When you reach a certain level in Muay Thai, everyone has skill and technique. Most advantages fighters have at the start of their career, slowly fade as the competition gets better. Winning and losing, often comes down to the fighter who is mentally the strongest.
One fighter who is well known for his mental strength is Kevin Ross. Whenever you watch Kevin in the ring, win, lose or draw, you can always expect him to give it everything he has.
While some fighters are quick to make excuses when they lose, Kevin owns up to his losses. This “don’t be a bitch” attitude, is what separates Kevin from the rest of the pack.
Over the course of his career, he has consistently been a shining example of what it really means to be a Muay Thai fighter. He doesn’t care about records, all he cares about is going out and giving it 100% in everything he does. Everyone can learn a little something from Kevin’s approach to life, whether you train Muay Thai or not.
In this interview, Kevin Ross talks about what it takes to develop the mind of a champion. We cover a number of very important topics including: what it means to have “Heart,” mental toughness, staying focused, overtraining, and dealing with fear. Whether you are serious about Muay Thai or not, there are a lot of important life lessons that can be learned from this interview. Enjoy.
Kevin Ross Interview:
Over the course of your career, you have always been known as the guy who never gives up. Anytime you fight, regardless of the outcome, you always leave everything out there. The word HEART has been used to describe a number of these traits. What do you think it means for someone to have “Heart” in Muay Thai?
Kevin Ross: For someone to have heart it Muay Thai it’s all about that never say die attitude. No matter how high the odds are stacked against you, no matter the outlook or how many times you’ve been down, cut or hurt, you keep pushing and give it every ounce of yourself until that final bell sounds.
To me someone that has heart never changes how they fight, regardless of whether or not they are winning or losing. It’s about giving it everything you have no matter what. To me that’s the most valuable thing in fighting, and in life. Some might say anyone that steps in the ring has heart, which I used to believe myself, but there are plenty who don’t. I’ve actually written on that very subject in the past.
The Power of the Mind
Something that you’ve talked about is the importance of not making excuses and never giving up. When I read your story about how you felt like the weakest person in the world because you couldn’t finish your sprints on the treadmill (after suffering a broken rib), I couldn’t help but think you were not normal. 99% of people in that situation would have gotten off the treadmill without any guilt, but you felt sick to your stomach.
Where did you develop this no excuses, never quit attitude from? Have you always been like this growing up (before Muay Thai) or is it something that has gotten stronger as you gained more experience?
Kevin Ross: I think this is something you have or you don’t; however, I do feel that it can be strengthened, or weakened, through experiences. I think a big part of it for me can be credited to the fact that I got such a late start in the fight game, that and the fact it’s what saved me from alcoholism, and other things that would have inevitably cut my life short.
From the beginning it was all or nothing. I would never hold back or short change myself. I’ve always felt I had so much more to prove of myself because I was so late to the game. Giving up was never even a consideration. I’ve always been an all or nothing. Which can be good or bad depending on the situation, my alcoholism being a negative one.
The mind is a powerful weapon in fighting. It can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. You’ve talked about how people need to stop making excuses as to why they can’t do something and find a way to do it. Small choices people make over time help shape who they are as a fighter and person. A lot of people make a few good choices, but then make the bad ones as well.
Do you have any tricks that you use to keep yourself on the right path when it comes to training and keeping focused on your goals?
Kevin Ross: Well I’d say in life in general it’s about taking every opportunity, not just in the gym or in a fight, but in your everyday life, to work on your self-control. It can be something as simple as not eating that piece of chocolate. Now you know it won’t help you but will it hurt you? Probably not.
I find too many of us take that approach to life. The “It’s not that bad” mindset. I feel if it can’t help you, and can only hurt, then why do it? Will that one beer a month out really affect you? Will that one day off really slow you down? Doubtful, but they definitely will not help, and in a situation where you need 100% of yourself, which still may not be enough, do you really want to risk it. And that’s the thing. Most of us don’t view these little ‘weaknesses’ as anything, but they truly are the things that define you.
In sports, people always talk about how 90% of it is mental. Mike Tyson’s trainer Cus D’Amato famously said,
“When two men are fighting, what you’re watching is more a contest of WILLs than of skills, with the stronger WILL usually overcoming skill. The skill will prevail only when it is so superior to the other man’s skill that the WILL is not tested.”
What do you think it means to have a stronger WILL than your opponent? How do you think fighters can develop that WILL to win fights that Cus was talking about?
Kevin Ross: I always say it’s 100% mental, because I don’t care how good your skill may be, if you don’t have it mentally than you don’t have it at all. Just like heart it’s something certain people are born with but regardless it can be strengthened or weakened through experience. Anyone can have the edge in skill but having the edge in the mental side is invaluable. Can’t tell you how many unbelievably naturally gifted athletes I’ve seen that just couldn’t get it together mentally, more often than not actually.
It goes along the same line of people that are born with talent usually lack in a lot of other areas because they never had to work for it. It’s like being a spoiled little kid, one day it’s going to come back to haunt you whereas someone who has had to work for everything they’ve got will push through.
Overcoming Excuses and Overtraining
One of my favorite blog posts that you wrote was about the “the devil inside of us.” This article described that little voice inside our heads that tells us it’s ok to take a break and relax when we should be working hard. A lot of people use the word “overtraining” when they start feeling fatigued or have a few bad days in the gym.
Do you think people use “overtraining” as an excuse to not push themselves to their limit? How much of the word “overtraining” is mental (that devil inside of us that you described) and how much of it is a real thing?
Kevin Ross: I’d say the majority of it has to do with people’s mental weakness. I for one, more often than not, have dealt with ‘over training’ but I’d always rather over do it then under do it. I do however feel that most people just us it as an excuse. It’s something your coach should be able to read.
If everyday is just grinding you down and you’re not improving, just going through the motions, than this is a time to take a step back. Maybe take a day or two off, or even just one session, and you will see a vast improvement. I don’t think it’s something you can ever really get down because it is such a fine line between over training and making excuses. I do feel I’ve gotten better at it over the years but it’s still a struggle.
In Thailand, most trainers don’t seem to believe in overtraining. If they see fighters taking rest days in the middle of the week, they think of it as lazy, rather than muscle recovery.
Do people who push themselves past their physical limits, even to a point of overtraining, develop a stronger mind because of all the physical pain and fatigue they have to endure? Are you better off taking a few days off and letting your body rest when you feel fatigued or is it more beneficially to push yourself past that fatigue to make your mind stronger?
Kevin Ross: Again it’s something that is going to be different for every person. I for one feel, particularly early on, that you need to grind it out and truly prove not only to your trainers but also to yourself, that you have what it takes. As the years go by, and you get more and more experience, you will learn how to really hone your craft and do away with the inessentials.
Some westerners are quick to criticize the Thai way of training because of some of their “outdated” training methods. Do you think there is a fine line between wanting to train “smarter” and people who are simply looking to avoid running 10km a day?
Is the word “smarter” a way for people to avoid training as hard as the traditional methods or do they have some real benefits?
Kevin Ross: Ha, yes and no. Again, I feel in the beginning it’s really about doing the work, keeping your mouth shut and proving yourself. I’m sure the majority of people would easily use the excuse that they are doing too much, when in actuality there’s probably only 1% of the fighting population who are really killing themselves day in and day out to the point of diminished returns. If your trainer ain’t telling you that you’re over training then chances are you aren’t. But you also need to recognize whether or not you have a good trainer or just someone who is putting you through the motions not paying attention to how you are doing.
Dealing with Pressure and Fear
Over the years, you have grown into being one of the most popular American Muay Thai fighters. As you have gained exposure, you now have sponsors, fans and teammates who are rooting for you to succeed.
How are you able to handle the pressure to perform when you are training for a fight? Do you ever feel like you have too much pressure?
Kevin Ross: At times it can be a little daunting and on occasion it has affected me in a negative way but those times are few and far in between. One thing that has always helped me is the fact that I’ve never viewed myself as this “poster boy”. I don’t feel any different than I did walking in the gym the first day. I’m just here trying to get better like anyone else. Just because I’ve been able to do a lot and reach a high level doesn’t change the fact that I’m just a student same as the kid walking into the gym for the first time. I’ve always loved that about fighting/martial arts, there truly is no end. No matter how much you learn, how good you get, there is always more.
One of the quotes that you often use is, “face your fears, live your dreams.” When it comes to fighting, what are some of your biggest fears? Do you ever worry about any long term injuries to your health (concussions) that might affect you in the future?
Kevin Ross: To me nothing in fighting has ever been a fear, as far as injuries go. A big reason for that is the fact that I know fighting is what truly saved my life. I’d be long dead if it wasn’t for this so all this is just extra to me, I ain’t supposed to be here anyway.
No matter how damaged, or worse, I may come out of this I know that the good I’ve been able to do through it, the lives I’ve been able to touch and change forever, is beyond worth it and I would never regret a thing. No matter what!
My biggest fear when it comes to all this, if you can call it that, would be more about falling short, giving up before it was time, holding back, things like that. I want to be able to look back at what I’ve done and be able to hold my head up high. That’s a big reason I fight the way I do, a big reason wins and losses don’t mean much to me and I put so much emphasis on what I give in there.
When it comes to fighting, some people say that fear is always present, no matter what you do. People who have a lot of ring experience simply know how to manage their fear. Is acceptance the best way to deal with fear in the ring? How do you deal with your fears before and during a fight?
Kevin Ross: Acceptance is by far the best way. Fear is there, at many different levels, no matter what. You either learn to accept and control it or it will consume you. I think many people try to pretend like it isn’t there or that it doesn’t affect them, whether that’s because they feel it shows weakness or something else. I don’t care who you are, there will always be fear. If there isn’t fear that means you don’t care, if you don’t care then why are you doing this? We often confuse fear with being afraid, when in actuality they can be two, very different things. I’ve never been afraid of anything when it comes to fighting, and not really sure why.
I’ve never really had any nerves or hesitations, yet I do always want to do my best and show my skills. I have fears that I will just go out there and totally go blank, forgetting everything that I know. Regardless of what fears you may have you have to find a way to deal with them so they don’t control you. Things will go the way they will and there’s only so much you can do about it. You can lock yourself inside your entire life because you are afraid but in the end you will die like everyone else, why not go out there and live. Put the work in and know you’ve done everything you could to prepare for this fight, after that you just have to learn to let go. Easier said than done.
Respect and Motivation
You’ve made it clear that you believe stepping into the ring alone is not enough to earn respect. Do you think fighters should be given some credit for stepping into the ring, even if they have a weak performance? What does a fighter have to do to earn your respect?
Kevin Ross: You will have good days and bad days, good performances and bad, but that’s not what will ultimately determine how you are viewed and the respect you get. It’s about what you give in there every time, it’s about how you behave when things don’t go your way, and when they do. Too often we feel winning is how we will get respect. Can’t tell you how many fighters out there, who have amazing records, that I have zero respect for, for various reasons. There’s more to this sport, and this life, than numbers. The sooner you figure that out the sooner you can fight, and live, with real meaning and be inspirational.
Nowadays, it’s typical to see fight updates all the time for people preparing for a fight. You talked briefly about the early days and how there were a lot more authentic people fighting, people who did it because they simply loved Muay Thai, and didn’t care about posting their fight status on Facebook.
If social media didn’t exist today, do you think there would be as many people willing to step into the ring purely on passion alone?
Kevin Ross: Not even close. The great thing about when I was coming up is that no matter what, you knew that people were doing this because they loved it, because it was their passion, and nothing else. You never had to question anyone’s motives, for the most part. I see countless people posting their 15 second training videos, acting like they’re killing it, yet in reality that’s all the training they’re doing. Nowadays anyone can put stuff up online and come off as someone whose really grinding it out day in and day out.
They get there fans and people telling them how bad ass they are but when all is said and done the truth will come out. If you truly aren’t putting in the work you will inevitably be exposed. That’s why you see all these flash in the pan, here one minute gone the next, fighters these days. The real ones will stay around and watch the masses come and go. It’s definitely annoying to see, and almost impossible for me to bite my tongue on, but the fact that I know the truth will always come out helps me to be at peace with it. Have your 15 seconds of fame. Enjoy it.
Fighting and Future Plans
There are a lot of fighters out there who are willing to fight anyone, regardless of whether or not they have a chance at winning. If you have ever seen a Thai Fight card, they always match up foreigners against their big superstar cast of Thai Fighters.
Do you think people should fight just for the experience or do you think people should only take fights that they can actually win?
Kevin Ross: That’s a tough one. Here’s the real problem, you should always want to go out there to prove yourself. If you’re only fighting people that have no chance of winning then what’s the point. I’ve always said I only want to fight people that on paper, I have no business in the ring with, and that’s something I’ve stayed true to and built my career on from day one.
The problem, however, is you’ve got people who are going out there just for the simple fact that they can say they got in the ring with someone great. If you aren’t going in there to win, and if you can really be happy about “well at least I got in there with the best”, then yea, you have no business stepping foot in that ring. You should always be testing yourself and never settling for anything less, but fighting just so you can gloat is for cowards.
You’ve been training Muay Thai for a long time and accumulated a lot of fights. We’ve all seen the effects of what fighting can do to fighters later in the career. When you look at Pornsanae in his last few fights, he didn’t have the same chin as he did earlier on in his career.
Do you plan on fighting as long as your body will allow you to compete at a high level? What are some of your future plans that you want to achieve?
Kevin Ross: It’s definitely sad to see a great fighter as a shell of their former selves, yet the one thing that you loved, the fact that they’d never give up in a fight, is what now keeps them fighting longer than they should. Tragic yes but it comes with the territory. I always hope that I will be able to gracefully step away from the ring when it’s time but truthfully I don’t know if I’ll be able to. Fortunately I know that I have an amazing support group of people that I love and respect that would let me know when it’s time to hang it up, even if I don’t want to hear it.
I never thought I’d even have one fight, and I was “old” when I started, so every day is a blessing to me and every fight is a gift. From the beginning, when I’d constantly be asked “how long you gona keep this up?”, my answer would always be the same, “For as long as I still love it and am healthy enough to do it!” That has never changed. I just want to keep fighting the best people I can, putting on the best fights I can and giving back as much as I can, for as long as I can.