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An interview with Kate McGray

Kate McGray

Ambition’s a funny thing. Sometimes, the goals that get us started aren’t the ones that inspire us to cross the finish line. That thing called Life always reserves the right to throw us a curve and send us in a direction we weren’t anticipating. When that happens, we can throw in the towel and call it quits, or we can adapt, evolve, and maybe end up with something better than we originally set out for. And if we open our eyes one day to find ourselves in a ring or in a cage, best adapt quick, eh? Remember, don’t drop that left paw when you throw the right. I know you Brits like a good fight, so this month it’s Horror of Babylon’s distinct honour to introduce you to a serious artist and classy competitor. She’s one of my favourite horror and rock & roll photographers, and a helluva dame. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing & working alongside her in a couple of different walks of life now, and maybe we’ve got a couple more left still. Without further ado, meet professional muay thai fighter, Kate McGray.

BC: Hello again, Kate. When we met eight years ago, you were a photographer. Professionally speaking, how did you feel about the transition to Los Angeles from the east coast?

KMG: Hi, BC! It was a rough transition. I moved out to L.A. pretty much straight out of college in Boston and jumped right into the freelance world. I thought I was ready to take on the world, but I was really just setting myself up to get knocked down. The way people interact with each other and the general vibe is very different in L.A. than on the east coast. I was rather naive and didn’t realise that people were going to be nice to me just to try and get free work. You really have to hustle to be a freelance photographer and I’m not so good at that! The majority of the jobs that were helping to pay my bills – while I am totally appreciative that I had them – weren’t exactly stimulating. Luckily, I had you calling me up saying you needed photos of a bloody girl in a bathtub and other fun projects to keep it interesting!

BC: You shot promo and set stills for all my short films, as well as some New Terminal Hotel one-sheet work. Any stand-out memories from those days? Did you have a favorite among them, or was I a consistent pain-in-the-ass to work for?

KMG: Always a pleasure. In terms of the images, I think some of my favourites were the Mister Eryams stills.  I always enjoy making something gruesome look pretty.  Perfect was a really fun set to work on, even though it was exhausting doing overnight shoots. Oh yes, and New Terminal Hotel. I remember you called me up from P.A. asking me to go down to skid row that night to get shots of the exterior. It’s a good thing I was a bit familiar with the neighbourhood from living nearby, so I wasn’t too unsettled by the hollering of the street folks.

BC: We finally captured you on film in Voices, as the diner waitress for a hooker and serial killer. Did you ever do any more acting, or have the desire to, following that?

Mister EryamsKMG: Ha! I almost forgot about that! That was awesome! I don’t think I would make a very good actor. Stunt work has crossed my mind. It looks really fun. I think I could do the physical part, but I can be camera shy…kind of a problem. Maybe if I was being directed by BC Furtney that would be a different story!

BC: When did Muay Thai enter the picture? Was it a conscious decision to segue from photography to fighting, or did it develop naturally?

KMG: I started training in the spring of 2006. I was out of shape and unhealthy and looking for something that was more of an activity, rather than just the regular gym routine. I was never able to stick to that. I’d been a runner in high school, but that is a lot more fun in suburban C.T. where I could hit trails and parks and be out in fresh clean air. Running the streets of L.A. didn’t do it for me. There were some Muay Thai classes for a few weeks at a gym I belonged to and I really enjoyed it. That gym eventually closed, so I went searching for a new one and looked into it. I started training at the Bomb Squad in Hollywood and fell in love with the sport. I travelled for work a bunch that summer, but by fall I was addicted and going to every single class I could make it to. I was still doing photography when I started training, but the freelance life was really tough and it made me not enjoy shooting as much. I didn’t want to ruin photography for myself, so I stopped trying to make a living at it and started working in bars and restaurants at night, training during the day. Eventually I started teaching, and as of this past spring I make my living in the gym.

BC: Do you find any similarities in mentality between the visual arts and the fight game? Have any of the skills you honed as a photographer come into play in the gym, or in the ring?

KMG: That’s an interesting question. I think that I have learned things in the ring that would make me a better photographer, if I went back to it more seriously. I’m a more confident person and I’m able to approach situations with controlled aggression when necessary. I know that sometimes I was too timid behind the lens and I missed shots that I should’ve gotten in there and gone for. I’m not sure if my photography experience has helped my fighting, but both definitely require an intense level of focus in the moment. So maybe without realising it, having practiced that in photography in a way helped to prepare me for fighting.

BC: Los Angeles can be a small town. You’ve trained with Roxy Richardson, who actually met with me to discuss playing Scarla in a proposed trailer years ago, before you two had even met. We talked about acting and fighting, which are requisite to step into Scarla’s shoes, but I didn’t know what a badass she was at the time. Does she remember that? How instrumental has she been in your career?

KMG: Roxy’s been very instrumental. She was the first instructor that I worked with and I was the first fighter that she trained. She’s always had faith in me as a fighter and as a teacher and has opened a lot of doors for me, both mentally and professionally. I train Dutch Kickboxing now as well, with Antoni Hardonk, but Roxy just cornered for me in a pro Muay Thai fight against a World Champion (Lindsay Ball) in Canada. It’s funny, we never talked about Scarla. I should ask her about it.

BC: How significantly has fighting altered your perspective on life? Can you share any learned philosophy that might benefit the average joe walking the street?

KMG: Fighting has given me a very different filter for viewing the world. First off, life’s just easier to deal with. Stuck in traffic? Well, no one is trying to knock me out. People are rude? At least they aren’t kicking me in the head. Also, preparing for a fight is a very unique and intense personal experience. Fighters always talk about reaching peak, but it’s more than just reaching your physical potential. Your heart and mind need to peak as well. You need to act with courage. You must be confident that even when you are tested, when your body’s tired, bloody, and starting to swell in the late rounds, when you feel heavy and slow and aren’t really sure what you’re doing anymore, that you’ll continue to fight until she drops, you drop, or the bell rings. You need to know securely that you will go to that place before you can step into the ring, and in order to get there you have to face your demons. I’m not saying you have to think you’re the most awesome fighter in the world, you just need to be strong and know that you’re strong, through and through. Never underestimate your opponent. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Always look for ways to grow. Fighting is an amazing teacher. And losing generally teaches you more

shin bleedBC: In 2008, you were getting me into Muay Thai before I split L.A. and we did some training together. I dug the boxing, hated the kicks. That shit hurts! (as evidenced by the photo) In your opinion, did I have what it took? From what I understand, you still teach also. Where can we find you?

KMG: You just didn’t do it long enough to toughen up your shins!  Or maybe you’re just sensitive! You have the heart of a fighter. But I think you have priorities that you’d put over training, which wouldn’t fly if you were my fighter. Fight prep takes number one priority over everything. You have to live and breathe the game in the weeks leading up. If you aren’t seeing gloves coming at your face when you close your eyes, you aren’t focused enough. I always wake myself up throwing punches and kicks when I first fall asleep in the last few weeks before fight day. It’s annoying, but at least I know my body is ready to react! Yes, I teach and I love it!  Finally, it’s my full time job.  I work at Function 5 Fitness in Los Angeles.  I teach Muay Thai, both group classes and private instruction.  I also am a Certified Personal Trainer for strength and conditioning.

BC: Judges are notoriously unpredictable. How does it feel when you’ve had a close fight and it’s time to go to the scorecards? Have you ever lost one you were sure you’d won? Ever won one you thought you’d lost?

KMG: Judges definitely are unpredictable. But if it goes to the judges you have to take what they give you. A lot of my fights have been close. I’ve been lucky to fight a lot of tough girls. It’s great to win, but I would rather really challenge myself against a strong opponent. I am overly hard on myself and maybe not focussed enough on my record, because I’m more concerned with how I perceive my performance than getting the W. I lost a split decision in my last fight, but I was so happy with myself because I thought I fought well and had overcome some mental blocks that had stuck with me for a while. That one was really close. I think it could have gone either way, depending on who the judges were and what they focused on.

BC: You just travelled to British Columbia to fight. Tell us about that experience, both in the ring & out.

KMG: That was the last fight that I just mentioned. First of all, Canada is awesome. Victoria is beautiful and clean and everyone was really nice. It was really fun to travel somewhere new to fight. My opponent had a lot more experience. She was 9-0 pro with 4 wins by KO and a couple World Titles. She fought pro in Thailand, China, and Canada. And she wouldn’t go lower than 126lbs, when I prefer to fight at 120. I had 1 full rules Muay Thai fight when I travelled to Thailand in 2008, so we counted my pro record as 1-0, even though that fight was 5x2min rounds instead of the usual 5x3min. But I needed some sort of record! She was tough, strong, and experienced, and I was coming off an 18 month layoff.  My last fight had ended when I got kicked in the head and broke my ankle somehow on the way down. Had to have surgery on it-overall a very rough experience. I still haven’t watched the fight. But I was ready to get in there again, they were going to pay me, and I was going to be allowed to throw elbows and knees to the head, so it seemed like a win-win situation. Even if I lost, it was against a legit opponent, so I trained my ass off. Padwork, drills, sparring, flat sprints, stairs, kettlebells, flipping tires, swinging sledgehammers, I could go on and on. It was exhausting and exhilarating. I ate only meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts, rice, and potatoes. No cheese, no chocolate, no alcohol. That part made me sad, but also drove me to work harder. I did mental exercises to build my confidence and strengthen my spirit, and I went up there and really gave it my all. And I still got exhausted after the first round! We fought at a good pace, but I think my time out of the ring showed and I burned up too much adrenaline at the beginning of the fight. I didn’t feel nervous. Well, I did when I was warming up, but as soon as we stepped in the room that I was fighting in I got weirdly calm. I felt like I was floating in warm water. I sort of floated up to the ring and over the ropes. I felt loose and relaxed, nothing like how I was expecting to feel. So many times in training I’d imagined that moment-trying to turn whatever guy was in front of me into her so I would be prepared for the nerves and I’d get nauseous, tense, anxious. But none of that happened. Fighting is like some weird drug. Sensations are different than in the real world. Sometimes you feel getting hit, sometimes you don’t. I was really confused when the ref stopped the fight in the first round and told me to go to my corner, until I looked down and saw that my shin was split open and blood was streaming down my leg. Luckily, a wipe down and a bit of vaseline did the trick and we were back at it. I spent much of the fight trying to figure out if I was having fun. This was while we were exchanging. It was a weird thought to have pop up. I tried to put it out of my head and repeated “hurt her” instead. It helped. I was so freaking tired! But I kept going. I had to deal with whatever emotional shit came up. I dealt with heavy arms and slow legs and I fought. It got ugly in the end. I was walking into push kicks just trying to punch her face off, but it’s ok. I fought my heart out. I made improvements over the last time and I learned where some of my weaknesses could be taken advantage of, so I have new aspects of the game to work on. In the end we hugged and congratulated each other.  My corner told me they thought I won and I’m sure her corner affirmed to her that she won. That’s how it goes.

Kate McGrayBC: You were still doing smoker fights when we last spoke, but you’ve since turned pro. I know how long you worked for that, so congratulations. How did it feel?  Can you discuss any immediate and long-term goals? Do you know when your next fight is?

KMG: Thank you! It feels amazing to have turned pro. I had this moment when I was doing sprints for this fight where it really hit me. I was in one of my rest intervals and I got kind of reflective. I had this flash from grade school where we had to write down our dreams for when we were older. I had wanted to either be in the Olympics for gymnastics or piano. Yes, piano. I thought they could add it as a sport. I couldn’t sit still long enough to practice and get good, so that was out fast. Obviously, gymnastics isn’t going to happen. I’m 31. I quit when I was 10.  But now I’m a professional athlete. That’s pretty close. It was my first dream and I accomplished a version of it. I almost started to tear up. Maybe it was the lack of oxygen in my brain from all the running, but it was a pretty awesome moment. I’m sure the next sprint was a good one! (After the last fight), I gave myself a week of gluttony, full of all the chocolate, dairy, and booze I desired. Now that’s over and I can start to think about the next step. I still have a few stitches in my shin from the fight, so I can’t really kick yet. But I went back to training today and it felt good to move around again. A day just doesn’t feel complete unless I punch someone in the face and receive a few myself! I still have fights left in me. There are some things in my game that I want to work out and the only real test is in the ring.

BC: You were also the photographer for my old band, Bull Lee. You were practically the fifth member, and on some bad occasions, our whole audience. As broke-ass punk rockers who never paid you, was it at least fun? Were you aware audiences sometimes watched you more than the fuckin’ band?

KMG: I absolutely loved shooting Bull Lee.  It was the closest I will ever come to being in a band, which I guess was sort of my other childhood dream, so thanks for giving that to me!  I wasn’t aware of the audience watching me, which is probably a good thing. Honestly, looking back at all the photo work I did, I think shooting Bull Lee was some of the most fun I had. You guys rocked and I had a blast being a part of that.

BC: Any words of wisdom (career, life, etc.) you’d like to leave us with?

KMG: I feel like it’s hard to give words of wisdom without sounding cheesy, but here we go.  Love what you spend your time doing.  Actively make your life awesome.  And always protect your head!

BC: Thanks for talking, Kate. You’re an inspiration. I’m gonna go back to work on my violent manuscript once we wrap this up.

KMG: Thank you, BC.  Now when do we get to work together again?!

BC: Sooner than you think, champ. Sooner than you think. Til then, give ‘em hell.


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