“HULK SMASH! HULK SMASH!, ” Three year old Elias Paez shouts as he drills a few combos with his dad, Diego Paez, a pro-fighter and trainer at Classic Fight Team Striking Academy. The pair are inseparable and are frequently seen together at the crowds of Southern California Muay Thai matches. Elias is often seen sitting on his uncles’ shoulders as Diego shadow boxes for a quick warm up before he enters the ring.
Diego Paez, a native of the San Fernando Valley with roots in Colombia, started his Muay Thai journey at the age of 13. The youngest of three brothers found the ‘Art of Eight Limbs,’ early on and has learned countless lessons to date. As a kid, Diego was active in many sports- from football, wrestling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to skateboarding, “I weeded everything out and realized how much of a passion I had for Muay Thai.”
He credits his mother’s support as his foundation and reason for committing to a professional career as a Muay Thai fighter.
“She always supported my training and paid for my membership. She just wanted us to be together,” he recalls and points to Muay Thai as the sport that brought him and his brothers closer together. “I’ll never forget the look on her face when I brought home my first title belt.”
Paez’s mother made it to his third amateur fight and was able to see the results of his 5th fight before losing the battle against pancreatic cancer in 2014. Her memory and this tragic loss are both a source of inspiration and the hardest life lesson for Diego.
The transition from amateur fighter to professional was not an easy one for Paez. Coming from a winning streak into some painful losses and draws opened his eyes to the importance of strategy and humility. He recalls his loss against Brandol Mendoza as he challenged him for the WBC Featherweight title and admits, “I learned a lot from that fight. I am very prideful, and sometimes, my ego can get the best of me. When I came in for that rematch, I thought I was the better fighter, but this fight taught me that I am not Superman.” Having this result from a heavily anticipated title fight got Paez to take a step back and recommit to his goals.
“I hit rock bottom. I was going through a break up with my baby’s mom, drinking, and partying… I was trying to distract myself.” In the end, the pressure of being a single parent made me snap out of it.” Paez took those difficult moments to reflect on the direction he would take and ultimately used these lessons to drive him to better himself physically, mentally and emotionally. Paez started doing private trainings and immersed himself fully into Muay Thai, a move that paid off into a winning streak.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Elias has picked up an interest in Muay Thai and likes to follow along with drills and bag work next to his dad. His technique is surprisingly good for a toddler and Paez asserts “I never forced him to do any Muay Thai, but teaching Muay Thai is part of my day so he watches me, he watches his uncles train and picks it up along the way.” If he chooses, Paez hopes Elias’ future in Muay Thai will teach him more than technique and self defense. When asked which aspects of Muay Thai he considers most important, Paez lists- discipline, respect and confidence. “I won’t force him to fight, but if he did I would be stoked. There is a lot of emotion involved and Muay Thai has helped me learn to control my anger,” Paez reflects on both his emotional and mental journey.
Before COVID19 forced the gyms to close, Paez was booked for a title fight for WCK’s 30th Anniversary event on April 11. The fight has been postponed until August 22nd and Paez has stayed active in preparation for it. “I’ve hit a lot of speed bumps along the way, but my coach and my brothers have been there for me.” Cautiously aware of the current situation, Paez looks to the future and we, at Satrawoot, are excited to follow his journey along with Elias.
Written by Wendy Maya, @balam.soul
All Photos by: Ryan Espinoza, www.espinphoto.com