CULTURE The veteran Muay Thai master placed the braided circlet, the Mong Kong, on the head of his young pupil. The two stood together in the grass at the Contra Costa Fairgrounds in Antioch, in the qualifying round for the Battle of the Pacific, a day of martial arts battles featuring fighters both amateur and experienced.
May 17 was a bright, sunny day to enjoy a kick to the head; families, couples, and loved ones gathered on the grass around the red, white, and blue ring to cheer at flying legs and fists. Earlier in the night, two six-year-olds entered the ring for a round of Muay Thai in miniature headgear and leg shields. They smiled as they finished their adorable fight.
Others had more serious intentions. As Muay Thai struggles to find a foothold in the United States as a spectator martial art, every match matters. The Inner Sunset’s World Team USA already has one star in Ky Hollenbeck, who fought a nationally televised fight at Madison Square Garden last year.
But World Team’s newest up-and-comer is a San Francisco underdog at the beginning of his career, and that night he had much to prove.
The sun lowered at the fairgrounds, bringing a cool shade. Hands still outstretched, Kru Ajarn Sam Phimsoutham (Kru Sam for short) bowed his head with 22-year-old Robby Squyres, Jr., as both said a silent prayer before his championship fight.
The moment of prayer had a purpose. Squyres calls this his “switch.” Before a match, he closes his eyes and remembers his most feared memory, bringing himself to a point of aggression which he immediately must conquer to gain enough mental control to fight.
Kru Sam, before placing the Mong Kong on Robby Squyres Jr.’s head. Photo by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez
Four years ago, Squyres was not a walking weapon. Four years ago, he had a brush with death.
Squyres first walked off the path while attending Raoul Wallenberg High School. The San Francisco native wasn’t necessarily a proud student.
“I was trying, but I was barely skimming by,” he said, alluding to unsavory extracurricular activities. “That life all caught up to me.”
One summer night, the then-teenager was walking up Powell Street with his friends when they came across a group of nine guys who “had beef” with two of Squyres’ friends. The newcomers were spoiling for a fight.
Squyres thinks he was the primary target because he was the biggest; if the attackers’ philosophy was “take out the biggest guy first,” it’s easy to see why it would be him. He was quickly knocked to the concrete with a sucker punch.
As soon as his head hit pavement, they pounced. Boots hammered his head and body as the savage teenagers ensured he couldn’t get up. When a friend tried to jump in to help, he was snared in the melee too. By the end, Squyres’ face was bloodied and he suffered multiple injuries, including a concussion.
A security guard found him laid out on the sidewalk and pulled him to a nearby store. Through hazy memories, Squyres remembers a friend holding his hand during the ambulance ride to the hospital. His hospital release papers came with advice for treating head injuries, but those were the least of his troubles.
“It went downhill from there,” Squyres remembered. He found he had trouble coping with the fear, which plagued his waking moments as well as his sleeping ones. He quit school and spent nights looking over his shoulder. Eventually he sought peace of mind.
“I asked this gentleman in the San Francisco Police Department, a good friend, for a gun. I was stupid,” he said. “My friend said ‘No. I’m going to help you defend yourself.’ He called his friend in the Philippines. He said ‘I don’t know your story that well, but I’m going to give you an opportunity.'”
That opportunity was World Team USA, where he works in exchange for lessons — scrubbing mats, leading workouts, and opening up the school in the morning. He likens finding Muay Thai to a spiritual awakening.
Though many Muay Thai schools advertise danger and action, World Team USA’s logo is surrounded by three words: courage, honor, and respect. Squyres even teaches anti-bullying classes at Wallenberg, hoping to reach teenagers like those who attacked him.
“My school helped me become a better man and walk my faith,” Squyres, a born-again Christian, said. “To show what my life was, and what it is.”
What it is now is laser-focused passion.
In the month leading up to his fight he lost nearly 40 pounds, dropping from the super heavyweight category to the heavyweight category. The week before the match Kru Sam allowed him to eat nothing but one avocado per day.
“Every day I dreamed of Jamba Juice mixed with pizza,” he said. “It was probably worse than a pregnant woman’s cravings.”
As the sun faded at the fairgrounds, Kru Sam told us the fight “is a testing ground for him, to see his potential for the future. But no matter the outcome, I’ll be proud of him.”
All of this flashed in Squyres’ mind before his match. His trigger struck: the brush with death bringing his rage, the peace he learned from Kru Sam bringing him calm.
The announcer called Squyres to the ring in a booming baritone. His opponent, Steven Grigsby of Stockton, couldn’t have been more physically different. Squyres’ body is broad and naturally thick, while Grigsby is hard and lean, with wiry muscle. Torches surrounded the ring, and the flames whipped in the wind. Squyre’s mom, Winki, sat in the crowd, biting on her knuckles.
“Ding!” The bell sounded, and the two circled.
Grigsby scored the first shot, a foot connecting with Squyres’ side. The heavy-set San Franciscan returned with a flurry of fists to Grigsby’s head, snapping him back. The two met legs in mid-section kicks.
The match ended without a decisive lead, but that soon would change.
Muay Thai is known as the “art of eight limbs.” The following rounds made that more than clear. Grigsby’s fists flurried at Squyres, with elbows and legs soon twisted around each. Squyres took it again and again, falling back.
“SWEEP, BOBBY, SWEEP!” Kru Sam shouted from the side. Something snapped in Squyres. As Grigsby swooped in for the attack, he flipped his body around in a twist, the momentum swinging his fist like a sledgehammer hard into the side of Grigsby’s head.
The crowd cheered.
When the match was over, Squyres was declared the winner by unanimous decision. Tears streaked his face as he walked from the ring to the fellow fighters from his dojo, to Kru Sam, and to his mother.
“I’m so thankful,” he said. Through the tears he unwrapped the bandages from his fists.
Robby Squyres, Jr.’s next fight is tentatively July 19 at the Battle of the Pacific in San Jose; check out www.ikfkickboxing.com for details.
Bobby Squyres, Jr., connects a first with Steven Grigsby of Stockton at the Battle of the Pacific, at the Contra Costa Fairgrounds. Photo by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez.