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Lay spent months mulling over the decision on whether or not he should hang up the gloves after almost a decade in the ring, and for a man who sees training and fighting in martial arts as the ultimate builder of one’s character, a pre-empted retirement was a bitter pill to swallow.
“I was shattered! Fighting’s been a huge part of my life. My heart was still in it, but while I was recovering, my work asked me to step it up and I needed to dedicate a bit more time to that,” said Lay in the aftermath of his gut-wrenching verdict. “With all these factors, I spoke to my family and it was probably the right decision.”
Like so many before him, Lay had found solace through the strict principles of martial arts. Out of the ring, the 35-year-old Lay is a senior estimator at a paint yard, and he has forged a pleasant and steady lifestyle for both himself and his family. It’s a far cry from the life led by the troubled and angry young man of 10 years ago.
After leaving Darwin with the rest of the Lay family at age 17, Kevin finished Year 12 in Brisbane, began a job at a factory, left, and consequently undertook what he described as “an extended hiatus” from work, where he eventually fell into the wrong crowd.
Not too many young men find their way back from the beaten track after a troublesome youth, and very few of those do so via way of self-realisation. It took a string of incidents involving the law for a then self-confessed “young and dumb” Lay to tap himself on the shoulder and change things around.
“Eventually I had to reflect on the way I was heading and the person I was,” said Lay. “And it wasn’t good.”
Since then he has never looked back, and, predictably, it was a decision that changed his life. In many ways Lay’s fighting career is a clear and accurate reflection of himself. One of respect.
It’s a Thai custom for fighters to have their gym as their last name while in the ring, and Kevin NTG’s record stands at 17 wins and 12 losses from 29 fights.
That solid set of numbers has been nine years in the making, where a 26-year-old Lay approached Nugget in 2003 (arguably the most reputable Thai trainer in Australia), and asked for a spot at NTG.
Previously, Lay had trained in sporadic movements; sometimes just in garages with his mates, but all the while constantly shifting gyms. It’s testament to Lay’s strength of character that he could impress the owner of a gym that housed a lot of high calibre fighters — ex-world champion Soren Monkongtong, just to name one.
Lay concedes that at first, training in such a tight-knit gym was intimidating, but over time he has begun to regard the other fighters, and Nugget in particular, as his “brothers”.
“Nugget’s obviously a good trainer, but he has a wealth of knowledge both in and outside of the ring, so there’s another side to him as well. He’s an awesome friend and an awesome big brother,” said Lay of the trainer and man he so deeply respects. “Everything I am and everything I’ve learnt has come from him, and I owe him that.”
Kevin NTG describes himself as “a bit of a mongrel; a straightforward walk-up style of fighter”. Tactics that have no doubt been borne out of his younger self’s wrath.
Kevin Lay, by contrast to Kevin NTG, is reserved, humble and honest — a man who prefers to spend time with his wife Kaela and the rest of his family.
Lay has only three regrets in his career as a professional fighter. The first was a nasty incident in the Eruption Super Eight, where he head-butted Mikey ‘Tomahawk’ Thompson in the third round of the semi-final.
“I don’t know why I did it, but I’m really sorry I did,” said a remorseful Lay.
“It was unintentional and I had a brain snap. It was just so stupid and I’m really disappointed I did it. I let everyone down: myself, my family, my friends, the gym, Nugget.
“Mikey was shocked. He was pretty dirty, and he had every right to be, so did a lot of the fans. From then on I changed. I think my attitude before then was to go into every fight as though the other guy was the enemy and I had to kill him and that was it. After that I have faced every fight and every fighter with humility, and I just hope I showed that from that point onwards.”
Despite his self-loathing over that incident, Lay still considers fighting in Eruption to be one of his career highlights, right up alongside fighting other Thais, and representing in Hong Kong and Thailand.
Lay considers his greatest moment inside the ring to be his victory against Mark Sarracino, a fighter he had lost to only two fights previously.
“I had to battle some real self-doubts the second time around against Mark,” said Lay. “I just remember being thrilled to come away with the win.”
Lay’s second regret is that he didn’t find Muay Thai sooner, and the third, as he half-joked, is his early retirement.
As a typically selfless individual, Lay now wants to spend more quality time with his wife and family, and give something back to NTG, the gym that has given him so much.
“There’s a lot of new blood coming through the gym at the moment,” said Lay.“We’ve got Pete NTG, Daniel NTG, Leon NTG, Chris NTG and of course Victor. I just didn’t think it was fair of me to take precious time with Nugget and Soren off them.”
Lay will now devote time to holding pads, sparring and grappling, to help others forge the same sort of career that he is so very proud of.
But for now, Kevin Lay just wants to begin the newest chapter in his life.
Photo credit: Leethal