Yia Mua, a Hmong Legend speaks about his life in and out of the spotlight with 18XEEM.
This interview was published in the July 2007 issue of 18XEEM.
Where were you born?
I was born in Laos on May 18th. Laos fell to Communism on May 15th. Basically, two days after I was born, we left Laos. I came to Thailand and we were over there for 6 months. In 1975, we came to the US. We were the first wave of Hmong immigrants to come over.
What have you been doing?
I’ve been retired for about two years from fighting now. Currently, I’m in financial services. I do real estate mortgage and financial planning.
How did you get into Muay Thai Kickboxing?
It was kind of like a dare. Laughs. I’ve always been in martial art –since I was 9, when I started training. I had a childhood friend who was doing Chinese kick-boxing, eventually he ended up being my trainer. He started competing first though and I would watch him fight, and I liked it. Then when I was 18, I started fighting amateur. At 19, I turned professional.
What were your parent’s reactions?
They didn’t want me to fight. To them, it wasn’t a good career; it wasn’t traditional like what they wanted: go to school, get a degree. I chose a different path. It was a challenge at first. They disagreed with me. They didn’t show up for, probably, my first ten fights. I was determined to prove them wrong. Not only that, but when I first started, there was this skepticism that Hmong people couldn’t fight: we are too short, and we can’t beat Caucasian people. For me I just thought, you know, it was a sport, I loved what I did, and I was doing great at it. I had a 15-fight winning spree when I first started. So, I loved it.
Was it luck or hard training?
It was definitely really hard training. When I first started, I spent a lot of time training. At least 6 hours a day. Competitively, every morning from 7-10; normally, it would be a 5 mile run in the morning. And then, a few hours working on different techniques.
Was boxing your sole career or what else did you do besides fight?
My first professional fight, I got about 100 bucks, there’s not a lot of money in it. You really have to have a passion for it. In terms of money, there really is no award. I worked part-time and trained part-time. My parents still wanted me to go to school, so I did that. I went professional in 1995. Then, I graduated with a Bachelor’s in E-commerce in 1999.
When you went pro did you celebrate?
Not really, everything kind of happened as I went along in the sport. I didn’t really know what pro was. When I was fighting, Muay Thai was pretty much unknown when I was fighting. The PKA rules were mostly karate; they wouldn’t allow kicks to the face. When I was competing, a year or two later they started allowing it and also allowing the knee. I was in one of the first fights when they started allowing elbow. The only time you could of used it was in Nevada or Thailand. When I started, Muay Thai was very primitive, even at a lot of sanctions and athletic Commissions, they didn’t allow or recognize it.
What was the best part about a fight?
The best part was winning.
What if you didn’t win?
It was still good because every fight I take it as a learning step. After every fight, usually I become friends with the other guy. The most exciting part is always the beginning of the fight though, because you don’t know how this guy is. Everything is pretty much a mystery. You’ve probably heard or seen the fighter fight, but you really don’t know until you fight that person. The funny thing though is when you finally fight that person, within the first 30 secs., you know what type of technique he has.
What type of feeling would you get before going in to a fight?
It was always confidence. I never doubted myself. Like the great Muhammad Ali says, ‘Even if I was the underdog I always prepare myself for the big victory speech’ before I went to fight. I always had the mentality that, I’ve been training so hard; I just want to go in there and get the job done then celebrate after. My whole theory about fighting, and life in general is, ‘If you doubt yourself before you walk into the ring, you’ve already lost 80% of the fight.’ Fighting is more will than skill. With your training and your opponent’s training, you both are at your peak, in terms of endurance and skills; the only thing left is will: to see who has a bigger heart.
Why did you take your will into the ring?
At the beginning, it was more of a challenge.
Everyone kept telling me I couldn’t do it. As I kept on fighting, I realized that I’ve been hurt; of course, lots of bruises and broken bones. And as time progressed I would always say, OK that was a tough fight, this is going to be my last fight, but one time after a fight, these Hmong kids came up to me, and they gave me this whole speal about how proud they are. It was the most rewarding thing after every fight. So at that point, it was more like a duty of mine to the community. Gangs were so predominate in our community, especially at that time. There was so much negativity in the community.
When was the first time someone ever approached you about being proud of what you were doing?
It was probably 1997, one of my first pro-fights in Fresno. Before then, it was usually out of Fresno, but the first one I fought in here, right after the fight, they were cleaning up the bleachers and as I walked out of the locker room, a young Hmong kid came up to me and told me that it was a really good fight, and “we’re proud that someone was up there representing us.” Now every time you hear that after a fight, from a kid, or from your Hmong people, it solidifies a reason as to why I stayed in the fights for so long for 10 years.
Did you hear it more from the younger or the older generation?
It was pretty much equal. But I started hearing more, when I started fighting on ESPN and Pay-Per-View. Even from General Vang Pao, when I went to fight in Thailand representing the US, I was able to get his blessing.
How did you get in touch with him?
Through one of his relatives, Jack Vang from Minnesota and his sons –I guess they follow fighting a lot. I had a fight in 1999 in MN, and that’s when I met them. Then, I was going to go to Thailand for the first time to fight, and the general gave me a call. Two years later, I went to fight in Laos. There was an issue about the trade in Laos and the human rights violation, and so Laos decided to have a ‘friendship’ fight. He called and asked me to come to dinner; we did a ceremony and I had my hand tied (‘ki tej’ –a ritual where someone ties a white string of yarn around your wrist for good luck and fortune). It was a big thing. But the funny thing is, you don’t realize how much you affect people. Only when I retired, did I fully realize that. People still ask me if I’ll fight again.
When did you go to Thailand?
When I went to Thailand to fight, in 2001, I ended up in a small village south of Bangkok. It was a small Hmong village. I’m thinking, ‘OK, I’m out in the middle of nowhere, no one probably knows me’. But the first thing this older guy asked me, when he found out I was from the US was if I knew a guy named Yia Mua. I told him, oh yeah, I know him. They didn’t even know it was me. [Laughs] I guess people had heard that this guy, Yia Mua, was like 6 feet tall and real big. It was funny. I didn’t know I had that type of affect on people. That was the one time I realize that you know, what I do, I carry more of a big role than I do. Well I eventually told him who I was and I gave him some tickets to see me fight in Bangkok. That definitely made his day. The other thing was, when I went to fight there, it was very emotional. To me, I just wanted to go there, fight, and win. I step into the ring, and you know, not a lot of Hmong fighters fight in big stadiums –it’s usually small fair venues. So it was very rare, especially in Thailand. When I fought there, I won in the third round. As I came down, a whole bunch of Hmong people came up to me, and they were crying. I had no idea why they were crying, I just never really thought about it, until afterwards. They were so proud and so happy that someone can get up in the ring, and beat up a Thai guy. To them, it was revenge for the way they [the Hmong] had been and were still oppressed; how the Thai people treated them in that country. To me it was just a sport, I wanted to get in there and win. To other people it was more, like pride or dignity. After that, I realized how much pride people had in what I was doing. It was so interesting. When I fought locally here in Fresno, I always had a few thousands of people come and watch me fight. If I fought in Las Vegas or somewhere further, usually had a few hundred come watch me. I didn’t realize that Hmong people had so much pride in it. They would always tell me: “Fight for our ancestors” or “Fight for our Hmong people, and make us proud.” It was an honor but at the same time, it was a lot of pressure too. I had to give it my best or else.
Would they be disappointed if you’d lost?
Yes. It was a lot of pressure; the first fight I ever lost, which was by half a point, it was the first time I realized, what my parents call, you have friends who are like ‘meat and wine’ friends, and true friends, and I realized the difference. I felt like, yeah, I did let people down, but I gave it my best –and that day just wasn’t my day. I go home and look at what I did wrong and fix my mistake. I came back and beat another guy who was supposedly better than me. There was like a ‘movie star’ baggage that came with it. You have the people who like you, and who hate you. That was one of the reasons why I decided to retire. Although I love talking to kids and making sure they have their priorities set straight, it was hard just to be able to live a regular life; I went through a divorce right after I turned pro. I got married when I was about 19, and I thought I had found the right girl –at that time all your buddies are getting married and you think that is the right thing to do. But as you progress in life, you realize you have different goals. I loved fighting, meeting new people, and traveling. I didn’t think I was going to turn pro and I didn’t think it would affect me that much. I was young and had no idea what marriage was really about. Now that I talk to younger kids, I always tell them to put it off because there is just so much stuff to do. The things I’ve done, the majority of people probably wouldn’t be able to in their lifetime, unless they take their time and do it. In the 10 years that I was fighting –every country I went through, I made sure I went somewhere; did something, whether it was hiking a mountain, or water rafting.
For someone who doesn’t see fighting the way you do and instead, portrays it as violence, how do you explain that to them?
Some people ask me why I was fighting; they didn’t see the art in fighting. Because Muay Thai fighting is probably the most difficult thing; not many people can have the mentality and discipline to be a good fighter. They automatically associate it with gang fighting. They don’t see the value in it. Fighting is a sport and you have to have a lot of dedication, and tough mentality to be able to compete as a fighter. In the Hmong community, because we are so traditional: go to school, get a degree; anything else, you know now I see a lot of Hmong doing different things; but when I was doing it, it was frowned upon by a lot of people. Lots of people did not want their kids to watch me fight or idolize me. They would say statements like, “You’re just like a rooster” and “They’re just cock-fighting you.”
How did that make you feel?
The first time I heard it, I was kind of defensive, but as I was fighting more, I realize people are prejudice. People will judge you even if they don’t have the education, inclination or understanding and they are ignorant about what you do –they will judge you. It didn’t bother me that much, when I was fighting, I had a mission and a vision, and I wanted to carry on with that. Was someone there to help you deal with it? It was a lot of trail and error at first, but my parents helped me out a lot. They told me what to say, what not to say. I had a really good trainer too. They were like my family. They watched out for me. When I went to fight, they made sure I didn’t party too much; they made sure I slept early. When I did promotions, they made sure I had bodyguards. Without my trainer, John Cho, I think I would have been in a lot of trouble or said a lot of wrong things.
What did you eat when you were training?
When I was fighting, from about 21-27, I couldn’t eat any fast food, things I loved to eat. I had to eat a lot of white meat, chicken breasts and fish. That was basically my diet. It became a lifestyle. I ate very different from my family. My mom would cook a really good meal, but I couldn’t eat it. Right now, I pretty much have the same lifestyle, but I’m not fighting anymore so I don’t have to watch my weight. I do splurge on pizza and fast food, once in a while.
Where do you keep all your trophies?
I have five championship belts put in the gym that I used to train at. I requested a duplicate of my belt and I kept them in a little trophy case, with all my metals and trophies. Usually that whole section, I put my memorabilia, like articles from newspapers or magazines and posters. It’s something that I want my kids to see, that that was something that I did. It’s actually right in the hallway so we pass it every now and then.
Why did you spelled your last name ‘Mua’ instead of ‘Moua’?
It was a misspelling actually, [laughs] and everyone asks that. My dad’s explanation is, –I don’t know how true it is, but, in Laos we were part of the French-Indochina, and my father was educated in France. Mua is the French spelling, so we just carried it.
What was the biggest mistake you made that you learned from?
Well, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I always tell everyone, ‘Mistakes in our past, is what creates us and gives us our character’. The biggest mistake I probably did was when I retired at 26 to go to school and I came back a year and a half later –that was the biggest mistake I made. I missed out on a lot of big fights, like in Japan. I learned that when you’re doing things in your life, things you love to do, when you have the momentum, don’t stop the momentum. Go with the flow, and it will bring you great things. There are a lot of talented people in the Midwest. I talk to university kids there all the time; I tell them ‘If you guys have what it takes, don’t be afraid of leaving the nest and going out to venture and being successful’. You won’t be successful staying at home. Take risks, and if you have the momentum, go along with it because it will bring you success. If I didn’t take that time off fighting, I figured –when I went to Thailand, I spent some time with the Thai champions fighters there, and they didn’t have any wealth. They were still living in a pretty much poverty type life; so when I got back, I told myself I didn’t want to live like that. I went back to school and got my degree, so I had something to fall back on, which was great, but I also missed out on a lot of great opportunities with my fighting career.
When did you officially retire and what were your main reasons?
I officially retired when I got married to my current wife. I just wanted to get out of that life of fighting. It was very difficult. Prior to that, I was in a relationship, and all the gossip and news surrounding me was just too much. I wanted to spend time with my wife and two kids, 1 and 12 years old.
Do you think they will follow in your path?
I don’t think they will. As long as they love what they do, I’ll support them in every way. My oldest son is a big skating guru so maybe he’ll go pro in that. But he watched me fight a lot growing up. Usually he stayed with my parents and watched from the front row. He’s a small guy, though very strong, and he has a lot of pride. I don’t want to be the guy to tell my son, ‘No’ all the time, I want to be able to inspire him and inspire other people. There’s nothing wrong with being a doctor or lawyer but I don’t want to stand up there and tell him to study hard in school and get straight A’s. I want to tell them that they can be anyone or anything in life. Just have a passion toward what they do. Don’t let money stop you from doing what you want. “Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.”–Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. I’ve done great things and bad things. I make mistakes, and it makes you who you are.
How do you want people to remember you?
You know, I want people to know that I’m just an average, normal Hmong guy who had a dream and went for it –something different.
Yia would like to thank his family and the Pacific Martial Arts Fight team for their support and sponsorship.