As a community, we strive to be inclusive and open to everyone who wants to learn the art of Muay Thai. However, that requires us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves where we’ve failed.
For far too long, Black fighters have not had a voice in the sport and minimal representation with brands, marketing, sponsorship and IFMA team selection. This is despite domestic and international success of pioneers of the sport such as Dorian Price, Cyrus Washington and more recently Charles Johnson. Black women, in particular, are one of the least represented groups in our sport, and we need to start asking ourselves why.
For the next few months, Street Fight blog will be chatting with Black Nak Muay from across the country on their experiences in the sport and in the Muay Thai community. In our first installment of our blog series, we spoke to professional Muay Thai fighter Kevin “Black Panther” Rhoades of Rami Elite in Philadelphia about lack of representation in Muay Thai brands, and how it feels to represent his country on the international stage as a Black man.
Satrawoot: Hey Kevin, thank you so much for chatting with us. What’s your experience been like as a Black Muay Thai fighter?
Kevin: I don't remember training with a lot of Black people. You know, I try to think back in my mind. I can maybe count on my hand the amount of other Black fighters that I've seen in the gym training. At my first gym, I think it was me and my brother and maybe like two other Black people. I had locks at the time, too, and my brother had locks at the time, so we were like the Ying Yang Twins of the gym.
SATRA: Why do you think that is? Why are there so few Black people in the gym?
Kevin: I think it's a lack of exposure. I started with MMA, and when I was there, I saw a lot of Black participants. With Muay Thai, I didn’t even really know there were specific gyms for it until I really got into it. Growing up in the Black community, I knew about boxing really young. I was in the boxing gym when I was 5. We come up with boxing, and it feels really close for us, and it’s something a lot of Black people are really comfortable with. But, Muay Thai is still different.
SATRA: You mentioned how important it is to see yourself or someone who looks like you in the sport. What responsibilities do brands and organizations have to show Black fighters? Just scrolling through the Instagram feeds of most of the big brands, there’s very few, if any Black fighters.
Kevin: I think the only main Black fighter I’ve seen lately actually posted by brands is Jalill (Barnes). Before that, TJ the Thinking Man. Other than that, it’s a real bare space. If I had a fight coming up my gym would post me (my head trainer is Palestinian and my gym is very diverse). ... When I think of brands, when I think of Muay Thai I don’t think of a lot of Black fighters, unfortunately. I think brands tend to post who they believe is more involved in the sport, which is unfortunate. And I understand people say, “well, business,” but I mean, it's still unfortunate because I believe Muay Thai is a way more diverse sport. It comes from Thailand, but there’s people from the UK, from South America and other places. When I went to (the Pan American Championship] – which was the US, Canada and the South American nations – there were a lot of Brown folks, [laughs] a lot of Brown fighters. The most I've ever seen gathered in one spot and they were all really good. There's definitely a market open, a spot to have Black fighters represented in brands, unless they think that we don’t sell, which I think is bullshit.
SATRA: How did that make you feel when you were at Pan Ams and you're around other Black, Brown and non-White people?
Kevin: When I first got there, I was like, “Oh, man, I do not belong here.” But, after the fights everybody would talk to you – even though we could barely speak the same language. I don’t want to say like brotherhood, but we were trading shorts and shirts, Instagram [handles] with each other. We’d find people who could translate to each other what we were saying. … It’s not just about language. It’s about being surrounded by people who look like you. I'm Black from America, and you see somebody from Brazil or you see somebody from Peru or Colombia or different nations, but their features are kind of very similar to yours, you’re like, “Oh, we're global. Black and Brown people, we’re out here doing our thing.”
SATRA: Is that diversity what drew you to Rami and his team?
Kevin: I feel really comfortable at Rami’s gym. Most of them I knew from high school, and honestly, a lot of them were Black and Brown. They look like me; they talk like me. I’m a nervous person, and I was able to talk to them. I don’t think people understand how big of a difference that can make – having someone around who looks like you, and resembles you, and how comfortable that can make you feel. Rami (Ibrahim), he’s Palestenian, he’s a minority, too, and he’s always made me feel welcome. Even before I joined the team, he’d walk up to me at fight cards and be like, “Hey, we about to get that win?” He’d always check on me, and I wasn’t even a part of the team yet. I went to school with Ahmad Ibrahim (Rami’s nephew), and they’d invite me out to go celebrate after fights and it made me feel welcome.
SATRA: What can coaches do to be more supportive?
Kevin: It’s not just Rami. My first coach at Stay Fly Muay Thai, Big Mike, he took good care of me when I was just a young 20-year-old kid. I was a young Black kid, and he was definitely a 30-year-old white dude. But he was able to connect with us. Normally, if I have to, I’ll fake it to make it, get my training in and just go home, but he cared, and I was really close with him. Rami just makes you feel like family. Rami will always do right by you. That would be my advice to coaches: you don’t have to do everything. But if I can walk into your gym and feel a welcoming atmosphere, that’s important. Some fighters can treat it like a business, but I need the emotional connection. I need connection to my coaches if I’m going to be in the ring because I need to trust them. I trust Rami with my life. You have to make people feel comfortable. Most classes are an hour, and I don’t want to stay somewhere where I don’t feel comfortable for that amount of time. That’s no way to grow, whether you’re a fighter or just trying to get in shape.
SATRA: Where do organizations, promotions and governing bodies fall short? I’ve been to enough TBAs and seen enough international selections to notice that it’s not always particularly diverse and can be very West Coast focused.
Kevin: I definitely see the West Coast thing, and I understand, most of the coaches are from the West Coast. We have something over here called Muay Thai Super Series, and I’m hoping that can help with East Coast talent and maybe get some Black talent from New York on the radar. I know that TBAs help with placement (for IFMA), but even then you have to fly. You need hotel rentals and prices rack up. Right there, you’re going to exclude a lot of talented fighters because of the cost. I just hope there’s more opportunities and improved ways to gauge the talent that’s really out there. There needs to be more chances for those who can’t make the West Coast trip, to TBAs or USMTO to get recognition and opportunities. There has to be better ways to get Black fighters involved with IFMA. I get that it’s not a big sport here in America, and usually with smaller sports, people who look like me or Jalill aren’t the ones who get attention. Hopefully we can change that.
SATRA: What are your goals for the future?
Kevin: Me and Jalill have a competition to see who is going to be the first Black American stadium champion in Thailand. He’s already in Thailand, so he has a head start. But I’ll get there. One of my goals is to open a gym back in North Carolina for Black youth. I want to go back home [laughs]. It’s a way to reconnect with my roots and a way to give back to the Black kids back there. For me, it’s even deeper than that. With my brother, I’ve watched Muay Thai build a path for him, build connections. I watched him go from a kid who used to get in trouble to become a man. I think Muay Thai was a really big part of his growth. Even when his passion for Muay Thai burned out, it was those connections that helped him forward. I’ve seen what it can do, what it’s done for him, for myself, and I’d really like to extend that to the Black community someday.
While COVID-19 has put a temporary hold on Kevin and many others’ fight plans, you can follow him and his journey on social media @blackpantherkev_elite on Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. We at Satrawoot look forward to seeing what the future has in store for him.