Muay Thai, also known as Thai boxing or the “art of eight limbs,” is the national sport of Thailand. It traces its origins back to ancient battlefields, when soldiers utilized various parts of their bodies — fists, elbows, knees and shins — as substitutes for weapons that they lost in battle. Today, it is a versatile and highly effective martial art that is taught around the world, including at UCLA’s very own John Wooden Center.

In this interview, martial arts coordinator Paul McCarthy, lead instructor Daniel Park and assistant instructor Thomas Le share their experiences as both practitioners and teachers of Muay Thai. 

  1. What is your favorite part about teaching Muay Thai?

Paul McCarthy: I like passing on the knowledge of what has been taught to me. It feels cheesy, but it’s absolutely true. I’ve been given these skills, and if I don’t pass them on or no one else passes them on, we lose not only the ability of people to do Muay Thai, but we lose a lot of the culture of where Muay Thai comes from. I’m not from Thailand, I don’t speak Thai, I have not experienced Thai culture outside of Muay Thai, so I feel very responsible to make sure that what I was taught by my instructors (Krus) and my Ajarn (master instructor), Ajarn Chai, is kept going. I could just teach people how to kick, elbow, knee and punch, but I also teach the other parts I’ve been taught… a little bit of the language, which I probably mispronounce, so I love it when I have someone who speaks Thai in the class. It’s a big thing of what I do overseeing the entire program. I make sure to hire instructors who respect the culture, respect the history and are able to infuse it into the classes.

Daniel Park: I really like getting people passionate about it, specifically by not trying to overwhelm them and make them feel bad because everyone is coming into it with different levels of ability. I never considered myself very athletic, so I had to really work hard to get even halfway decent in martial arts. I want to make sure I make people feel comfortable, make them feel like “I can make mistakes, I can learn, I can go at my own pace.” Making people feel good about it no matter what their level of ability is, that’s my favorite thing.

Thomas Le: Personally, I like seeing people make friends in these classes, and then I like seeing them outside of these classes together, because I’m also on campus. That’s really fun. I like gradually getting accustomed to all the regulars that come in here… it’s a little sense of home.

  1. In your experience, what is unique about UCLA Muay Thai? What sets this class apart from others offered by UCLA Recreation or separate gyms?

McCarthy: Fortunately, UCLA’s value system aligns with mine, so I’m very proud of a lot of the decisions that UCLA has made. One of the things that came through administratively to the department was a guidance on hiring practices from an EDI perspective. So, I took the UCLA faculty senate’s hiring packet, and obviously, to hire a faculty is very different to hiring a part-time martial arts instructor, but a lot of it I could implement. I’m really proud to say that we saw a distinct shift in the demographic of our instructors. Martial arts is a heavily male-dominated industry, especially at the leader level — instructors and high ranks and things like that. We have almost fifty-fifty, from male-identifying, female-identifying, non-binary identifiers as well. I was able to make choices in hiring folks, the way I hired, how I presented the job description, what we stand for, and that attracted a different type of person that I could then hire. We still went through a hiring process, they still had to qualify, but they might not have applied if they didn’t realize that we were open to that, so I’m very proud of that.

Park: Well, I think it’s the accessibility factor. The fact that you get access to so many different programs here at such a lower cost is awesome, and you get some really experienced people as instructors. But I think, beyond that, it’s a great way to let people get their first taste of training. Obviously there’s things, being a part of a university program, we can’t do. We’re not going to train people to fight, we’re not going to spar, but just giving them a good baseline and exposure to the basic principles to see, hopefully, “This is really fun, I want to keep going.” It’s a great first stepping stone; people can then choose to go further.

Le: What definitely sets us apart from other gyms is how safe we keep each other and the general level of respect that we have for each other, because we’re both peers and we’re also trying to learn martial arts. So, that layer of connectedness really takes away the ego that other martial arts gyms would have.

  1. How did you start working as a Muay Thai instructor at UCLA?

McCarthy: I met the instructor when I arrived, Kru Genelle, and I had always wanted to learn Muay Thai. I was so excited I was coming into a job where I can come and train, so I started straight away and became a very close part of what we still call the UCLA Muay Thai family. That family from 2009 through 2011 or 2012, I’m still friends with some of those people. Two of them who trained together got married. It was a very close-knit family for a few years and then people graduated and things like that, and I’m not as involved because I have a family as well, but I was very proudly part of that. We trained together on the weekends, we ate, we socialized together, we went to Thai camp together. It was very close-knit, so I jumped into Muay Thai more than the other martial arts when I got here to UCLA in 2009.

Park: I started here because Paul and I trained at the same “mother gym,” the Inosanto Academy, where he was brought up and I came after him. We had that mutual connection. The Inosanto Academy has had a long history of crossover with the UCLA program, creating instructors who would then go on to teach here. I believe our teacher and Bruce Lee demonstrated here at UCLA, back in the ‘60s. So, there’s been a long overlap… Kru Paul was looking for a new Muay Thai instructor, and I was happy to jump in, and also maintain that tradition of Inosanto Academy students/teachers coming here to grow their craft as teachers and help raise up new martial artists.

Le: I started working here with Muay Thai by actually taking one of the classes in winter of 2023!

  1. What would you say are the greatest challenges to learning Muay Thai?

McCarthy: Compared to some of the other arts that I train in and teach, Muay Thai is a relatively simple art. It doesn’t have hundreds or thousands of different techniques — which could be argued that it does, but they’re subtle differences between the things. You have two fists that you punch with, either straight or in a curve; two elbows that you can strike from a curve or straight; two knees; two feet. It’s a simple art that takes a lifetime to master because of the sport or to be able to train into an old age. I’m not as young as I was, and Muay Thai keeps my body in shape, but it’s a hard art. Learning how to do it subtly and safely is one of the hardest things to do. The other hardest thing is being able to do a powerful Thai kick without trying. We want effortless power, not powerful effort.

Park: I think it’s the sheer volume of techniques and material, because it has so many different weapons and it has its own unique grappling system. It can be a lot to learn… so it’ll feel overwhelming at first, and I think that’s the hardest thing. Also, it has a reputation as a very brutal, very intense art, but when you really start training it, people love to meet you where you’re at. You build up in skill and intensity over a long period of time. You’re not going to get thrown to the wolves on your first day. When it’s done right, you just start easy. I guess you can say it seems a lot more macho and overwhelming than it really is… once you start doing it, you realize, “Oh, I could just take it one day at a time and it’ll be fine.”

Le: Just having confidence stepping on the mat, not being afraid to slip and fall when you throw a head kick, not being afraid to take a little love tap on the face. Also, not being afraid to tap your partner on the face—in the safe way, of course.

  1. Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for students who are interested in or just starting out as beginners?

McCarthy: The hardest thing to do is walk through the door. The second hardest thing to do is walk through the door a second time, and a third time. Just keep going. I’m very confident if you walk into any of our programs, you’re going to feel welcome, it’s going to be inclusive, you’re going to feel safe. That won’t always be the case when you go out into the commercial world or different work. Some gyms are, through subconscious culture design, only for a certain personality or type of person. If you go in feeling uncomfortable and that doesn’t change after you get used to it a little bit, then find a different gym. I’d say go to about five or six gyms that are within your driving distance and in your budget for what you want to train, and start training at the one that makes you feel the best.

Park: Don’t worry so much about trying to look like a professional Muay Thai fighter. You’re going to feel very awkward most days in the beginning, and that will never really go away. You’ll just have a little less and a little less and a little less and even if you get to the point where you’re fighting at the biggest stadiums in Thailand, you’ll still be making mistakes, you’ll still have more room to grow. So, just being okay with not knowing anything. Just embracing that and having fun with that, that’ll make everything a lot easier. Embrace being new to something and being okay with not feeling you have it figured out, because you won’t… The more you can be comfortable in that space, the easier everything will be.

Le: Just because we’re a martial arts gym, we’re not the big, brutish monsters that you might think we are. We’re open to all levels of people. The majority of us are beginners and the people who are experienced are just really nice.

Pacific Ties would like to sincerely thank Kru Paul, Kru Daniel and Khun Thomas for their interviews and for the positivity and passion they bring to the UCLA Muay Thai class. Classes for all levels are offered every quarter and students can enroll through UCLA Recreation or the quarterly Martial Arts Pass.

Visual Credit: Photo by Paul McCarthy


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