Illustration by Leigh Douglas

After two hours of training, the gloves come on. Tired students circle up for full contact fights. The room fills with excitement and tension as fighters test their knowledge for two long minutes.

The Thai Self-Defense class considers sparring as a gift for a long day of training . It’s the kind of gift they measure in bumps and bruises.

“We have constant supervision for sparring,” said club member Marlo Custodio. “We operate under the saying that ‘iron creates iron, steel creates steel.’”

The class is UC Santa Cruz’s newest martial arts club of the 11 different martial arts clubs registered with OPERS. The club practices a form of southeast Asian kickboxing called muay Thai, which has been popularized stateside through Mixed Martial Arts fights.

Club founder George Chen pointed out the practicality of the martial art beyond competitive use.

“Muay Thai is the most realistic martial art,” Chen said. “It’s a good style if you’re ever confronted on the streets or if you want to compete. It can be applied in any situation.”

Chen considers the Thai Self-Defense class to be an alternative to gyms that charge monthly fees in the area. The club is free, with money being spent only on gloves, shin and mouth guards for sparring.

Muay Thai differs from other martial arts because fighters adopt a more square stance and usually keep moving forward into their opponent’s attack, as opposed to moving around it. Club signer Travis Trinh believes that muay Thai is a more psychologically intense form of fighting.

“It’s more an in-your-face style,” Trinh said. “Once you get into your opponent’s head, that’s how you know you’ve won the fight.”

Fighters are allowed to clinch their opponents and use their knees and elbows, moves banned by other kickboxing disciplines internationally for being too rough.

For Chen, Custodio and Trinh, muay Thai is a passion each developed while in college. Chen found his passion for the martial art through his older brother, while Trinh and Custodio both fell into the sport unexpectedly.

Trinh found muay Thai through seeing someone practice the martial art on the East Field. Trinh discovered that he was a member of a prominent gym in San Francisco. Despite interest, Trinh had never practiced martial arts before.

“Everyone watched Jet Li or Jackie Chan movies when I was a kid,” Trinh said. “I wanted to properly learn how to fight.”

Custodio, a former high school wrestler, found the sport at what he considered to be the lowest period of his life. Custodio was battling anxiety from being in community college for four years, while his mother developed cancer. To compound his problems, Custodio was also broke.

“I told the sifu [a Cantonese term for master or teacher] that I’d wash the mats, I’d clean the toilets, anything to get the training,” Custodio said. “I began to train with them six days a week for nine months. It became my life.”

Custodio credits muay Thai for providing discipline in his life. Custodio became an amateur fighter, amassing a 1–0 competitive record before choosing to finish college at UCSC as a film and digital media major.

In his training, Custodio developed an interest in the spiritual side of muay Thai fighting. He spoke of muay Thai’s storied origins when a single sifu freed the nation of Siam from colonial Burmese rule in the 18th century.

Custodio believes that muay Thai offers empowerment through its learning.

“Muay Thai isn’t just fighting,” Custodio said. “In order to learn it you must practice poise, composure and self-discipline. Moderation is heavily emphasized.”

Club founder George Chen said the muay Thai community provides a strong experience for UCSC students.

“We look to build that sense of belonging,” said Chen. “There’s a real brotherhood with fighting.”


The Thai Self-Defense Class is every Wednesday and Friday from 5–7 p.m. in the OPERS Multipurpose Room. The club also practices from 12–2 p.m. on Sundays at the OPERS Martial Arts Room.