|Huỳnh Hà Hữu Hiếu has been World Champion at both youth and elite level. Photo webthethao.vn|
Huỳnh Hà Hữu Hiếu is cute and pretty, and the petite girl's looks often leave people thinking she must be a student, not a ferocious martial artist.
The 23-year-old became the World Muay Thai Champion on August 18 when she stepped to the top podium of the World Muay Thai Grand Slam in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
It was her third time winning a world gold medal but the first time in the elite category. Previously, she twice triumphed in the International Federation of Muaythai Associations world championship for the U23 athletes in 2019 and 2021.
The Khánh Hoà Province-born girl is now set to reach a higher level in her career.
Talented Muay Thai fighter
Hiếu first learned about martial art when she was 13 in 2012.
She first practised a Việt Nam traditional martial art, wushu's sanshou (combat), before moving to Muay for almost 10 years.
"I was a sick and small child. Seeing me for the first time, nobody thought I was an athlete or a fighter," Hiếu said.
|Huỳnh Hà Hữu Hiếu (left) celebrates her first U23 World Champion title in 2019. — Photo thanhnien.vn|
"I have flat feet that prevent me from the rapid movement and make me suffer ankle flips. I also have a spine problem that causes pain when I practise and compete hard. Coaches had to design a special training programme to strengthen my ankles while I do more exercises for the back and abdominal muscles so that I could practise better," she said.
"I am not in good condition like others, so I have to spend more time practising than them. I also work out and do cardio every day to improve my fitness. That will help me maintain strength throughout the games."
After one year of training, Hiếu, 14, dominated the local tournament in 2014 before grabbing gold in the Youth World Muay Thai Championships in Thailand. Three years later, she repeated her success, also in Thailand.
In 2018, she claimed a title in the Uni Super Championship Muay Thai Tournament in Việt Nam.
In 2019, Hiếu jumped to the world championship and shone in the U23 category, beating Rudzma Abubakar of the Philippines in the final in Bangkok.
Months later, she became the first Vietnamese female athlete to participate in the world's toughest competition, the Lethwei World Championship.
Lethwei, or Burmese boxing, is a full-contact combat sport from Myanmar that uses stand-up striking, including headbutts. Lethwei is considered one of the most brutal martial arts in the world.
|Huỳnh Hà Hữu Hiếu (right) competes in the world's most cruel sport and wins a gold medal in 2019. Photo of WLC|
Hiếu is the second Vietnamese to win in this competition, following Việt Nam's eight-time World Champion Nguyễn Trần Duy Nhất.
"Hiếu had zero skills when she first practised Muay Thai. But she showed her big interest in it. She could spend hours watching her seniors sparring and practising," said coach Nguyễn Phú Hiển.
"I am really impressed with her spirit and diligence. She never gave up, even when she suffered from pain or injuries. Her mind, passion and profession are great. She is the best of athletes in her age under my reign. I believe she is a gold medal candidate in all elite competitions in the future."
After nearly two years of limited action because of the pandemic, Hiếu returned to the ring and successfully defended her U23 world title in Thailand.
She defeated Russian Bella Durandina to maintain the top position in the world, although she suffered an ankle flip hours ahead of the first-round match.
"It hurt, but when I was in the ring, I forgot everything to focus on fighting. I listened to the coach's guide and applied in the matches," she said.
"I rarely play duel combat in my games but move a lot to limit collisions and injuries. I always respect the opponent and never play bad or provoke. It seems that this style has helped me succeed."
Beautiful martial art life
Hiếu has been champion in most of the tournaments she has participated in. But the SEA Games' top podium is still out of her reach so far.
Hiếu's first SEA Games was in 2019 when she was assigned to compete in the Waikru (performance) event, which is not her strong point.
|Huỳnh Hà Hữu Hiếu (left) tops the elite division of the Grand Slam of Muay Thai on August 18 in Malaysia. Photo of IFMA|
At the May Games, she took part in the combat U48kg category but lost to Thai Kullanat Aonok in the final.
But she said the Grand Slam victory pulled her confidence back. And she will make it again at the next Games next May.
Hiếu believes martial arts is her right choice and will be her main love forever.
"I don't think I have to sacrifice my youth for Muay Thai success. It is simply that I spend time and labour for this martial art, but I receive sweet results," she said.
"Somehow, I have earned much more than what I contributed. To me, martial arts is the job that brings me a salary to support my family and my study in college. Without martial arts, I don't know who I would be. Maybe I would be jobless or a street vendor. I dare not think about it."
Hiếu said she was lucky to have dedicated coaches who guided her the right way. Another important key was her determination and effort. But the most important element was that she knew what she wanted and did everything to make it true.
"My life, my youth, is beautiful because of practising martial arts. I spend most of my time training in the gym and competing in the ring to bring success," she said. VNS