Westminster graduate Rick Gavigan, right, and Cale Klesko, left, participate in a posed photograph at a Shaolin Temple in China.
Westminster graduate Rick Gavigan, right, and Cale Klesko, left, participate in a posed photograph at a Shaolin Temple in China. (Submitted photo)

When Rick Gavigan was 5 years old, he never imagined that he would be an international martial arts practitioner. He was too busy watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Power Rangers.

But the TV action heroes made an impact on Gavigan, who soon enrolled at a Tae Kwon Do school in Annapolis. When his family moved to Carroll County in 2003, Gavigan continued taking martial arts classes at the Sykesville Tae Kwon Do center. Gavigan got his black belt, but that was just the start.

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The 2009 Westminster High School graduate eventually decided to pursue a career in martial arts. But Gavigan wasn't necessarily limited to mixed martial arts, which has become widely popular in the US and other nations. Gavigan has opted for Muay Thai, a lesser-known martial art which shares some characteristics with mixed martial arts but is not as violent.

Muay Thai is a form of kickboxing that allows participants to use their elbows, knees, shins, and fists in combat. It was founded in 1868, during the reign of Thailand's King Chulalongkorn, and is that nation's official national sport.

"It's a lot more like boxing," Gavigan said. "One of the main differences is that you wear boxing gloves, instead of the fingerless gloves that you use in mixed martial arts. In MMA, if you fall down your opponent can keep fighting against you. In Muay Thai, if you fall they stand you back up."

Gavigan traveled to China during the summer of 2014 to train for his new sport. A year later, Gavigan found himself in Chiang Mai, a city of 148,000 people in northern Thailand, where he would compete in his first professional Muay Thai bout.

Gavigan won the fight, on a decision in the fifth round.

"In Thailand, Muay Thai is what they do," Gavigan said. "The emphasis is very similar to baseball in America. The fights in Thailand are very traditional. When you come in, they play Thai music. Before the fight, I had to do a dance called the Wai kruh around the ring to pay respect to my trainer."

Gavigan was only in Thailand for two-and-a-half weeks, so getting a fight in a timely manner was crucial.

"My coach called the promoter, and he got me a bout," said Gavigan, who had experienced three mixed martial arts fights during his amateur career. "I showed up to fight an American, but I wound up going against a Thai fighter."

His first taste of Muay Thai success has Gavigan looking forward to his next overseas trip. The 24-year-old wants to improve his overall fitness before a planned return to Thailand during the summer of 2016.

"I would like to try to fight every weekend," Gavigan said. ""One of my biggest weaknesses was my cardio. I was out of breath and so tired by the end of the fight in Thailand."

Gavigan, who said that he loves all forms of martial arts, believes that there is room for Muay Thai to grow.

"The rise of MMA had a lot to do with the fact that boxing had become so boring, more a game of tag than a fight," said Gavigan, who lives in Finksburg. "MMA brought a lot of new personalities, like Ronda Rousey, into the world of martial arts. But it will be interesting to see where that sport goes, once all of the hype subsides."

After earning his Associate of Arts degree at Carroll Community College, Gavigan decided to enroll at the University of Houston, where he will take on a double major in Business and Chinese. While his schoolwork will keep him busy, Gavigan will also continue to prepare for his martial arts future.

"I think studying business and Chinese will be good for me," said Gavigan, who also plans to travel to China or Taiwan during the winter to gain a greater knowledge of the languages. "Long-term, I want to open my own martial arts school, so everything that I'm doing now is taking steps to get there."

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