Behind the Mask: Elliot Ortiz
When we started thinking about our first campaign and who we wanted to feature from our community, Elliot came to mind instantly. Elliot is a first-generation Mexican-American, a Muay Thai fighter, a Queens boy, has worked through the pandemic as an essential worker in the food industry. He’s an aspiring professional Muay Thai fighter and to be an owner of his own Mexican bakery one day.
I first met Elliot at Sitan Gym where we trained together as teammates. When sparring with Elliot, you immediately notice his focused but gentle eyes, a little pout as he calculates an opening, and a million dollar smile that opens up when the bell rings. Always the one to say what’s up to everybody, you’re blessed with good vibes when Elliot is around.
We sat down for a conversation to chat about what it was like growing up in Corona Queens, how he got into Muay Thai, and how the martial arts changed his life.
I started the conversation in an interview style but as soon as we got to talking I knew his story had to be told uninterrupted.
I was born in Mexico and came to New York in 2001, I was four years old. We moved to Corona, Queens and we lived there all my life from the ages of five to seventeen. When I was growing up, it (Corona) was a tough neighborhood, shootings and drugs. But it got better as I got older, not as rough.
I believe depending on your circumstances you are going to make different choices in life. There were good and bad choices I made. I didn’t have a lot of positive energy around me. It was problem after problem. Around 12 years old, I got introduced to weed. I started smoking and had more problems in school. I would be doing a lot of drugs.
I knew this bus driver, he used to drive the Q23 and that was the bus I would take to get around. Turns out that he knew my mom and he would see me get in trouble. His name is Anthony. One day he was waiting for my mom outside of my house and he told me he would train me for boxing. I was thinking ‘what does this white boy know about boxing’... ‘Who is this guy and how is he going to teach me about fighting.’ Anyway, I continued to do my bullshit. But he asked me again. He said “come by one Saturday”. I found gloves to borrow and went to the gym. My mom just kept telling me to go because “you got nothing to do on Saturdays.” Turns out that white boy knew exactly what he was doing, you could tell he had a lot of experience in boxing.
I started training at American Top Team in Queens. I was liking it but I still didn’t really get into it until later. I would still smoke. I would even take the class high sometimes. Over time, I started enjoying the classes but not enough for me to quit getting high. So I was on and off and I couldn’t quit the drugs. I would still be chillin with bad energy. Until one day I was like “Imma just stop.” But that was like after a whole 8 months of training two to three times a week.
Elliot before training at his gym Sitan NY
I’ve been to drug programs. They test you. And there are a lot of ways you could get away with it. For example, I would get kids from school to piss for me. The drug program was great for many other social and personal reasons but not for quitting the drugs itself...it was more of a therapy session. But I started really liking boxing. So I couldn’t do both because I’m an excessive person. I can’t have one bag of chips, I gotta have two or three. My excessiveness created many problems because I feel in life you need to have a balance with anything you do.
By the time I moved out from Martense Ave, I didn’t talk to my old friends no more because I felt the need to change my ways and start focusing on what was really important for me. Either I was in or I was out.
I had to choose between that [drugs] and my mom. And my mom was my priority. There were days my mom didn’t know where I was for like 3 days. She’d be asking where I was for days. I didn’t care for myself. I didn’t really care for myself. If I went to the gym, I would do it to make my mom happy. My dad would be working all day everyday.
I continued to train but the gym ended up closing. The gym was good for me.
Even after the gym closed, I would still run everyday after school. I kept up my cardio because I wasn’t really interested in anything else that other kids my age were doing and I can’t just sit at home. That’s why I was always in the streets. Never liked being at home. I would cut school to do drugs or play handball everyday.
Elliot working at a restaurant by day and making conchas at home on the weekends
I was working 12 hours a day. There were fights on the weekends. And I remember seeing Rudy and Joel fight at FNF (Friday Night Fight). And damn I was impressed by how they fought. It wasn’t like regular fights and I always liked that gym (Sitan NY).
When my gym closed down, I was lost. I didn’t know any other gym. A gym I went to cost $290 a month and I couldn’t afford to pay that. I was stressed out because this [boxing] was healthy and productive for me, I was enjoying it, good at it, then it closed. So I was like ‘shit here we go again’.
I needed to graduate so I went to a transfer school in the city, Westside High School, for more credits. That school was really good for me. The teachers there really cared for the students' future, and there were no judgments made. They accepted everyone for who they were. The principal was the nicest lady I've ever met. This school did a lot for me in terms of growing as a person.
I was in school one day and I called Sitan. Joel picked up and told me the rates. So I asked my dad for money because he would usually give it to me but I would use it on drugs. This time, I signed up for a membership at Sitan with the money.
I didn’t know nothin about Muay Thai or the community yet.
Joel was teaching class. I put my headphones in and waited for the class to start. I started training and it was just different. It was things like blocking with your shin. I knew some things but it was more kickboxing style from my previous gym. They say … to create a new habit you need to do it a thousand times, but to get rid of a habit you need to practice it three thousand times. I had to start over and learn techniques over again.
One day I told Joel that I wanna fight. I would go every day from Monday to Friday. I told Joel - “I’m tryna work.” Aziz (head trainer and owner of Sitan) let me go into the advanced class. One day after training, I told Aziz: “I wanna compete”. He told me to keep coming and that he will put my name down. Within a year I had my first fight.
I don’t remember when I stopped putting in headphones before class. But I started liking the environment that I was in and I think it was because the conversations that I would hear around me were different than the ones that I was used to hearing. I remember that the first people that I started talking to were Niko and Matt. They were around the same weight and age as me, so we would partner up.
Bowing to each other after a fight as a sign of respect. Photo: Pari Cherry
How has Muay Thai influenced your life?
Muay Thai has influenced me tremendously. For me, Muay Thai now is a way of life, not just a hobby. Because of Muay Thai, I was able to accomplish things that I may not have been able to accomplish. And I’m thankful to Anthony for urging me to try boxing.
I am sometimes not even conscious of what I learn through Muay Thai. It helps me and I’m not even aware of it at the moment. It just happens. For example, letting things go that you don't have control over. It was easier for me to let things like that go because of sparring. When you get swept, punched, kicked, or anything coming your way, you still have to keep on pushing and finish the round. I feel like Muay Thai is a sport, but it also applies to life every day in small and big tasks.
When I started competing, everything felt normal. I won my first two fights, lost the third, and won the fourth, but then I lost three fights in a row after that win. Those three losses really affected me, because I thought I would've been able to correct the mistakes I had made that caused the loss. For example, after the first loss, I told myself, "Okay I got the next one." I did everything in my power to train the hardest that I could, but even with that, I still lost my next fight. At this point, I was really frustrated with myself, because I would sacrifice a lot of time with family and my girlfriend at the time to try and fix those mistakes. I got an opportunity to fight again, and this time it was for a belt. I looked so sharp in the gym, and I felt sharp within myself, but when I got into the ring on the day of the fight, I remember feeling so tense and not like myself. All I kept thinking about was failing and during the fight, scenes of me failing kept replaying in my head. So as crazy as it sounds, I lost again because I was so scared to lose.
These events had a big impact on my life because I felt like I was back to square one-- failure. Little did I know that those weren't losses, they were lessons. Another reason that had me stressed out and frustrated was that I would also think of Aziz, Joel, and Anthony. They have their own families and lives, but they would still invest their time in me. That also keeps me going. I don't want all that time and knowledge that they gave me to go to waste. Even though I had a rough patch with the fights, I won my last fight and I want to continue to compete.
Muay Thai has made miracles happen in my life. From helping my drug addiction, finishing high school, maintaining a job, to honestly almost everything else in my life. It keeps my body in shape, but most importantly keeps my mental health in shape too. For some people, these may be ordinary, but for me, it was something really hard to overcome.
With this being said, my goal is for one day to call myself a professional Thai fighter. And it's not for the money, because in Muay Thai, there really isn't any money to be made. But because I want to set an example that no matter where you come from, you can go wherever you want to. Sometimes I'm scared about not being able to reach my goals, but how can I find out if I don't take the risk?
You can follow Elliot on his Instagram here.