Story and photography by Galen Okazaki
It is the rare athlete that can compel us to rise to our feet. In basketball it might have been Michael Jordan and the anticipation of one of his thunderous dunks. In football it might be a savage Ronnie Lott tackle or in baseball a 100 mile per hour Nolan Ryan fastball. All of these are powerful physical displays that evoke something primal within us. So it would only make sense that in the fight game, the most primal sport of all, it would take someone who fights with power, fury, and the ability to put down their opponent in the blink of an eye. In boxing, I give you Mike Tyson and in American Muay Thai, I give you Joe “Stich ‘em Up” Schilling.
When Joe Schilling enters the ring a pulse of energy always surges through the crowd. Standing 6’3” with a mean ass glare and the prisoner’s jumpsuit that he wears for his walk out, Joe is every bit of bad. And his fight game is what you expect it to be, what you want it to be: aggressive, powerful…relentless.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Joe grew up as the youngest of three children. With his father leaving the house when Joe was just a baby, it was up to his single mother to raise three children, two of which were very unruly boys. From as far back as he could remember, whenever Joe would threaten to run away from home, California was where he was going. But after being kicked out of four schools before he reached high school it wasn’t looking like Joe was going anywhere. During that time the only place where Joe found focus and passion was a kickboxing gym. At age 15 he had the choice of continuing to run wild or staying out of trouble, he chose the latter. He spent most of his free time training and hanging out at the gym. In time he started working with some of the patrons on their technique. Many were professional people, lawyers, business men and the like, yet here they were, attentively listening to a 15 year old kid. For the first time in his life he had the respect of people like this and it felt great. This experience would have a profound effect in the shaping of his future. He had a gift for training people and he loved the feeling of respect it garnered.
At age 17, Joe was kicked out of his home for good. On his own, he took odd lot jobs and lived wherever he could. For a period of time, he and his brother Kevin were able to live in a small property that his grandmother owned but when she passed away, they were back out on their own. It was during this time the Joe first started fighting in Tough Man competitions. By age 20, Joe had had enough of this life and was ready to move to California to pursue his passion for Muay Thai. Using a small amount of money his grandmother had left him and a $200 gas card from his mother, he jumped in his car and moved his life to California (the gas card being used up somewhere in the middle of Texas).
After making it to Los Angeles, Joe completed a personal training program and found work as a personal trainer at a Los Angeles YMCA. Soon, he was training at the LA Boxing Club, which has spawned many champions in both Boxing and Muay Thai. It is here that Joe met his current trainer and business partner, Mark Komuro. When the LA Boxing Club shut down, the two made their way to a gym which used to be a jail in the Lincoln Heights area of Los Angeles. Being in a lower income area and a converted jail, the gym had a Spartan simplicity and toughness about it. As it turned out, those were the only things that Joe and Mark liked about the gym.
It was during this time that Joe found out that he and his girlfriend were expectant parents. With a son on the way, Joe searched for a means of being able to support him without giving up his dream of becoming a professional Muay Thai fighter. That was the seed of his idea to open a Muay Thai gym. He started to work on Mark about opening their own gym and after several months of being verbally worked over, Mark relented and the two struck out to start their own gym. They soon found a location, now all they needed was a name…
While training at the former Lincoln Heights jail, Joe was being announced in fights as fighting out of, “The Jail”. Wanting to keep the theme that a jail embodies, Joe and Mark eventually asked themselves, where is it that prisoners do their physical training…“The Yard”. And so it was that The Yard Muay Thai was opened at 1335 Willow Street in Los Angeles, California.
Joe had his first professional Muay Thai fight on September 30, 2006 against Lawson Baker. He took the fight at 185 lbs (his current WBC USA Super Middle Weight title is at 168 lbs) on 10 days notice. During this fight Joe recalls striking his opponent with all his might, only to watch him continue to advance un-phased. After being dropped multiple times and nearly throwing in the towel, Joe finally found the one weapon that worked…elbows. 47 landed elbows later, Joe won his first professional Muay Thai fight with a split decision. From this fight on, he learned that he needed to be more serious about his training and work on his power.
Joe continued to win fights until he experienced a devastating loss to Wang Hong Xiang on August 30 2009. Again taken on short notice, this fight was in a kick boxing style that Joe was not comfortable with; Sanshou, a Chinese kick boxing style that allows the use of single/double leg takedowns and hip throws. During the course of the fight both of his knees were seriously damaged, requiring surgery and a year long recuperation. This time off from fighting allowed Joe to focus on other aspects of his game, especially conditioning. Perhaps more importantly, it gave him time to reflect on the importance of Muay Thai in his life.
Today, Joe’s professional Muay Thai record stands at 10-1, including recent impressive wins over a very tough Chaz Mulkey in December 2010 and a first round TKO over Chase Green in March of 2011 (in which he won his WBC USA Super Middleweight title). With a win in his upcoming rematch with Brandon Banda on Lion Fight Promotions August 20, 2011 “Battle in the Desert 3” card, he can secure his second title as the WBC USA Light Heavyweight champion (along with his current WBC USA Super Middleweight title).
As for the future, Joe is looking for opportunities to fight internationally. He’ll be doing this with an eye toward developing his resume on the international level in the hopes of one day becoming a world champion. Along the way he’ll continue supporting the growth of Muay Thai in the United States. Hopefully with his involvement in projects like In Search of America’s Muay Thai Team (a reality show which chronicles the selection process of a team which will represent the US in International competition), Joe will be able to accomplish both.
Joe Schilling is one of the most compelling figures in American Muay Thai today. With his blend of edginess that we Americans are so drawn to and his impressive fighting skills in this exotic martial art, his presence is vital to the growth of Muay Thai here in the United States. So if you haven’t had the chance, I would encourage you to go and see one of his fights, you will not be disappointed and I can guarantee you that his performance will make you rise to your feet.
Author’s Note: This article is the first in a series of articles titled “Profiles in American Muay Thai”, in which I will be covering important figures in American Muay Thai from a human interest stand point. Please stay tuned as I have exciting profiles lined up for the future. Cheers! – Galen