Eric Haycraft of Real Fighters Gym and his family

Kickboxing Culture Is Alive and Well in Louisville

Eric Haycraft of Real Fighters Gym knows what it takes to become a professional kickboxer, and today he’s working to bring that knowledge and competitive edge to youth in Kentucky.

“It was my sophomore year of high school, and a friend and I kind of found this by accident,” Haycraft said. “We were skinny, runty kids going through awkward teenage stuff and we decided we should lift weights in my friend’s garage.”

From the small television in the garage, the boys saw a movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and knew the martial artist’s physique was exactly how they wanted to look. Coincidently, one of Haycraft’s friends found a kung fu club in the area and the group of teens joined the club. They bought uniforms and began taking weekly classes. Two months later, Haycraft was the only one still attending the class.

“I kind of got obsessed with it,” Haycraft said. “I loved the sparring aspect of it and I thought I was good.”

Several years later, he found a kickboxing gym in southern Indiana and enrolled, believing he had what it took to move to the next level.

“The coach put me in the ring with some boxing gloves, and a 115-pound kid comes in and beats the snot out of me,” Haycraft said. “I was shell-shocked. It was a serious ego check. I felt like I had spent years learning to fight for nothing. I really needed to shift gears to the sport side of things, versus the cultural side of things you see in traditional martial arts.”

He began collecting VHS tapes of professional kickboxing fights, and discovered stars like Ramon Dekkers, a professional kickboxer and eight-time Muay Thai world champion. Haycraft reached out to Dekkers’ trainers in the Netherlands and inquired about training with them.

In 1994 he made his first trip to the Netherlands and was hooked. “I loved the training, the ideology, the professionalism and the popularity of the sport there,” he said. “I went for two weeks and extended my stay for another two weeks just to be able to learn more. I developed an amazing relationship with the whole team, and since then I’ve been there 40 or so times.”

Though he had found his passion, limits in the United States would hinder Haycraft’s dream of becoming a world champion.

“We didn’t have that infrastructure here for world-champion levels,” he said. “There were no amateur tournaments then. I don’t think I ever said it out loud, but my subconscious knew I was unlikely to become a world champion. What I could do was get the ball rolling to create it for someone else’s future.”

That’s just what Haycraft has done, essentially making it legal in the state of Kentucky to host competitive kickboxing events, and watching youths from his boxing gym soar to new levels.

Two kickboxers
Two kickboxers competing in Louisville

Real Fighters Gym, the latest incarnation of Haycraft’s program, opened in 2009. While it is a full-on kickboxing gym, most of the participants are training for recreational purposes. Regardless of intent, be it fitness or competition, the programs push everyone to give their all and become a lot more than they realized they could.

“Prior to COVID, we were producing some of the top athletes in the U.S. right here in Louisville without ever fighting in Louisville,” Haycraft said. “We couldn’t compete in this state, but yet we’re sending our athletes all over the world to compete.”

Lack of local access to competitions can get expensive, and in addition, most of the competitors start a bit late in age, making it difficult to succeed at the highest levels.

“Think about children who have their sights set on the Olympics,” Haycraft said. “Whether it’s soccer or gymnastics, they didn’t start out at 22 years old. We had interested 20-somethings competing, but they’re moving on before they get a chance to become world-level.”

Forced closures related to the pandemic hit Haycraft’s gym hard, along with so many other small businesses, but when they began to rebuild clientele, a new wave of younger athletes found them.

A few teens began attending the gym and telling their friends. A new competitive kickboxing population was born. But not without another hiccup.

Adult competitors can pay their way to amateur competitions. They often have jobs that allow them time off, like serving or bartending, making it easier to compete in matches across the country and the world. However, that often isn’t the case with teens depending on their parents’ funds and support.

“You’re looking at a mom with several kids and the first tournament is in Iowa,” Haycraft said. “She has to take off work and bring the whole family to a hotel for five days so her kids can compete. It’s a massive challenge with younger athletes in the system.”

He contacted the Kentucky Boxing and Wrestling Commission in Frankfort and began the process of legalizing kickboxing competition in the state.

It took years to accomplish his goal, but eventually Haycraft was able to establish ways to license qualified officials, ensuring events are fair and safe. The commission adopted a set of modern rules and granted Haycraft professional license to host events in Kentucky. The first event was held in July of 2023, and the second, NEXT CHAMP II, was held December 3. They sold out both times, making it a success in financial terms – but more importantly, a success in building opportunities for local athletes and other amateur kickboxers across the country.

Two women kickboxing in a ring

“We’re sort of propping up the entire region,” Haycraft said. “I have a handful of athletes that are very promising and could be superstars, but I can’t develop them in a vacuum. For example, Megan Culver, one of our female athletes, has competed in both of our events thus far. To build her, we must find eight female fighters dedicated to the sport, ideally within drivable distance from Louisville. We want to grow all of these athletes at the same time. It makes for better rematches and serves the goal for everyone.”

He keeps in mind some of the challenges that come with younger athletes as well. Instead of creating events that require a teen to attend for several days, he’s cutting down on time and cost for all of them.

“In a traditional event, athletes weigh-in the day before,” Haycraft said. “Not only does that require coming in an extra day and staying at a hotel an extra night, it’s really unhealthy because they’ll dehydrate themselves to make them as light as possible for the weigh-in. We convinced the state to allow us to do same-day weigh-ins. We eliminate the need to dehydrate, and they show up fit and ready to fight at their real weight – arrive at 2 p.m. on a Sunday and the first fight is at 5 p.m.”

If an athlete lives in Chicago, for example, they can make the drive, weigh-in, compete in the first fight of the night and drive back home, greatly reducing the cost of travel and time.

The remaining 2024 events in Louisville will be held at The Jeffersonian on July 21, September 15 and December 1.

“This blueprint I have created for developing athletes was a result of all those trips to Holland,” Haycraft said. “We know how to make the fighters, how to keep them, how to prepare them, and now we’re creating opportunities for them here at home.”

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