inspiring to see the little kids train though. They would come from school and they were so strong. They could kick so hard.”
Her first IFMA experience was good for Todd. “I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never been to Thailand before, I was just onboard with the whole thing. I didn’t put much thought into it so it was a lot like my first fight,” she said. “I didn’t medal though. I wasn’t as good. I had a solid fight against Italy then lost to Australia. My opponent just threw things that I didn’t have answer to.”
The international experience was formative for Todd as it allowed her to fight different countries that have different styles of fighting. This can especially be a test considering that judging in America can be difficult, inconsistent, and often times is based purely on aggression. “IFMA scoring is a bit different but I still think it is closer to Muay Thai in Thailand than the judging in the states,” Todd said.
Todd’s next international tournament was at the Pan American games. She arrived early to the games and was excited that she would fight Tristana Tola who she followed on Instagram. Initially Todd debated whether she should fight at 51kg or 54kg. When she saw that Tola would fight at 54kg Todd’s decision was made. “I just really wanted to fight her,” Todd said. When it came to the fight though Todd felt she didn’t do as much as she should have. “Her pace was a little faster. I was at the same pace throughout the fight and countered too much. I did some stuff that I was happy about though. My eyes were a little better, I was able to see the openings,” Todd said.
Her latest international journey saw her size the bronze medal for the United States team. The journey to Belarus, where the bouts were held, was great for Todd as she was able to get to know other qualified female Muay Thai athletes. “Finding other women that enjoy the sport was really great. It was interesting to hear about their diets, their drive to be better. Gianna Smith, my roommate was awesome. We would say a lot of the same things; ‘What can we do next, what can we work on next.’ I think a lot of us Muay Ying think the same and are very driven. The way we phrase things makes it easy to communicate. We have a bond because we are so eager to lift the sport,” Todd said.
Todd has lifted the bar in the United States and was able to get a victory over home country Belarus in the semi qualifying round. Todd devastated her opponent after repeatedly using a lead hand jab and low kicks. With cunning intelligence, she switched it up and smashed into her opponent’s dome with a head kick that sent her surprised opponent down. “The IFMA had some really cool moments. I was in the best shape of my life,” Todd said. “I was really sharp. Sometimes my confidence wavers but I went into the tournament with the strongest mentality ever.”
Doing well at the IFMA tournament was also a positive as it pushes the sport towards Olympic acceptance. Currently the sport has recognition by the Olympic committee and the United States Muay Thai Federation, which put together the IFMA team this year, is hoping to have the sport in the 2024 Olympic games.
The strong mentality wasn’t without its ups and downs. Being on the team with the other Americans had her become very close to the other athletes. “You get to know the team. You get emotionally invested. It’s heart breaking to see someone lose but if they win….Wow! There’s a lot of ups and downs. I loved everybody on the team.”
The roller coaster of emotions was bittersweet for Todd as she stood on the platform she was filled with longing and regret. “I don’t think I enjoyed the moment as much as I should have. I had the mindset to get the gold. I didn’t perform up to my ability. I didn’t have an answer for my opponent from Moracco. She had the last shot. I had self-doubt. I was questioning myself. Part of it is that I am a perfectionist. I can’t help wanting to train more.”
Positives did come along though. Todd found herself becoming a role model for other women in the sport. “I got these messages from other women asking me for tips, asking me how to prepare for fights. It’s really cool to inspire other girls. It really helped me and helps me with my everyday life. It inspires me and makes me want to work harder. I want to show other girls that you can do it too.”
The future ahead is still undetermined for Todd but she wants to continue to fight and to fight consistently. One of the big hurdles for her is whether to become professional or not. With professional fights in America few and far between making the decision to go pro could impede on her ability to actually fight. This is especially true for professional female fighters.
Yet Todd has gotten a lot of support over the years which has helped her get to where she is. Two years ago, Todd was approached by Infightstyle to become a sponsored fighter. “It’s helped in my career and helped me with fights, for example my bout in Canada was secured because of my sponsorship with Infightstyle. It’s nice to have a big brand like Infightstyle behind me. Hopefully I’m helping them in return.”
Todd understands that while she goes into the ring alone the process of getting there is a group effort. “Its amazing how much support I’ve gotten. Without people promoting me I don’t know how I would have gotten to where I am now. My husband, he backs me a lot. We make a lot of sacrifices in the relationship and he doesn’t give me a hard time. It’s nice to have someone like that,” Todd said.
When it comes to self-promotion the technical phenomenon is modest. “I feel awkward doing it. It seems so much like “look at me,” or “look what I can do.” It feels weird. I’m just little old Janet Todd.”
Humble “little old Janet Todd” is making big waves in Muay Thai. The unstoppable work ethic, the commitment to excellence and the strong support team all make it inevitable- Big New things will be coming from Todd soon.