Muay thai has been a way of life for Kevin Ross (30-9), who began training in art of eight limbs back in 2003. It's taken him to Thailand, put him up against some of the best in the world and led him to multiple titles. But on April 16, 2016, he will be putting his elbow strikes on hold as he steps in the ring for the debut of Bellator Kickboxing in Turino, Italy, against Matteo Taccini.
*For clarification, Bellator Kickboxing -- like GLORY and K-1 rules -- forbids the use of elbow strikes, which is common place in muay thai.
After the former Lion Fight champion finished out his contract and became a free agent, Bellator president Scott Coker paid a visit to the CSA gym, where he trains, and told him the plans for Bellator Kickboxing and expressed his interest in bringing him into the fold.
"I’ve known Scott Coker for a very long time and he came by our gym and let me know what he was looking to do," Ross told MMAmania.com. "My contract with Lion Fight was up and I was kind of a free agent and it was just the right time and the right opportunity so I jumped on board."
Coker really sold the deal to the California-based fighter by informing him he wouldn't have to be exclusive to Bellator Kickboxing and could still seek out muay thai fights, which was music to Ross' ears because he'd have the best of both worlds and would still get to fulfill his passion for muay thai.
"He told me he wanted me to fight other places and stay busy whenever they weren’t keeping me busy and I told him I would sign with him that day," Ross recalled. "It was a no-brainer. I’ve been waiting my whole career for someone to say that."
Being inactive for long periods of time was his "biggest hindrance over the years," he says. That, unfortunately, is nothing new for American muay thai fighters. Lion Fight is the biggest American promotion for muay thai and is featured on AXS TV, but after that the shows are much smaller and traveling over seas to get fights is common place. Ross is a well-known name, but now he gets to step on the biggest stage of his career and in front of much larger television audience in Spike TV.
Sometimes he has to stop and let it sink in that's it is truly a reality.
"Everything with fighting to me has always been so surreal from day one," said Ross, who was up on the dais in Houston for the official announcement of Bellator Kickboxing. "It took me so long to get into this sport and to get over all my own fears and doubts of doing it. All I ever wanted was to get in there once. To be here after all these years it just boggles my mind that this is really the place I’ve gotten to. I still feel like the person who stepped into the gym day one. I’ve never felt any different than that. It’s all very surreal for me. I’m very happy and I feel very fortunate and blessed to be doing this."
Ross, 35, almost signed on with GLORY kickboxing a few years ago, but it never materialized due to contract issues with Lion Fight. With his current deal he now has the freedom to fight when and wherever he wants and the full support of Coker, which is something he felt he wasn't getting from his last promotion, who recently came under fire for not paying Tiffany van Soest after her last title fight. In fact, Ross feels like many fighters within that promotion aren't getting the support they truly deserve.
He opened up about the van Soest ordeal:
"What I can say is it's very unfortunate," he said. "I feel that a promotion, their first priority should be taking care of the fighters. Maybe not the people that aren't their product, maybe the people who are pushing their promotion. The promotion is the face of it, but the people that are in there are the ones putting in all the blood, sweat and tears, particularly the ones who are the main event and your champions. And the fact that she felt she had to go out on social media and put them out there like that really let me know some things need to change.
"I've fought for plenty of promoters who have contacted me right after a fight like, 'hey can you wait a week or two to deposit this check?' Yeah, sure no problem. I know things happen sometimes it takes sometimes for money to come through and things like that, but when there is not that communication and you show up at the bank and that check bounces. That should never happen, especially more than once. For her to feel like she needed to go out there and do that shows you that there wasn't that kind of communication or that kind of respect. It's very unfortunate and terrible that it happened, but it shows you that some things need to change in that organization."
Van Soest, who recently signed on with GLORY and Invicta FC, "is not the only person it's ever happened to," Ross said, but being in the spotlight she has the profile necessary to get the world out for other fighters, he added.
"For her to put that out there… One, it is kind of a selfless thing to do because there can be a lot of backlash from that, but to be that person to kind of say, 'hey this is not right,' someone at that level needs to do it. It's not like you can have someone on the undercard say it, no one is going to care. It is something that needed to have a light shed on it. I'm sure Lion Fight is not the only promotion that does things like this. It happens and it's unfortunate, but things do need to change. You do need to take care of your product, which is your fighters."
Ross, has family from Sicily and said the last time he traveled to Italy was a vacation when he was 14 years old. He is really looking forward to having some of his relatives come to watch him fight in his debut and expects the style of his opponent, Taccini to make for an exciting and fan-friendly bout.
"He is a tough guy," said Ross. "He is aggressive. I'm sure he is very motivated. A win over me would be huge, especially from such an unknown name. I go in there like I am facing the best fighter in the world every time and I prepare myself accordingly. I don't think there is anything you could possibly do that would surprise me. I'm always looking forward to having someone that is going to bring that energy and intensity. The worst thing in the world for me is to have to go chase someone around."
Being an American on foreign soil is nothing new for Ross, and he knows those fighters are usually gunning to take him out, which he wholeheartedly embraces: "That is going to bring out the best in everybody. You need that kind of energy on both sides. A great fighter brings out the best in every fighter. That is what I am looking forward to."
Things couldn't be going any better for the Bellator Kickboxing bantamweight. Not only has he gotten what he feels is his biggest opportunity of his career, but he recently reconciled with his old girlfriend, retired MMA fighter and current action-movie actress, Gina Carano.
"It is a very cool story," Ross said. "We started dating in 2001 before either one of us ever set foot in a gym. We were together for four years. I started fighting in 2003 and she kind of followed along about six months later. We ended up splitting up. We were kind of going in two different directions. We always remained close friends off and on through a decade apart and then it just was the right time and things just came together. We actually got back together on the 14 year anniversary of the day we met. So, yeah we are back together. Almost 10 months."
Don't expect any nuggets on whether or not Carano -- who was recently in the Marvel movie, "Deadpool" --will be returning to action anytime soon. Ross keeps that information close to the vest and isn't going to dish to the public about his better half.
"People are always looking for that inside tip about what's going on and what she is doing, but she is doing her thing and if she wants to talk about what exactly it is, she can," he explained. "I'm not going to put her out there like that."
Ross knows he's not a young fighter and he fully embraces it saying, "I've been old since I started." He's aware that being on the plus side of thirty isn't always a positive in a young man's game, but feels as long as he still has his love for it and his health is okay, he's not entertaining too many thoughts about his fighting mortality.
"As long as I still love it and as long as I'm still healthy enough to do it and I don't feel like I'm declining," Ross said. "I still feel like I'm getting better and better every day. I don't think I've lost a step at all. If anything I'm better than I've ever been. I haven't kind of viewed that. Sometimes those thoughts do come up, but those are thoughts that have come up the first day I started an actually it was something that kept me from pursuing this for years and years. I felt like I was too old when I started back in 2003. I realized I've had these questions since day one. There is really no reason to have them. If I feel like I'm still improving or at least not declining, I'm still going to do this. And I still love it. If I didn't I wouldn't be doing this."
For those that haven't seen him compete yet, Ross gave his reasons for why you should tune in to Bellator Kickboxing's first show, which airs via delay on Friday April 22, 2016 at 11 p.m. ET on Spike TV, immediately following Bellator 153.
"Same thing everybody likes. I always put on exciting fights. I always go in there to make that my first priority. It's always to put on the best fights I can possibly put on. Above and beyond winning the fight, I want to put on an exciting fight. I might not fight the smartest way because of that, but when you leave after seeing me fight you know you got your money's worth. You know it's entertaining and you are going to want to see me fight again no matter what the actual results are. So, people can always take that to the bank that they got their money's worth. If you see me on the card you're not gonna want to miss it."