This article was originally published in International Kickboxer Magazine, Jan/Feb 2016
Joe ‘Stitch ‘Em Up’ Schilling is a significant figure amongst the new breed of fighters.It’s very unusual to drive past any gym now and find that it is a kickboxing-only school. Most fight gyms are branded as MMA facilities, while Muay Thai and kickboxing have come to feature as a kind of sub-set of the combat sports genre.
When ‘cage fighting’ began to rear its head in the nineties, changing from a gruesome cable t.v. curiosity to a sport in its own right, it attracted martial artists from different styles to essentially adapt their skills to a kind of ‘no-holds-barred’ competition.
Generationally, the torch was passed when Matt Hughes defeated the original UFC legend, Royce Gracie, at UFC 60 in 2006. In his victory speech, Hughes stated that the game had officially changed; mixed martial arts had coalesced as a discipline in and of itself. No longer would experts in other styles of martial arts be able to compete effectively.
Schilling is at the forefront of the generation Hughes begat. While originally a Muay Thai stylist, he regularly competes in MMA at the highest level and his striking is only a facet of his overall skill-set as a combat athlete. Obviously, it’s an outstanding facet; he is currently the top-ranked contender in the Glory middleweight rankings.
In many ways, Joe’s story is that of the archetypal fighter; the things that made him suited to the ring interfered with his ability to do anything else. He had a notoriously difficult childhood, being expelled from four different schools.
“That Wikipedia thing makes me sound much worse then I was,” says Joe. “My mom was a single mother and I spent a lot of time with babysitters and [at] day-care centers while my mom worked. I think I just got used to doing what I wanted.
“I was kicked out or asked to leave from I think four schools total but it wasn’t like I was doing anything too crazy. It was more like they just got sick of having to deal with my shit everyday.”
In desperation, his mother took him to a Muay Thai gym in the hope it would give him discipline and focus.
“My attraction to Muay Thai versus other martial arts was the boxing gloves. It seemed like more of a ‘sport’ than the other martial arts I’d seen. I didn’t want to wear the pyjamas or learn the forms.
“I was actually looking for a boxing gym when my mom took my to the Muay Thai gym. At first, I thought kicking was for girls, but that quickly changed.”
His mother’s insistence of a direction worked much better than any parent of a delinquent could ever dream.
“She said I had to find a hobby… I was basically grounded to [stay in] my room or [attend] whatever hobby I chose. I was a pretty angry, frustrated kid so I said I wanted to try boxing.
“She took me to a kickboxing gym after school one day and that was it; if I wasn’t in the gym or at school I was [confined to] my room.
“I spent a lot of time at the gym and got good pretty fast. After five or six months I started to help teach and when I was teaching, I noticed how differently people looked at me.”
After leaving home at the age of seventeen, Schilling began to compete in Tough Man Contests.
“Tough Man contests were very scary for me; they were the first fights I ever had and were usually inside of bars I wasn’t old enough to get into. There weren’t a whole lot of people signing up to compete, so when I walked in with my twenty-five dollar entry-fee, they didn’t check my I.D.
“Most of them were called ‘Tough Man’ or ‘Meanest Man’ or ‘Rough Man’ – they seemed to call every event, ‘Something Man’. The rules were either just boxing or kickboxing with kicks above the waist and no knees.
“Because there were never a whole lot of people who were willing to fight in these bar fights, they only had three weight classes; under two hundred pounds, over two hundred pounds and over two hundred and sixty pounds.”
Joe’s first fight convinced him of his future vocation.
“I was scared to death going into it and really was just flailing around. I landed a hard straight right hand to the body and [my opponent] quit. After I won, I was hanging out in a bar drinking [and] talking to girls and felt like a badass because I just won by knockout. It was pretty much at that moment when I decided, ‘This is what I’m gonna do.”
Eventually, Joe moved to Los Angeles and found work at the YMCA as a personal trainer. He also met his future trainer and business partner, Mark Kumuro, while training at the LA Boxing Club. When the club shut down, they took matters into their own hands.
“It was a low-income boxing facility inside of an old jail. The old Lincoln Heights jail was shut down [when] a new state-of-the-art jail was built for Los Angles. The old building hosted city programs or something, and on the fifth floor was a really low- budget boxing gym. It was like ten dollars a month.
“Anyway, [Mark] and I trained there for a few fights and decided we wanted to open our own gym. When we were deciding what to name it, I thought, ‘What do you call the workout area at a jail? The Yard.”
Joe had a brief amateur career as a Muay Thai fighter and soon turned pro. The change came as a revelation. It was the catalyst for the discovery of his special talent, the one that earned him the monicker, ‘Stitch ‘Em Up’.
“I took my first pro Muay Thai fight on short notice, at a weight class above what I naturally fight at, against a much bigger and more experienced former professional boxer,” he says.
“My opponent had cut weight to get down to one hundred and eighty seven [pounds] for the fight. I had weighed in – with my clothes on and my phone, my trainer’s phone and both [sets] of our keys in my pockets to one hundred and eighty two or three.”
Joe felt he had the skill advantage, but the weight disparity was still a differentiating factor.
“I was much faster and an all-round [more skilful] fighter, but I felt I didn’t have enough power to hurt him. At one point, I started to panic because he was walking through all of my shots and I was getting tired.
“I got desperate, hit him with an elbow and it visibly hurt him. I ended up landing forty-six elbows, splitting open his eyebrow and detaching the bottom of his earlobe. After that, elbows were my new favourite go-to weapon.”
From that point, Schilling’s career seemed to change gears. In 2007 he continued to fight under Muay Thai rules and progressed undefeated to contest the IKKC US title at super-middleweight, taking on Russian ex-pat, Denis Grachev.
Grachev stopped him with a spinning back kick forty-five seconds into the first round and Schilling could not continue.
In 2008, Joe also began to train and fight as both a professional boxer and a mixed martial artist. His professional boxing debut is known as the fastest knockout in US combat sports history.
“It sounds a lot cooler than it was,” he says. “We touched gloves, went back to our corner and the referee said, ‘Come out swinging’.
“He must have misunderstood and thought he said, ‘Come out sprinting,’ because he ran across the ring and tried to throw an overhand right while I was reaching out to touch gloves with my left hand.
“Instinctually, I threw my right cross and pivoted off to avoid his sucker punch. It turns out [that] he ran straight into my right hand. By the time I made the pivot off the angle, he was already out cold and the ref immediately waved it off.”
Boxing is the cornerstone of Joe’s style.
“Boxing has always been a huge part of my style and has been a big part of my success in kickboxing and MMA.”
Joe also began his initial foray into MMA in 2008, winning two of his first three fights. It wasn’t easy, however. Strikers have found the transition from kickboxing to MMA particularly difficult.
“Transitioning to MMA is very challenging; it really is a completely different game altogether. There is the ground game and the striking and the transitions between the two, which can be very complex.
“As far as the ground game goes, I have really enjoyed it and been blessed to have trained with some of the best Brazilian ju-jitsu guys in the world.”
His kickboxing career has been stellar, although his progress has been marked by a number of sensational changes of fortune. One of the things that defines him as a fighter, and makes him a persistently exciting prospect, is his ability to adapt and develop. His losses are generally followed by significant technical improvement.
“I think that a huge part of my success has come simply because I persisted,” he says. “I’ve had some extreme highs in my career but I’ve also had a lot of lows. I think persisting through those lows has brought me to new heights.
“But not only do you have to keep going after a loss, you also have look at the mistakes you’ve made and address them. I think that a huge part of my success has come from being surrounded by the right people.”
In 2011, Joe fought Thai legend Kaoklai Kaennorsing for the WBC Interim World Light Heavyweight Championship in Los Angeles. Joe dominated, knocking down the Thai three times in the first round.
With that win, he secured his standing as one of the world’s elite fighters at middleweight, entering into the small circle of top contenders.
Among those figures are Russian middleweight Glory world middleweight title-holder Artem Levin, along with Canadian contender, Simon Marcus.
Marcus and Schilling have shared a torrid rivalry. Their first engagement was on the American promotion Lion Fight 5 in Las Vegas on February twenty-fifth, 2015.
“My first fight with Simon Marcus was, by far, the most anticipated Muay Thai fight in U.S. history, mostly because we both did a good job of talking shit to each other in the media,” says Joe.
“Eventually, [we] agreed to bet our purses in a ‘winner takes all’ match. It was great for the sport and a [highly] anticipated fight. Unfortunately, the fight ended in the clinch when Simon illegally grape-vined my leg and tripped me and landed on top of me with his elbow on my chin as the back of my head hit the [canvas].
“I was able to get up a few times but ultimately, I was finished. The fight was ruled a knockout, even though it all started with an illegal sweep. The end result was that I lost my WBC world title, even though for some reason it was a non-title fight.”
Afterwards, Schilling attempted to have the decision overthrown and the result awarded a no-contest, without success. The follow-up bout at Lion Fight 6 was fuelled by both speculation and resentment. The stakes were further increased by the fact that the winner would earn the opportunity to contest Artem Levin’s WBC world title.
“In the second fight I dropped Simon with a jab in the first round [and] from then on, Simon would clinch and hold on the entire fight. The ignorance and incompetence of both the Nevada Athletic Commission judges and the referee that night were pathetic.
“Two of the three judges did not score the eight-count or the knockdown in the first round. And the referee, Steve Mazzagatti, was completely uneducated in Muay Thai and basically allowed Simon to simply body lock and knee my hip for several minutes of each round.
“Anyway, Simon won by one point, I believe. A few years later Simon and I faced each other at Glory 17: Last Man Standing tournament. It was fight of the year.”
Joe debuted for the Glory organization at the end of 2013 at Glory 10: Los Angeles – Middleweight World Championship Tournament. Through twists of fate typical of kickboxing, he earned his opportunity for a shot at Artem Levin and defeated him in the final of the tournament, establishing himself as the number one middleweight in the world.
Some years later, Joe met Levin once again in the final of the Glory 17: Last Man Standing tournament. While he prevailed against old foe Marcus in the semi-final that night, he ultimately lost to Levin.
Tournaments, while immensely entertaining, are not the best way to find an overall champion, given that both luck and injury are such influential factors. As far as determining the best middleweight in the world, a properly sanctioned title fight is the best possible format.
“The fight with Artem has been offered – and even agreed upon – but Artem seems to always find a way out of the fight with me. I don’t know if it will ever happen or not.
“At this point, I don’t care; I know I’m the number-one middleweight in the world and the politics will not change that.”