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Michael is originally from Atlantic City, New Jersey and arrived to Thailand on Christmas eve last year before coming to Koh Phangan in April.
He caught our attention along with Iris Dam at S.suksom Stadium on the 17th of June when he won his fight to a very excited crowd…
Hi Michael so how did you end up in Koh Phangan?
I started in mixed martial arts (MMA), a style of fighting that is seen in the UFC, and muay thai is big aspect of this because of its striking systems. I started training with a fighter named Nick Chasteen who learned from a very traditional trainer called ‘Master Bob’ in Arizona. Master Bob spent a lot of time in Thailand and brought traditional muay thai to the states. I was very fortunate to meet Nick who passed some of this to me and started my love for Muay Thai.
By chance I started training with them, and learning these traditional aspects of Muay Thai is what eventually led me to Thailand. I won three amateur mixed martial arts fights for Asylum Fight League in Atlantic City, which I won by TKO, so I started thinking of turning pro in MMA and wanted to come to Thailand to sharpen my skills and build a strong foundation in muay thai.
I was in the military for eight years which earned me extensive education benefits. I came to Thailand on an education visa, and studied Asian Philosophy for three months at Mahidol University, while I trained at Kiatphontip Gym.
They did a good job getting me in shape there but I would always hear stories of this magical place called Koh Phangan where it changes people’s lives with its culture, atmosphere and that people have the similar story of not wanting a nine to five job, they want a different lifestyle. I heard about Chin from Chinnarach gym and really liked what I read about him, he is a two time world champion and Lumpinee champion, who really cares about his students and has a family atmosphere.
From day one he really liked me, he even took me to see his family on the mainland, I felt like I was living as the thai people do and that’s kind of how I ended up on Koh Phangan.
What got you into mixed martial arts originally?
From the age of sixteen to twenty six, a decade of my life, was spent in a military environment, I went through a military school and by age seventeen I was in the national guard and doing army basic training but that wasn’t enough so I enlisted as an active duty Marine and found myself in boot camp for the second time. I spent four years in the Marine Corps, I guarded two presidents and was part of the war on terrorism. Then I re-enlisted into the army with the intent on going to the special forces but prior to Iraq I had a series of vaccines and had an allergic reaction to the smallpox vaccine which nearly killed me.
I lost my whole life, my military career, they compensated me but it never made up for the sense of purpose, comradery and brotherhood that I had had.
I got lost in the party scene of Hollywood, I would party five days a week. One day though I walked into a mixed martial arts gym in Scottsdale, Arizona and two people took me under their wing, Nick and a current UFC fighter Frankie Saenz.
I didn’t know anything but they welcomed me and taught me the basics of muay thai and MMA. Then I move to another gym called Arizona Combat Sports and met Jamie Varner who is a veteran of the UFC. I found myself in an elite gym with an extensive roster of UFC fighters. I would see all these guys I know fighting on TV and it opened my mind to the possibility that I could do something greater. Most important, however, these guys gave me back the sense of purpose and brotherhood that I was missing from the military.
There was a problem though. I was also attending Arizona State University on my military benefits, and I was bouncing between school and MMA which both require one hundred percent. With my attention divided I was never able to fight, so I ended up moving back to my original home, Atlantic City, and put school on hold for eighteen months.
Two people invested a lot of time in me, Guy Loggi and Giedrius Karavackas. Loggi has extensive experience in western boxing and karate, G is a former Bellator fighter and judo champion, and both of these guys are Jui Jitsu black belts under Fernando and Mario Yamasaki. Over eighteen months they invested a lot of time in me… the whole family at the International Karate Academy, from the kids to the senior members, each one of them spent time training and mentoring me. Each of these people gave me a special part of themselves, whether it was a new skill for fighting, cheers of encouragement, or wise words that seemed to find me at just the right moment… in MMA, I am a product of the IKA family.
That is why I fight, it is not for myself, I fight to honor all of the people who have had a positive impact on my life and made me who I am today. Furthermore, I started fighting at age thirty three, many people said I was too old, however, I want to show people that if you truly want something then it can be yours.
How was it going from a military lifestyle to the one you have now?
I was what you call ‘institutionalized’ so transitioning into civilian life was...well… let’s just say, my closet was lined with military uniforms and one pair of civilian clothes. My whole identity was in that uniform, and upon my discharge, I didn’t even know what style of clothes I should buy for myself. I still feel uncomfortable shopping for clothes… luckily on Koh Phangan I can wear elephant pants every day.
Also, in the military we don’t work by the hour, we have a duty and the pay is seen as an allowance. I can’t work hourly and don’t see money as a reward, I see it as a way to be able to have experiences in life and do good things for myself and others. I am not materialistic. I value experiencing life and relationships with good people. Finding MMA and muay thai enabled me to break out of the 9-5 cycle society has prescribed for so many others.
MMA has given me my sense of purpose again and introduced me to good people who, when I decide to step left or right off of the straight path they are always there to refocus and recalibrate my moral compass.
In the martial arts community everyone I have met I know I can I can turn to for support. It is not monetary support that is important… but guidance, that person to talk to who understands me.
Talk us through a general day…
I wake up naturally around 6.30am, one of the best things is I don’t dread going into work, I long for it.
I spend an hour eating breakfast and getting ready and by 8am I’m at the gym ready to go running and this will last between twenty minutes to an hour depending on how my body feels. Then I am back at the gym for guided stretching and calisthenics (body exercises).
I will do anywhere from three to five, three minute rounds of heavy bag work then three to five, three minute rounds of pad-work with a trainer. We finish with more stretching. This routine will alternate with days of sparring.
Then I typically go home and do either two things, I watch Netflix or brush up on some things I studied in college like psychology or philosophy just to stay fresh.
When I’m tired enough, I go to sleep. I wake up again around 3pm and then start it all again and finish in the evening with heavier push ups and weightlifting until 6pm and this is my routine for six days a week.
When did you start taking part in fights on Koh Phangan?
Friday the 17th of June was my first here! From day one at Chinnarach Gym Chin will evaluate people, he doesn’t segregate but with each individual he is pretty perceptive at seeing where they are mentally and physically, he can see who is there for fun and fitness and who will fight, like Iris for example you can see she’s ready.
Within a few training sessions he was asking me if I was ready to fight and I told him I was looking to do it but wanted to enjoy the island first so like everyone else I did the trips to Eden etc but after this I got on a serious training regime and now here we are.
How did your first fight go?
The fight was pretty surreal actually, with MMA I fought three jiu jitsu fighters where that was their primary discipline so there striking was not so dangerous, striking is the eight limbs; two fists, two elbows, two knees and two shin bones and these are the weapons of muay thai, called striking. Western boxing and karate are also considered striking. Then when you get into jujitsu, judo and wrestling that’s the grappling aspect… these are the main disciplines that make up mixed martial arts.
In these fights all I had to do was avoid going to the ground and employ my movement and striking to neutralize them. My first Muay Thai fight, however, was much different. For the first time I was facing a dangerous striker. The guy I fought against was a former champion with over two hundred fights and is known as a guy that knocks out foreigners. He cut my face open with an elbow, and I survived being knocked out on my feet from a solid head kick in round two. I am very durable though, and in round four I finished him with a low kick to take out his knee and a head kick on his way down that knocked him out.
I heard a rumor that the owner of the stadium lost forty thousand Baht betting against me so this gives you an idea of the reputation of the guy.
So you won yes?!
I did, I was very nervous to see if my body could stand up to thai fighters strikes, they’re known to be legendary for their rock hard shin bones. But once I knew he could not hurt me, I gained the confidence to move in and finish the fight.
I love this thing, this battle, both the pain inflicted upon me on me and the pain that I inflict on my opponent… I love it. It feels like reliving and honoring the ancient history of the gladiators who fought and died in the arenas! I absolutely love the Thai crowd, the cheers, I had blood running down my face and could hear the roar of the crowd… and every time he kicked me, I would hear the announcer and that roar of the crowd… most people would react negatively to pain, but the roar of the crowd caused me to go forward into it.
The crowd really excites me, and I want to have memorable fights where everyone’s excited.
Chin must be proud...
Yeah, after the fight Chin said everyone was worried when the blood started pouring in my eye, and I stumbled backward like a drunk from the head kick, but Chin told them all, 'He’s an MMA fighter! Him not back down!'
He was right! I lost consciousness for about three seconds on my feet, came to, and started moving forward again with strikes. It was like the terminator coming online and seeing his target.
Chin told me he never doubted me. After the KO, he ran up to hug me in excitement. I will always remember that.
Do you train other people?
I do! I actually have two prodigies back home and part of the reason I am here is to pass everything I learn in Phangan to two individuals, the first her name is Alyssa Michelle who is seventeen and the other is Jonathan Andres Nuñez who is fourteen.
Both of them have been training for a long time, Alyssa is getting a strong foundation in muay thai with striking and has a strong willingness and Jonathan is a well decorated jiu jitsu fighter and will be strong once he learns muay thai, both will be strong fighters.
My big goal is to take what Chin teaches me to the US so Alyssa and Johnathan will be able to use Muay Thai to achieve their goals in MMA, and hopefully I will be able to bring these two fighters to Koh Phangan one day.
What are the benefits of training in Muay Thai for anyone and especially on Koh Phangan?
I say any martial arts would be a good thing for everyone as it gives you not only a purpose external from your normal work but it also gives you a good way to stay physically fit and mentally strong.
Even in the grueling moments, it always reaches a difficult point, physically and mentally, but you see you can push that extra mile and that translates to everyday life, with martial arts training that person knows they can achieve more.
The other thing is staying physically fit whilst learning a skill, learning to punch and kick. Since I have been training though I have not been in a fight outside of the gym, I don’t need to get into a confrontation to prove who I am.
This island, I call it ‘Never Never Land’ from Peter Pan, for me it would be very easy to get lost in the party scene but when I know I have to train then I’m reluctant to stay out all weekend long. It’s good to go out but good to have this to pull me back into reality.
I see people in Haad Yuan at parties and that’s all they do all week long.
And muay thai is a great way to meet locals and get a nice reputation, in the food market and hospital they always say ‘when is your next fight?’ The Thais seem to be very proud of me as I have immersed myself into their culture. I even speak some Thai… just nitnoy though.
When you do relax what do you do and where do you go?
I’m either in my bungalow watching Netflix or hanging out with my friends Dario and Kalina over at Jungle Vibes Hostel.
I could be at the gym watching muay thai with the trainers or say, tonight we are all going for a buffet with the trainers.
When I am not preparing for a fight I like Eden and Ocean Rock or Loi Lay, these are my favorite places to go be social.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
I’d like to put on a good performance in Krabi on July 14th and then train hard and go back to the US and get ready to get into professional mixed martial arts. To do well in that and then finish up some college and hopefully be back here in May to September 2017 training with Chin.
I have come to think of Thailand and Koh Phangan as my second home, I really love it here, it is the place I’ve been looking for all of my life, from the market to the little towns… I absolutely love it… and I love the Thai people.
And leave us with your life philosophy?
If you truly want something, it can be yours.