Ben Cohen

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Tarrant Gets Kick Out Of Belt

Liam Tarrant, a Muay Thai boxer who trains in Lodi, won his first belt last weekend at the World Kickboxing Association’s North American championships in the light middleweight division. Since then, he’s barely parted from the symbol of his title.

He takes it to his training gym, North Jersey Muay Thai, where he first learned the sport that inspired American kickboxing more than three years ago. He takes it to his workplace in Englewood Cliffs, where he is a personal trainer and assistant manager at a gym.

He even slept with it once.

The belt is a gratifying keepsake for Tarrant, whose wallet has held a picture of a random fighter clutching a belt for about three years.

“The belt is always right there,” said Tarrant, 23, who is now 7-0. “It’s a very comforting feeling. Three years ago, I cut out a picture of somebody with a belt, and I’ve had that picture for three years. Now, I’ve got the real thing. It’s incredible.”

Tarrant’s championship run last weekend in Richmond, Va., surprised even one of his trainers, Ray Cruz. After all, Tarrant had only fought four Muay Thai matches before the North American championships, with more than a month in between each bout.

Last weekend, he took on three competitors, some of the best he’s faced, in two days. He only had 40 minutes in between his last two fights. His first opponent was a 165-pound champion earlier this year. His competitor in the finals, Tony Flores, was physically bigger and stronger than Tarrant.

None of that fazed Tarrant, partly because he’s young but not necessarily impressionable. He only started Muay Thai boxing in the summer of 2003 and has only trained in New Jersey. Most of his best opponents were fighting when he was in military school and have traveled to Thailand, the sport’s Mecca, where it packs stadiums like baseball does in the United States.

“Usually, it doesn’t take this amount of time to get to that level,” said Cruz, who runs the North Jersey Muay Thai boxing gym with Joe Bumanlag. “He really buckled down for three years and it’s been amazing what he’s done. It’s unprecedented. A lot of these fighters have years of experience. This kid has nothing.”

Tarrant played soccer briefly, but had no martial arts or boxing training when he stumbled across Muay Thai on the Internet in 2003. He walked into the Lodi gym for a few training sessions, with the hope to get in better shape.

He got much more out of it after he realized that he enjoyed the tough training that goes into preparing for a fight. That passion did not wither after his first real fight, and now the amateur has won all seven of his fights.

“The first time I did it, it was one of the hardest things I ever did,” Tarrant said. “It was very intense. I got addicted to it. I had to do it after a while. I still don’t know why. It’s not like a gym or lifting weights; it’s physical activity. It taps into something.”

Muay Thai boxing, which is related to kickboxing, has experienced a rise in popularity that has coincided with the prevalence of mixed martial arts sports like ultimate fighting. In Muay Thai, which Tarrant called the “science of eight limbs,” fighters can use punches, knees, kicks and elbows (only in the professional ranks). The signature move is clinching, which is throwing the opponent into the mat and kneeing him. It was first developed in Thailand for soldiers in close-quartered battlefields.

More people are tuning in to the Ultimate Fighting Championship and betting on UFC cards, and that swelling of interest has translated into more business for Cruz. He and Bumanlag run one of two Muay Thai gyms in New Jersey. They started their gym in May of 2002.

“Within the last year and a half, interest in our gym and Muay Thai in general has gone up, I can’t even describe the percentage,” Cruz said. “It’s been ridiculous as far as how many people are looking for the sport, and how few places offer it.”

Tarrant has no immediate aspirations to turn professional, but he does have some ideas for his next fight. The WKA world championships will be held in Germany in late August. If the governing organization allows Tarrant to fight, there is a 90 percent chance he will attend, Cruz said.

Unfortunately for Tarrant, he might have to check his belt.

(The Herald News, 7/21/07)

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