The sound of timers going off is what greets guests as they walk into Evolution Muay Thai. Nestled on the second floor of 27th St and Broadway, the gym is lively and rambunctious. Head instructor and owner Brandon Levi walks amongst his students, correcting their form or cracking jokes on their behalf. Off to side, on a different corner of the blue mats, stands Coach Bartosz Botwina. Botwina is wrapping his hands quietly, paying no mind to the noise that is occurring around him. Two of his training partners and students, Adam Karami and Mark Davis, strap on their shin guards. While Botwina is preparing for his Glory Kickboxing debut at Madison Square Garden, the two young men are gearing up for Rumble on The River, which is taking place a few weeks after the Glory bout. It doesn’t matter that they are amatuer fighters or that Botwina is their coach–everyone in the gym serves and betters each other in some way.
Bartosz, or “Bart” as he called by his teammates, is adventurous. While the fighter has a mental checklist of all the places he’d like to visit in the world, the first thing he did was to leave his entire life behind for a new start in the Big Apple.
“I moved here from Poland when I was 22,” Botwina says, as he surveys the fighters in front of him. Still covered in sweat from the two-hour sparring session, he sat down shirtless and in Thai shorts, transitioning from student to coach mode. “I was bored where I grew up. I came to stay with my grandmother in 2014, went back to Poland for three months, and then saw that I missed New York. I knew I had to come back. I’m 26 now and all I can say about New York is that it’s a magic city. Sometimes I hate the city, sometimes I love the city, but it’s a magic city.”
His fight career began when he was only 13-years-old, half his life ago. Botwina originally played soccer, following in the footsteps of his father. When he became a teenager, the friends he had at that time were training Muay Thai and encouraged him to try the sport. Within weeks, he left soccer behind and started focusing on the sport full-time. By 14, he had his first fight, and he finished his amatuer career with more than fifty fights under his belt.
“Muay Thai is my passion,” Botwina says as he leans back against the ropes of the ring. There is a group of students sparring directly in front of him–while Coach Levi is running the session and providing feedback, Bart watches them intently as he speaks. “More than anything else in my life, I wanted to be a coach, a fighter. I want this to be my life full-time because it’s one of the only things I care about.”
With a professional record of 9-4, fighting at The Garden is what he’s been waiting his whole life to do.
“I had two little dreams, one being that I fight at Madison Square Garden, the other one being fighting for Glory Kickboxing. In one night, I get to do both,” Botwina says with a good-natured smile. “When I am preparing for a fight, I feel so stressed. When I am warming up the day of the fight, I feel the stress. When I am walking to the ring, there is pressure and stress. But–as soon as I jump into the ring, it all goes away. I realize I am in my home, I am in my kingdom. I am ready to fight and I am not stressed anymore.”
As he finished up his fight camp for the evening and amatuer fighters began taking his place in the ring or the mats, Coach Levi makes an announcement to the students.
“I encourage you all to come to Bart’s fight,” he says firmly, his usual joker’s smile missing. “But remember, you are representing our school when you there. Don’t you ever boo a fighter, whether they’re fighting one of us or not. At the end of the day, we are all the same people and many of us are friends. To step into that ring and fight takes a lot of guts. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
Botwina nods in agreement as his instructor speaks. Later, he says “I am proud to be a coach. I am just Bart, who came from Poland, but now I am a coach. It makes me so happy. I do what I want to do and what makes me happy. I am enjoying these moments. I tried a few different gyms when I moved to New York, but as soon as I walked through the doors at Evolution, it felt like home. I didn’t tell them how many fights I had, I just started in the beginner classes and then I was invited to sparring. Brandon as a person has been very good to me. He is a very good person and has helped me very much. As my coach, I hate him because he’s a killer. He makes me work so hard and is constantly pushing me. He has helped me to improve, he never lets me take it easy and it makes me better.”
“Bart was always confident,” Levi says, “He is very much aware of who he is as a fighter and what he is capable of. That being said, he is not a “tough-guy”. He laughs a lot and jokes around and is basically just one of the lads.”
During training, Botwina is focused and intent. He doesn’t make many facial expressions and appears like a shark hunting after prey. However, when he’s taking a break or finished up, he laughs loudly at his sparring partners as they make silly poses or at something his coach has said. He is able to switch between fight-mentality and daily life with ease.
“Thanks to God that I tried Muay Thai,” Botwina smiles. “Muay Thai makes my character stronger. This is one of the hardest sports in my opinion. So much goes into it–your diet, every day training, cutting weight. It all makes you stronger, that’s why people love sport. Everything about it is important, from how you prepare for it to what you think about it. After a very hard workout, I feel like Superman, which makes me feel very happy. All I need is my health and sport. I think you can say I am a strict coach but I am always trying to smile and be friendly. My teammates are like little brothers and sisters, we are like a family. I feel like I can trust Coach Brandon and that he trusts me. Many people here have a very good character.”
Character is something Bart references often, in regards to himself and others. “Everything you go through can either make your character stronger or make it worse. I have been through some tough moments, like working construction and still training for a fight, or being away from my family. I work several jobs and still make sure to come to train Muay Thai, because that is what I need to do. I had to push through it. I went to school to make my English better. All day in New York is busy. In Poland, you might have one day that’s busy. But in New York, every day is busy. And if you have nothing to do, you find something to do. It all makes my character better. I don’t like when people think they are better than others though, when they have their noses in the air. I know world champions who have become my really good friends–they will drink a beer with me and be a nice person, no matter how many fights they win. This is important to me, to be a good person and be good to others.”
Some of the biggest character-defining moments have come for Botwina by one of the worst feelings a competitor could experience–a loss.
“I hate that feeling more than anything in the world,” Bart grimaces and shakes his head. “When you’re in the ring and they are lifting up the other guy’s arm instead of yours, it’s a terrible feeling. But after every loss, I got so much better than I ever did after a win. I’d be so angry and go back to the gym and focus, focus, focus. My coaches would tell me I look like a madman but I was determined to never allow it to happen again.”
There’s only a few things that the coach is looking forward to during his Glory fight–cheers from the audience and having his girlfriend Alex and best friend David in the crowd.
“Without Alex, I wouldn’t have or be anything that I am now,” he says passionately. “She has helped me very much, she supports my dreams. I love her and she does everything for me to help me, like cooking my meals and taking care of me. David is my closest friend, he and his business Next Car For You INC have sponsored me and made sure I had everything I could need for this fight. Everyone will be there for me and that’s what I’m the most excited about.”
As the sparring class continues, Botwina checks his weight and then touches base with Coach Levi. The men are deep in conversation as they discuss their strategy for the upcoming bout. One of Bart’s sparring partners, Adam, walks by and bumps into them on purpose, making them lose their train of thought. The group of men laugh and Levi waves him away. The evening had been filled with as much laughter as it had been striking. The positive energy in the gym was infectious and visitors left with smiles.
“I’m just really happy to be here,” Botwina says. “I have a good life. I don’t want very many things, just to travel and to be comfortable. All I care about is training Muay Thai and getting better at it, to keep fighting, and to keep seeing my little dreams come true.”
Writer & Photos: Pari Aryafar (@pariunderthesea)