There’s a buzz in the air of Queens Theatre. It’s 7 PM on a Saturday night, and rap is blaring through the speakers on either side of the stage. The crowd has just settled into their plush red theater seats. Their eyes gradually begin to fixate on the red boxing ring in the center of the stage. A few men sneak glances at the bored, scantily-clad ring girl propped along the ropes of the ring. At 7:10, a bearded black man in a black suit appears. He deftly ducks under the ropes and swaggers his way to the center of the boxing ring. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen!” the announcer roars into his mic. “We are live in Queens, New York, at the world famous Queens Theatre. We present to you, Warriors Cup XXV!” The crowd – mostly family, friends, and gym members of the fighters – claps impatiently.
Eldris Barbosa, a 21-year-old Dominican American hailing from the Bronx, sits in a room backstage. He stands at 6’1” and weighs 170 pounds. Tonight, Eldris’ trademark boyish grin is replaced by a steely grimace. He’s wearing a pair of black shorts, shin guards, 12-ounce boxing gloves and a mongkhon, a traditional muay thai headgear that resembles a white rope tied around his forehead. Eldris focuses on steadying his breath and ignoring his cotton-mouth. Brandon, his coach, is saying something, but Eldris barely hears him. All he can think about is stepping into the ring against Brett Taratko, his heavily tattooed opponent. His girlfriend, Castle Joely, is sitting in the middle of the second row along with several gym mates from Evolution Muay Thai. He doesn’t even want to think about losing in front of her. Eldris’ dad, a former Golden Gloves boxer back in the day, had asked his boss if he could leave work early that day to watch his son fight. He’s sitting in the front row. “You’re up next, Barbosa,” Brandon tells him. “You’ve trained hard for this, now all you have to do is show this prick how much you want to win.” Eldris nods and takes another deep breath before he bounces off his seat and heads into battle.
* * *
Muay thai, also known as “the art of the eight limbs,” is a brutal combat sport that originated in Thailand. Muay thai practitioners like Eldris are taught to strike using their fists, elbows, knees, and shins. They combine these strikes with clinching techniques in which they grab their opponent in various standing positions. In full-contact amateur-league competitions like Warriors Cup, fighters face off in a ring for three 2-minute rounds. If both are still standing by the end of the match, judges will award the victory to the fighter who lands cleaner hits, displays more aggressiveness, and maintains control of the ring.
Practicing muay thai is not without its risks; just last year, Eldris injured his back training for his first smoker (an unofficial fight between members of the same gym). Despite the inherent dangers in the combat sport, he has no plans to stop training. “When I was little, I used to watch a lot of kung fu movies with my dad,” Eldris recalls. “Bruce Lee, Jet Li – any Lee really. My dad’s a boxer, my older half-brother is a boxer. I fell in love with martial arts at an early age.”
Eldris has trained at Evolution Muay Thai (Evo) on 27th and Broadway since he was 18. The gym is located on the second floor of a 17-story building filled with modeling agencies, luxury spas, and cosmetic companies. Heavy black punching bags hang from the ceiling at the center of Evo. Dried sweat dots the dark blue rubber mats on the floor under the heavy punching bags, and there is a faint musk in the air. The northern wall is adorned with medals of varying size and color. The west side features a worn but well-kept elevated boxing ring with red, white, and blue ropes. Eldris spends the last four weeks leading to his fight on February 20 in a training camp, an intensive program designed by the gym to prepare fighters for their match. “That’s four hours a day, six days a week,” he tells me. “The first two weeks are real tough since our bodies aren’t used to that level of running, sparring, and drills. Staying mentally positive becomes a real push-and-pull.”
On most afternoons, the sounds of rattling chains and heavy thuds reverberate through the gym as men and women of all ages practice on the punching bags. Brandon Levi, Eldris’ coach and founder of Evo, can usually be found in the thick of the chaos, barking commands for punch-kick combinations. The lean 41-year-old Australian stands at 5’10” with sandy hair and a goatee, and moves with the grace and ferocity of a man half his age (“The secret to preserving my youth is alcohol, lots of alcohol,” he tells me with a grin). It is a rainy Tuesday afternoon, fourth and final week of fight camp, and three days before the official weigh-in on Friday, February 19. Eldris weighs 183 pounds, and he needs to lose 13 pounds within three days in order to qualify for the competition. So, for each day of this week, his daily rations include an egg for breakfast, one slice of chicken breast for lunch, and some nuts for dinner. Eldris arrives at the gym at 2 PM to find an unusually empty gym. Brandon is stretching his legs near the punching bags. “There you are, my favorite little fruit cake,” he roars when he spots Eldris at the entrance. “You ready?” Eldris nods and heads toward the locker room. He wearily strips and puts on his muay thai shorts.
The two stand at the center of the ring at 2:15 PM. Eldris stretches his legs while Brandon impatiently paces back and forth. “Make sure you don’t eat until you’re full – eat until you’re not hungry,” he reminds Eldris. “And no fucking your girlfriend after Thursday, I need you horny and mean.” Brandon holds up a pair of worn black muay thai pads. “I want to see a cross hook, hook cross,” he instructs. Eldris raises his hands to his head in the muay thai fighting stance. He punches the pads and grunts a “ss” sound at each point of impact. “You’re telegraphing,” Brandon says. “Stronger!” Eldris moves to strike the pads again. Ss-ss, ss-ss! “Harder!” Ss-ss, ss-ss! His movements seem sluggish and uncoordinated. “Faster!” Ss-ss, ss…ss! “Now spit on me and call me a whore,” Brandon says with a wink. Eldris laughs wearily as he pushes onward. He’s familiar with his coach’s trick: just as Brandon pushes his fighters to their breaking point, he’ll crack a joke for a brief reprieve.
The final week before a fight is always the hardest. Fighters are required to drastically cut down on eating in order to make weight for their division (170-lb division for Eldris). Carbs and salt are completely cut out from their diet, replaced by controlled portions of protein. Fighters drink about two gallons of water a day to reduce the feeling of hunger and enter the “flushing mode.” Two days before the fight, they switch to distilled water (water with no sodium). On the day of the official weigh-in, one day before the fight, fighters drink no water at all. Because their bodies are still in the flushing mode, fighters will constantly use the bathroom and lose water weight. “I get really irritable in the last week before a fight,” Jeremy Sanchez, Eldris’ longtime friend and training partner, explains. “But Eldris just gets kind of quiet. He handles it better than I do.”
At 3:15, Eldris begins his footwork training. Sweat pours freely down his back as he makes his way to the center of the gym. Eldris seems unsteady on his feet. Brandon sets up an agility course by laying out muay thai pads in a large circle around the gym. Eldris begins to weave in and out around the muay thai pads in fighting stance without crossing his feet. He struggles to catch his breath. “You have the habit of being the nice guy, sometimes a little too nice,” Brandon tells Eldris as he continues to move along the circular path. “You have to want it. I need you aggressive, to be comfortable with dominating someone.” Eldris nods his head, too tired to say anything. Around and around he goes for the next fifteen minutes. At the end of the exercise, Eldris collapses on the mats. “Good work,” Brandon tells him. “Now go run three miles on the treadmill and we’ll call it a day.”
Physically, Eldris is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. At 6’1”, he towers over most opponents in the 170-pound weight division. Eldris legs are as thick as tree trunks, and he packs a powerful roundhouse kick. As his coach, Brandon’s biggest concern for the impending match is his mindset. When a photographer came to the gym to take Eldris’ picture before the fight, he asked him to make a “tough guy pose”. Eldris burst into laughter and assumed a Herculean pose with a sheepish grin. “He’s a nice guy with a goofy sense of humor,” Jeremy says. Eldris lacks the cocky surefootedness found in most fighters I’ve met, either downplaying his fighting prowess or unsure of himself as a martial artist.
Eldris trains hard, often pushing himself to the brink of collapse during sparring sessions. But when the sweat dries up and the endorphins begin to fade, he seems to feel lost in his life outside the ring. “I’m not really sure what I want to do after the fight,” Eldris tells me. “There’s so many things I want to accomplish.” He wants to go back to the Borough of Manhattan Community College and get a degree in sports therapy or economics. He also wants to find a part-time job in the city. Above all else, Eldris dreams of one day opening his own muay thai gym where he can teach underprivileged kids in the city.
* * *
“This bout is scheduled for three 2-minute rounds to be contested under B-class modified muay thai rules for weight class 170 pounds,” the man announces. “Introducing first, currently making his way to the ringside area, fighting out of the blue corner, this is Eldris BARBOSA, representing Evolution Muay Thai!” Eldris walks on stage, with Brandon and Jeremy close behind him. They stop right outside the ring. Brandon adjusts Eldris’ mongkhon. “You’re ready,” he tells him one last time before putting in his mouth-guard. Eldris steps into the ring and stops at each corner for a brief prayer. Ninety-six hours of training for six minutes in the ring, he thinks to himself. Evo gym mates and Eldris’ girlfriend Joely are cheering loudly in the crowd. He hears his dad’s familiar whistle pierce through the clamor, but doesn’t have time to look around.
“And his opponent, about to make his way to the ringside area. Fighting out of the red corner, this is Brett TARATKO, representing Staten Island Muay Thai!” Brett saunters into the ring, briefly tapping each corner of the ring for good luck. They return to their respective corners, and Brett bares his mouth-guard at Eldris. The ring-girl wanders around the ring with an octagonal sign and a frozen smile before returning to her seat. The bell rings.
Clearly the more aggressive fighter, Brett begins round one with a push kick that sends Eldris sprawling against the ropes. Eldris moves cautiously – perhaps too cautiously – in the first round. He gets knocked down from another push kick 45 seconds into the match. Eldris throws a few jabs and crosses but does not mount enough of a threat to counter Brett’s vicious push kicks. The bells rings, signifying the end of the round.
Brandon scrambles into the ring with an uncharacteristically grim expression. Brett’s coach sits Brett down on a stool and begins talking, while Brandon keeps Eldris standing and stretching. He never lets his fighters sit between rounds, a mind game some coaches use to demoralize the opponent by letting them know that the fighter isn’t tired. “You have to watch for that push kick, he’s scoring big with those kicks,” Brandon tells Eldris as Jeremy holds an ice bag to his head. Eldris nods without a word and waits for the bell.
Eldris begins to loosen up in round two. Brett, eager to reenact the first round, continues to throw push kicks. Eldris counters these by dodging and answering with his own roundhouse. Brett, becoming increasingly frustrated, begins to throw wild haymakers, some of which connect. Eldris answers with his own punches. The two trade shot for shot as they circle each other until the end of the round.
Eldris feels much more confident as the bell rings for the third and final round, and his initial anxiety is replaced by adrenaline. “You edged in a narrow win for round 2,” Brandon had assured him. “Show the world how much you want to win this fight.” The two fighters touch gloves at the center of the ring as a sign of respect. Brett, increasingly predictable, begins the round with another push kick. Eldris dodges and counters with a kick to his leg. Brett tries to grab him in a clinch, but Eldris deftly ducks out of it before anything can happen. Eldris seems loose as he bounces around the ring. He utilizes head movement to dodge a wild haymaker and counter with a nasty right cross. Joely and members of Evo yell excitedly as Brett crumples onto the floor. Eldris’ dad is perfectly silent and still. Brett stands back up and takes a quick look at the clock. He knows he’s behind on points. Brett’s punches become increasingly wild as he tries to land a knockout. Eldris kicks him in the leg and down goes Brett for the second time. Brett angrily shoots back up. It’s the last ten seconds. Both fighters are swinging desperately, almost blindly, trying to rack up last-second points or a lucky knockout. But the bell rings and it’s all over. The fighters wearily shake hands. The ref stands them in the center of the ring, each hand grasping a fighter’s arm.
“And now ladies and gentlemen, after three hard-fought rounds of B-Class modified muay thai, we have a winner,” the announcer says. “Ladies and gentlemen, the judges have scored this bout as a result of unanimous decision, your winner. The blue corner! Eldris Barbosa!” The ref raises his arm, then places a gold medal around his neck. Eldris looks more tired than excited. Joely is squealing and flushed with excitement. His dad, previously a mask of perfect composure, is grinning widely and whistling at his son. “He’s quick on his feet, but he could hit a little harder,” he tells me. “Eldris has a lot of potential, but he doesn’t really want to hurt the other guy. And that makes all the difference in the ring.”