Standing in the ring in Madison Square Garden, kickboxer Tarek "The Tiger" Rached doesn’t seem intimidated by Ryan Madigan’s status as a veteran of the Ultimate Fighting Championship; he keeps moving forward, firing off kicks with a practiced economy of movement. Eventually, one of those kicks lands in just the right spot – or wrong spot, depending on your point of view – turning Madigan’s knee into a worthless joint. The UFC vet is done, right at the bell signaling the end of the first round. The audience of 2,862 fight fans in the Garden's Theater roars.
I once saw a Muay Thai event in Thailand. It was at a small stadium on the island of Koh Samui. Since Muay Thai – the "Art of Eight Limbs," where opponents kick, punch, knee and elbow one another into hamburger meat – is the country’s national pastime, the event was a big to-do. Or, rather, a madhouse. In the bleachers, blue-collar fans feverishly exchanged bets, chattering as cigarettes dangled from their mouths and sheaves of baht went from hand to hand. Meanwhile, in the ring, two 8-year-old boys were beating each other senseless. The sudden knockout of one of the boys (by vicious elbow) made the crowd even crazier. There were adults fighting that night, too, but who can remember what happened with them?
Muay Thai at the Mecca II is a touch more civilized. Or maybe that's a cultural judgment and it’s just more Americanized. No kids are fighting. No cigarettes are being smoked. And the only gambling is in the form of a 50/50 raffle, the proceeds of which will go to rebuilding the gym of Muay Thai coach Chris Romulo, which existed in the Rockaways before Sandy had her way with it.
As for the fighters, there’s Jesse Ng, representing the Sitan Gym in Astoria, and Melanie Odria of Seapeanong in Virginia. Though neither woman weighs much more than a hundred pounds, they brawl for the full three rounds. Then there’s Elijah Clarke, hailing from that part of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu legend Renzo Gracie’s academy that eschews grappling for standing and striking. With a reach of what seems like 11 feet and a bottomless well of confidence, Clarke dances around his foe, weaving in to deliver a fist or a shin before ducking out and away. Back in Thailand, the local fighters were the ones who’d been doing it all their lives – those battle-hardened 8-year-olds grown into adult flesh-and-bone killers, sporting bulletproof abs and shins that could chop down trees. But that’s not the case here in the States. No dirt-poor moms and dads in Queens or Viginia are consigning their little boys or girls to a Thai boxing camp to earn their families extra money. Ng and Odria and Clarke are what they are because they wanted it.
At that stadium on Koh Samui, a few extra baht got you a seat in the VIP section, which essentially meant you got to sit on an old, battered couch instead of in the bleachers. At Madison Square Garden, fans sitting in even the cheapest seats have it a thousand times more luxurious. It's another world. Still, the cheers are the same, and if you close your eyes and listen, the roar of the crowd when Team Renzo Gracie’s Steve Hernandez takes the belt from 185-pound Take-On Productions champ Ariel Abreu could be the same roar you'd hear when a local defeats an overmatched farang back in Thailand. The same sounds, the same kind of beatings.
Ariel Abreu specializes in brawling -- wading in with punches and forcing his opponents to fight defensively, and that’s the sort of the thing that always pleases a Muay Thai crowd. Hernandez resists taking the bait, though; despite getting clobbered a few times, he maintains his composure and chips away at the energetic Abreu. When time expires, Hernandez is the new champ. Beaten up, but the champ. Muay Thai, see, is all about enduring the beatdown. Sure, there’s technique and conditioning and intangibles like talent and heart, but like its American cousin, Western boxing, if you can’t take a shot – kicks to the shin, knees to the body, blows to the head – you’re not going to make it.
Sitan Gym sends another fighter into the ring, a guy named Jay Matias, who looks forged from steel, and for nearly all three rounds he repeatedly wobbles opponent Cody Moberly. Moberly, who flew in from Kansas for this bout, almost makes it to the end – almost – but before the final bell can ring, Matias feeds him a flying knee that KO's him. Of all the competitors on the card, Moberly has gotten the worst of it. But he's also given the crowd what they came out for: the chance to witness a beating. For that, he can return to the Midwest with his pride, if not his body, intact.
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