In 1990, Mark Nardone moved from Scotland to Boston to study sports medicine at Northeastern University. If not for his training in Muay Thai, a martial art from Thailand, he never would have left home.
“I would not have had the gumption to pack my bags and leave my family and friends,” said Nardone, now Northeastern’s director of information security. “Muay Thai taught me to stay humble and gave me the confidence to push my body and mind.”
Nardone’s friend introduced him to the sport in 1986, whereupon he began training under the auspices of the British Thai Boxing Council. From 1987-1990, the five-foot-eight, 150-pound fighter competed at the semi-pro and professional levels, amassing six wins and two losses in eight career matches.
Known as the “art of eight limbs,” Muay Thai permits the fighter to strike his opponent with his fists, elbows, knees, and shins. The vast majority of matches end in knockouts, and competitors routinely suffer broken jaws, cracked ribs, and torn muscles.
Nardone never suffered any serious injuries, but one competitor left his left leg battered and beaten. “My leg was so bruised that I couldn’t walk,” he recalled.
Upon arriving at Northeastern, Nardone amassed a following of fellow students who wanted to learn the art of Muay Thai, which, at the time, was relatively new to the U.S. One prospective disciple heard him practicing in the Cabot Physical Education Center and grew curious. “I was doing shin conditioning on a big padded pillar and the sound was reverberating through the gym,” Nardone recalled. “One student kept hearing, ‘boom, boom, boom,’ and approached to see this pale, skinny kid kicking a wall.”
From there, Nardone’s teaching career took off. In 1991, he began teaching self-defense seminars. In 1993, he opened Boston’s first Muay Thai school. In 2010, he founded the SitSuphan Muay Thai Boran Academy, a training center based in Braintree, Mass. The academy is named in honor of one of Nardone’s teachers, Suphan Chaibairam, who competed in more than 300 matches and was recognized by Thailand’s government for his efforts to promote the martial art.
SitSuphan translates roughly into “golden students,” some of whom Nardone takes to Thailand to compete in the annual Muay Thai World Championships. “I see potential in people who don’t see it in themselves and that’s what a good leader does,” he said. “It’s one of the ways that Muay Thai has helped me evolve into a leadership role here at the university.”
He’s also a leader in Muay Thai’s global community. For instance, he is the U.S. representative to both the World Muay Thai Federation and the Thai government’s Institute of Muay Thai Conservation. In a national ceremony in Thailand this year, he was elevated to the rank of Arjarn, or Master, by the Kru Muay Thai Association of Thailand.
Part of Nardone’s popularity in Thailand stems from his belief in honoring Muay Thai’s spiritual traditions. Prior to the start of class, he asks his students to meditate for 10 minutes. Before matches, they perform a ritualistic dance in honor of their teachers, their faith, and their loved ones.
“I try to teach my students to be good people and show respect,” Nardone explained. “With great power, comes great responsibility.”