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In fact, it's a 500-year-old combat discipline from Thailand known as the "art of the eight limbs" because it uses fists, elbows, knees, shins and feet to battle an opponent. He found a gym in North Hollywood, but he got lost in Van Nuys (who hasn't?) and wandered into a Muay Thai gym run by Vichai Supkitpol, known as Kru Rex to his students. Born in Thailand, Rex had started fighting when he was 14 and would eventually take part in more than 150 matches, winning the middleweight title in 1976.
Rex started working with Oyama and noticed the kid was smart and picked up things quickly. But he also knew the kid lived in Huntington Beach and figured he'd soon tire of the commute, especially since he was a full-time law student.
"But he showed up every night," Rex says. "Every night, that really surprised me."
Because Muay Thai teaches a person to use so many parts of the body as weapons, it leaves much of the body vulnerable to attack and requires an exceptional level of fitness to both attack and protect. Pain is an accepted outcome, and part of the training regimen is to toughen up the body through repeated punishment. The exposed midsection is pounded by and slapped at with leather gloves designed to toughen up the skin. The shin bones are hardened through cortical remodeling, a nice way of saying adherents kick a heavy bag countless times with their shins to cause calcification.
The pain didn't really bother Oyama as much as his impatience to fight. Rex preached "we get tired down here [out of the ring], so we don't get tired up there [in the ring]." Oyama just wanted to fight. Okay, Rex said, let's fight.
"We get in the ring, and I'm this guy who can bench almost 500 pounds, and this old guy is just kicking my ass," Oyama recalls. "And he's not really even trying. He's just toying with me, not even sweating hard. That's what brought me back—I wanted to learn."
What Rex taught him was that there were details and particulars to everything in life, even kicking someone's ass. These details could not be ignored or skated around, there was no "kind of." He taught him the gym was a place for attitude, but that attitude was not about talking trash.
"[It is] a place of respect and discipline," Rex says. "We're here to show how good we are, not to kill each other."
He taught Oyama to think of it as a sport, not a fight, so there would be distance, emotionally. One had to be relentless, but always under control. An angry fighter was a weakened fighter because he had lost his most valuable weapon: his mind.
"Angry fighters make mistakes," Rex says. "You don't get mad, and your mind is clear. You see things. I always tried to make my opponent angry. I told Colin, 'Be a nice guy in the ring; always give back what they give you.'"
Oyama still teaches much of what he learned those first few months with Rex, whether it was conditioning, mobility—"I don't want some big steroid monkey. Rex taught me if you're moving, you're not getting hit. All my fighters can move"—or controlling one's emotion. When he was on his own, he would encourage his fighters to smirk at their opponents to make their blood boil and turn off their brains.
In his first fight, Oyama "beat up [his opponent] pretty good," Rex says.
He graduated from law school and passed the bar in California and Hawaii in 1996, but he had soured on becoming an attorney. "No offense," Oyama says, "but I can't think of a profession where I could find a greater number of assholes than attorneys."
Rex asked if he would train an amateur named Rob McCullough who had a title fight coming up. Oyama agreed, and McCullough won. Oyama thought that began and ended his career as a trainer, but when he went to watch McCullough again, "he got his ass kicked." McCullough asked Oyama to work with him again, and he agreed. (McCullough would go on to success as a professional—winning a title with the now-defunct World Extreme Cagefighting—with a style in the ring that included a tendency to smirk.)
McCullough led to another fighter and another, until he had a stable of them, and then a gym. McCullough also led to Ortiz.
"Rob brought him in," Oyama says. "[Tito] was just this raw talent with no discipline. We worked on giving him structure, day after day. One thing he did well was listen, and he's good at executing the plan, and he worked hard. Toward the end, he stopped throwing up so much."
Ortiz would flourish with Oyama. It was while preparing for a fight in Big Bear that Oyama met Jackson, who'd been brought up to train with Ortiz almost as an afterthought. One night, bored with nothing to do, Oyama suggested everyone go to the gym. While there, he noticed Jackson and asked his name.