Muay thai — also known as “Thai boxing” — is the national sport of Thailand. This discipline is commonly referred to as the “art of eight limbs,” and it is characterized by the combined use of fists, elbows, knees and shins.
Ajarn is a Thai-language term that translates as “professor” or “teacher.”
This autumn brings the passing of Ajarn Mike Walrath. For those whose lives were touched by him, these words acknowledge the conclusion of a long and beautiful journey. For those who did not have the privilege of crossing paths with Walrath, this is his story:
Considered to be the “grandfather of muay thai” by those in the martial arts and combat sports community of Oregon, Walrath and his Bigfoot Gym were a cornerstone in Eugene for more than three decades. Ajarn dedicated his life to his family, his students and the Bigfoot Gym School of muay thai and krabi krabong, the weapon-based martial art of Thailand.
In an era where martial arts, mixed-martial arts and physical fitness became commodified and appropriated for business, Ajarn Walrath’s gym stood as a beacon of legitimate bushido.
An original backyard student of Ajarn Surachai Sirisute — the man credited with bringing the martial art of muay thai to the United States in the 1970s — Ajarn Walrath presided over a gym of fighters he treated as an extension of his family. He was also a student of the late Ajarn Samai Masamarn, at the Buddhai Swan School of krabi krabong, in Thailand. Masamarn is widely considered to be the last great master of krabi krabong.
In Eugene, Ajarn Walrath took in men and women from all walks of life, teaching them traditional muay thai, krabi krabong and self-defense, as well as mentoring them in every aspect of the human experience. He was as much a community advocate, counselor and therapist as he was an Ajarn.
From daily struggles of work and physical hardships, to nuclear break-ups or family emergencies, Ajarn Walrath stood by his students. He saw the practice of martial arts as a form of civil service to his fellow man. Many a young man or woman was mentored on his front porch as well as in the fighting gym. He was an advocate of the age-old saying that “there are many fights in life, not all of which occur in the ring.”
Walrath’s classes were taught daily, involving every skill-level and age-level. He taught more than muay thai, and his students learned to be more than just fighters. His goal was to shape fierce and compassionate martial artists who fought out of “the pure joy of living.”
One would be hard-pressed to find a traditional muay thai instructor in the state of Oregon who has not passed through the doors of Bigfoot Gym. There, in a humble warehouse filled with worn equipment, Walrath accepted all who came.
Walrath was also a well-known artist and painter in the Eugene community. His realist and sometimes surrealist paintings, most of which were inspired by his gym, his family, or his strong political beliefs, continue to be hung and sold in local art galleries such as New Zone.
On Oct. 9, Ajarn Mike Walrath died unexpectedly at the age of 62, passing over the great divide surrounded by the family he loved, the friends he enlivened and the instructors he built. If, as it is said, death and love are two wings that bear the good man to heaven, Walrath flew swiftly.
His gym will continue on, run by a small cadre of instructors who were privileged enough to learn from him. His paintings will continue to be shown in the town he called home. He is survived by his loving wife, Jez; his daughters Heidi and Vivienne; his sons Shon and Matt; and many others whose names would take up more than this page can hold.
A Halloween Memorial Party for Mike Walrath will be held Oct. 28. Call 503-593-9825 for time and address. For information on how to support Bigfoot Gym, go to gofundme.com/bigfoot-gym-fund. ν
Dante Zuniga-West, going in the print version of this story by the title Kru Dante, is a member of Bigfoot Gym, Class of 2006.