Leandro Martinez sat by ring B. He looked relaxed compared to his mean mugging Italian opponent. The sign for the USA was propped up against him, almost touching his shoulder. His mongkol rested tightly on his head and he breathed easily despite having recently been doused with nam man muay after having sweated. The liniment opens closed pours and if the skin is already heated it burns like the fires of hell. His corner consisting of his father, Mike Martinez and his former coach, Daniel Brandt, had to cool him off with chunks of ice. The water and ice had chilled him so much that he didn’t seem nervous at all. He’d had thirty fights already at home in Arizona and because of those bouts he’d made it to the IFMA championship. He was bout number 88 out of hundreds of fights just another fight in the international tournament. He was competing for the gold. Martinez had defeated the hosting nation of Thailand’s 32kg representative and then went on to dominate against Belarus. What was there to be nervous about?
She was apprehensive. Her face was drawn tight and it looked like she was sucking in her cheeks. Her Thai opponent looked bored with the routine of the fight circuit. Summer Bronco had won her last qualifying bouts based on her aggression. She’d channeled her anxiety into a volatile weapon that had secured her a victory against a well-regarded Belgium boxer. Her corner, Rami Ibrahim, used finicky fingers to adjust the American flag that was draped around her shoulders. Ibrahim has an intense look to him as if he was an eagle soaring over the landscape looking for prey. Ibrahim was a week out from a fight in New Jersey but had come out to support the youth IFMA team. Head coach Ricardo Perez whose battle experience and calm gave her advice between rounds. Bronco was called to the ring. The flag swayed in the hot Bangkok heat as she walked forward. Nerves or not Bronco had to fight.
“I like getting my hand raised,” Arshiyam Kanwar said. “But you know, just getting in there – it takes a lot.” Kanwar’s lean body and genteel demeanor accentuated by a pair of black rimmed glasses clashed with his fighting record. He hadn’t lost once in his amateur career but that knowledge of the courage it takes to get into the ring showed an emotional maturity. This emotional sophistication had taken him from Sitan gym in Arizona to the 16-17 year old 51kg fighter tournament in the center of Bangkok at the National Stadium. He further showed that he had what it takes though getting into the ring with Malaysia on the first day of the tournament securing a third round stoppage win. Kanwar hadn’t been wearing his glasses, when he dominated his Korean opponent but afterwards he wore his glasses, so he could see.
Martinez stepped into the ring to perform the wai khru. His opponent kept his steely look. The young Italian’s monkol fell off his brow and sat around his neck, the headband was too large for the young boy’s head. That didn’t stop him from finishing the ceremonial dance. The bell rang and Martinez locked horns with his Italian foe.
It was the first year that the USA had brought a youth team to Thailand for the International Federation of Muay Thai Amateur (IFMA) youth championship. IFMA had recently decided to split the amateur tournament into two sections, one for adults and one for the youths. The United States Muay Thai Federation had helped to organize the IFMA team for the year bringing out representatives from around the states, Texas, Tennessee, California, Arizona and other states were all ready to go to war in the ring for national pride.
After each one minute round the score was displayed on the monitors. Martinez was falling behind against the skilled Italian fighter. He continued to fight and fight and fight. The bell rang and it went to the judge’s scorecard. They gave the gold to Martinez’s opponent but the next night at the IFMA gala it was Martinez who was handing out medals to his fellow athletes for their performances. Martinez seemed relaxed throughout, just another experience.
“Who are we,” Ibrahim would shout. “Who are we?” Ibrahim demanded that his countrymen, that the other countries acknowledge the United States’ presence and Bronco made her existence known in the ring. She moved forward punching. Her Thai opponent, more experienced, used angles and effective kicks to neutralize Bronco’s aggression edging out the decision and gaining the gold medal. Afterwards when the medals were handed out Bronco’s chest heaved up and down. She’d tried, she’d tried, and she’d tried so hard. Her teammates consoled her along with her father. She’d fought 19 times in her young career- twice now in Thailand. While she didn’t get the gold two of her other teammates did, Rebekah Irwin joined teammate Lauren Cabuag in securing the gold in their respective divisions showing along with Bronco the future not only of USA Muay Thai but also the strength of female Muay Thai in America. The next day the pain of loss was replaced by a smile. Bronco is young, she will fight again.
“If I’d lost to another country I would have been pissed,” Kanwar said. “If the Thai kids win I think they get a house.” While he’d dropped a decision loss to Athiwat Tong-Aem of Thailand, who would go on to secure the gold, Kanwar had shown excellent ring skills.
Yet Kanwar’s words referenced to the uneven economics of IFMA. Many European countries sponsor their fighters giving them handsome purses for winning at IFMA while the USMF had only recently achieved non-profit status. Other countries have been more established in the tournament but with the hard work by USMF president Michael Corley and the fantastic organizational skills of vice president Marcy Maxwell, young athletes like Kanwar had been able to come participate in the event.
Corley and Maxwell brought not only over twenty athletes but had also coordinated their parents to come along. The fighters were able to take in the sites of Bangkok attending live Muay Thai bouts and engaged in cultural exchanges with the hosting nation. These accomplishments are just small steps towards a loftier goal.
“It might be possible to get Muay Thai into the Olympics,” Maxwell said. “In 8 years the United States may be hosting the games and hosting countries are given the ability to introduce a sport into the Olympics. The USMF is trying to introduce Muay Thai.”
With the 10 medals awarded to the USA team, 2 gold, 2 silver and 6 bronze along with an award for a beautiful Wai Khru, the help of five different coaches and a United States referee, Josh Ferraro, Maxwell along with the athlete’s dreams of securing further gold may just be within reach.
You can watch the fights themselves here.