New York Does Muay Thai
Video + Photos by You Bin. Words by Nick Tantillo.
It is the second day of nationals, and already Dave Moy is about to walk out—his bags are packed. He’s pissed. Moy and his students huddle around a pair of speakers in the crowded gymnasium. There is too much noise to hear announcements, and he is worried his fighters will miss their cue. They almost did: some had to compete as soon as they arrived at 9 a.m. the day before.
At that time, no one knew they would still be competing at midnight, when organizers switch off the lights and lock the doors. Some will go home without competing.
Until then, matches were broadcast over the public address system at Queensborough Community College. Moy hears the name of one of his fighters, and sends him out.
Moy is the head coach at Kings Combat Fitness in Queens, NY, where he has been teaching since 2014. Moy, himself, trained and competed in Muay Thai until a motorcycle accident during the mid-2000s brought his career to a halt. He was a decorated athlete: one New York State title, and another from the Northeast Nationals.
At this moment Moy is trying to keep his cool. The WKA Nationals had never been such a mess. Organizers brought in a scorekeeping software to replace pens and paper. Sometimes the software didn’t perform. When it did, judges struggled against the learning curve. It was sheer chaos. And of all years—this was the first time nationals left Virginia for New York.
Moy never did walk out. And for his patience, we have competition footage of Kings fighters. The Moy I met was nothing like the head coach from the video. No steely glares. Instead, he is reclined on a low-standing, black couch set off from the gym’s mats. It’s sweltering outside, and he sets a fan between us. On the opposite wall, windows that almost reach the ceiling look onto Queens Boulevard.
His demeanor, he admits, is by design.
“Fighters hate me, members like me,” he says. “If you go to other gyms, you see I treat this very differently. I treat this like a frat house.”
To demonstrate this maxim, Moy and his students celebrated Kings second anniversary with beer pong. When it isn’t a holiday, they meet on a regular basis to drink.
In training, Moy doesn’t motivate his fighters. His approach draws less from what he calls traditional Muay Thai—bowing, sealing the ring—and more from his own experience. He encourages in-house competition, which, he says, keeps the energy up. Any encouragement is delivered in trash talking.
“If someone scores a good shot, I make sure the whole gym hears about it.”
Like most fighters his age, Moy, 35, became hooked on combat sports through UFC. The promotion introduced him to the world of fighting—which is not to be kitsch. In the early days of UFC, it was a showcase of the world’s martial arts. “It was not really saying who is the best fighter,” Moy remembers. “It was, what is the best art?”
For Moy, that art was Sanshou, or, what some might call Chinese kickboxing. It was the practical choice for Moy, who wanted to fight MMA. Though related to Muay Thai, it incorporated wrestling—a must on the MMA circuit.
“Why am I going to take something that is lesser than Sanshou,” he asked himself.
The fighting style rose to international attention in 2008 during the Beijing Olympics. The Olympic committee grants host countries the opportunity to introduce one sport to the games. But like most camps in the world of combat sports, interest in Sanshou suffered under the immensely popular UFC. Moy says Sanshou never really caught on in New York, which allowed Muay Thai flourish—if only on a small scale.
Although his memory is foggy, Moy can only recall two gyms that taught Muay Thai in New York during the early years of UFC: the Wat and Five Points Academy in Manhattan. Needless to say, training was limited. To round out his education, Moy flew to San Francisco to train at Fairtex—also a Muay Thai clothing brand. Back on the East coast, he frequently traveled to Pennsylvania to train with friends.
Fight promotions were equally limited. During the mid-aughts, the Tri-State area boasted only one promotion every six months. Let that sink in: there were only two promotions a year to serve fighters in a major metropolitan region. If Moy was to have any chance at a career in fighting, he needed to leave New York. So he traveled to New Jersey, Ohio, Venezuela and Hong Kong, among other locations, to compete.
Around this time Moy’s idol, the mixed martial artist, Wanderlei Silva, moved from Japan to Las Vegas to open a gym. He was hosting try-outs for his team, and anyone who made the cut would receive free room and board. Moy tried out and was recruited. Not even five weeks into his gig at Silva’s, he received a message from his friends to meet them in Thailand. So Moy packed his bags and moved again.
While on a motorcycle with passengers riding on the back and handlebars, Moy was climbing a sandy hill in Thailand. The rear tire dug into the soft sand, and slipped from beneath the riders. Moy tried to correct the fall, but the weight of three adults pushed the bike to the ground. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured. Moy looked himself over. His knee is gashed open and exposed.
Without insurance, all of the medical attention fell on Moy. Fighting was out of the question. It would be six months before he began training, again. So he returned to New York where his girlfriend trained in Sitan in Astoria, Queens. There, he met Sitan’s head coach, Aziz Nahib. In order to stay close to the sport, he shadowed Nahib and learned the basics of coaching. Maybe, Moy thought to himself, coaching is a viable career option.
Moy began hosting weekend sessions out of a SoHo studio. Old teammates and private clients turn out to spar. One of these clients has been training at New York Jujitsu (NYJJ), where a coach is taking time off. The client suggested that Moy substitutes for the coach, so manager bring him in. The students at NYJJ responded well to Moy’s instruction. Soon, the managers at NYJJ bring Moy in fulltime. He accepts the position, and in a short two years becomes the head coach at the gym.
When NYJJ first opened its doors in the early 2000s, it focused on karate. This focus shifted, however, when UFC entered popular culture. To capitalize on the promotion, NYJJ brought in MMA experts to teach. They managed to bring in high caliber fighters, including Coban Lookchaomaesaitong.
By 2012 UFC had matured into a full-blown phenomenon. Now, the promotion could support its athletes financially. Cities like Las Vegas boasted gyms where students could learn all the fighting styles they needed to become a mixed martial artist. This was unheard of a decade ago when fighters needed to travel to cover all their bases. Unfortunately, New York didn’t follow Las Vegas, and never developed into a hub for MMA athletes.
The potential to become a career fighter drew coaches out of New York and into cities like Las Vegas. In their absence, NYJJ became a strictly Muay Thai and Jujitsu gym. The combat sports market in New York was becoming risky. According to Moy, NYJJ’s managers saddled him and the other coaches with more responsibility. He was entering fields of business outside of his expertise—marking and recruiting among others. Making matters worse, NYJJ’s owner cut off financial support to its Muay Thai program. Frustrated, Moy and his assistant left.
During his tenure at NYJJ, Moy’s friends approached him with the opportunity to open their own gym. He rebuffed them each time. After his departure from NYJJ, however, he warmed up to the idea. During what he calls a “drunk encounter” at a bar, his friends approached him again about the venture. This time, he accepted. The result of this drunken encounter would be Kings Combat Fitness in Queens. There, he could dedicate all of his energy to coaching.
Back at nationals, Moy steps out of the Queensborough gym. He becomes frustrated during two fights, and he doesn’t want to lose his cool—yell, curse, hit things. It’s better that Moy stepped out.
He doesn’t get heated with all of his fighters. As most coaches will explain, every student is different and requires different motivators. If a student responds to trash talking, Moy delivers. If the student needs to be smacked around—“To get their head in the game”—he delivers. The students he pressures go on to become fighters.
Much of the trash talking and pummeling begins in the gym. “If it isn’t competitive, they aren’t going to try. Otherwise, they get burned out. How many times can you kick the pads?” All of Moy’s students train six days a week. Depending on what shape they are in, a fight camp lasts between four and six weeks. Unlike most gyms, Moy incorporates strength and conditioning. Although he admits S&C isn’t the most important element in his student’s training, “If it counts for 5 percent advantage in a fight, I want that advantage.”
The rest of King’s training schedule is textbook: Muay Thai six days a week, sparring and clinching two days a week, and finally technique and pads. During fight camps students do rounds on a bag and incorporate cardio. Rest is very important, so is not overtraining. He builds in two “easy” days to give fighters a break.
Moy admits that he was a bit of a gym hopper, though not in the traditional sense. Remember, New York’s fight scene didn’t really pick up until the late 2000s. “Gym hopping” was the norm. Fighters couldn’t complete their training any other way. It was a means to grow in the sport, not disrespect it.
It is precisely his time spent gym hopping that gives Moy his edge in the corner. It allows him to draw from a diverse palette of training, fighting and coaching experiences. From this background, he selects the best practices and delivers them to his students.
He finds some coaches corner in a one-dimensional fashion. If the fighter needs to land more low kicks, those coaches tell their fighters, “more low kicks.” But Moy prefers to corner with the big picture in mind. There are far too many variables in a fight to warrant play-by-play instruction. So he gives them the big picture with the intention that the fighter will figure out how to win. Think, not “more low kicks,” but “take out their legs.”
This approach works for Moy. He walked into nationals with eleven fighters. Ten walked out winners—on the third day, of course.
Special thanks to Dave Moy for his time. And to You Bin for collaborating on this project.