How a nine-month stint in Phuket propelled this American fighter to a spot in one of the world’s largest MMA organizations.
Joe Ray recently made his professional MMA debut for in front of 7,000 people in Miami. It was a huge step up for a fighter who had spent the preceding nine months training and fighting in Phuket. Joe had been training at Dragon Muay Thai and fighting in stadiums in Patong in front of a couple of hundred people.
He could hardly have imagined that a few months later he would be fighting for the second-biggest MMA organization in the US, on a card which also featured such MMA luminaries as Melvin Manhoef, Robbie Lawler, and Nick Diaz.
For Joe, who won his Strikeforce fight against fellow American John Clarke in impressive style, it was a big step up.
"Fighting in America was very different from fighting in Thailand. The stadiums in Thailand have a much more traditional feel. With the music they play during the fight, and the way the fans cheer you can feel the history in the stadium. Fighting in a big stadium like the Bank Atlantic Centre in Miami has more of a ‘show’ feel, like you are a performer of sorts," he said.
He believes that his time living and fighting in Thailand helped to prepare him for the experience of fighting on a bigger stage. "One thing fighting in Thailand helped me to do was not to take the fight so seriously and put so much pressure on myself," he said.
"I was not nervous before the Strikeforce fight, I was just excited to have the opportunity to put on a show in front of all those people. I fight because that’s what I love to do, when you start putting unnecessary pressure on yourself it’s counterproductive and can mess up your game."
Joe, who has an extensive background in amateur kickboxing, started training MMA but developed a strong interest in stand up and put his MMA career on hold to pursue first kickboxing and then Muay Thai.
"I first got into MMA, but I was fascinated with striking so I started doing that exclusively. I fought seven times in amateur kickboxing in the US and I won an ISKA cruiserwieght title. Amateur kickboxing is big in some states, it’s a lot harder to get pro kickboxing fights though."
Joe’s fascination with stand up saw him travel to Phuket to train Muay Thai. He originally planned to stay for a month but ended up spending nine months training and fighting in Phuket.
"Thai boxing in Thailand is a lot more brutal than amateur kick boxing. You take a lot more punishment due to the standing in front and trading style. The fighters fight more frequently in Thailand you can fight multiple times per month and sometimes per week, as opposed to once every month or two in the states."
The fight in Strikeforce actually came about as a direct result of Joe’s amateur kickboxing experience as one of the matchmakers knew him from his kick boxing days.
Joe trains out of the Freestyle Fight Academy in Miami where he also works as well as working as a night club bouncer. He is hoping that eventually he will be able to earn enough through MMA to become a full time fighter.
"I haven't signed anything with Strikeforce yet, but I’m open to any opportunities that come my way," he said. "I might be fighting next month for the Bellator organization but nothing is signed yet. They have thrown a couple of names out but we will just have to wait and see."
Joe had limited opportunity to utilize this stand up skills he had developed in Thailand at the start of the fight as his opponent rushed forwards and pinned him up against the cage. He managed to avoid the takedown and landed a few straight knees before the referee separated the fighters.
This gave Joe another chance to show off his striking and he seized it with both hands. Joe connected with a couple of straight punches before transitioning into a Thai clinch and landing a couple of devastating knees which dropped opponent John Clarke to the canvass from where Joe ended the fight with a flurry of punches from the mount.
Speaking after the fight Joe said, "It went well. I came out and I felt very comfortable. As anticipated he tried to push me up against the cage. I don’t mind being there and I managed to hit him with a nice little knee. When the referee broke us up I felt I could get him with the hands and I landed an overhand hook and landed some nice knees to the face, mounted him, and finished the fight.
"The training camp was ridiculous I have never been in this kind of shape before and I was so confident coming into the fight knowing I could go the full three rounds. I want to thank all my training partners at Freestyle Fighting Academy."
Joe fought five times in Phuket, winning all but one fight, and he believes that training in Thailand has definitely helped him improve as an MMA fighter. "Thai boxing has helped me with my striking—specifically my elbows, knees, and clinch," he said.
"Not too many MMA fighters truly dedicate time to learn these arts and execute them properly. Also the experience of the fights in Thailand has helped me tremendously with my comfort level and confidence in and out of the cage."
A number of established MMA fighters such as Jon Fitch, Roger Huerta, and Mike Swick have trained in Phuket recently but it is unusual for an MMA fighter to start out with such a strong background in Muay Thai. Joe’s ground game has yet to be tested in professional MMA but his Muay Thai skills were there for all to be seen in his professional debut and will serve him well in what promises to be an exciting MMA career.