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Robert Horn
November 26, 1990
A U.S. devotee sees a great future for a Thai sport
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November 26, 1990

A Dream With A Kick To It

A U.S. devotee sees a great future for a Thai sport

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Kayan explained that the monk's blessing would cause blows to miss Kvalheim's head. As further protection, he soon received a mongkon, a headpiece made of twine and tape that had been blessed by seven monks in seven temples. Kvalheim claims he never thereafter was knocked unconscious. He admits, however, that renewed training with Kayan was a significant factor in this change of fortune. Specifically, they worked long and hard on his defense against knees and elbows.

Word was spreading that the farang could fight. Despite Kvalheim's growing reputation, most opponents still assumed they could defeat him by attacking his legs. The Thais had always enjoyed success against foreigners, including foreign karate and kung fu masters, by relying on this tactic. "They all came prepared to fight me one way," says Kvalheim, "and then I blew their strategy." His legs had become rock hard, and he had become adept at using them to block and counter.

Winning the northeastern championship in Chiang Mai earned Kvalheim a Top 10 ranking in the sport. There was speculation about a national title shot. Eventually the lightweight champion sent him a challenge to a fight at Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok. Kayan, however, ruled it out. "Wait," he told Kvalheim. "You're not ready yet."

Seven fights later Kayan entered him in the challenger elimination tournament. In a bout in Lampang, just southeast of Chiang Mai, Kvalheim lost a close decision. "I was in it all the way," he says, "but I was too tentative. I just didn't do enough." Certain to this day that he was the better fighter, he remains bewildered by his performance, not sure if he over-trained or if he psyched himself out.

He still had his skills and reputation; he had the desire to fight his way to the top. But another cross-cultural event soon changed everything. Kvalheim got married in 1975. His wife, a Thai, raised no objections to his fighting. According to Kvalheim, it was the trainers and promoters "who lost interest...believing that a fighter, particularly a farang, is never as strong once he takes up with a woman."

Kvalheim kept fighting and winning, but it was clear his career was winding down. The fights weren't big fights, and he sensed there were no more big breaks coming his way. At the end of the year, Kvalheim retired with a 25-10 record. At almost the same time, his tour of duty in the Army also came to an end.

Kvalheim settled in Seattle but immediately felt uncomfortable. He had become "more introspective, more internal than people in America like." While working at a variety of jobs, he began attending Seattle University, eventually graduating magna cum laude, earning B.A. degrees in history and in education.

It took 12 years of working, saving and studying, but finally he made it back to Thailand in 1987. Now 42, he teaches U.S. history and world geography at the International School in Bangkok, a career that "fits nicely into the respect for learning" that Kayan gave him. When Kvalheim isn't teaching, he's a missionary for Muay Thai, serving on the executive board and U.S. publicity committee of the International Muay Thai Association, the sport's first worldwide regulatory organization. He also did consulting work on the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Kickboxer, but it was work that has given him regrets.

Kickboxer hasn't been shown in Thailand. For the most part, the film reduces the Thais to Hollywood-stereotyped Asian villains. The Thai champion, played by a Westerner in Asian makeup, is depicted as a psychopath who deliberately fouls and paralyzes his American opponent. "To go out and kill and maim," says Kvalheim, "is not the philosophy of Thai boxing." Now dedicated to promoting a more positive image of Muay Thai, Kvalheim has joined with some fellow enthusiasts to produce Muay Thai magazine and a television series of kick-boxing bouts.

Kvalheim also has assumed the role of Kayan, teaching foreigners the rudiments of the sport. He hopes that through an expanding corps of disciples yet another of his dreams will be fulfilled: to see Muay Thai become an Olympic sport. "Muay Thai is the most effective ring sport in the martial arts," he says. "I don't see how they can stop it." Kvalheim has learned his lessons well enough to realize that this latest dream might bring the severest test of his persistence and dedication since he became a Mauy Thai champion almost two decades ago.

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