Juan “Mucho Macho” Cortez quietly wraps his hands as his coaches set up the day’s Muay Thai fight training. Teammates Wes Curran and Dawid Zimniki, also competing on the upcoming Friday Night Fights card, are in a corner talking with the rest of the team. It’s rare to see Mucho Macho so still–he’s usually darting around Renzo Gracie Academy, sneaking up behind someone to pull a prank, or joking loudly with friends. As he patiently wraps each individual knuckle, it is clear that while he is unusually silent, he is in his element.
The featherweight competitor is fighting for a WKA title at the season finale of Friday Night Fights. It’s almost impossible to imagine Juan not being a fighter, but he came to the academy only six years ago, on the suggestions of coach Lucas Noonan and fellow fighter Victor Canales. Then only 24 years old, he fell in love with Muay Thai after taking his first class. Three years later, he found himself winning his first fight. Juan hasn’t looked back since.
However, similar to many other fighters, Mucho Macho didn’t move to the Big Apple in the pursuit of a fighting career. He came from Puebla, Mexico at 19 years old, with the dream of making enough money in the city to send back home to his family. A few years in New York led Juan down several different paths, not all of which were great. It wasn’t until he started working barback at La Esquina, a Mexican bar and restaurant in Soho, that things started to change for him. It was a short time later that he began training at Renzo’s Manhattan academy. The recognition he has received from his job illustrates just how much they support him.
The outside of the restaurant is distinguishable by its bright neon sign that proclaims “The Corner”, the translation of “La Esquina” in English. The inside is decorated with images of Luchadors and Mexican art. However, it appears that Cortez’s working and training life are forever intertwined: the restaurant has placed huge photos of Juan’s fight at Madison Square Garden at the front of it’s entrance. His team shirts say in red, green, and white, “Team Sexico”, with a luchador and Gracie’s famous lion symbol in the center. Front and center at his fights are Juan’s brother Pedro, with the rest of his family. Standing behind his brother is all of Juan’s co-workers.
“I feel very supported,” he says. “It makes me feel special and confident that they give me this attention. Knowing that they are watching makes me want to work even harder, to push myself. I train very hard and want to be my best. The hardest part about fighting is when I have to train and work in the same day. I train in the morning, then go to work at 3:30 pm. I don’t get out of work until almost 3 am. But if you love something, you can do it. I love Muay Thai, so I can do this.”
Despite Juan’s immense talent and dedication, it wasn’t his intention to fight when he started training.
“I wanted to just do it for fun and learn self-defense. My coaches thought I’d be a good fighter, so a few years later I decided to try it out. They call me so many different nicknames, like Mucho Macho or Gaucho, and we are always joking around. I am happy when I come here, so I knew training for fights would still be fun.”
With a record of 5-1-1, Juan has no intention of leaving the fight game any time soon. While becoming a professional fighter isn’t in his immediate plans, he has already had amazing experiences, such as fighting in Madison Square Garden.
“That was my favorite fight and it was a lot of fun, but also so much pressure. There was something like 3,000 people there, so I was nervous. I am happy that I won, with all my friends, family, and teammates there. I would eventually like to be a pro fighter, but first I want to fight as many fights as I can.”
Even with an insane work schedule, it is not difficult for Cortez to find the motivation to come in and train.
“I was going to go back to Mexico at first, but then I decided to stay here in New York. I miss my family, and I only have my brother and my uncle here. I haven’t been to Mexico in a very long time, and it has been hard not to see everyone else. But I have a family here. The Muay Thai fighters are my family. My coaches help me and look out for me. They tell me when they think I am doing something wrong and push me to make the right decisions. I was on a bad path and they helped me to focus. I realized that I wanted to train more and fight more over doing other things. They have taught me many different and important lessons, and I learn from them every day.”
It’s easy to see how well Juan fits in at the academy. He’s usually one of the first to train with a new teammate, or hold pads for someone trying to work on something. Despite his small stature, he can out-race his longer-legged teammates and take the power of the larger guys’ punches. A mischievous smile and friendly demeanor define Mucho Macho much more than his fight record, which he prefers.
“The most important thing I have learned while training here is to be humble and be a family. It is important to have friendships, stay out of trouble, and be the best person I can be. I feel close to everyone and supported by everyone. I just learn from my previous mistakes and keep training and keep fighting. My team is my family and I want to be my best for them.”
Photos courtesy of Joshua Brandenburg (@drinkandsmilenow, drinkandsmile.com) and Alberto Vasari (@albertovasari, albertovasari.com)