By Mike LNg
Jorge Zarate has been a longtime figure on the United States Muay Thai scene. He has been both a competitor and a coach. Jorge has labored long behind the scenes while staying out of the limelight, preparing the next and current generation of the United States’ Muay Thai professionals. Jorge Zarate’s influence has been as pervassive on the Unirted States Muay Thai development as it has been silent and unheralded, working with a growing number of world and national champions. It was a pleasure to finally get a chance to talk to the man who has been working hard behind the scenes and become a mentor to so many in the United States Muay Thai scene.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview. You have a long and storied history in sports both coaching and competing. What got you interested in Combat Sports?
I was only 10 years old when I emigrated from Baja California, to the United States. Like most immigrants I didn’t speak any English and I came from very humble beginnings. My mother quickly enrolled me in the local elementary school, Eastmont Elementary. But it was very difficult time for me because of the language barrier. I used to get made fun of a lot because I didn’t speak any English and because of the clothes that I wore, again I came from humble beginnings. Since I didn’t know how to fight back with words, I fought back with my fists. One day my oldest brother just grabbed me and took me to the closest Gym. The gym was the IYBC in Montebello. From the moment I first walked into the gym I fell in love with boxing. My first trainer was Joe Chavez (who worked with Oscar De La Hoya among other boxing greats), one of the best cut man in all of boxing. So that’s how it all started. I had a few amateurs fights both in the gym and in the streets (Chuckles) but never turned pro.
Who was the first person to show you Muay Thai and when were you introduced to Muay Thai?
Oh Wow, It’s a funny story how this happened. I was trying to fight again and back then boxing was very popular so it was hard to get a trainer that was going to dedicate himself just to you. Because there were so many fighters back then. I started looking for something different so I walked into to a Karate gym next to the IYBC Boxing Gym, it was KEMPO KARATE GYM. I walked in there and the owner of the gym told me to kick the bag for 20 minutes. After kicking the bag for 20 minutes he asked me to spar? I quickly said yes!
So, we sparred three rounds. I controlled him with my hands for the first two rounds. In the third round he did a spinning back kick and nailed me right in the ribs, I went back home with bruised ribs. I was pretty upset about it, so my brother “Art” comes into the living room he notices me walking with some discomfort. He asked me what happened. I said I went to a karate gym and sparred and the trainer caught me with a spinning back kick. My brother said WOW! Then he asked me if I wanted to kick his ass? And I said hell yes. So he said “Ok I’m going to introduce you to someone who teaches Muay Thai”. The first thing out of my mouth was “MUAY THAI? What the hell is that?” My brother said, “Don’t worry I’m going to take you with my co-worker”. The very next day he took me to 32nd and San Pedro in Los Angeles. The house had a barb wire fence all around it. I walk in to the house and there is Montri Sunpanich. He spoke very little English and signaled to me to shadow box. I shadow box and he says very good, then he shows me a tape of a Muay Thai Fight and I completely fell in love with it! Kicks, Knees, Elbows, Punches! I said show me that! I asked how much did he charge? Montri asked me if I would fight for him. I said Yes I would fight, I love to fight. Montri looked at my brother and my brother looked at him and said “Yup he’ll fight anyone”.
Jorge Zarate with Montri Suppanich to the right.
How difficult was it for you to learn Muay Thai from Montri Sunpanich?
It wasn’t very difficult even though Montri didn’t speak much English, we had a very good connection. He would usually give me hand signals, and he would also give me magazines of Muay Thai fighters and point to the picture and that’s what how we communicated.
You work in the East Los Angeles Community Center, where the primary combat sport is boxing. How did you introduce Muay Thai to their program?
As you know Boxing is one of Mexico’s greatest past times. Mexico has such a great history in boxing. So to try and talk people into learning Muay Thai is very difficult because it’s foreign to them. This is why I don’t try to talk them into it. People usually come to me once they see me holding pads for one of my fighters. People that love to fight automatically gravitate to the sport once they see it involves knees, kicks, punches and elbows. Muay Thai speaks for itself, if it’s taught the right way.
Jorge Zarate as young nak muay
What is the most rewarding thing about teaching Muay Thai in the community center?
Our gym is located in the heart of East Los Angeles. Gangs, drugs, and violence play a part of the lives of people and kids I train every day. So just having them there with me training them and doing something productive is rewarding in itself. Being able to impact their life in positive way is always rewarding for me, it’s not always about winning fights or turning a fighter into a champion but if you can turn someone that had very little hope and showing them that you believe in them is very rewarding. Sometimes all people need is someone to believe in them and that’s what I try to do everyday. Especially in the area where our gym is located.
You taught both amateurs and professional fighters. What do you think is the most important thing fighters need to learn?
I teach Hard Work, Dedication, Discipline, Patience, Respect and most of all be humble, always be humble.
Of amateurs and professionals which is the most difficult to coach?
Every fighter is different and challenging in their own way. The key thing for me, is trying to adapt to each fighters style and get my message to them in a way that they will understand is key for me. So I would say everyone is difficult whether its pro or amateur.
David Huerta, Kru Jorge Zarate, Hector “Sick Dog” Ramirez, Jorge Zarate Jr
You also acted as an official in Muay Thai. With so much scrutiny on judging and officiating what do you think should be done to improve judging?
The thing is we don’t have many judges that are familiar with the sport of Muay Thai. A lot of the judges we have our MMA judges, MMA referees, boxing judges, boxing referee. So it’s very difficult for those judges to score a fight or ref a fight. Again if we could get some judges or officials that are familiar with the sport or have a background in the sport I think it will help out the scorecards and officiating.
How do you feel Muay Thai has progressed in the last ten years? What do you think Muay Thai can do to help the sport grow?
Little by little its growing. Glory 10 was a big success.
Since you fought both boxing and Muay Thai what do you think are the most similar skills from one sport to the other?
Everything is pretty similar as far as movement, preparation and the mental aspect of it. The only difference for me is in Muay Thai you have more weapons to use.
What needs to change most in the USA For Muay Thai to grow?
I think the promoters and fighters are all doing a great job to help this sport grow. I mean if you look at Glory 10, how many times do you see two Championship level caliber fighters fight twice in one day (Joe Schilling fought and defeated Artem Levin)? If anything Muay Thai needs to get across to Kids more tournaments for kids, some kind of amateur ranking system that can help build young kids into world class fighters by the time they are 18.
What has been your proudest accomplishment as a trainer of Muay Thai?
Ahh.. I really don’t have one particular moment or accomplishment. I guess I would say its every time I walk into the ring with one of my fighters, it makes me feel proud. Why? Because they believe in me and nothing feels better than knowing someone believes in you and trusts you.
Jorge Zarate and Glory Middleweight Champion Joe Schilling
You worked with many fighters and just recently you were in Joe Schilling corner in Glory 10, what role did you play in Schilling’s Corner?
First and Foremost I want to thank Joe Schilling, Mark Komuro, and everyone from The Yard for allowing me to be part of the their corner it was truly an honor. I just wrapped Joe’s hands and if I saw something that Joe could capitalize on I let Mark know that’s about it.
Any last words?
To all my fighters thank you for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to train you. Every time you stepped in the ring a piece of me was with you. To my brother Art I love you and I thank you for always being there for me. Of course my other brother Montri Sunpanich who taught me everything I know. Last and not least my Family, my Daughter, Son and granddaughter. Irene, Jorgie, Judy I love you guys, you’re my heart.