Lah Thao was a mixed martial arts fighter; then he had a revelation

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Lah Thao is eyeing an expansion of his gym as he looks back at a successful martial arts career.

Lah Thao found himself in a triangle choke in one of the biggest fights of his life, in Colorado more than 10 years ago. For anyone who has trained in Brazilian Jujitsu, this is not a pleasant place to be. 

He’d arrived in a limousine, made the aisle walk before 8,000 fans. Most of them booed (since he was fighting the hometown hero in Colorado). He’d stepped into the cage undefeated, adrenaline pumping through his body as he warmed up, ready for the fight. None of the booing bothered him. “I’m here to jack your champ up,” Thao says of his thoughts at the time. “It pumped me up.”

He was the underdog of the fight. His opponent, Christian “Relentless” Allen, trained with fighting legend Duane “The Bang” Ludwig; Thao was basically training in his basement, as he put it. 

But, Thao also had not been beaten in his MMA career. He was only an underdog because being from the middle of Wisocnsin, the oddsmakers didn’t know much about him. Surely the oddsmakers were satisfied with their picks after seeing Thao spend a couple of minutes in a triangle choke, in which an opponent’s head and arm are trapped between the choker’s legs.  

But that’s not how things went. Thao was determined not to pass out, and he sure as heck wasn’t going to tap. Thao against all odds survived the triangle choke, and found a submission of his own. The official fight record calls it a Kimura choke but Thao explains from his west side gym, Rising Son, that it was an Americana from a headlock position, a variation on the move that Thao says is one of his favorites. He didn’t just submit Allen, he broke his arm. “He didn’t want to tap either,” Thao explains.

Today Thao runs Rising Son on Pardee Street on Wausau’s West side. He is running out of space and plans to move to a bigger location soon. He trains fighters and has had one make it to Bellator, a mixed martial arts organization similar to the UFC. He has a boxing tournament coming up at the Central Wisconsin Convention Center in November and plans on hosting local MMA fights as well. 

That win in Colorado proved to be one of the biggest fights of Thao’s life. It also proved to be a pivotal moment for Thao – but not in the way you might think. 

Early life 

Thao started wrestling as a young child on advice of a friend, and joined Tae Kwon Do after Wausau TKD teacher Master Vu approached his mother and asked if she was interested in enrolling her boys in his school. 

Thao trained there for five years, and he and a couple of others students eventually took over for Master Vu to help keep the school going after Vu retired from teaching the art. Soon he and others were traveling to tournaments, including the national tournament in the Tae Kwon Do.

Around the time Thao was 20, he heard about a local mixed martial tournament and decided to check it out. Thao laughs that he didn’t know much about MMA at the time — he thought it was fixed entertainment like professional wrestling. But after the first fight he quickly realized it was anything but. “What better way to test yourself, if you really want to challenge yourself?” he thought. Of course he’d have to prepare for a fight of his own.  

Thao took a year to train, found some local fighters who took him under their wing, trained by running up and down Rib Mountain, sometimes pushing his daughter in the stroller. He trained his wrestling and his Tae Kwon Do skills. He also started traveling to Appleton to work with a Brazilian Jujitsu school there. 

Thao also went to school to be a gym teacher, and now has his masters degree. Studying kinesiology helped a lot, he says. All that training helped him get in shape to fight at 135 (he fought in the 135 and 145 weight classes throughout his career).

Thao in 2004 won his first of an undefeated career record – three rounds, “going the distance” as they call it. Thao won by decision, the last time any of his fights would make it to the final bell. After that he always won either by knockout of submission, in three amateur fights and four professional fights.

He and his brother also tried out for Dana White’s Contender Series, a show that highlights up and coming fighters. Fighters that make the cut get a fight on the show, and a good enough performance can earn them a UFC contract. 

Thao described the process to a City Pages reporter — there are a series of phases one must go through to make it to the show. The first is them making sure you have a winning record and are a pro fighter; in the next, fighters hit pads to show their striking skills. They move the fighters they like at that point on to grappling. The grappling happened in front of a long table of people, with Dana White front and center. On the table in front of White stood a large stack of $100 bills, and anyone who got a submission was instantly given one of them. Thao went for it, but while he dominated his opponent in positions enough to make it to the next round, he couldn’t quite pull off the submission. 

The next step would do Thao in. The remaining fighters were brought into the media room where someone yelled “I don’t care how good of a fighter you are! We want personality!” Thao could only laugh. “That’s not me,” Thao says. It’s easy to see why. Thao is friendly and humble, always ready with a smile and a friendly greeting. He’s quick to say he’s only undefeated because he didn’t fight long enough. Not the bravado one typically ses in the UFC to build up hype for a fight (although Smiling Sam Alvey somehow pulled it off).

Transition to coach 

Thao stood with his arm raised in the center of the octagon in Colorado. It should have been the highlight of his career. Fighters who won at this particular tournament often got the call up to the UFC. 

Instead, he had a moment of clarity. “When the owner was putting the belt around me, all I could think was ‘this was it? All this, for what?’” Thao says he realized he had more joy singing in church than he had in that moment, in what should have been a crowning achievement. 

Thao started focusing on Rising Son, which he opened right around that time. Before the physical building opened, he trained several people wherever they could find space to train. He said he needed commitment from his students – he’d need a decent base of students to make the gym work. 

At this point Thao has trained dozens of students, who have collectively entered hundreds of fights in mixed martial arts, both as amateurs and pros. 

It might surprise you to learn that of all the students at Rising Son, he has only two MMA fighters. People are gravitating toward individual arts such as Brazilian Jujitsu, Muy Thai (a striking art from Thailand), boxing and wrestling. 

Occasionally someone comes in to challenge him. It’s never someone with experience, because those who train in the arts respect them enough not disrespect someone who has had such a career in the cage. Usually Thao goes easy on them. Though he’s reluctant to talk about it, let’s just say they usually leave regretting having challenged the master. 

Among his students, one in particular — Scott Writz — had his first fight in Bellator a couple of years ago. Writz lost the fight, but they are working to build up a winning record to get back into the promotion. 

Writz told City Pages that Thao is great at breaking down techniques and has a wealth of experience in the martial arts — but also has a sense of humor and often breaks the tension with a well-timed “dad joke.” 

Either way, working with Thao has changed his life, Writz says. “ I came to the gym at a time where I didn’t have any direction in which I wanted to go in life,” Writz says. “He helped me recognize my goals (being a MMA champ) and helped me on the path to those goals. He is always checking in and making sure that I keep taking the right steps in and outside of the gym.” 

Thao helps create well-rounded individuals and even those who don’t compete benefit from his training, Writz says. 

Kyle Zimmick also trains with Thao and says he looks up to him as a role model. Thao is, he says, “truly one of the nicest guys you will meet and is always helping and giving advice for not even just in the gym but outside the gym as well and truly caring about his students lives outside the gym and helping them grow as people,” Zimmick says. 

For student Terrence Marquardt, three words come to mind when describing Thao: “Patient. Wise. Brutal.” Thao pushes his students to be physically and mentally tough, Marquardt says. If not for Thao, Marquardt says, he’d either be an addict, in prison or dead. “Lah has changed to my life in so many ways, I don’t know if I could do it justice in this short message,” Marquardt told City Pages.

Plenty to come 

Thao’s fighting days might be over, but there is plenty on his plate. The Central Wisconsin Convention and Expo Center will host a boxing tournament. They’re working with USA Boxing but also working on spicing it up a little compared to a typical amateur fight, with walkout music and fanfare. Mixed martial arts fights are also in the works, something Thao would like to see in central Wisconsin again. 

And they’re finally looking at moving Rising Son. Space has become cramped, especially in the parking lot. Thao says they adjusted schedules to make sure there is 15 minutes between classes so there isn’t a mad scramble in the parking lot between classes. 

Thao says he’s satisfied with his career and the work he’s done to train other fighters. There have been times when he’s watched UFC post-fight career and felt sure he could take someone on. 

But training fighters, spreading the martial arts to others — regardless of whether they choose to step into the cage or just want to learn the martial arts for what they provide in terms of confidence, physical health, discipline and endurance —  gives him more satisfaction.