Mark ‘The Hammer’ Castagnini

Castagnini commentary

Mark Castagnini is one of the key players in Australian Thai boxing. Beginning his career as a fighter, he went through traditional martial arts before taking up Thai boxing almost by accident and discovering that it bought him to the ultimate test of his training. From there, he has been involved with developing and disseminating the sport at every level, editing International Kickboxer Magazine, working as a commentator alongside Michael Schiavello on Foxsports, promoting events and running his own martial arts academy, Hammer’s Gym. Mark spends a little time telling us about his passion for the sport, what its Australian roots are and the directions the branches are moving in.

What got you involved in Thai Boxing?

Breaking my knuckle in a Kyokushin karate competition! At that time, I was training under Eddie Emin. I fought regularly, in anything going around. I loved [Kyokushin] as a martial art; it was my lifestyle. I found it as young man, and it let me vent my frustrations with the world at the time.

I had a lot of challenges growing up; low self-esteem, I contemplated suicide as teenager. My real father died when I was five, and my mother remarried a former soldier who was very tough. I had issues to work through; my confidence very low. I enjoyed the physical pain. It made me feel alive, in contrast with my emotional pain.

I worked in antique restoration as an upholsterer in the family business, twelve hours a day, six days a week. There was a second-hand bookshop next door to where I lived. I went in one day and came across Mas Oyama’s book, Vital Karate.

I trained at home, following what I read in the book. I was told that if I ever left home, I’d be without a job. One day I decided I’d had enough, so I moved out, left the business and was out of work, all at same time! I read another book called The Plus Factor, which changed my mindset. It was all about not letting negative thought from other people determine what you can and can’t do.

I got a job laboring, and started hitting the gym with blokes I knew. One day, I saw what turned out to be a Kyokushin karate class going on next door. I didn’t know it at the time but they had a Japanese Uchi Deshi in there; I saw him demonstrate a side-kick, and balance his extended foot on top of the door-frame.

I spoke to the instructor after class. He asked where I lived and told me to go see Eddie Emin, in Elwood. One day in class, he jumped on my stomach. I remember seeing him jump up into the air, and there was this crazy guy positioned above me. He landed on my stomach with both feet. I was fine, and he went on to the next person. It showed me what I could take was far beyond what I would have thought. I was never so confident, before or since. It was good for me as martial artist, but also good for life.

I ended up fighting in the Victorian Kyokushin championships in Bendigo. It was a great day. I fought in the final, and that’s when I broke my knuckle. I had started working security around that time, and I saw a flyer for a BJC (Bob Jones Corporation) Muay Thai tournament, which was open to all. You could wear gloves, which meant I could cover my broken knuckle. I came runner-up in the heavyweight division. I could kick – I’d learned that in Kyokushin – but I had no boxing.

Bob Jones approached me after, asked what I’d done, and invited me to go train with Steve Nedelkos and Paul Danaludi. Sean Steinford ended up being my first instructor. That was in a school hall in Church St, Doncaster. I went back to the start of their grading system. Around that time, I started working for Blitz Magazine. I was living the dream!

My first fight was under the stage of South Melbourne town hall. I fought one of Johnny Scida’s fighters. He broke my nose, but I won.

Interestingly, my last fight was in Thailand and that night, I had Nick Kara, John Scida and Daniel Dawson in my corner. I had trained at Sityodtong in Pattaya. My opponent was very strong in the grapple. Johnny told me to stay away! I did, and I won.

You held an Australian title. Who did you fight? How did it go down?

That was a WKA cruiserweight title. I had stopped training for a year when the opportunity presented itself. I’d met my first wife, and we were moving house. I was asked if I wanted to fight, but I couldn’t afford to take the night off work. The promoter offered the money to cover it, and I was rapt. I fought Romolo ‘The Wild Samoan’ Pio. I stopped him in the 3rd round with knees. It was under full Thai rules.

I had a good career; I fought on the undercards of both ‘Tosca’ Petrides’ and Ian Jacobs’ world title fights.

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How did you get involved in the promotional side of things?

Through the magazine. I promoted with Silvio [Morelli, CEO of Blitz Publications]. The opportunity was there, so we took it. I met him while doing security for Stan ‘the Man’ Longinides.

What do you think about the state of kickboxing in Australia and internationally? Why do you think it has been eclipsed by MMA?

Kickboxing is to MMA what boxing is to kickboxing. There’s a rivalry. They are two different forms of combat, with a mutual respect between them. In Australia, both shows will pull about the same numbers. Realistically, UFC is MMA. No one else is doing it. I think that UFC today is what wrestling was ten years ago; people are following the brand, not the martial art. Lots of people who are following it have only ever seen a punch in the head on t.v. – they don’t understand that fighting is the ultimate test of your training. I think it will hit critical mass and then slightly decline until it finds its niche.

How do you feel about the oft-reported links between kickboxing and organized crime in Australia, in light of the fact the Mayor of Amsterdam has banned kickboxing in Amsterdam and all the major promotions have been moved to Belgium?

There’s always going to be people from organized crime [involved in fightsports]. For a criminal, the agenda is to try and make themselves as fortified as possible. They want weapons, soldiers, defences. They want fighters. You find a lot of guys from hard backgrounds in fighting gyms. There’s also a stigma; is it fair to judge 200,000 people on 6?

Tell us about your gym. When did you start it? What do you do there?

Blitz Thai kickboxing started in 1995 in my garage. My first students were Michael Schiavello and my ex-wife. From there, I was invited to start teaching at Blitz. I started up Hammer’s Gym, in 2008. Some of the trainers used to mock me, because I had everyone doing line work. I found from my own experience that the repetition paid off when I was working on the door.

When I set it up as a teaching style, I wrote a syllabus so everyone knew what was expected at every grading. I maintained the hierarchy and levels [of traditional martial arts, as well as] adding some of the Kyokushin technique into curriculum.

Why do you think Queensland has overtaken Victoria as the premier Muay Thai/kickboxing state?

  1. They have been at it longer,
  2. Queensland produced those very early, very influential fighters like Paul Briggs, Nugget, JWP and Mark Pease,
  3. Thai is more marketable. It’s what people want to see.

How did you get started as a commentator? What do you enjoy about it? What is it like working with Schiavello?

I started on a Paul Demicoli and John Scida promotion. They made the offer when the show was filmed. Later, Dave Hedgecock introduced me at FoxSports, and they gave Michael and I a test. We did it and shared a microphone, and away we went. Fox decided to invest in the sport and grow it. Now, I enjoy it more than almost anything else.

What is it like running ‘International Kickboxer’ magazine? How did you get involved with it?

We used to have a section called ‘Ring Talk’ in Blitz, which covered all the kickboxing going on at the time. It became so popular, we eventually decided it was time to start its own magazine.

It’s been great. It’s given me the opportunity to be creative and give accolades and recognition when normally they’d get none. Our sport rarely makes the papers. It’s also good because of the in-depth information you can get. Who are the fighters, where did they start, how do they train, what are their challenges? These days, there’s more competition from the ‘net.

Will you do another ‘Evolution’ show down here? Tell us about your current series of promotions.

Never say never. Really, who cares what it’s called, as long as it has the key players. When you’re doing a promotion, you want to make sure the fights are first-class and the production is up there with what people want and expect.

Elite Boxing in Thailand, their website is streaming Glory Live. The new thing is to be able to watch fights live, on-line from anywhere in the world.

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