TIROHANGA GYM: Michael has his own outdoor gym at Tirohanga, where he kicks haybales. Photo Sven Carlsson OS0067-02

IN seven years, 21-year-old Opotiki kickboxer Michael Isaac has gone from wondering about fighting to clinching a New Zealand title.

At age 14, he was watching Bruce Lee movies and studying fights at school, wondering “who is a tough guy?”.

At age 16, he had started to muck around with mates in the back yard and doing push ups at home. “I was pretending to be Bruce Lee, running around in the house,” he says.

At age 17, he had become more serious. He went through several learning stages, training twice a week, but it was “still mucking around”.

After this, Michael trained with Brad Kora in Whakatane for about two years, which he followed up by training with Musa Ahmadov, also in Whakatane, for about one year. After that he moved to Hamilton to train with Ethan Shepp.

“When I moved to Hamilton, a lot of stuff started to kick in, both personally and in terms of fighting,” Michael says. The Hamilton shift had raised his effort level from 70 percent to 100 percent. “I thought I was fighting hard, but I wasn’t.”

Michael says he’s now training regularly with professional fighter Alexi Serepisos. “He is my favourite fighter to watch.”

Moving to Hamilton was both a bit of a shock and a growth opportunity. “I am no longer babied at home, but I’m turning from a boy into a man,” Michael says.

The growth process included a humiliating fight in Auckland. “I had a bad fight and took some time off after that, to evaluate.”

This review period resulted in a “mindset change,” where Michael realised the fighting was not about winning and amassing titles. “I came out of the sewer, clearer in the mind.”

Michael says he always “feel the fear before a fight,” but before the mindset change, it was all about winning.

“But now, I want to know that I have given everything in a fight.”

Michael says he isn’t worried about sitting in the dressing room after a fight with a broken body, as long as he knows he has given the fight his all. “They will remember the guy who gave everything,” he says.

On April 6 this year, Michael became the North Island 62 kilogram FTR Muay Thai Kickboxing Champion at the Knees of Fury fight night in Hamilton.

Michael’s brother Zac says the fighter had, just four weeks on from winning that title, stepped back “into the ring like the nutcase he is”.

“He did it again – introducing Michael Isaac, the new WKA 63.5kg Glory Rules Kickboxing New Zealand Champion,” his brother says.

“The fight went the full five rounds, but Mike took it out by unanimous decision at the end of the night after putting in a great polished display.”

Zac says his brother moved to Hamilton in 2017 to chase his dream and “train with the best”.

“It looks like he’s not slowing down at all,” he says. “He trains like a machine, hours upon hours, upon hours.”

However, the fighter says he doesn’t want to fall into the trap of thinking about himself as “being the champ”. “It’s great that I have won those titles, but on Monday morning it’s back to work again.”

Not wanting to end up on a pedestal, Michael says he applied “a white-belt mentality”. “I’m just another fighter and it’s straight back to work.”

This is both in terms of his daytime job with a pipe inspection company and in his kickboxing training.

His mother, Pauline Isaac, says when coming back to their Tirohanga rural property for his Queen’s Birthday weekend visit, the first thing her son did was to go for a 20-kilometre run. “And after than he ran into town,” she says.

With his punching-and-kicking bag having fallen down due to a mechanical failure, the fighter found the plastic wrapped hay bales worked just as well. He also has weightlifting gear available in his outdoor gym.

Having scored two titles with as few as “around 15 fights” during his career, Michael says training at the gym has helped him “dissect his life”.

“I was the biggest wimp of all before,” he says. “I even managed to score an own goal in rippa rugby.”

When arriving in Hamilton, never having caught a bus by himself before, Michael had ended up in Raglan by mistake, having to hitchhike back to Hamilton.

In Hamilton, he also had to apply for a job for the first time in his life, and then he got fired from it. “I realised I couldn’t go on being that guy,” Michael says.

The first year in Hamilton has been a “year of learning” and humiliation. “I lost a fight and a job, had no driver’s license, and I lived in a party house, which was difficult”

Michael says he also had not done very well in school as a boy. “I used to blame the teacher, but it was me, I was lazy,” he says.

Now, flatting in Hamilton with his supportive brother, having a driver’s licence, two titles and the goal of becoming an even better fighter, the days of being mollycoddled are over for Michael.

His Friday ritual, which he had completed before coming to Opotiki over the weekend, is to do five 800-metre sprints at a running track, no matter what the weather does.

“I’ve done it in thunderstorms and rain,” Michael says. “You’re supposed to pace yourself, but I forget that and wear myself out.”

Michael gets up the same time every day and he trains seven days a week. “I always used to take the easy way out,” Michael says.