Nestled in the heart of New York City, Catalyst S.P.O.R.T. is a skip between Times Square and Grand Central. The fitness center offers a variety of services, from group training to semi-private personal sessions. All walks of life find themselves enter through their doors, but most curiously, a group of female Muay Thai fighters rave about their experiences the most. Six athletes from Renzo Gracie Muay Thai, located only ten blocks away in Midtown Manhattan, convene weekly with the multiple trainers Catalyst has to offer. Each woman focuses on something different than the other--they may be active fighters while the others are in-between seasons, might be overcoming an injury or recovering from a previous fight, or have not yet fought and are simply there to increase their stamina and mobility. There’s something the small facility offers that big-box gyms do not and they can not get from their martial arts academy--the emphasis of bringing strength, agility, and movement together to enhance their skills and make them the ultimate version of themselves. It is with this additions to their game that these female fighters have seen vast improvements in their training and fight performances.
Headed by Joe Boffi and Jason Kapnick, also Brazilian JiuJitsu and Muay Thai competitors out of the illustrious Renzo Gracie Academy since the mid-2000’s, Catalyst S.P.O.R.T. was designed with all athletes in mind--but their results with the female fighters have been tremendous. Strength training for women in particular is nothing new, but Kapnick and Boffi recognize and emphasize the importance of developing the strength of these female fighters.
“Well, starting with where our name Catalyst came from: we want to be a guide and empower people, want to be a catalyst for them to walk the paths themselves, to find something that betters them,” says co-owner Kapnick. “Even our logo drawn by Danny Quirk, it’s the molecule for dopamine: responsible for drive, motivation, and pleasure. We just want to make people a better human machine first, we want to make that bucket of tools bigger--your coaches, training partners, work you do on the mat--that’s what will keep you a better fighter--but we want to enhance your capabilities to learn more skill and technique. We sharpen the tools that they use,” he says excitedly about their competitors. “We add our expertise. Everyone here will have a completely customized program. No two individuals will have anything the same, we take into account their skills, abilities, techniques. We are very thorough in analyzing them and make sure that we know them and understand them.”
To be a fighter in any combat sport requires more than just discipline and heart--in this day and age as cryotherapy replaces ice baths and body fat is analyzed electronically, all competitors are looking for the biggest edge over their opponent. Long gone are the days of Muhammad Ali running on the sand in combat boots. Training has become more efficient, more technical, and more personalized. Catalyst offers these fighters that specific edge they are seeking. The studio is lined with equipment for strength, mobility, and recovery, while a private room is utilized for acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, and physical therapy. It is these tools alongside the staff’s expertise that makes the difference in the athletes’ training and well-being. They understand that in order to be the best competitor, they not only need to train with the best, but recover and prepare with the best as well.
Fighter Michelle Diaz states, “Catalyst has helped my performance as a Muay Thai athlete both mentally and physically. Strength is obvious, but I’ve also gained overall core stability, mobility, balance, total body awareness, proper breath control, and a drive to constantly push the pace and set new goals for myself each session. These are all very important details in Muay Thai as well and make one an even greater athlete. When I first started at Catalyst, I had never touched a kettlebell, lifted a bar, or knew there was a “proper” squat. I was coached very quickly on all these things plus more, and now I feel very confident in my strength training. I feel much stronger and have been fortunate to avoid further injuries which can be common in our sport. My customized program encourages me to constantly meet new PR’s so I love that it challenges me mentally and physically, similar to the way martial arts does.”
A former Muay Thai fighter himself, Boffi agrees that this is a primary aspect of the programs designed for each competitor. He states, “We design their programs to enhance their power and strength so that they become more competitive. We want to keep them moving, keep training injury-free, and to remain healthy. Fight camps are super strenuous. We make sure to gear their intense strength training post-fight. We focus on movement, for them to feel fresh, and to shake off what they’re doing in fight camp. We want to them to keep the strength they already have and to avoid injury from what they may be doing.”
As the realm of combat sports transforms, another major change is the introduction of female competitors, like the fighters from Renzo Gracie Academy. While boxers Barbara Buttrick, Cathy Davis, and Christy Martin shook up the world more than thirty years ago, the likes of Gina Carano, Ronda Rousey, and Cristiane Santos have established a new evolution with their specialities in different martial arts. Carano--a well-known Muay Thai fighter, Rousey--a Judo Olympian, and Santos--who has won it all from Brazilian JiuJitsu, Wrestling, Kickboxing, and Muay Thai, utilized their talents in the MMA cage, highlighting their capabilities from standing to ground. Boxing is no longer the only avenue for female fighters, as boxers-turned-MMA-fighters Ana Julaton, Heather Hardy, and Holly Holm have illustrated. MMA’s big draw has shined a light on some of the arts that make up the Mixed Martial Arts, including Muay Thai. Catalyst has their doors wide-open for the female practitioner and wants to give them the opportunity to add even more tools to their arsenal.
“It’s important for us to empower female athletes specifically,” Kapnick says, “As women until up very recently have not been encouraged to get strong, and it’s really cool to see them do things like do a pullup for the first time. You can see the progress each week and see the gains they make. Women haven't been encouraged to pursue strength and to see them get strong is amazing. They make fast progress and gain so many things for themselves. The women here are strong remarkable badasses and are role models for the others that train alongside them.”
Competitor Ruo Chen is one that has seen significant progress in her training as well as mental well-being, as well as actively campaigns for other women to also include training at Catalyst in their routine. She says, “I think it’s especially important for women to strength-train because we’ve had our confidence insidiously destroyed by mainstream media for the longest time with respect to how “strong” we can become. This glass ceiling that we’ve been force-fed since childhood does not exist, and it empowers women to be able to lift 1.5x their body weight, shattering both internal and external expectations. I still get quips from people who think I’m lifting too heavy or that I should go down in my Pallof press resistance, but those comments just give me extra motivation to hit my next PR. I very much enjoy the “semi” aspect of semi-private training, where I can simultaneously control my own workout while receiving guidance when I need it. Personally, I am super coachable because I understand and can communicate my body mechanics very well, so I don’t need excessive coaching. My diet is regular, my confidence is high, and I’m less aggravated by minor upsets in life. Psychologically, physiologically, and emotionally, I’m a better human being when I train at Catalyst.”
Long-time fighter Danielle Rind agrees, stating, “Women often think that if they strength train they'll get bulky or look masculine. That's a misconception, it takes a lot to build enough muscle to look bulky and in my opinion, a toned female body is more in vogue today than ever before. Additionally, weight lifting doesn't only develop more muscle, it strengthens our bones, stabilizes our joints, and improves our overall health and longevity. All the staff and clients are friendly and kind. All of the Catalysts are incredibly knowledgeable and each bring their own flavor to their coaching sessions.”
As these athletes’ sport of Muay Thai becomes more prominently known than ever, their possibilities in the sport are growing, which adds to the importance of the training they receive at Catalyst. The martial art, also known as the Art of 8 Limbs, hails from Thailand, and has a long and storied history regarding it’s introduction to Western countries. Twenty years ago it was a martial art that was trained in extremely small groups, behind closed doors, or in the back rooms of fitness clubs long after they had turned the lights off. However, an explosion of gyms has erupted over the last ten years and the sport is more accessible than ever. Having spaces such as their academy and Catalyst gives the competitors not only a place to train and improve, but also an area where they can feel safe and empowered, both mentally and emotionally.
“Muay Thai has my heart,” says student Kristine Cintron. “Training at Catalyst has helped my cardio, my focus, and my confidence in Muay Thai. I have definitely become stronger because when I clinch with the big boys I no longer get swept! If it gets too intense I can definitely muscle my way out and win the exchange. Catalyst is my safe haven to better myself and relax. Catalyst is home.”
Athlete Isang Smith can also attest to what Catalyst has done for her martial arts training. “I was able to kick faster and stronger. I also felt it prevented injuries that can be coming for Muay Thai athletes. Training there has helped me significantly with my energy, my posture and my JiuJitsu training. Also, the camaraderie, the humor and the support made it feel like my second home.”
As its popularity increasingly grows stateside and worldwide, the sport of Muay Thai has now been primed for the Olympics, being granted provisional recognition by the IOC in 2016. There is a very real opportunity for Muay Thai to be included in the 2024 Olympics, something that has never been done before. Each of the female fighters at Catalyst could have an authentic chance at representing the United State whether it is at the Olympics or IFMA, the sports Olympic equivalent, and this is something that is taken seriously at Catalyst. It is more important than ever for the athletes to utilize every aspect they can as far as their training, prehab, and recovery. Having a place such as Catalyst to sharpen the same tools they develop at training allows these competitors a closer reach to one day fighting for a gold medal or world title.
Boffi notes that, “Female fighters enjoy the sport, skill, and the competition, but those who don’t lift, might be missing the stability and strength that would make them even better. It would be a great way for them to avoid injury. We enhance their attributes so they can get better at their skill. We’ve gone through and experienced fight camps--we have the firsthand knowledge and can take our experiences to give the athletes our support and understanding Sometimes we have to hold athletes back--because sometimes they want to keep going even when they need rest. Also athletes are more susceptible to getting banged up, so their training needs to be modified occasionally. However, these are all things that we can assist them with and help them overcome.”
Rind finds that being a part of Catalyst has helped her strength-training overall, saying that, “I used to do some weight lifting before starting Muay Thai but then the only exercising I did was Muay Thai. I felt out of place in a regular gym for the first time since I was in high school and I didn't like that. I wanted to be able to exercise even if Muay Thai wasn't available, like when I travel for work. Catalyst gave me the foundation to feel more confident in the gym when I'm on my own.”
Renzo Gracie Muay Thai coach and fighter Anne Lieberman saw first-hand how Boffi’s Catalyst training enhanced his athletic abilities and followed suit. She says, “I trained with Joe Boffi for my first fight camp when I came to Renzo's. I was looking for a new place to do strength and conditioning and I felt Catalyst would be the perfect fit since Boffi knew my training schedule inside and out. He and his amazing coaches designed a great program that was complementary to my Muay Thai training. I've gained so much overall strength much faster than I previously ever have. My deadlift PR is 200+ pounds! In addition, my strength training at Catalyst has kept me injury free. I feel so much stronger and more powerful, more explosive. I also love love love the community. The coaches are all so knowledgeable, give great cues, and have a great sense of humor. The other clients are also awesome (big shoutout to my two favs, Angela Stolfi and Houston Vinson!!)”
Despite the physical and mental transformations the fighters produce, the Catalyst team is most proud of what they are able to give back to their community as well as the growing self-confidence they recognize in their female athletes.
“We are trying to empower the world through fitness,” Boffi says. “We want you to feel good and feel like you benefited from us. It’s not about strength training for fighters. We’ve seen nearly every head instructor at Renzo’s and nearly 10 fighters who had some kind of injury, and were able to help them continue training, relieve the issue, and get better--rather than have to get surgery and/or quit the sport. Just getting up every day and being a part of something i truly believe in, is super fulfilling. I get to do the things I love every day as a part of this. Being able to help people and improve their lives, is just what makes my life better.”
Kapnick capitalizes on this and emphasizes that what matters most for both of them is simply making a difference. “The sense of fulfillment of helping others is tremendous. I feel like I am continuously improving, getting better, just my personal development through all this. Being a business owner has shown me where my weaknesses are and how I can improve on it. More than anything else, the support we’ve received from Renzo Gracie Academy--never in my life have I had a group of friends that have supported each other like this. I’ve never had a friend like Joe, where we support each other so powerfully. The whole Catalyst, we are a family. The whole fulfillment and sense of community is unbelievable. It’s added a depth to my life that I didn’t even know was possible.
We want to have that human communication--when an athletes comes into Catalyst, I really want to listen, to help, and serve their needs. We want to help them live their lives better and get more fulfillment out of whatever moves them.”
Special thanks to Catalyst Sport and Renzo Gracie Academy