The men are lined up against the wall, checking their cell phones or glancing up at the clock for the time. Weigh-ins are supposed to begin at 6 pm and it is only a few minutes after 5. They are surrounded by a huge collage of photos that stretch across all surfaces of the academy, illustrating the legendary fighter Renzo Gracie and his family. Mark Anthony Marrero closes his eyes and allows his body to slump back, resting himself on part of Gracie’s face.
A Muay Thai fighter out of Renzo Gracie Academy, he sits with his coaches comfortably at their home base as they count down the minutes until it’s time to walk across the street to Madison Square Garden. On June 9th, Marrero will fight for two title belts at Triumph Kombat–the very first of this kind of bout to be held for Muay Thai at The Garden. He joins the ranks of illustrious fighters who have accomplished such feats in New York City’s biggest ring–the UFC’s Conor McGregor, who was the first-ever fighter to hold the belt for two weight classes back in November, and boxing extraordinaire Sugar Ray Leonard, who won both the WBC Super Middleweight and Middleweight belts at the same time in 1988. Although Marrero is competing for belts from different promotions rather than weight classes, he is still redefining the legacy of Thai boxing in New York.
Only a few moments have passed since Mark initially shut his eyes, but he opens them again and leans forward. Around him is lots of chatter to pass the time. Fight week creates a very different atmosphere in the academy. His teammates greet him with “Good luck!” instead of “Hello”, he’s been suited up in sweats instead of Thai shorts, and every drop of water or bite of food has to be accounted for. A different coach is teaching class this evening because the head instructor is going with Mark to the weigh-ins. His mother Toni is there, sitting quietly and watching a few of the students warm-up for class. Even though it is a brief interruption in the day, it’s like they are all living in a different world.
It was Mark’s mother who initially got him involved in the sport. Nearly seven years ago, she had wanted to start cardio kickboxing and roped her then-22 year old son into coming along. A baseball player with no martial arts experience, he became hooked. Marrero soon transitioned to train Thai boxing after a few months of doing the classes with her. She’s gone to every single New York fight ever since. The petite woman has to look up when she talks to her son, but has a fiery personality when discussing his fighting.
“I get so pumped up watching him,” she says with a hesitant smile. “I always look at the fighter’s legs. If he has bigger legs than Anthony, then I get a little nervous. But if they have the same size legs, then I don’t mind too much.” His mother leans forward and interlaces her fingers together. Her smile widens. “He’s going to be great. I can’t wait to see him do this.”
The time has finally come to leave the academy and go to the weigh-ins. Marrero’s normally full face looks gaunt, even with what is hidden by his beard. He didn’t have a difficult time cutting weight, but still–he’s hungry. The team field trip has started as he leads the way, flanked by his coaches and teammates. Another teammate, Chris Borders, is also fighting, and the two walk in silence as their coaches talk over their heads. Toni walks behind Mark as she follows the procession.
“I grew up in a single-parent household,” Mark had said earlier in the week. It was a few days prior to the weigh-in and he was trying to get tape wrapped around his toe and talk at the same time. He still had his regular face then, a prominent combination of his dark bushy eyebrows and joker’s smile. “My mother has been my greatest support, my rock, since I first got into this thing. The only fights she didn’t come to were when I fought in Italy and Iowa. Even then, she watched the livestream or was on the phone with someone, following along. Without her, I wouldn’t be the man that I am now.”
Marrero isn’t a person that’s too complicated. Friendly, sarcastic, and with a voice that can be heard over anyone else’s, he stands assertively when being coached and doesn’t look down when he makes a mistake. While he’s talkative and a jokester off the mats, he means all business when he’s training.
“I know how to be friendly, but when it’s go time, I’m focused,” he had said firmly. Wearing a black hoodie and grey sweatpants that were blotched with his sweat, he shook his right foot as he spoke, slightly uncomfortable with being scrutinized. Despite having a witty retort for most occasions at the academy, when it comes to himself, Mark doesn’t like to be the center of attention.
“If you think about it, people are just in your way in the ring. You get in the way of yourself if you’re not remaining focused. When you’re not doing exactly what you’re supposed to do, then you’re holding yourself back.”
Back at The Garden, Marrero follows his coaches through the metal detectors as they enter the building. With nothing in his pocket but his cell phone, he walks through easily. One of his coaches however, has brought his camera and is having a harder time.
“Just leave the camera behind!” Mark says jokingly as his coach is now being wanded by a security guard, after walking through the metal detectors three times. He waits patiently however, and pats him on the back when his coach finally makes it through. The team follows coaches Joe Sampieri and Jamie Crowder to an escalator, where they are stopped again by another security guard. Despite the delays, Marrero is still in a good mood. He’s more concerned about his teammate Chris and how he is feeling, rather than his own hunger.
“Mark is the kind of guy who gives his all to the team,” Coach Joe says. “For him, it’s about supporting the team and making the team better. He’s always willing to help and sacrifice his body and his time, just for the benefit of his teammates.”
Marrero had came to Renzo’s only a year and a half ago, after training for several years at CROM Physical Culture. He was well-known in the Muay Thai scene and friendly with many fighters, as he had been fighting for some time while working Friday Night Fights shows, but wasn’t sure of what to expect when he stepped into Gracie’s academy.
“Elijah Clarke was one of the reasons why I wanted to come to Renzo’s. He’s so huge but I always was joking with him that one day I’d fight him,” Mark says with a laugh. “I came to train with him and Joe, and they handled me. I got my butt kicked, but in the most polite way that you could ever get your ass beat. I was frustrated, but not in a bad way–I was excited to learn new things and recognize that maybe I don’t know everything that I thought I did. They asked if I wanted to come back, and I did. From there, the rest is history.”
The men have finally made it into the weigh-in room and it is deathly silent, almost as if a wake was being held. It wasn’t unusual for a space where over thirty hungry and dehydrated fighters were scoping each other out to be so quiet, but as always, Mark’s voice rung out.
“Ma, find us some seats so you don’t have to wait in line while we check in.” Toni nods her head and walks towards the back. Marrero stands next to his coaches as he pushes back his Roots of Fight Muhammad Ali baseball cap. The Renzo Gracie Muay Thai sweatshirt he’s wearing is too big on him today, but he’ll fill back into it within a few hours.
“The everyday experience encouraged me to keep going,” Mark had said of when he first started Muay Thai. “It was hard–it is hard–but I appreciate the struggle and having to work at getting better every day.”
His record of 10-4 didn’t come easily. Marrero won the WKA 147 lb Novice division in 2014, while still playing baseball and winning the championships with his team. Since then, he picked up the USMTA Welterweight title at Warriors Cup and has competed and won at various tournaments in the United States. Fighting isn’t the only thing he does however–Marrero also works two jobs, one of which revolves around children with special needs, and is still in school. Even with a full-time training schedule, he doesn’t look for excuses to get out of his responsibilities.
Back at the academy, he had said, “If you’re not moving, then you’re not doing anything. Sleep is great but I have things to accomplish. I think about my future all the time and that drives me to get through the things I need to do today. I care about my last name–what will that name mean in a few years? The work that I am putting in now will make it count for something later. Respect in the world of Muay Thai is really important. There’s earned respect and mutual respect. If you’re fighting, you have to earn your respect and I think I’ve earned mine at the end of every single one of my fights. You have to come put your time in and put the work in. I always knew I’d be fighting but I was also happy to wait my turn. I wanted to put the work in first.”
The fighters continue to check in as Marrero finds his mother in the back. The room has gotten slightly louder as teammates find each other and coaches congregate to discuss recent fights. Marrero’s coaches follow him and sit on opposite ends of the table with him in the middle. He drums his fingers on the wood as his teammates talk, occasionally laughing at something they say. To his left, Chris is quiet and in his head. Mark reaches out and puts his hand on his shoulder, and gives him a nod. Chris nods back and smiles. The guys only have another hour to go before they can eat. They have their plastic bags full of food just a few inches away from them, but they’re set under the table to be less of a distraction.
“Being a part of Team Renzo Gracie is a huge platform. To be part of it all now, I feel like I have a new family,” Mark had said on the mats. As his teammates filled the cage to help prepare him for the fight that had once only been a few days away, he gestures towards them. “It’s more than the name–I know we are representing Renzo but this program is very unselfish. It’s about camaraderie and helping each other to get better.”
He would know better than anyone else. A constant figure at the academy, the only times he doesn’t appear is when he’s traveling, and they’re always for brief periods of time. Every several months, Marrero might leave on a Thursday and appear again on Monday a lot tanner and more relaxed, but his life primarily revolves around his teammates.
“This program gives us accountability,” he said, as he nodded towards the coaches. “We are responsible for our own improvements as well as improving our training partners. We are helping each other grow, and it’s not about me at the end–it’s about all of us. My team knows I’ll give everything. Even if it’s something small, like a word of encouragement or advice, I want to give that to them. I have the time and patience. I want everyone to get better. I want to be selfless and give back to them.”
After all the fighters have checked in, a referee stands at the front of the room and goes over the rules of the event. As he speaks, Mark faces forward and listens intently, despite the fact that his opponent is only ten feet away from him. They are the co-main event on the card, but neither seem too pressured.
“The community shows growth,” he had stated. “We might not know each other completely, but we still care for each other like family, even when we are punching each other in the face. At the end of the day, titles are just words that you attach to yourself. The ring doesn’t change size. I love that I’m a part of this and don’t want to take it for granted. But I also know I’m a part of something bigger than any belt can give me.”
The weigh-ins have finally officially begun, and each fighter is called out to take their place on the scale. Most only wearing their undergarments, they dutifully they walk up, and step on the silver square. Mark will be one of the last to go, but he stands next to Chris as the two men wait for their turn. Toni has taken her place at the top of the stairs, where she would be best able to get a picture of him. She’s quiet again, and holds her phone up at the ready, afraid to miss a moment of the experience.
“It was just me, her, and my brother growing up,” Mark had said. “And you know what? Guys can be replaced, but a mother’s love can never be. A father can be replaced, but the love from a mother–their empathy, and understanding–there is no substitute for that. My mom was the one who was always here for me. She’s been to every single fight, except for when we were out of the state. My mom is the first person I go to. I always find her in the crowd, no matter where she is.”
For as tough of a guy that Mark is, with all the rough parts that make him into the person that his team knows and loves, when he talks about his mother, his face visibly softens and his sardonic demeanor fades away.
When Marrero had won his belt at Warriors Cup earlier this year, after hugging his coaches, he leaped out of the ring and ran off the stage, still in his Thai shorts with his hands not yet unwrapped, holding his belt. He jumped into the audience and ran past bystanders who were trying to congratulate him, to the corner of the room where his mom had been sitting. She ran towards him and embraced him into her arms. He handed her his belt and even from afar, it was clear she was emotional.
“I’m just very proud of him and what he’s accomplished,” Toni says. “He’s done so much already and now to see him fight at The Garden, it’s amazing.”
It’s finally Mark’s turn to weigh in. As he steps on the scale, his mother holds her phone steady and nods jubilantly as he makes weight. He faces his opponent and looks fierce, not afraid or tired or hungry. “He’s ready for this,” Toni whispers to herself.
After taking pictures, the guys are finally free to eat and begin their small feast. Mark is sharing his watermelon with everyone around him while devouring a bagel. “Food tastes really good today!” He says with his mouth full, to his coaches’ laughter. He’s finally done with the worst part of it and can now look forward to the big show.
“I have my teammates and my coaches. Everyone, the way they make me feel, they just make me feel supported and cared about,” Mark had said while watching his brothers-in-arms wrap their hands to prepare for his camp. “We are all going through these struggles together. We aren’t alone because we have each other. They’re my family. They’re the people I’m the most excited to see when I get out of the ring. They help me be a better fighter, a better person, and without them or my mom and brother, I don’t know where I would be at.”
As the team leaves Madison Square Garden, Toni nudges Coach Joe and says, “The official says that no girlfriends or friends are allowed in the back room when they’re getting ready to fight, but he didn’t say anything about mothers!” They all laugh as Mark shakes his head.
“Don’t give her any ideas, otherwise I’ll find myself with a fourth cornerman!” He puts one arm around his mom, the other hand clutching a bottle of red Pedialyte.
As they walk towards the exit, they pass a photo of the Puerto Rican professional boxer Miguel Cotto celebrating one of his many triumphant wins at The Garden.
“Anthony!” Toni calls to her son. “Take a picture with me in front of this. You’re going to be like him!”
“Alright ma, whatever you say,” Marrero says with a smile, and dutifully stands next to the photo, just as he had followed her to cardio kickboxing classes all those years ago.
He gets into his fighter pose and puts his fists up, but notices his mother is just standing in front of the picture and has her arms down.
“Come on ma, you have to put your fists up too. We’re in this together, you and me,” he says to her, tapping her hands and gesturing for her to lift them up.
“Okay, okay,” she says excitedly and grins, as she clenches her hands and holds them up in front of her body while the coaches take their picture.
“That’s right, it’s you and me in this,” she says. “It’s you and me.”
All photos courtesy of Joshua Brandenburg (drinkandsmile.com, @drinkandsmilenow)