Swick, 34, is working on a dream; he is building a gym in Phuket, his home-away-from-home, titled AKA Thailand. Set to open in the New Year, it’s a development deep rooted in America, backed up by his American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) team, but with a strong Asian feel. It’s a project, four years in the making, driven by three loves, MMA, Muay Thai and Thailand.
The AKA Thailand tale up to this point is one of hard work, high ambitions, conmen, government rulings and quickly departing business partners.
Despite, or perhaps because of this, the passion oozes with every answer, so much so that even the staunchest pessimist would be sold. Swick and his business partners have put ‘everything on the line’ to complete this and on this day, the UFC star is relaxed and jovial, but make no mistake; it’s been a long, hard journey to reach this point.
The origins and gym facilities
Swick’s love affair with Thailand began in 2000. He said, “I've been training in Thailand for thirteen years, so I've always had a passion for training here. It humbled me and made me respect the determination and drive that fighters have in this country.”
“I've always wanted to take care of them (Thai fighters), be able to provide something and give back and by building this gym, we are giving back. The more people that you can reach and change their lives, that's the true measure of how successful you really are. I want to be extremely successful and I want this gym to be extremely successful; so we've got to change lives.”
One of Swick’s main goals is to help the next generation of fighters and all levels will be welcome at the gym, but how did the actual project come about?
“About three or four years ago I really started putting the effort into building a gym here, with Phuket being the best spot,” Swick said.
“We finally got it underway and through my experience coming here, I've come up with what I think will be the best gym possible, my dream gym, the gym that I would have loved to train at for all my years that I've been here and now we're putting that dream into action.”
AKA Thailand will house multiple training areas. The MMA building is 18 by 22 meters and the open air Muay Thai area will be 18 by 30 meters. It will boast at least two open air Muay Thai areas by the time the construction is complete.
The project will include a two-storey weight room, lounge areas, fire pits, an onsite affordable restaurant, hill winding running tracks, luxury accommodation for those who want it and massages on your doorstep. Beaches are within walking distance and then from the gym itself; you have an inspiring viewpoint of what Swick often refers to as ‘paradise’. This will be more than just a gym, it will be a community.
The trials and tribulations
Whilst the amenities will be excellent, the training, as you would expect will be intense. Plenty of blood, sweat and tears will be shed, just like they have been in the building process.
Swick, a contestant on the original season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ said, “Every part of this has been extremely difficult to a point where it seems like no matter how hard you try, you might be at the end of the road.”
On many occasions, it looked like the project was over before it had truly begun.
He continued, “We were very excited over land, we were promised land and we were sucked into a scam. Being individuals who are honest, you tend to believe in people, trust in humanity and we trusted an individual who had a really nice piece of land in a great location.
We negotiated a really good deal. He let us go really deep into the project before we signed with the land department.” Swick continued, “Which is how you officiate the lease and we ended up losing a lot of money. At that point, we had put so much effort into that land and so much work, that we thought losing that was going to really set us back.”
“That was our most depressing time, sitting around really feeling bad and that wasn't too long ago. It was a very dark time for the project. It's hard when you put all of your effort into something and you get kicked down, but like when you get knocked out, you have to get back up right away and push forward.”
Swick described the project as having one pitfall after another, but the sense of pride he beams as we speak is aided by an important trait in any fighter and businessman; perseverance.
“Since then, it's been so smooth. We found more land, made a great deal and have built a great relationship with the land owners and the community. We found a perfect piece of land that's worked out better than the other one. Everything turned out to be a blessing in disguise.”
The gym itself would have been difficult enough to build anywhere, but certain aspects of Thailand made things even more challenging.
“There are a lot of very big differences, getting used to that and understanding Thai law, land code and labour law and then the language barrier as well. It's been a big process, but that's what makes it more rewarding and worth doing. It's not something that's easy, that people do every day and we know that so when we accomplish it, it's going to be a great feeling.”
Another current issue is that MMA is illegal in Thailand. The Thai government made the ruling in 2012, with some citing that the Muay Thai community influenced the judgment. Despite this, Swick and his team were undeterred because in his own words, “Fighting here isn't as important as training here. People come here to train, not to fight.”
However, the government ruling did provide another problem. “We had a friend of ours who was helping us work and we were counting on him to help us do stuff and we were full on working on the project. When the law passed, he flipped out and took off, we kind of needed him. They made it illegal overnight, just spur of the moment. That's why Thailand is exciting and scary at the same time.”
Swick’s return to fighting and battles with illness
In August 2012, Swick returned to the UFC Octagon after an absence of 910 days, knocking out Damarques Johnson and earning the ‘Knockout of the night’ bonus in the process. However, four months later, he suffered a knockout loss of his own to the burgeoning Matt Brown. The initial time away from the UFC cage was as a result of illness, which has been plaguing Swick for a number of years.
His health and fighting career, which undoubtedly go hand in hand, have both taken a back step, whether rightly or wrongly, to building this gym. If all is well, the aim is to return to fighting next year at Middleweight.
“I want to fight for the right reasons and with my health condition; my last couple of fights weren't for the right reasons. I wasn't happy with my performances. My goal in fighting wasn't money, it was to be the best that I can be and I wanted to be respected as a good fighter.”
“In those fights,” Swick said, “I fought as hard as I could in my current situation. If I can't get my health back, then I'll play it by ear, I don't want to fight for the wrong reasons. I love this sport and care about the fans and the people that support me, so it's not fair on them for me to go out there and just collect pay cheques.”
The illness has been plaguing Swick since 2007 and was the reason behind his drop to Welterweight in 2008. After multiple incorrect diagnoses’ from doctors, Swick believes he is close to finding out what exactly the problem is, but the building of the gym is currently taking precedence.
“That's what is sort of delaying me to go back home to see my specialist in Beverly Hills to get my last test, but I keep extending my stay here to work on the gym.
I have one more test to know 100% exactly what's wrong and how to fix it. So if I can get home and have the test, then I'll be able to fix my condition once and for all. This is it. This guy will know. He pretty much knows now, but this test will 100% say what the problem is and how we can fix it or if we can fix it. It's a crucial test.”
Retirement is inevitable and with that in mind, Swick is no stranger to the world of business. He owns a printing shop back in San Jose and has invested his money wisely throughout his career. It’s refreshing to see what can be done with the money earned as a fighter, an unforgiving career path with a notoriously short shelf life.
He said, “I want to be able to help people in MMA. I've seen many people who have made good money and built a career and then go broke in this sport. I feel like I'm taking the right steps and I've made the right decisions with my finances and time will tell. Anytime you do business, it's a risk. You put the money in and you have to put the effort in to make it happen.”
The AKA influence
What kind of gym will this be? The clue is in the name, it will be similar to AKA in San Jose, a gym and family that Swick is proud to be a part of.
“I've been a part of AKA since the beginning. Back then, it was me, Fitch and Koscheck. I want this to be the same exact gym, another branch, but just in another location. Why it's important to me is that I've seen the success of AKA and I've been apart of the team for so long that I'm sold as an individual on how powerful that gym is.”
“If you do research, there is no doubt that AKA has built more MMA champions and stars than any gym on the planet.
“Other gyms have great training regimens and great instructors, but as far as taking a guy that's walking in off the street with no experience and turning them into a star that everybody knows, no one has done it better than AKA. It's Fitch, Koscheck, Thompson, Prangley, Buentello, Velasquez, Cormier and Rockhold.”
It’s hard to argue that AKA has produced a plethora of stars in recent years. Swick continued, “What I have to do is to bring that formula of building champions and stars and I know what it takes from the hard work that we do and put it here.”