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.
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.