Muay Thai fighter Ognjen Topic is light on his feet as he moves around the blue mats at North Jersey Muay Thai. The gym is relatively small, painted white, and composed of brick and concrete. As light pours in through the massive windows, the space appeared much larger and looked similar to the wide-open Muay Thai gyms in Thailand in photos. However, if one were to step outside, they’d see a gravel parking lot surrounded by the homes that make up the small borough of Lodi, New Jersey.
Championship belts are stacked in a glass cabinet at the gym’s entrance, as the walls of the studio are lined with pictures of various fighters. They are alternated with photos of the head coaches, Kru Ray Cruz and Kru Joseph Bumanlang, posing with students or their instructors. A black hat in the corner of the front desk jokingly proclaims “Make Muay Thai Great Again”, while on the desk’s side in a black-framed bureau are liniment oils and hand wraps neatly lined up next to each other. The top of the bureau is adorned with a peaceful Buddha, flower garlands, a statuette of two fighters, and delicate pieces of cloth imprinted with Thai script. The entrance’s carpet floor, bright white walls, and binders lined up against the wall highlight that East meets West in this space.
Just a few feet away in the actual gym, Topic is working with his pad-holder and teammate Michael Laserna, as they prepare for his upcoming headlining bout for Triumph Kombat at Madison Square Garden. Energetic and enthusiastic, the two men feed off of each other’s focus as the temperatures within the gym rise. They’re laughing as Topic jokes around, making faces while they’re exchanging kicks. He catches Laserna’s leg over and over again as he works his defense, and cuts to the side as he retaliates with a sweep. They’ve only been training for fifteen minutes, but puddles of sweat soon start to leave behind a trail of where they move on the mats.
Despite the fact that Ognjen relatively keeps to himself, his Instagram boasts more than 75,000 followers and videos of his training sessions generate thousands of likes. A graphic designer and artist, Topic has his two lives separated on social media–his fight page @TopicFight, solely shows his training and conditioning, while his business media @TopicCreative illustrates his designs and drawings. However, there is nowhere in the middle that showcases his personality. Friendly, warm, and ever-grinning, the fighter is well-aware that very few really know what type of person he is.
“I am just a personal person,” Topic says, with a nonchalant shrug. “I like to keep things to myself or just share them with those who are close to me. I know that social media is a way to connect with people, but I don’t think anyone would be really interested in seeing my selfies or what I’m eating for lunch. I think they come to my page to learn or because they’re interested in my training. It’s not really about who I am–it’s about what I do.”
Topic has done a lot. Ranked as the number one Super Featherweight Muay Thai fighter in the United States, Topic also holds the WKA and WBC North American championship belts. The former Lion Fight world champion has gained accolades such as the most “Fight of the Night” by Friday Night Fights and was the New Jersey Martial Arts Hall of Fame Fighter of the Year in 2012. He is also sponsored by InFightStyle, Onnit, and Clean Eats Meal Prep, all of which have merchandise and advertising bearing his image or logo.
“If you really think about it, I’m a business,” he says. “I have to secure a future for myself. My name is a business now and it represents more than just who I am in the ring. I have to treat myself as a business and take care of myself as such.”
The fighter is not only a business, but a well-oiled machine. Only 31 years-old, Topic is looking to stretch his career out for as long as he is capable of doing. He began at Muay Thai at North Jersey Muay Thai in 2005 and then added training at Eminent Air Gym in Bangkok, Thailand. With his experience at both gyms, Ognjen strives to train and fight traditionally as possible.
“Before I had started at NJMT, I had seen Muay Thai on ESPN and became hooked. I came across the gym and saw that they had authentic training, which was important to me because I wanted to fight and train exactly the way they did in Thailand.” Topic’s voice becomes more excited as he describes his early years of training, when he would “watch tons of tapes. I went to a Thai grocery store and would buy tapes of the fights from Lumpinee [boxing stadium]. I’d then spend the next week watching, studying, and just trying to learn as much as I could. I’d rewatch the same fights over and over again to understand their methods and techniques.”
Topic’s obsessive eye for detail and technique has served him well, with his current record being 28-12-2. He says, “I always pay attention to detail. I micromanage even to the smallest thing. I know that it’s the those things that make the greatest fighters. The same thing I do with my art–analyze, practice until it’s perfect, and focus on every aspect of it–is what I do with Muay Thai. It makes my head hurt sometimes, because about 80 percent of my mental energy is focused on the sport, and I spend my day really just thinking about how I’m going to train, what I’m going to eat, when I’m going to sleep. It encompasses my life.”
It’s fitting that his instructors were former scientists. Dissatisfied with their lifestyles, Krus Bumanlang and Cruz decided to open their own gym and travelled to Thailand in order to have an understanding of creating the most authentic Thai boxing gym in New Jersey. With a personality fitting of a neurosurgeon, Topic is also meticulous and dedicated to his craft. Knowledgeable about the sport and the fighters that came before him, he went to Thailand nearly ten years ago to simply get better as an athlete. It was his first time at the Mecca of Muay Thai that helped him recognize of how much he was capable of, as well as how to make his routine best serve him.
“I’m always just trying to have fun,” he says with a laugh. After his second training of the day, Ognjen is now sitting in enough sweat to fill a kiddie pool. “It’s around the time that I start preparing for a fight that things become less fun because it’s all about focusing. My camp is about three weeks and I train Muay Thai twice a day. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but I’m completely focused. You have to fight through the days that you’d rather sleep in or not train because those are the things that will hold you back. I’m all about efficiency. As soon as my alarm goes off, I’m out of bed because I can’t waste time. I’m nuts–when I’m parking my car, I am doing five different things at once to save myself ten seconds, because all that time eventually adds up and I want to accomplish everything I need to do. I used to do road work but for my fight against Saenchai, I stopped running two weeks before and felt really good. So then for my next fight, I didn’t run at all, and felt the best I ever felt in the ring. Now I don’t run at all because it isn’t efficient for me. I keep everything as close as possible to what I’m actually going to do in the ring. In Thailand, you can have a fight on only three days notice. I learned I don’t need to have a long fight camp and exhaust myself when three weeks is sufficient. You can accomplish a lot in a short amount of time, if you’re willing to put in the work.”
Citing the great Buakaw and Saenchai as fighters he appreciates, Topic recognizes that he creates a lot of his own pressure.
“Anytime I did anything in my life, I wanted to do it at the highest level. I’m never satisfied with myself and am just hungry for more. Even how I see myself now, I don’t feel like I am all that great. I don’t want to call myself “good” because I always want to be better and want to strive to be better. I’m hard on myself for anything that I care about. Right now, Muay Thai is the primary thing I care about. This is the highest challenge that I’ve ever had.”
However, Ognjen is not intimidated to compete against the fighters whose tapes he was studying all those years ago.
“I appreciate these fighters and learn from their styles because they are some of the best. Even though I lost to Saenchai, I still really admire him because he’s been in this sport for so long and has a technique that’s unlike anyone else. If I could fight him again, I would.
At the end of it all, it’s just about believing in myself. I’ve gotten this far. It’s all about the mentality and the mindset. When you have that, you can do anything. Yeah you like the guy and the way he fights, but you turn that off. He’s in my way so I have to get rid of him. It doesn’t matter if I’m fighting someone I like, I’ve fought many guys that I like. When I step in there, I know to have control, you have to be calm so you can think clearly. Once you lose control, that’s when you’re fighting for your life. When I go in there, I have the intention to hurt the guy. I don’t expect them for feel anything for me, because we signed a contract and knew what we were going to do.”
Pad-holder and training partner Michael is the one who takes a brunt of the punishment when helping Ognjen to prepare, but he does so happily. Laserna says, “When working with him, you have to be on full alert. When I first started, I had to tell him what combinations to throw so I could be prepared–but now I can freestyle and let him throw whatever he wants, and I can just react to them. No blinking allowed! I had worked with only the amatuer fighters before, but our Krus allowed me to help him. It was hard at first and painful to learn, but it has definitely helped me with my reaction time during my own training.”
A man with a mission, Topic feels he has begun his race against the clock. Many Muay Thai fighters begin in their adolescence, but his training started when he was 18. Even with his thirteen years of experience, the fighter is certain he has much more to accomplish.
“The first nine years of my career, my parents didn’t even know I was fighting!” Topic exclaims with a chuckle. “Now I’m trying to get myself to another ten years. I want to make the most of time by focusing strictly on what I need to do. That includes fighting smart to avoid unnecessary punishment that could cut my career. I’ve been lucky enough to avoid serious injury and make sure that I incorporate strength and conditioning training to protect my body. We train without shin guards or elbow pads because we trust each other, and I trust my team that they wouldn’t hurt me. It’s about being mindful in training and in a fight that you’re ultimately trying to protect yourself.”
When asked about someday owning his own gym, he waves his hands and shakes his head. “One day,” Topic says with a smile. “But I don’t want to think about it. When I’m considering having my own gym, that means I’m near the end of my career and I don’t want to think about it yet. I’m always planning ahead but for Muay Thai, I don’t want to as much because I’m not ready for it to end. I want to be the best, I want to have meaningful world titles. I want to compete against the best.” He’s quiet for a moment and looks down, the smile on his face turning inwards as he reflects on what he just said.
Ognjen takes a breath and continues. “I want my teammates to get better so they can help me get better and raise us all up as a team. If you want to be successful, you have to have a clear goal that you want to achieve every day, week, month, and year. Think about what you want and analyze how to get there. It’s not just about having passion or talent, it’s about your work ethic and what you’re willing to do to get there.”
His students agree that he reflects this mentality in his coaching. “He’s just very genuine and really wants us to improve. We all feel like he cares about us and wants us to be our best,” says Valentina Glavan. “Topic is very technical and explains thoroughly to us so we completely understand what’s going on.”
Professional MMA fighter and teammate Sergio de Bari concurs. He credits Topic with improving him as an athlete. He says, “As a fighter, he is not only dedicated and extremely focused but obsessed in the pursuit of perfection in his craft. His work ethic is unrelenting and even more so contagious. As a teammate, he’s greedy in the sense that in his pursuit to become better, he will give you knowledge and skills to get better. It’s not just for you, it’s for you to push him harder. His workload is your workload but he always leads from the front.”
Topic sits on top of the mats, still sweating even though his training session finished long ago. Patient and playful, it’s a side of him that is not reflected online or by other media. Everything seems to focus on what he does in the ring, rather than the person he is outside of it. Students pass by and acknowledge him, or wish him well for his upcoming bout, which is the first time he’ll be fighting at Madison Square Garden.
Almost to himself, he says, “I put a lot of pressure on myself. As long as I stay focused, I can overcome the pressure.”
Constantly aware of himself and what he believes he “should” be doing, Topic continues, “I enjoy the process more than the actual result. Every time I ever won a title, the day after, it had lost it’s meaning to me. You go through all that work but as soon as you win, you’re onto what’s next. Just the process and work excites me. It’s all a gamble. You’re not sure if you’re going to win or lose. I think I’m crazy because I don’t like to gamble with my money but I like to gamble with my life. I like to have control over all aspects of my life–my finances, my training, my schedule. I am in control of reaching my goals, but I’m not ever satisfied when I obtain them. I’m not sure what would make me content. I’m constantly chasing to be the best. I would like to look back at everything I’ve achieved and be happy with it, but I’m not there yet.”
Topic carries this into all aspects of his life, including his passion for art. A graduate of William Paterson, he received his Bachelor’s in Fine Art and appreciates realism more than anything else.
“I don’t care for abstract art because it doesn’t make sense to me,” he states. “It’s not efficient. Out of any artist however, I admire Pablo Picasso. I respect him because he did realistic painting when he was about 12 years old ,but then completely changed his style and went abstract. So he wasn’t a realistic style painter but was able to because he was a “G”. He decided to risk what he had accomplished by stepping outside of the box and doing other styles–which was completely unheard of at the time. I have no choice but to respect him.”
As the day lazily turns into evening, the fighter muses his intentions with the sport. “I get to do what I love and make money doing what I love,” he says simply. “There are days that you don’t want to do anything, but I’m very fortunate to make this life. I didn’t go into this sport thinking about making money. I came in trying to be my best and accomplishing the goals that I’ve set in front of myself. I don’t like to be mediocre in anything that I do that I care about. I invest myself fully in the things that I care about.”
Ognjen stands after sitting for more than forty-fives minutes past his intense training session. He hasn’t had anything to refuel yet, placing all his energy on the interview. The sun has now begun to set and the light inside the gym darkens. He had worked with Michael, clinched with his coaches, and then finished on the heavy bag. It seems like his entire soul has been left on the mat, as a small ocean had drained out of his body in sweat. He looks tired but is still cheerful and maintains his amiable demeanor. A smile never really left his face as he spoke.
“I’m just obsessed,” he says. “I’m driven. Everything has to precise and exact. It all comes down to efficiency. I’m just trying to be as best as I can because I know it’s the small little details that count at the very end. I want to be the best and am willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to get there.”
Writer & Photos: Pari Aryafar (@pariunderthesea)Madison Square Garden, New York City, New York Fighting, north jersey muay thai, NYC, ognjen topic, topic fight, Triumph Kombat