It’s another warm muggy day in Manhattan, as the weather alternates between a downpour and humid stifling sunshine. Only in New York City will you see a person wearing a raincoat over a tank top and cargo shorts. On 30th Street in Midtown, the second floor windows of the Renzo Gracie Academy are fogged up. It’s 12:00 pm on a Thursday, the time where many are planning their weekend getaways and drinks for later that evening. The people inside the academy have different concerns. They are trying to complete Muay Thai coach Elijah Clarke’s warm-up without slowing down.
Clarke has a mischievous look on his face. Standing in the center of the red and blue mats, he holds a timer in his hands as he drills the students through his infamous “fifteens.” It’s a superset of burpees and sprinting in place for fifteen seconds at a time, with a ten second break in between. Reggae music plays in the background, as Sister Nancy’s voice recites “Dis woman neva trouble no one, I’m a lady, I’m not a man, MC is my ambition…”
Despite the perspiration that has accumulated on the glass, faces smush up on the exterior windows as passersby attempt to catch a peek at what the students are doing. Visiting foreigners place their cell phones directly on the window so they can videotape the action, despite the numerous “NO FILMING OR PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED” signs around the academy. Clarke pays them no mind, as he focuses on getting his class through the warm-up. He dances along with the music, which has now changed to Bob Marley’s “Sun is Shining.”
The mats have become a near slip-n-slide as the practitioners come up to their final round of the drill. Their t-shirts are soaked, Thai shorts in uncomfortable positions. A few close their eyes as they deeply inhale, waiting for their coach’s final “Go!”
“Sun is shining, the weather is sweet, make you want to move your dancing feet… To the rescue, here I am!” wails Marley’s voice.
Coach Elijah mercifully allows the class a drink of water as they now prepare for padwork. He waits for the students at the front of the room as he demonstrates the combination for the session. His mischievous smile is gone, and in its place is a look of satisfaction. No student slowed down or had to stop. Despite the sticky thick feeling inside the room, the class pushed through. That’s exactly what he wanted.
Clarke has been a coach at RGA for the last few years, but that isn’t his only role at the academy. A fighter with a pro record of 5-1 (and close to 20 amatuer fights), Elijah is the culmination of the Renzo Gracie Muay Thai program’s hard work. This Friday, he fights for Friday Night Fights, but this time the stakes aren’t just for a WKA title belt–it’s for a chance at Glory. Glory Kickboxing, that is. The promotion is coming to New York City on July 14th and this bout determines whether Clarke or his opponent gets an opportunity to be on the card. The big show has another incentive–it’s being held at the world’s most famous theater, Madison Square Garden. Clarke has fought at the Theater at the Garden before, but not in this capacity. Ranked #19 in the world by WBC in 2015, it’s his chance to put twelve years of hard work in the spotlight and show the world what New York City already knows–that he is one of the best Muay Thai fighters around.
Elijah affirms that “I’ve paid my dues. I think I could really shine on Glory. I think my style works well with what they show and I’d be able to bring something different than before.”
To know Elijah is to know the academy. The program was was initially created 11 years ago, and Clarke was one the very first students to transition from student to instructor. Almost like an ambassador, he is nicknamed “The Mayor” because everywhere he goes, he’s sure to know someone there–no matter how far from home he may be. A Glory Kickboxing event all the way in Trenton, New Jersey illustrated this as he spent more time during the event saying hello to former training partners, friends from the scene, and referees that recognized him, than actually watching the fights. Just a spectator that evening, it is no wonder that the crowd goes wild as soon as Clarke enters a venue for his own bouts.
He’s easy to root for. Even with the impressive skills that have been recognized by Vice Media’s Fightland many times, Clarke is down-to-earth and humble. The ideal likeness for several photographers, his body is long, lean, and athletic. Earlier this year, snapshots of him modeling a hoodie for GQ travelled their way around the Internet. He’s often the tallest person in the room, but he’s also a Thai boxer as graceful as a dancer. Clarke is able to move quickly and maneuver into positions that would be uncomfortable for others to maintain. His expressive features stare deeply into the camera while he is able to mold his limbs artistically. In those moments, Elijah appears to embody what Bruce Lee meant when he said “be like water”–he is fluid, able to take on the shape of his surroundings, and mobile.
His fighting reflects this fluidity. The man is incredibly expressive and his thoughts often play out on his face. However, in the ring, he is nothing but stone-cold and devoid of emotion. Clarke’s last fight saw him “chopping down the tree” as he worked multiple painful leg kicks on his opponent. With a steely focus in his eyes, there was neither malice nor pleasure–just a job that had to be done. As the other fighter limped out of the ring, legs purple and black, Elijah looked for his coaches and teammates, pointed to his wife and then to his mouthguard, which is emblazoned with his daughter’s name. It was clear this victory was not for him–it was for them.
Teammate and coach PJ McMahon emphasizes Elijah’s skills. “Elijah is one of the most talented fighters I have ever come across in the Muay Thai, kickboxing, or MMA world,” he says. “His potential is limitless!”
However, Clarke’s confidence isn’t apparent all the time. Despite his large stature, he occasionally makes himself smaller without realizing it. His neck leans forward, his shoulder blades come in, and it appears that he is trying to take up less space, like a bird bringing itself together so that it can protect itself. This behavior only occurs when he is speaking to someone who is timid or nervous, often a first-time student or a pupil that is known to be too hard on themselves. With his body, he is saying, “I know how you are feeling. I was there once too.” Clarke knows what it feels like to not be self-assured all the time.
He says, “I get the most nervous when I’m getting my hands wrapped, my hands are shaking. Coach Joe told me once, “Fear is good. But don’t let fear control you.” I think that’s true. You can’t let fear overwhelm your life. You have to have fun and do what you know how to do. All you can do is your best.”
Even still, he is able to jump into conversation with anyone. With a joker’s smile, he is personable and friendly. It appears to be intentional that he is usually the first coach new students meet. Clarke is able to bring even the shyest person out of their shell and make someone who was near tears earlier break out into laughter.
There are occasional quiet moments. Before his fight camp starts, Clarke situates himself on the farthest side of the room. He keeps the lights off and his headphones on. Sometimes he has his eyes closed, while other times he stares straight ahead. It is in these brief half-hours that a different side of him emerges–the person who is focusing on himself for once, pulling himself together for what he will do next.
Those times are rare. Most of Elijah’s day revolves around other people: his students, his teammates, his clients, his family. Many are wary of investing so much into others, as there is only so much social energy that can be spent. Clarke reenergizes in short bursts–a ten-minute ride on the train or when he goes for a run. Even with all the things he manages to accomplish every day, he is the kind of person who will put others before himself. Often times after his fight training finishes, he jumps into teaching and leads the class. He can be seen stretching on the side of the mats after a cool-down, only to run back in to hold pads for a student he sees is partnerless.
He’s not superhuman–he does get tired. At the end of a long day, which started at 4:30 in the morning and is ending at 11 o’clock at night, his eyelids droop forward as he fights sleep. A Superare brand hat covers Elijah’s eyes and he taps his fingers anxiously against a subway pole as he counts the minutes until he is reunited with his daughter. A Renzo Gracie Muay Thai sweater is zipped up all the way and he brings his knees close to his chest, closing himself off from the rest of the world. For someone who is constantly so open and available, it is crucial that he keep to himself every once in awhile, even if it means becoming a small cocoon on a busy New York City subway.
Despite the daily grind he endures, his positive energy is infectious. The St. Lucian-born athlete grew up running around the island and swimming in Caribbean Sea. Carefree and almost rebellious, Clarke carries nostalgic memories of his childhood. Climbing and jumping off of sharp rocks near the water or falling down stairs that felt like they were ten stories high are among his favorite stories to retell. Even with more than half of his life spent in the States now, he still carries that precarious attitude. His cheeks stretch wide and two prominent dimples appear when he smiles. The playful Clarke could be mistaken for an overgrown college kid. Within the same hour on the mats, his face can transform from serious while he is instructing to light-hearted as he holds pads.
His teaching style is unique in the way he uses form to build technique. Punching fast or hard does not impress him. Punching correctly does. The devil is in the details as he describes geometrically the angle he wants his students to extend and retract, where their hands should be placed, and the plane that their feet and hips should line up on. He is precise in his movement and expects the same from those he guides.
Clarke says, “As a coach, I want our fighters to see their coach and someone who trains alongside them on a big stage and show them that they are able to accomplish this as well.”
As talented as he is as a student, his skills as a coach are what make him stand out. Patient and reassuring, Elijah is a bringer of light and calm when he teaches. His close relationship with the other coaches and fighters is apparent when he comes to train. No longer the same shy 22-year old he was when he first began Muay Thai, Clarke represents the changes that happen to a person over time. He originally began his training at Evolution Muay Thai under Brandon Levi before he came to Renzo’s. His hair was shorter then, he had fewer tattoos, and went out more than stayed in. A part of the scene for more than a decade, pictures taken over the years illustrate the effects of life–his first fight after eight months of training to becoming an instructor at the Renzo Gracie Academy, from spending all his free time training to now taking his daughter out as often as he can.
“My mom was a single mom up here, taking care of us,” Elijah says. “She took a chance to bring us up here and raised us on her own, and let me know that anything is possible. Now I want my daughter to see that I accomplished something. I want her to see if you set your mind to it, you can make anything happen for you.”
A fixture at tournaments all over the east side of the United States, Clarke has sat with many of the team’s fighters in the sauna and was often co-pilot when another coach was too tired to drive back home. Several members of the team can’t imagine what training at the academy would be like without him, as he been a permanent resident in their fight life–sometimes in the corner wrapping someone’s hands, or right in front of their face, shouting instructions as they hit pads. He’s seen other students become fighters or instructors, and has seen some students leave–to other states, to start families, or to simply move on from their Thaiboxing days.
Whatever they were doing, he was always there.
“Your success shouldn’t change the way you coach. No matter what you obtain or do, you shouldn’t change your relationship with your students,” says Clarke. “The students always come first.”
Instructor Brent Bartley has worked closely with Elijah during his time at Renzo Gracie Academy. Bartley says, “I was one of the first people Elijah reached out to when he was thinking about joining our program. It’s been an honor and a privilege to watch him develop as a person, student, and amateur fighter to now pro fighter and instructor. No one works as hard as him. Not to mention, he’s one of the most friendly people I’ve ever met in the roughly 20 years I’ve been training.”
Fighter and student Danielle Rind agrees and cites Elijah as an inspiration. “He’s one of the kindest, most supportive people I’ve ever known,” she says, reflecting on the times he has been able to help her during fight camp and through her training.
Clarke attributes his style of coaching to the head coach of the Muay Thai program, Joe Sampieri. After working with and learning from him for the better part of the last decade, Elijah still has something new to take home every time he leaves the academy.
“I left my previous school on very good terms and we are still friendly today. Even after coming from another academy, I was welcomed to Renzo’s with open arms. There are so many different instructors to get multiple views on different things. Joe’s approach and philosophies in training has inspired me a lot. I’ve never seen anyone with his mental toughness. He helped me learn that, how to have it and use it to make myself a better fighter. I’m still learning from him, even after 6 years of being here. The way he approaches training and fighting is a lot different than many people.”
The teaching starts from the top, with Master Renzo Gracie himself. Gracie has a multitude of academies worldwide, but none so famous as his Manhattan school, duly dubbed “The Mecca of Jiu Jitsu”. The surf-loving, ever-grinning grandson of Carlos Gracie Sr. occasionally sits in the academy office and makes sure to greet every person that walks through the doors. A variety of individuals come in: everyone from pro competitors preparing for their next UFC fight, to people who grew up watching PRIDE and are finally giving themselves a chance to learn what their fathers always talked about.
Long gone are the days when Royce Gracie competed against Dan Severn—the game that everyone is interested in is no longer about pitting one art against each other, but the ability to utilize a variety of skills for the most devastating outcome. The likes of Rafael Natal, Chris Weidman, and Liam McGeary all have come out of the house that Renzo built. These practitioners utilize both Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai in their fights. This is a stark contrast to the individuals who fight Muay Thai in Thailand as a means to support their struggling families. However, even with the sport’s growing prominence and slew of well-known names—Buakaw, Parr, or Fairtex— there is not a single name tied to Muay Thai in the way that Brazilian JiuJitsu is to the Gracies.
Renzo’s interest in incorporating Muay Thai at his academy precedes other martial arts schools. While many places do one or the other, focusing on a single program or just the combination that becomes MMA, Gracie has an incredibly strong and well-built Muay Thai program.
Gracie reflects, “I began training Muay Thai when I was training for my fights in Japan. The more I trained, the more I fell in love with the sport, and the more I wanted to give that to my students. Joe Sampieri and Jamie Crowder were looking to create a program, and I was very impressed with them. They were very traditional practitioners, and they were happy to grow the program. They started in the small back room in the basement and they’ve invested so much into it that it is what it is today.”
With each championship belt cementing the Renzo Gracie Muay Thai program’s status, Clarke is representing it all at the highest level when he steps into the ring this upcoming Friday. With that comes Master Renzo’s unconditional support.
“Unexpected to me, Renzo showed up for my first pro fight, and that meant a lot,” Elijah says, “He didn’t have to come, but he did. I feel like he supports me very much. Everyone here can say that they have a personal relationship with Renzo. No matter what you need, he will always be there for you.”
The bricks are still being put into place with what the program is capable of, but the values of the team aren’t about winning titles. It is to be expected that a martial arts school emphasizes traditional respect and humility. However, one facet of RGMT that is emphasized more than others is “giving back”–to one’s teammates, to the academy, and to the community. It’s illustrated in practice when a new student on their first day is shown as much respect as someone who has been with the program from the start, or when a fighter is secure in knowing that they will leave fight camp or sparring with no injuries.
Renzo believes that “God brought me the best guys to teach this program and complement the Jiu Jitsu program we have here. I knew they would do a great job with the students and they have. We prime for quality. I’ve seen the concept of Muay Thai bringing a lot of organization, respect, and intensity to the school. Just in the last year, our students gained eleven new titles. The program has built unbelievable fighters and remarkable students. It has helped people’s lives in a very positive way and has improved the lives of fighters too.”
Clarke has gone above and beyond to embody this in his character. When someone in the community needs assistance, he has been a person they’ve been able to call on time and time again. He is able to spar with anyone–from the academy’s smallest fighter to someone even bigger than he is–while having a safe and fun experience. He shows up for the team with a determined attitude, is always the voice of reason and compassion, and is attentive to how others are feeling. Even outside of his responsibilities as a coach, he leads to be an example for the students and helps those around him when they need it–whether it is a stranger in a train station or a regular client.
Student, friend, and fellow fighter Kenny Borrero agrees. “He’s one of the most dedicated, kind, and aware people I have ever met. A master at his craft that is as adaptable as they come. As a coach, he is interested in all our well-being. As a friend, he’s an amazing individual. He’s what you think of when you say “He made it.” And not in the sense of material or economic things, but in the sense of growth, evolution, and showing that where you come from doesn’t have to define you. It merely sets the stage for you to push through and achieve. It’s been a pleasure learning from him and training alongside him. He’s a really big source of inspiration for me.”
As another training session comes to an end and the music is slowly turned down, Coach Elijah stands at the front of the room and speaks to the students about what they did that day. He gives a few suggestions on what they can do to improve in the meantime between practices before bowing the class out. While they had been doing partnerwork, he had circled the room and helped each individual adjust their stance, turn their kick over, or remind them to bring their hand back to their face. When someone had adapted properly, he had given them a firm squeeze on the shoulder and pat on the back, a symbol of his approval. Although he hardly speaks about it, Elijah is also a photographer and many of his photographs seem to illuminate his subjects’ happiness in the moment. He is able to recreate these emotions when he affirms what many students are concerned about: that they are doing it right.
Photos courtesy of Renzo Gracie Muay Thai (@rgmtnyc), Alberto Vasari (@albertovasari), Steve Ferdman (@bauzen), Joshua Brandenburg (@drinkandsmilenow), You Bin (@youbinphotography), and Elijah Clarke (@elijah_clarke)