The first thing I notice is how dry his lips are.
“I’m still cutting weight,” he says, “So right now I can’t have much water.”
As he speaks, I can hear his lips stick together and the thirst in his voice. Weight-cutting is always hard, but Victor manages a smile. He’s been preparing for bout for Friday Night Fights for weeks, but the weight cut is usually the last part of it.
“Training has gone really really well. Honestly, I feel the best that I’ve ever felt.” Fighting at 140 lbs, Victor is still a few pounds out but he isn’t concerned.
“I’ve done this before and I have the best coaches helping me. I’ll get there, no problem.”
Victor Canales, or “The Butcher“, as he’s affectionately called due to a series of eyebrow-cutting incidents, has only been fighting for the last year. He’s been at Renzo Gracie Academy for the last six or so years, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that he began training Muay Thai. Like many who flock to the Gracie academy, he was originally interested in Brazilian JiuJitsu. The blue belt saw how much fun his good friend Juan Cortez was having kicking and punching, instead of grappling and rolling, that he decided to swap the gi for some Thai shorts and give it a try himself.
“At the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing. The exercises were hard, and it was even harder to come train because I worked so much. But I fell in love with Muay Thai, and I haven’t looked back since. I’m always looking forward.”
The 28 year-old Canales moved to New York City from Mexico at the young age at 17, but has been working since he was at least 14 years old. With only two brothers in the city, the rest of his family still lives in Mexico and depends on him to help them financially. Every week, he works anywhere from 3-5 days at La Esquina restaurant in Soho, and then trains 5-6 days for several hours at a time. It’s exhausting, but he feels like it’s worth it.
“I came here to help my family, so working does that. Muay Thai is how I help myself.”
Victor is a larger fighter; muscular and thick, with a square jaw that can be intimidating to those who don’t know him. However, it’s striking how quiet and humble he is. For his stature, he can walk into a room as quiet as mouse–in comparison to the bull that he can be in the ring. The first thing that his teammates notice about him is his humility. He doesn’t draw much attention to himself and seems to focus on everyone else in the room. A shy smile occasionally escapes his face when someone makes a joke, but other than that, he’s focused and determined. Nothing breaks his concentration.
This is Canales’ first time being on a fight card on his own–previously, he had always competed with his teammates warming up in the same room as him.
“To be honest, yes, I feel a lot of pressure and nervousness. I am ready and excited, but those other feelings still are there. What I fight for is what pushes me past fear and reminds me that I have my responsibilities. I am not coming to train for fun or even for myself anymore, it is my duty as a part of the team to get better so I can make my teammates better. It is my duty as one of the academy’s fighters to go out and compete, so that I represent us. When I think of it as something that is bigger than myself, I realize that I am very lucky and privileged to have the honor to fight.”
Victor’s altruistic mentality is illustrated in his day-to-day interactions with his friends and teammates. He smiles at every person who looks his way and makes it a point to shake his coaches’ hands before each class. It’s apparent that he is a cornerstone of the team. His phone’s screensaver is a picture of the Renzo Gracie Muay Thai seal and he has photos dating back several years of him and others training, at holiday parties, or even celebrating his birthday. In a place as cold and lonely as New York City, it seems that he unexpectedly found a home for himself.
“My family is still in Mexico, which has been very hard for me. It has been difficult to be in this city. But, my team has become my family. I admire my coaches very much–Joe, Jamie, Elijah, Joshua, PJ, Mustang, Claude, Gary, Lucas, Brent–I see them as my older brothers. My training partners are like my brothers and sisters. They all have become the family I have needed. I want to make them proud, and I am very grateful that they all look out for me.”
Even though Canales works very hard, what pushes him on the days that he feels exhausted from working twelve hours at a restaurant or frustrated from the injuries that come with training? How does he motivate himself to train when everything in his mind and body tells him to quit?
“Well, in particular, I really look up to our head coach, Joe Sampieri. He has helped me to grow so much from where I’ve been and always pushes me to get better. He doesn’t let any of us get anything easy, and makes us train hard. I see Joe the same way I see my two older brothers, and consider him a part of my family. I know that he has been in my situation before, but pushed past it–which gives me strength to get past it as well. I respect him very much and want to represent him, Master Renzo, and our academy the very best that I can.”
All photos courtesy of Joshua Brandenburg (@drinkandsmilenow, drinkandsmile.com) and Alberto Vasari (@albertovasari, albertovasari.com)