Sitan Gym NY sits nestled cozily on a block full of shops in Astoria, Queens. On one side of the studio is a 99 cents store - the kind of cornerstone you’d find in New York City, with brooms and plastic flowers displayed outside. On the other side is a Middle Eastern restaurant, with meals so loosely defined as “Middle Eastern” that anyone from Iranian to Turkish could walk in and find a dish they often ate at their grandmother’s table.
Even as gyms go in New York, this one isn’t very large, but on a humid day in May it is still packed with people. Neighbors and shop owners stop by to watch the students running, hitting bags, and holding pads for one another. They nod at those they recognize and wave their hellos to owner and head instructor Aziz Nabih. He is working solely with one fighter at the moment: a tired, shirtless, and sweaty James “Guch” Guccione.
Guccione is mid-way through one of his many training sessions of the day, as he prepares to fight on Friday Night Fights’ May 19th card. His opponent isn’t a foe, but a friend, Chris Tapia of Weapons 9. “Guch” says the two have been planning to fight for some time, but it never seemed to work out. His game plan for that evening is to fight and then likely catch a drink with his opponent afterwards.
“No one is really enemies in the Muay Thai community. Most of us are friends–very good friends. If you have enemies in this sport, then you’re doing it wrong,” he says.
James would know that better than anyone. When he’s not fighting, or working at ConEd as a High Voltage mechanic, a job that can have him working anywhere from 8 to 12 hours at a time at any time of the day, he works as a cutman for his business The Upper Cutmen. This Friday Night Fights card, he’s actually fighting, but most times he’s wrapping the fighter’s hands and dutifully sitting in a corner during the bouts, next to a referee and the doctor. As soon as any hint of blood appears on a competitor, Guccione is in the corner with their coaches, working his magic to make it disappear. Sometimes a skilled hand closing a cut is the very thing that could prevent the fight from being called, allowing the fighter another opportunity to take home a win.
“I had a fascination when I first started training,” James says, as he looks down at his own hands. His knuckles are red and worn down. “My boxing coach Joey Valle used to wrap my hands and taught me. I tried to pick it up from other trainers and then started wrapping people’s hands. From there, more people started seeking me out, and here we are now. It’s an honor to me that coaches who know how to wrap hands, look for me to wrap their fighters hands. The fact they trust me is indescribable.”
Something that began as more of a hobby has become a full-blown profession. Guccione recently traveled to Connecticut to be the cutman for Lion Fight 36, wrapping champion Muay Thai fighter Lerdsila Chumpairtour in the process. It was just another weekend for Guch however, as he is in demand for nearly every promotion in the Tri-State area.
“I still go out of my way to learn. I ask others around me how they do it. The way I wrap hands now is much different than the way it was before. The purpose is to protect the hands, their knuckles, wrists, hands, and you do it all with tape and gauze. This is something I take very serious. I’m licensed by the state of New York and an inspector for the state of New Jersey. Even with all the other things I do, I ultimately see myself as a cutman–working the corners, being in the locker rooms, being there when a guy is gushing blood out of his face, ready to get his hands dirty.”
Well-known in the Muay Thai and MMA scene, as soon as James enters an event, he is greeted by nearly every person in the venue.
“I like my cutman business because I’m not individual to any fighter. I like to remain neutral. I’ve wrapped the hands of the people I’ve fought. I’ve cornered the gym of someone who is fighting my own team. I have a job to do there, which is to protect the fighters. I don’t pick sides, I just wrap hands and look out for their safety. I’m trusted to do a great job and that’s what I want to do. I have a lot of connections to different fighters, and it’s really something to see when they’re getting wrapped. It’s that moment when you get the gauze on your hands that you know it’s go-time, and all your hard work is about to pay off.”
Guccione is an unmistakable presence at events, with his trademark beard, fedora, and black vest. His clothes come from the store he runs with his wife Ana, called The Stonework. It is a hop, skip, and a jump from Sitan, just up the street. Much of the embroidery on items at their shop is done by Ana’s hand, as well as the decisions for the carefully curated clothing and art selections. The store is filled with vintage and vintage-styled items, from prints hand-drawn by a tattoo artist to denim jackets and rockabilly dresses.
“My wife was the one who wanted the store, so I said, ‘Let’s do it,” James recalls with a laugh. “When I met her, I was head over heels for that woman, and I still am. We got married one year to the day that I met her and she’s been by my side since April 2012. I’m a very lucky guy.”
If you were meeting him for the first time, you would be convinced James was the ultimate self-made man. A beautiful wife and daughter, a career that he loves, successful businesses, and a fight record that many would have difficulty obtaining. His life didn’t come easily however–it’s been a multitude of things that have led him here.
“I just got out of rehab when I started training Muay Thai,” he says bluntly. Now we are at his store, watching the customers come in and out. The band Pennywise is playing out of the speakers and James is sitting cross-legged on a brown leather couch. It’s a sunny warm Sunday in Astoria, and flocks of people are utilizing the sunshine to go outside. They linger at each item and trace the clothing with their fingers. The store prides itself on having high-quality and American-made goods. A neon sign flashes above the register, “Honest Hustle.”
“I was keeping to myself a lot and a friend of mine was fighting for Friday Night Fights. Another friend invited me to go and said ‘You should come, it’ll be a nice night out for you.’ I watched my friend fight and afterwards, he came up to me and said that I looked the best I did in years. I told him, ‘I want to do what you’re doing–how do I do that?”
Although the Yonkers-born Guccione initially stayed close to home and trained at the Westchester Fight Club, he eventually found himself at Sitan Gym. Since he was 18, he had been working for ConEd and would drive down to Astoria almost daily. A friend from a bagel shop up the street convinced him to try some classes with Aziz, as James had already been working with another well-known Sitan trainer, Sean Hinds. He made it to Nationals and then eventually Italy for the WKAs, and upon returning home, decided that Sitan was where he wanted to be. Fighting since 2009, James has a 12-6 record now and doesn’t reflect too much on who he was before he started Muay Thai.
“It’s almost like a past life for me, I don’t even think about it anymore. It’s like night and day.”
Back at the gym, Guch is in a corner of the mat while the rest of the team is practicing knees on heavy bags. He is pushed against the mirror and is forced to redo the same kicks over and over again until Aziz thinks they are perfect. As instructor Joel teaches the class, he occasionally glances over to see what Guch is doing now and offers a few words of encouragement while the students work on their technique.
“I see the changes in James. A lot of people have this story as well–they have been able to change their lives from it. He has grown as a man completely since he first walked through those doors,” Aziz says. Known as a man of few words, Nabih is concise and straight to the point. He’s one of the most respected coaches in the United States, training fighters such as Cyrus Washington and Kem Sitsongpeenong.
“I’ve made wrong decisions in my adolescence as well, but Muay Thai always brought me on track. It takes you on a different path. This is why I want to give back to this sport. It has given me a lot. It is my life. Even when I’m home or out of the gym, I’m always thinking about the fighters and how I can help them.”
The Moroccan-born Nabih had began training at the age of 10 until he moved to the States in 1993 from Amsterdam. He eventually took over a Tae Kwon Do studio and made his priority on building his team instead of his profits.
“It was presented to me in this way, not for the pursuit of money. I am always trying to give back. If you walk into this gym, this is my house. I have to know who you are. This isn’t a business. This is my home and these people are my family. If there is no trust between a fighter and trainer, if there is no relationship–then anyone could do that. When the trust is there, the fighter can go into a ring with his eyes closed and win a fight by trusting his trainer.”
As James works with Aziz, it’s a surprising contrast between the two men that could only appear in a martial arts academy.
Nabih is completely bedecked in orange: an orange shirt, orange shorts, orange leggings, and an orange longsleeve. He has on an orange belly pad, thigh pad, and Thai pads, and appears as a very serious tiger looking to protect his cubs.
Guccione on the other hand, is the complete opposite. His Thai shorts are rolled up, his stomach and chest tattoos with the moniker “GUCH” and a man riding a bull are on full display. He’s red-faced and sweaty, but still smiling even while coaches Aziz and Sean shout instructions at him. Guch is tired after working all night for ConEd, but is pushing through.
Confidence in one another is an important factor for being a part of Sitan. Aziz says, “I feel honored that he trusts me with his training and for bringing me in as a part of his family. It means a lot to me that he brings his wife here, that his daughter has started training here. He embodies the values that I teach. His personality is very friendly and open, he is someone that other people believe in. It’s all fifty-fifty. I give him some, he gives me some. That’s why people allow him to touch their hands and bring him into their life. You have to trust a person in order to have them trust you. You have to be open to let others be open to you.”
Guccione’s teammate Joel Estevez agrees. He is wearing an The Upper Cutmen shirt and visits his friend at The Stonework often. Estevez helped him build The Upper Cutmen but says “it’s more of James’ thing.”
Soft-spoken but articulate and friendly, Joel sits behind the desk and helps run the gym. He is Aziz’s main man and can be counted to do anything that is needed. A multi-tasker, Estevez simultaneously teaches a class while ensuring that guests that come through the door are attended to.
“Aziz is the best person I know,” he states. “Our fighters are taken care of. Aziz takes care of everybody. We are a family, we are all always together. This is home.”
Joel continues and affectionately says, “I love James. He’s a good person. We just started training and became friends. Guch is the kind of guy that everyone can rely on it. He’s the person that will always open his doors for everyone else and help anyone else that he can. We’ve struggled together and we’ve pushed each other. In fight camp you get broken down, physically, emotionally, and mentally. If you don’t cry in fight camp, it’s not a complete fight camp. But we help build each other back up. When your family is hurting, you help your family.”
As James is checking Aziz’s kicks to his leg, a bumblebee tattoo on his calf is prominent. A friend did for him when he was only 14–it’s green because they had no other ink to use. Despite the many more detailed tattoos he has gotten since that time, he has chosen not to cover it up or even fill it in. It is almost as if the bee is a reminder of his youth and where he came from, even as his fight camp is a symbol of where he is going.
Someone new has started today at Sitan and while he isn’t in the usual Muay Thai attire, everyone is helping him. Joel teaches him how to hold his arms up properly to defend his face, and patiently explains what a jab and a cross is. Between rounds, Guccione walks over and claps the new student on the back, and asks him how he likes training so far. As class ends, Aziz takes a few minutes to talk to him and advocates for his return. No one goes unnoticed at the gym.
“I hope I help other people in the same way they’re helping me,” James says. “What pushes me is the end result. When it all works out, it’s worth it. You know when you’re cheating yourself. You have to think about it and push yourself through it. Be an honest person and do the things you’re supposed to do to get the results you want. This fight camp has showed me that I really can find the time to be there at the gym. With everything else I’ve had going on, I thought it would be impossible. But I realized I can make the time, even if it’s harder than it was before.”
Training has finished and the three men have cleaned up. They sit on the chairs that are at the front of the academy and talk about their plans for the rest of the day. Aziz is going to go for a run at the same time as Joel, but first he needs Joel to run to the bank for him.
“I trust him, I trust these guys,” Nabih says, “They’re like my sons, they are my family. They know my daughters and my wife, and we all love them.”
James has different plans. Always on the go, he has a meeting to head to and then will go spend time with his daughter as his wife goes to work. If either of them are running late, they can call someone from the gym to open the store for them. It’s more than just a community of trust, it is as Aziz says, “a family”.
The family continues to grow, as James’ daughter Story has now started doing Muay Thai at nearly four years old. Aziz himself held pads for her, as James watched proudly.
“I’m bringing my daughter in the gym every day. She gets more acknowledgement out of the whole team then anybody else. It’s pretty amazing. When I walk in the gym with her, she feels like she’s at home. My fight camp last year, she went through the whole thing with me. She was in the gym as much as I was. Aziz raised her hand as the announcer raised my hand, and it was just our hard work together.”
The tradition continues from father to daughter, and Guccione knows Story will be in a good place because of it. “Every time in my life I was doing martial arts, I was on the right track and doing the right thing. All the good moments in my life, I was doing martial arts. When I didn’t have martial arts in my life, I wasn’t doing things right. I want to help my daughter stay on the right track.”
It’s only midday now, but James has been up since 7 pm the night before. He doesn’t have time to take a break until later, but he is content with what he has to do.
“My life experience has been more good than bad now. The bad is fading away. For so long, I did things that were dishonest and wrong. I didn’t want to die or end up in jail. You come to the realization you’re going to lose everything. I hit the point where enough was enough, and I was ready to make the change. It started with Muay Thai. Most of the great things I have gotten in my life is because of this sport. I met my wife at a gym. I have the cutman business because of it. I’ve made a deep connection with my team and others in the community. Yeah, I am a busy guy, but I guess you could say idle hands are the work of the devil. If being busy means I can stay out of trouble, sure, why not. I wanted to be a good guy, a good person, and I think I’m getting myself there because of the kind of people I have around me–my wife, my team, my coaches, my family. This is the first thing I’ve done in my life that’s been pure. It’s 100% legit, everything is the way it is supposed to be. It’s beautiful that all my hard work was in the right place, because for so long it has been in the wrong place. I’ve been a hustler, but I wanted to be something different–an honest hustler.”
photos courtesy of James Guccione (@cutman_guch), Ana Guccione (@thestonework), Sitan Gym (@sitangymny), Joel Estevez (@joelsitangym) & Steve Ferdman (@bauzen)