Above is my brief interview with Nick Kara, a trainer at WKO here in Pattaya, and some clips from his fight career.
Meeting Ong Bak’s Big Bear
Nick is a big dude and is an equally big presence when he’s in the gym. Not because he’s a glutton for attention – he’s actually quite unassuming – but because he moves around the space with the kind of comfort and confidence that long-time fighters have. I watched him sparring with some of the guys who train at WKO, just doing boxing, and was amazed by how fast and slick he is at his size. Like a fish in water. In fact, I sparred with him maybe a year ago and he was great in balancing the control of his power (I’m about the size of his left leg) and also dolling out pressure. That’s the mark of a good teacher, to me: being able to use discomfort and pressure to grow and evolve your student without just being an asshole who is dominating for his own comfort. Nick is clearly the former. And one of my favorite qualities in a teacher was exhibited by Nick right after this sparring, when he instructed one of the guys he was sparring on when to hit the body versus when to hit the head. That’s fight instruction and this dude he was sparring will never, ever fight. In fact, he’s pretty slow in his progress and isn’t what you’d call a promising student in any sense. Nonetheless, Nick was telling him this information and expecting him to apply it because that’s how it’s done – that’s what it’s for. He acknowledged that this guy won’t ever fight, but teaches him anyway. There’s generosity in that. I did not know Nick was Big Bear.
He’s not always there at the gym. One afternoon, in his absence, my trainer Pi Mutt was lying on his belly in the ring and chatting with me while I wrapped my hands. Pi Mutt wanted to know why I like Muay Thai and in the progression of this conversation he asked me why I started, which I explain is because I saw the movie “Ong Bak.” Pi Mutt had his chin resting on the bottom rope, so as he nodded in recognition the whole web of ropes nodded along with him. “Oh, Ong Bak,” he said, “you know, Nick is Big Bear.” He said it like everyone knows this, not like a question of “do you know this?” My mouth dropped open. For a millisecond I couldn’t believe it, “Big Bear” is a kind martial arts cinema figure – what are the odds, really – but then I could picture it so clearly in my mind and obviously Nick was Big Bear. What was particularly exciting about this for me personally is that “Ong Bak” as a movie, and probably that scene in particular, is what launched me into Muay Thai. As I’ve told many interviewers, I’d literally never seen or heard of it before that, and it was that movie that inspired me to take my first class in Muay Thai. Ong Bak was my Kickboxer. Big Bear is such a dick in the movie, he screams the immortal film words “Fuck Muay Thai!” just the perfect falang villain for such a fight scene… and not at all like Nick. The veil is lifted and I realized I’ve been for months and months chatting it up with the guy from the scene and movie that put me on this path.
The next time I saw him I told Nick that I now knew he was Big Bear and he laughed, almost shyly, but told me about what it was like filming that scene. I knew Nick was a former fighter – it’s so obvious in his movements and confidence – but I had no idea… just like I had no idea he was Big Bear until I was told. So I asked him to tell me about the filming again on camera, so I could share it on 8limbs.us and I’ll say this: Nick is a much better actor than you’d think is necessary to play a villain like Big Bear; I know this because he is not comfortable being in front of a camera. He said the interview made him sweat. So, double thanks to him for agreeing to do it! I was a little nervous too, as I mashed up Ong Bak fight scenes in my memory. After this I went and looked him up to see if I could add any footage of him as a fighter to the interview. Holy smokes! I had no clue he was the fighter you can see in his youtube fights. Nick was scary, man… those leg kicks! And that’s not to say it’s a surprise because you can see in his movements now how much time he’s dedicated to his training, but seeing a person in life and in training is not the same as seeing them fight. Or often it isn’t.
Nick is covered in tattoos now, a really cool work-in-progress backpiece and these revolvers on his torso that are angled like they’re holstered. When you know someone with very visible tattoos, those tattoos become part of who they are to you and, maybe it’s just me, but you might assume they’ve just always looked like that. So watching Nick’s fight and interview in the ring I’m struck simultaneously by how different he looks going after someone as a fighter, and years ago at that, but also at how much he is exactly the same in the interview in the ring after his fight.
WKO and Great Fighters
WKO is a unique gym, especially in Thailand. It’s five stories tall, with a weight room on one floor, two floors for Karate and the top floor for boxing and Muay Thai. One of the Karate rooms has a padded floor, so you’ll see guys meeting up to wrestle in there, like an informal practice group. And it’s a blend of older western guys who have been there for years (WKO was formerly called ISS Gym) and some clients that have never done anything like this before, and then these trainers who are fucking legends, man. Sakmongkol holding pads for a 70-year-old Canadian; Mutt, who was a Lumpinee fighter and helped train some of the big names of the early 2000’s like Chartchai and Yodsanan; and guys like Nick (and a guy named Jimmy, who I think is Kiwi) who wear their experience on their bodies in the way they move but you’d never know how incredible and accomplished they are unless you looked into it. It took me a long time to spot the framed photo of Nick on the wall in the stairwell, sandwiched between Japanese fight posters featuring Mark Hunt and Peter Aerts, who also used to swing by WKO (ISS back in the day) for fight camps. Just like how you can watch “Ong Bak” and never know that the guy who plays Big Bear is actually an amazing fighter, not some stunt guy; nor from watching those fights could you know that Nick is such a personable guy. So, that’s what this interview is for.
Below is a GIF of Tony Jaa committing his Boran double elbow strike, one of the type of elbow blows Nick says that cracked the plastic stunt “stack hat” under his wig. – from Jack Slack’s Ong Bak in the Real World
Some Photos from Nick’s Time on Set
Nick getting his wig put on over the plastic plate for the stunts
Nick with Master Yodtong, founder of Sityodtong in Pattaya and making an uncredited appearance as the janitor in the club fight scene who recognizes the traditional Boran moves, and Tony Jaa
Tony Jaa and Nick bonding over man-splits