The smell of menthol oil and the whine of traditional Thai instrumental music pierce the humid July air of the Cicero Stadium on fight night. Though it’s best known for hosting Chicago’s annual Golden Gloves boxing tournament, today the stadium has a new occupant: Muay Thai.
The national sport of Thailand, in which participants use punches, kicks, knees, and elbows to stop their opponents in the ring, has swept across the world and undergone a renaissance over the last few years in Chicago.
The fighters entering the stadium aren’t who you might expect. Long gone are the days where bald men with goatees covered in barbed-wire tattoos brought their bar-brawling skills to the ring.
Lisa Mucci of Viking Muay Thai prepares for the first round of her bout on the World Muay Thai Organization USA card on Sunday, June 2, 2019, at Cicero Stadium. Credit: Geoff Stellfox
The new generation of Muay Thai students doesn’t easily fall under a label, and its schools are no longer tucked away in musty garages or a small corner room of a gym. The education is top-notch, pulling in students from as young as eight to adults well into their 50s and ranging from casual fitness enthusiasts to fighters with dreams of competing in Thailand.
The forefathers of Chicago’s Muay Thai community had to piece together their martial arts education, unlike their coastal counterparts with access to Thai trainers bringing their teachings with them.
As a result, Chicago’s coaches look to foster community, not rivalries, and a richly diverse student body has formed, each participant with their own unique background and stories.
Arianna Shastri, 16, of Team Toro Janjira
[On fighting in Thailand] “It was definitely different because we, me and my teammate, were the only American[s], and even on the fight card they didn’t have the American flag just because they didn’t know where we we’re from. It was very nerve-wracking because I was the first fight of the entire card. It clicked for me when I went inside [the ring], like, ‘Oh, I’m actually doing this.’ This was my first fight without shin guards, as well. I’ve never fought without shin guards and so it was a new experience, but it was really fun. A lot of things were happening at once. It was like, ‘OK, this is happening. I need to like get my shit together like right now.'” [On winning] “When they raised my hand I was like, I just won in Thailand against a Thai girl. I was very happy; it was a very happy experience. I didn’t go with my mom or parents. It was just me, my coach, and my teammate. Now, I’m getting ready to go to Turkey with the national team.”
Credit: Geoff Stellfox Jibril Alim, 29, Chicago Muay Thai
[On training during Ramadan] “As a Muslim, this year, Ramadan fell during the last few weeks of school for my PhD, and during the preparation for the [National Muay Thai tournament]. I was fasting 18 hours a day— that’s no food or water. I was doing two-a-days training and I was studying for school, and that was actually very, very rough. But I think it was really fruitful. It meant a lot when I got done with two-a-days and class. Every time before and after I fought, I would pray, and it meant a lot spiritually knowing what I had to go through to be able to make it there.”
Credit: Geoff Stellfox Chanelle Ortiz, nine, and Paulina Lopez, 15, Portage Park Muay Thai
Chanelle—”I like Muay Thai because the punches and kicks are fun. I first started with boxing, but I was getting bored of boxing, so my dad took me here to learn some kicks. I think the kids at school should try Muay Thai because it’s fun, and my coaches are really nice.”
Paulina—”It really means a lot to coach someone like Chanelle. She started at a younger age than me, and I’m sure she can go so much further. And she’s so good now, too! It’s fun to have someone who looks up to me and that does [Muay Thai] with me. It’s like a team, me and her, our team against this guys’ world.”
Credit: Geoff Stellfox Rob Nelson, 52, Chicago MMA
“This has allowed me to prove that your body is amazing if you treat it right and it will recover amazingly. Age is just a number. Get off the fence. You can’t do anything if you don’t try. The worst that can happen is you don’t like it. The best is you find a new passion in your life. I hear people, ‘Well, I’m going to get in shape before I try’ or ‘I’ve got to do this before.’ How about you just show up and let go and be where you are, no matter where you are, and see how you like it? Maybe you’re only going to do it for conditioning and training and for fun. That’s fine. Maybe you fall in love and you become more committed and you want to compete. That’s fine, too. Whatever it is, it’s fine, but you won’t know until you try. And, if you have an interest, check it out.”
Credit: Geoff Stellfox Mazen Rimawi delivers a leg kick to his opponent on Saturday, February 2, 2019, at Cicero Stadium. Credit: Geoff Stellfox Derek Jackson, 26, Dynamite Kickboxing
“It’s an individual sport, and it’s always me in there, but I take all these guys with me when I’m in the ring. All the training we go through together, the time that they take out of the day to help individual students and to help each other. You’re going to have time when you face adversity, and when you have guys like them, your teammates, your coaches backing you up, it just makes your life a lot easier and taste a lot sweeter when you get that victory. It feels like a family. They always pick me up in training and life.”
Credit: Geoff Stellfox Derek Jackson (left) and Avery White trade kicks on Sunday, June 2, 2019, at Cicero Stadium at the World Muay Thai Organization fight card. Credit: Geoff Stellfox Arthur Pike, 28, Andre Madiz Muay Thai
“People definitely have cliched ideas, ‘Oh, well they’re just meatheads.’ I think definitely that’s one thing I represent—I’m not what people imagine as a conventional fighter. Everyone has different sides to themselves; you can be aggressive in the ring, but that doesn’t mean you’re an aggressive person. This is just a healthy way to express that side. I always say afterwards I want to give my opponent a big hug. It’s all love because they taught me so much about myself, by pushing me.”
Credit: Geoff Stellfox Lisa Mucci, 24, Viking Muay Thai
[On having just fought for a championship belt] “I never really had anything I was passionate about growing up. I started with cardio kickboxing classes, and then just kind of wandered into a Muay Thai gym. It took until about my third or fourth fight before I realized that I loved this. I’ve learned so much about myself, stuff maybe I would have never cared to learn or wouldn’t have on my own. I’m still finding how far I can push myself, in this and other parts of my life. I worked my ass off for like months. I can’t quit; there’s only eight minutes to prove myself. I can’t give up in any part of those eight minutes.”
Credit: Geoff Stellfox Parri Zolicoffer of Peoria Muay Thai wears a flower garland as an offering of good luck before his bout on Saturday, July 27, 2019, at Prime Muay Thai in Bolingbrook. Schools from all over the midwest often make the trip to Chicago in order to find opportunities to compete. Credit: Geoff Stellfox Evaristo Hernandez stares up at the ceiling after being knocked out in his co-main event fight on Saturday, February 2, 2019, at Chi-Town Football in Chicago. Credit: Geoff Stellfox Richard Abraham, 33, professional fighter and owner of Maximus Muay Thai and Fitness
“This year, we took seven people to the TBAs [Thai Boxing Association tournament], which is the biggest Muay Thai Tournament in North America, and five of our guys won. We killed it. In that [training] camp, I really gave to them the most I’ve ever given to any camp that I’ve ever had, even as a fighter. I was physically exhausted after; I’ll never forget that. I needed a week just to myself. I felt like I just went through a fight. But with those guys, I have spent so much time, not only physically training them, but mentally and emotionally preparing them for battle. Just having talks, you know, night and day on the phone, calling them in the morning like, ‘Hey, you doing OK?’ Just making sure that their mind frame was ready and their visualization was on point. I felt like I figured what it takes to be a good coach. I grew up training myself, so this was very different.”
Credit: Geoff Stellfox Chanelle Ortiz, nine, Portage Park Muay Thai
“I think the kids at school should try this because it’s so much fun and I get to go to different places for tournaments and meet new friends. My coaches taught me how to punch and kick, and I think my friends would like to learn that too. It’s my favorite thing to do after school.”
Credit: Geoff Stellfox
Fighter Jimmy Do meditates before his headlining bout on Saturday, July 27, 2019, at Prime Muay Thai in Bolingbrook. Credit: Geoff Stellfox