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Kicking his way up : On August 13, 2007

French muay Thai champion Dida Diafat discusses the transition from fighting in the ring to fighting on-screen
When looking at combat sports such as muay Thai, one may wonder how an individual becomes attracted to an activity where physical harm is the aim of the game.

In the case of French Thai-boxing champion Dida Diafat, he says it was the sport that chose him. The 35-year-old kick-boxer was recently in Thailand to launch his new reality TV show that has Thai and French youth competing against one another in an ongoing muay Thai tournament. The show will be aired in Thailand sometime before the end of the year.

"It's like seeing a beautiful girl and falling in love with her,' explained Diafat on his introduction to Thai boxing. "Muay Thai was like that for me. I wanted to live for the sport. I love everything about it; the techniques, the people, how they talk or train. I like how everyone lived together in the [training] camp and became like brothers to me."

A frequent visitor to Thailand, Diafat's most recent arrival saw him come in the guise of an entertainer, not just a fighter. His new role demonstrates his desire to give back to Thailand some of the opportunities the country has bestowed on him by offering some aspiring young kick-boxers an opportunity to succeed.

"I want to bring [to Thai audiences] my vision as a foreigner who loves Thailand. Even though I was born in Algeria, I want to show my support for Thailand. I live in Paris, but for me Thailand is my country. This country made me who I am," he said.

"This production will make a television show that has kids living together and fighting, and in the end the best fighters win. I will be on the panel of judges. It is kind of strange, though, to have to say if a person is good or bad! But yes, it was my idea to have a reality television show." Diafat added that women will also be invited to participate in the show, although they will not be competing against the men.

Diafat first came to Thailand in 1989. He was 18 years old and wanted to learn muay Thai. An article in a French magazine together with a fight seen on TV ignited his interest in what ultimately became the love of his life.

"I thought [to myself] 'I want to fight like this', and from then on it was no more football, no more nothing. I had fought on the street before, but for combat sport this was my first experience," he said.

Diafat trained for three years in muay Thai camps before going on to become the first Frenchman to become a muay Thai world champion. He has won 11 championships during his career and in 1997 was awarded the Songh Shai Vase award, one of the most prestigious honours given for martial arts in Thailand. His success later earned him a contract with French TV channel Canal+.

Diafat is credited as the man who brought muay Thai to France. Along with his success in the ring Diafat has also appeared on-screen. His initiation into the film industry came with an uncredited part in the 1998 film Legionnaire, which featured a fight scene between him and Jean Claude Van Damme.

In 2005, Diafat's entertainment career continued with the Thai martial arts film Chok Dee, which is loosely based on his life. The film has been shown to international audiences and received good reviews.

Diafat has also written an autobiography entitled Dida from the Subway Hell to Hollywood and has created his own clothing brand called Kobey.

Diafat's current involvement with a reality TV show further demonstrates his ease in the entertainment world and his intention to continue working in film.

"I have stopped fighting [professionally] for six years now and have been working with films. I prefer fighting, but really it's the same focus in making films - being good at what you do," said Diafat on the transition from professional fighter to martial arts film star.

Diafat remarked that muay Thai is a martial art with its own unique grace and integrity.

"You know I train hard and I want to be the best. It's like everyone in their own job, we all try to be the best. Everyone wants to be the best and that is what I do when I do muay Thai."

Regarding the dynamics of combat, Diafat was very open about the limitations in his career. "Each fight is a challenge for me to win. All nationalities may fight the same way, but of course it depends on [the fighter] being either more technical or physical," he said. "My technique is to use my knee and elbow. That is good, no?"

On the mental challenges that fighters face, Diafat said they range from personal fears to mind games that an opponent can use to undermine a fighter's confidence. He considered a fighter's skill in the ring to ultimately be the result of their attitude and their desire to be the last one standing.

"I fight to be the boss in the ring. I am very superstitious, so I cannot say that I am going to get into the ring and win because I may lose. But it is no big deal if you lose. I want to be humble and I am always scared," he explained.

"If you're not scared, then you're a little loco! If you fight someone who is trained, of course you have to be nervous. I have been in 87 fights and I am always scared."

Although he is now an established figure in martial arts cinema, it is evident when Diafat talks about fighting that his passion for the ring remains. It is a passion that transcends the matches themselves and that he continues to demonstrate in his film career, although he admitted that fighting on-screen is vastly different from fighting in the ring.

"[Making martial art films] is all about the speed. For example, if you give a kick you must keep the speed up because on the camera it can appear too slow. But you have to stop right before you make contact with the other person," he explained. "That is why I went to hospital many times during the production of [Chok Dee], because the director wanted to have energy in the fight scenes, and with energy sometimes you have too much and it hurts!"

While he admitted that he has few role models in muay Thai, Diafat was able to position himself in regards to other martial arts actors. "Tony Jaa is different to me because he does many acrobatic jumps. Jackie Chan is different, too," he said. "But when there is boxing such as in films like Cinderella Man or Ali ... both Russell Crowe and Will Smith got hurt, because you have to keep the energy in fight scenes.

"Even if you do a love scene in a movie you have to be careful, because you may fall in love! Okay, I am kidding," he said with a smile.

Returning to his goals as an actor, Diafat said he hopes a combination of humility and awareness of the industry will lead to ongoing success. It is these two attributes that he credits for making him a muay Thai world champion.

"When I started boxing I told myself that I want to become a world champion. However, when I told my friends they laughed at me. Now, I don't speak. I do things instead, know what I am saying? So the difference for me, between producing movies and making a good career as a fighter, is the work."

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