Nick Chasteen's covered with menthol-infused oil. His square-jawed face is slathered with Vaseline. A black silk robe with red and yellow trim is cinched at his waist.
It's a Friday night, and the Muay Thai fighter from Phoenix is about to make his professional debut at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. He peers into the lighted mirror, turning his head left, then right, before a fight official appears at his locker-room door and announces that he's up next.
Chasteen and his team walk silently down a hallway of The Joint, the Hard Rock's event center. Guttural screams spill out from fighters as their limbs strike the air and spar pads (whap, whap, whap, whap) during warm-ups in the backstage locker rooms that line the hall.
Meet the "Golden Boy" of Asian Combat Sport Muay Thai
The fighter steps into the elevator with his corner men — Chasteen's younger brother, Damien Earley, a professional kickboxer who also trains in Muay Thai, and seasoned trainer Bob Karmel.
Nick's barefoot and wearing a mongkon, the sacred headpiece that Muay Thai fighters don like a crown. Despite his garb and gloved hands, he doesn't look as though he's about to enter a ring and endure elbow jabs, shin kicks, and merciless knee blows before a crowd of more than 2,000 bloodthirsty fans.
Rather, dubbed "Golden Boy" in the sport, he looks as if he's arrived for a photo shoot to showcase his lean, buff body, perfectly styled hair, and clean-cut, handsome face for a Calvin Klein fragrance or pair of Diesel jeans.
But his disarming good looks are part of his defense.
"A lot of guys look at me and say, 'What the hell's this guy doing? Is he modeling? I know that in the fighting world, people are going to take me lightly because of my looks," he tells New Times. "And I know that works to my advantage because that's the worst thing you can do — underestimate someone."
Standing at the edge of the stage, Karmel gives Chasteen a gentle slap on the back.
"This is everything you ever dreamed of," he says to the 25-year-old he's been training for seven years.
As Chasteen climbs into the ring, he follows an age-old tradition known as "sealing the ring:" He walks along its perimeter, running his glove along the top of the ropes. This is a Muay Thai ritual believed to ward off evil spirits.
Chasteen's more concerned about warding off Chris Culley, a tough mixed martial arts fighter with 30 professional fights on his résumé, including two pro Muay Thai bouts.
Chasteen delivers a nonstop assault of leg kicks to his opponent's outer thigh during the match, damaging the muscles working to hold up Culley's body.
The more experienced fighter delivers what should be a debilitating blow to Chasteen in the final round — he drives his shin full-force into the bridge of Chasteen's nose.
The 6-foot-2, 147-pound pretty boy falters. But he doesn't fall.
Scott Kent, owner of Vegas' Lion Fight Promotions, watches ringside as Culley's leg brutally connects with Chasteen's face.
"That would have knocked a lot of guys down — and probably some guys out," Kent says. "That just reaffirmed in my mind that Nick's not only a great offensive fighter; he can take a punch and a kick, too."
Kent, a former casino executive who himself trains as a Muay Thai fighter, started organizing bouts in Las Vegas about three years ago. He signed the decorated amateur fighter to an exclusive multi-fight contract — even before Chasteen fought a single professional match.
The promoter says it was a very unusual move.
"We've never done it before. And I'm not aware of any other Muay Thai fighter who has signed a multi-fight agreement coming out as an amateur," he says. "So he's a pioneer in that. He just has such a substantial amateur record that it really made sense."
Chasteen has 21 amateur wins and four losses, and he holds nine titles in fights sanctioned by the U.S. Muay Thai Association.
Muay Thai, called the "art of eight limbs," is a vicious combat sport in which fighters use fists, elbows, knees, and legs to assault each other. Also permitted is clenching, in which a fighter can push down his opponent's head while delivering sharp body and head blows with knees and elbows.
Though its exact origins and its path to international popularity are debated, it's generally accepted that the fighting style started hundreds of years ago as a method of training soldiers for close combat on Thailand's battlefields.
Like soldiers in battle, fighters in the ring deliver blows meant to incapacitate their opponents. Martial-arts experts and enthusiasts of the sport often list Muay Thai as the most violent combat style. And many bouts end in knockouts — meaning that extremely powerful kicks and knee and elbow jabs to the head shake the recipient's brain so violently that it shuts down to conserve energy for internal repairs.
Chasteen twice has shattered bones — in training.
As in all combat sports, crowds love a knockout.
The first amateur fight at the November show in Las Vegas ended about 90 seconds into the match with a knockout that sent several medical personnel rushing into the ring. The fighter was out cold for several tense minutes before coming to and getting hauled out of the ring.
There's no doubt that the risk of serious injury or even death heightens interest in Muay Thai — a national sport in Thailand.
Kent has grown the Muay Thai fan base in the United States by snapping up top-tier fighters from Thailand and around the world to add to his stable of American up-and-comers.
"I'd always had my eye on him," Kent says of Chasteen. "I just felt he was extremely marketable. I thought he was a great fighter, a great kid."
There's no doubt that a good measure of Chasteen's potential is based on his looks.
Hosting shows in Las Vegas, the fight capital of the world, and airing them (sometimes live) on AXS TV, a cable network with 43 million viewers, is part of Kent's strategy.
Lion Fight's main event at the Hard Rock includes Malaipet Sasiprapa, a Thai national with a record 144 wins — 53 of them by knockout. Although he's the fan favorite, it's Fabio Pinca of Lyon, France, who defeats Sasiprapa in a unanimous decision.
Though Vegas is the main draw for fighters from overseas (including Europe and Asia) — where the sport easily overshadows mixed martial arts and boxing — Kent's talking to Karmel about hosting a few pro-fight cards in Arizona.
In the past decade, only amateur Muay Thai fights have been staged here, such as the one scheduled by Bounded Fist promotions earlier this month at Arizona Event Center in Mesa.
It's a budding industry, says Karmel, who started promoting Muay Thai in Arizona in 1992. He estimates that he's organized 40 amateur shows since then, but more than half, 27, have taken place in the past seven years.
By comparison, there have been 53 mixed martial arts events and 25 boxing matches in the state over the past three years.
In a four-part documentary Inside the Fight: USA vs. Thailand, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Jeff Dojillo features some of the top Muay Thai fighters from both countries (including Joe Schilling, Kevin Ross, and Romie Adanaz) going head to head.
In it, trainers and fighters discuss reasons MMA has overshadowed boxing and other combat sports (including Muay Thai) in the States.
"There's a lot of talent that could come to pro Muay Thai if there was just money for it," says Schilling, who's fought on a couple of Lion Fight cards. "You can't really argue with guys going into MMA when they can make $50,000, $60,000 for a fight."
Kent says a beginning Muay Thai professional can earn about $1,000 per fight in the United States and a seasoned fighter can make six figures in a year in this country. By comparison, Stephan Fox, a spokesman in Bangkok for International Federation of Muaythai Amateur, tells New Times that there are opportunities for contenders on television shows, such as Contender Asia or Challenger Muaythai, to make as much as $150,000 for a single bout. One Thai fighter, Buakaw, earns a minimum of $60,000 per fight. Fox says there's even more money for fighters who land endorsement deals with advertisers.
Despite the potential for maiming and serious injury (they've seen many of their comrades go down), Muay Thai fighters are passionate about the ancient sport.
Chasteen and his brother, Damien, are following in the footsteps of their father, John Earley, a second-degree black belt in Kempo Karate, who also was a kickboxer and a Muay Thai fighter.
John and his wife, Teresa Chasteen, raised a family of fighters. Nick ended up with his mother's last name on his birth certificate, and his parents never got around to changing it before he established a reputation as a fighter.
Damien was the first in the family to go pro as a fighter in a combat sport, kickboxing. Their older sister earned a state kickboxing championship.
"It's been a beautiful run [for the family]," says John, drenched in sweat after a workout at Karmel's Best Muay Thai gym in Tempe. "I never expected they'd come this far."
Nick Chasteen and his family often were seen pedaling bicycles through Central Phoenix in the early 1990s, heading to a gym near 16th Street and Thomas Road.
John Earley was loaded down with fighting gear and trailed by his four kids, the youngest 5 years old at the time.
"When we were old enough, he'd drag us to the gym," Nick says. "He'd get us on our bikes. We'd ride through all the bad neighborhoods in Phoenix getting chased by pit bulls. All just to get to go work out."
Nick, like his siblings, started his martial-arts career in karate. When he turned 9, he was ready for kickboxing. By the time he was 12, he had a record of 12 wins and one loss in that sport.
Their reputation as a family of fighters made life easier at home and at school, Nick says.
"We never got physical with each other," he says. "You're so beat-up from the gym that you don't have time to fist-fight at home. And we never had problems at school because everyone knew my older sister. She hit like a dude."
That is, bullies at school could only imagine how the boys must hit.
Desiree was a state kickboxing champion at 16. Eventually, Nick's older siblings moved away from combat sports, and even he and his brother, Damien, took a break. After seven years of nonstop training in martial arts, it was time for something different.
The boys spent the next six years being teenagers, excelling at football and baseball in high school.
"We took time off to be kids," Nick says, adding that he would have pursued baseball further had he not fallen in love with Muay Thai.
"I think that, if I had continued [in martial arts] in those five years, I would've been so burned out. My body would be so broken down that I don't think I'd be able to fight. The way we trained was tough, and the way we train now is even harder."
When Nick and Damien were 19 and 18, they decided it was time to revisit martial arts. And their father was standing by.
The two began spending hours in the gym stretching, jumping rope, shadow boxing, sprinting, and sparring.
Nick, who lives in Phoenix with his girlfriend, Talie Jean Baca, trains for three hours each morning, takes a brief break to eat, and then heads to the gym for another three hours of nonstop training.
Training is Chasteen's job while Baca works for an event-planning company. Damien supports himself by working part-time as a security guard at Tempe bars.
Baca met Chasteen at the gym and since has become the publicist for him and Damien. She relentlessly reps both brothers.
"Nick and I live together, we train together, and we're moving to the top together," she says. "I'm so excited for him and Damien. Twenty-fourteen is going to be a huge year!"
The training has earned Chasteen many amateur U.S. Muay Thai Association titles: Intercontinental, Tri-State Welterweight, Western Regional Modified Rules, Arizona State Light Welterweight, Dual State Light Welterweight, and Regional Welterweight.
Damien holds amateur USMTA titles, including a Southwest regional championship.
"He's my main training and sparring partner," Nick says. "We have the same build, same heart, same techniques. It's kinda hard [when we're training] because we both know what we're throwing."
The brothers' parents always are squarely planted in the audience, cheering on whichever son's in the ring.
"My mom's the loudest one at fights," Nick says, recalling a time years ago when she jumped in the ring to confront a coach after one of his battles.
John says it's tough to see his boys getting knocked around but that it's the nature of the game.
"As I've gotten older, I have mellowed out a bit," he says. "I've been trying to keep up with them. But, at shows, I have to pin myself to my seat so I don't cause them any embarrassment."
In his first pro fight as a kickboxer, Damien knocked out his opponent in the third round.
"He's got more fights than me, even though he's my younger brother. He's put in just as much hard work, if not more," Nick says.
The little brother says he couldn't imagine doing anything else.
"For me, growing up, it was about spending time with my family. And, second, it was enjoying the fights," Damien says. "I felt the stress on me, but on the day of the fight, it just came normal to me."
Kent says Damien's name has come up as a potential pugilist as Lion Fight plans its upcoming Muay Thai matches.
"He's fought for us on a previous card. Nick and Damien always have been very professional with us. We'd certainly like to get Damien in early in 2014," he says.
Damien is scheduled to fight in China on January 11, while Nick's next fight is set for February 7 in Vegas.
Damian doesn't mind the broken bones or chipped teeth that inevitably will come.
"Nick always has been the pretty boy," he says. "I was a football lineman and weighed 220 pounds. Now that I'm lean, I don't really care about my looks. To me, scars add beauty. They mean you have a life story to tell."
The brothers can't give enough credit for their success to their father's work ethic.
"I looked up to him in every way and listened to every story he told me about life and fighting," Nick wrote in a profile posted on the USMTA website. "My dad worked his butt off at every aspect, as a fighter, trainer, father, and husband . . . We knew that we were not going to be handed anything for free. We were going to have to earn everything through hard work."
Despite the intense workouts, John says, he never expected his sons to end up as professional combat fighters.
"Everything's going gangbusters," he says, gleaming with pride over Nick's recent bout in Vegas and a fight in China with Damien on the card. "Who would have known?"
Bob Karmel, a Thailand-trained fighter, had a pretty good idea about the brothers' potential.
They call him Master Bob, a title he earned after three decades as a fighter, instructor, and one of the first Americans to fight and train fighters in Thailand.
The website www.tigermuaythai.com describes the sport's eight points of contact as mimicking ancient weapons of war.
"Hands become the sword and dagger, shins and forearms [are] hardened in training to act as armor against blows, and the elbow [is used] to fell opponents like a heavy mace or hammer, the legs and knees [are] the ax and staff. The body [operates] as one unit. The knees and elbows [search] constantly, and [the fighter tests] for an opening while grappling and trying to spin an enemy to the ground for the kill."
Trying to hone the all-but-deadly skills in his fighters is what Karmel does. And he does it well, although it racks his nerves on fight nights.
"The day of the fight, come noon, don't talk to me," he says. "I'm nervous. I can't eat. Once we get into the ring, I second-guess myself. Did I do everything I could have done [to train the fighters]?"
He met the brothers at Lion's Den, a Scottsdale gym where he led a Muay Thai program for three years. While there, he produced eight national Muay Thai Champions and brought home the National Team Championship at the 2010 Thai Boxing Association's annual Muay Thai tournament in Iowa.
Lion's Den since has closed, but Karmel opened his own gym: Best Muay Thai in Tempe. He works with Valley promoters Bounded Fist and Bad Blood to organize fights, and he manages some fighters.
"There's a lot that goes on with the sport beyond the fighting," he says, recalling many days and nights of traveling across the country to events, everyone piled in one car, stuffed in the same hotel room, spending weeks trying to get his fighters on various cards. "It's just nonstop. And then there's trying to keep them out of trouble. These boys are no angels."
Nick doesn't deny this.
He tangled with the cops when he was a teenager, getting busted for underage drinking, speeding, and disorderly conduct.
"Given the neighborhood I grew up in, I could easily be locked up now," he says. "I was in trouble growing up, but I never abused my fighting skills; it was just rebellious teen stuff."
He says Karmel built him and his brother into the ring competitors they are today.
"It's been a rough road through my years," Nick says. "Master Bob molded me and my brother into unstoppable forces. We've only begun to scratch the surface."
Experts agree that pro Muay Thai fighters Schilling, Ross, and Adanaz are at the top of the sport in the United States — for now.
Fox tells New Times that Buakaw is Thailand's top fighter.
"For Canada, it would be Simon Marcus. For Russia, it would be Levon Artem. And we must not forget the females like Valentina Shevchenko from Peru and Caley Reece from Australia," Fox says. The matches between female fighters are just as potent as the male contenders.'
Each holds various world titles in bouts sanctioned by the World Muaythai Council, the sport's official world governing body, established by the Thai government. They'll be fighting on June 14 in Monaco to defend their titles. Yet several other bodies govern Muay Thai fights and offer contenders titles and championships in the disorganized sport.
"Think about it like high school," Karmel says. "Nick and Damien are the freshmen among U.S. contenders. The older guys are just a generation or so ahead of Nick and Damien."
He predicts that the brothers, who have been on the undercard when fighters like Schilling and Ross are the main event, will take many titles from them in the long run.
"Nick, in one or two years, will end up fighting Kevin Ross," Karmel says. "The next group coming up is better than the group ahead of it."
When today's premier fighters pass the brothers at various shows, "They're friendly enough, they shake hands [with Nick and Damien]," Karmel says, "but they keep a certain distance because they know these kids are going to come up and push them out of their spot."
Lion Fight's Scott Kent also is banking on fighters like Nick Chasteen helping the sport continue to gain momentum.
"It's got a huge upside," the Vegas promoter says. "I could do a lot of different things with my time, but this is something that I'm all in on. I'm very bullish on this sport. I know the fan support we have is amazing, and it's constantly growing. We think the ceiling is unlimited."
The sport's wildly popular in the country where it was invented. There are about 25,000 pro Muay Thai fighters around the world, Fox says. The World Muaythai Council reports that all four Thai television stations broadcast fights free to millions of fans throughout the country — four nights a week.
"In the provinces, villages cluster around any available TV to watch," the council's website reports. "In the city [of Bangkok], people disappear from the streets while Thailand is watching Muaythai. Thai boxing also is becoming increasingly popular outside Thailand. It has its enthusiasts and practitioners in the Americas, Australia, Japan, Europe."
The Bangkok Post reported on September 22 that the International Federation of Muaythai Amateur is lobbying to make the Thai national pastime an Olympic event, like boxing and judo, organization President Sakchye Tapsuwan is quoted as saying.
Because Muay Thai's a growing industry here and so popular in other countries, Chasteen hopes that one day he will make big bucks as a fighter. He wants to buy a large house for his parents and sports cars for him and his dad.
"I'm an old-school muscle-car guy, so it'd have to be a [restored] 1970 Plymouth Barracuda, and I'd make sure that my dad's driving the same car."
In a column on FightSportAsia.com, writer C.C. Anderson says it will take much hard work by promoters to build Muay Thai into a fan favorite in the United States.
"There aren't enough fighters or promotions to create an appropriate weeding system," he wrote. "Muay Thai in America still is in its relative infancy."
He credits Kent and Lion Fight for "receiving lots of international attention, as has M-ONE [an Amsterdam promoter] for putting on good fights."
The combat style's challenged in America, he wrote, because Muay Thai gyms mostly were abandoned when MMA's popularity skyrocketed. This,while Thai-style boxers in other countries — Japan and the Netherlands, for example — continued to hone skills and refine techniques.
As for Kent, he's confident that intense matchups at shows will draw bigger crowds.
"The nice thing about Muay Thai is there are no easy fights," he says. "In boxing, they would take a guy like Nick and say ,'We're going to build him up.' Then, they'd put 15 or 20 guys in front of him who aren't going to be able to knock him out [so he looks better]. We've never been about that. We put in very tough guys against Nick."
Arjan Carlos Moreno, who formed the Texas-based American Muay Thai Association, laments that Muay Thai isn't getting anywhere near the recognition of the UFC.
His point is that Muay Thai's the soccer of the combat-sports industry — it's fiercely popular in countries around the world, but it doesn't resonate with U.S. fans as much as other ring sports.
In America, there are just too many martial-arts choices, he says. But he, too, credits Lion Fight for bringing unprecedented attention to the sport.
"[Lion Fight has] one of a few different Muay Thai events that are televised," Moreno says. "And Scott Kent puts on a really good show . . . He's really pushing to make it national. Promoters like him are only going to spark interest."
After his professional debut in Vegas, Nick Chasteen holds a bag of ice to his ankle for a few minutes, then moves it to his knee. His face is flushed and blood has pooled beneath the skin on his nose.
Blood's spattered on his white silk shorts.
He didn't knock out his opponent, but he outscored him, giving Chasteen a victory in the pro bout aired live on cable TV to combat-sports enthusiasts.
Karmel controlled the bleeding on Nick's face during the fight with cotton swabs dipped in epinephrine drawn from a vial. Now, after the fight, he dabs a medication on the laceration with gauze.
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"You gotta keep going for it," the young man says through the pain. Disoriented after the beating he took on the way to the win, Nick remains defiant: "Yeah, I got kicked in the face, but in the end, he was more banged up than I was."
He vows to train harder and put on an even better show when he takes the stage again in Vegas in February. The pain he just suffered from his chosen sport makes Muay Thai even more of an obsession for him.
"We're all a little fucked up in the head for even going into that ring," he says. "I can't see myself doing anything else."