Photos courtesy of Chris and Sarah Romulo
September 22, 2012, was the first day of fall. I’d spent every spare minute I could that summer at Ft. Tilden, just up from the Boardwalk at Rockaway Beach. And though I was accustomed to far more rural coasts, I had nearly fallen in love with the way New York does beach culture -- with the range of contradictions a small beach community adjacent to the biggest city in America provides. I say that I had nearly fallen in love over the summer because on September 22, the first day of fall, a Muay Thai smoker (read: friendly, casual amateur kickboxing meet-up) held on the boardwalk just feet from the ocean cemented this love completely.
The smoker, aptly titled the Battle of the Boards, was put on by Crom Martial Training, a gym I knew next to nothing about at the time. A close training partner of mine was fighting his first Muay Thai bout, and I was caught up in his excitement. The training period leading up to someone’s first fight is a really special thing to witness, and the sort of mind-state new fighters get in is both electrifying and highly contagious. But invested or not, a fight on the boardwalk at the end of summer is an amazing thing to experience.
The fights were great, with the hosting team Crom showing a ton of talent, most notably in youth age brackets. The impression was given (and was later confirmed) that their gym doubles as a kind of youth community center for Rockaway kids. Judging by their technique, the kids are taking to the Thai Art of Eight Limbs with admirable dedication.
The rest of the day went well. A ceremonial wai kru demonstration provided onlookers with an example of traditional Muay Thai preparation dances. The fights all were sporting and competitive in tone. My training partner and his adversary could barely keep a grin off their faces for the entirety of their fight, despite some active rounds with aggressive exchanges. When it was over my friend punctuated the event by slugging heartily from a pint of whiskey and diving into the ocean in his underwear. I couldn’t fault him. It had been a great summer, and it was hard to see this one go. Still, if the Battle on the Boards was any indication of how the fall was going to be, I was happy to trade it for the summer.
Of course, we know now that it would in fact not be a great fall for Rockaway Beach. Both the boardwalk and Crom Martial Training were destroyed in late October by Hurricane Sandy. And despite the inevitable tapering off of national attention, the rebuilding effort has only just begun. Quantifying damage from storms is often difficult, but I worried about a potentially incalculable loss: that of the kind of community that was palpable at the fight on the boardwalk that day. On the point of this loss being restored, I was hopeful but doubtful. But then I was able to sit down with Chris and Sarah Romulo, the married couple behind Crom Martial Training.
“In a way, this whole thing has been a blessing” Chris told me when we met. “It’s shown us who our true friends are and just how many people care and want to show us support through it all.” He’s referring to the plentiful offers of help that have come from all corners of the U.S. Muay Thai scene, which is small and closely knit despite being far-flung geographically. From fundraisers by MMA gym American Top Team and eBay auctions of commemorative gear from fighters like Kevin Ross and Chaz Mulkey to numerous benefit fights on both coasts in their honor, it’s clear that Chris and Sarah and their gym are valued parts of a genuine community. This is especially powerful given that many of the people who reached out to help only really knew Chris by reputation (his amateur career boasts 5 titles, and as a pro he was 13-3 [10 KOs] and won the WKA super middleweight North American Title in 2010).
Our conversation lingered only momentarily on the difficulties of the loss; Chris and Sarah were weeks away from closing on a new home when the storm hit. What the two naturally gravitated toward instead was the future: the success of their first class back in the area at a temporary space, their excitement at the response of their youth fighters to their return, their good fortune that Chris is able to train his private clients in Midtown Manhattan (due to the generosity of Chok Sabai gym, he is able to work out of there until Crom finds a new home). At present, they’re even planning more fights … on a boardwalk that hasn’t even been rebuilt yet.
The Romulos are dogged, and it’s a good thing that at least a handful of Rockaway kids will have these two to look up to. It’s also nice to see how a community built around punching, elbowing, kneeing, and kicking others in the face rallies to help out one of their own. Long live the Battle on the Boards. Long live New York.