By Leah Jones, Features Editor
Daniel Isaac describes himself as a father, husband, pastor, humanist, spiritualist, follower, and teacher, among other things. “Quite a few hats,” he said. “But I think it’s possible for everyone to wear different hats but have the same focus… I think 100 percent dedication to what you do will take you to the pinnacle.”
One of Isaac’s hats is also as a kickboxing instructor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Recreation and Wellness Center, though he said that he is trained in 15 forms of martial arts. His cardio kickboxing class, offered on Mondays from 7 to 8 p.m. features high-energy music and alternates between cardio intervals and basic punches and kicks.
Isaac focuses on form in his classes; students roll into a standing position without their hands, stand in orthodox and southpaw fighting stances, and punch straight out in front of them. “I have seen that a lot of the people who are teaching cardio kickboxing… but their form is wrong,” Isaac said. “That’s transferring to the students and [they are] wasting energy.” Isaac’s path to UMSL, though, has not been as straight as the jabs that he teaches.
Isaac grew up in India, where the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) scene is much less prevalent than it is in the United States. However, as a third generation martial arts instructor, he has always been embedded in the martial arts community. In 1999, Isaac opened Tiger’s Gym, India’s first MMA training center. Isaac said that he used his philosophical stance as a pastor to redirect youth from the street into the gym. “We had quite a few guys who were street fighters and then they channeled their energy to become professional fighters,” Isaac said. “I used to take these fighters all over the country and soon all over the world, fighting as professionals.”
In 2012, Raj Kundra, a British-born wealthy businessman, walked into Isaac’s gym. The two discovered that they shared the same birthday, September 9, 1975. Isaac said, “And for some reason we kind of clicked and we became best friends…So he hired me as the CEO of his company…the Super Fight League.”
Isaac worked as the CEO for several years, training fighters and producing about 23 different shows on national television. However, Isaac drove three hours each day between Mumbai and his home-city of Nashik. He said “It reached a point in my life where I had no family life… I have two beautiful daughters and a wife.”
In 2014, Isaac visited St. Louis for the first time. While visiting a friend who also teaches martial arts, Isaac met with an immigration lawyer, who told Isaac that it is difficult for an Indian to obtain residency in the U.S. However, in an X-Men-esque twist, the lawyer informed Isaac about an EB1 visa, which would allow Isaac into the country as an Alien with an Extraordinary Ability. The visa has strict criteria, requiring applicants to present three forms of evidence (out of a possible 10), which demonstrate their extraordinary accomplishments. “Anyone who has done something substantial in their field, they can get an EB1 Visa…professors, Nobel Peace prize [winners], entertainers, Bollywood actors,” he said. Isaac also pointed out that Korean Pop sensation Psy, who released the song “Gangnam Style,” entered the U.S. on an EB1 Visa.
So, Isaac applied as an Alien with an Extraordinary Ability and was granted residency in the U.S. The visa also allowed him to bring his family. “If I stayed back in India, I would continue to be the MMA King,” Isaac said, “But [I would have] no family life.” Isaac also stated that he hoped that his wife and daughters would have more opportunities available to them. “I realized…if I [made] the move here, my daughters, my wife, they [could] start a life,” he said.
When Isaac and his family arrived in the U.S. though, Isaac said that he did not have a job offer, a place to live, or a car. Despite these obstacles, Isaac said, “We made the move, contacted some friends, got a little apartment, [and] bought a car. It’s been an adventure, driving on the opposite side of the road, [and] the steering on the opposite side of the car.” In addition, Isaac’s wife also just got a job as a personal trainer at UMSL.
Though he is no longer the “MMA King,” Isaac said that he wanted to move to the U.S. and “start from scratch, just be an instructor, no CEO, none of that…This is what I love doing. I love teaching.” In the long-term, Isaac said that he would love to see UMSL become a cardio kickboxing headquarters, where instructors come to train on proper form.
Martial arts tones not only students’ bodies, but their minds and spirits as well, according to Isaac. “Martial arts is all about surprising your mind, not just your muscle,” he said. “With weights and with exercise, you’re surprising your muscles. With martial arts you’re surprising your mind, and through that you’re uniting body, mind, spirit together, with the focus of what you’re doing.” He also said that it helps students to de-stress so that they can focus on their studies and feel more confident.
The students in his classes seem to agree with him. Samantha Sansom, freshman, business administration said, “Every time I come… I feel like I can just fight anyone. I feel strong and motivated to do anything; do calculus homework. I feel motivated to do my calculus homework.”
Ethan O’Connor, freshman, communication, said, “It’s a lot of work, but its super rewarding. When I got here and we started doing stuff, I was super exhausted, like halfway through with the warm-ups, but now that I’m… done, I feel good about myself. I’m like ‘I did some exercise today.’ It makes me want to come back here more and do it again.”
“I believe there are a lot of things in life that we don’t want to try… [due to] bias,” Isaac said. “I’d like all those who are reading to try new things in life, because that’s the spice of life. Variety. You’re only going to be here for a little while, so try everything out and there might be so many things that you might enjoy and like. Making the move from India to the U.S. was a surprise, it was a leap of faith, but…we tried it out. It was difficult… Try something new, take a step out, take a leap of faith sometimes, and life will be more fun.”
If you would like to give Isaac’s class a try, he teaches kickboxing from 6 to 7 p.m. and cardio kickboxing from on Mondays from 7 to 8 p.m. in Studio 1 at the Recreation and Wellness Center.
Visit his Facebook page at facebook.com/kickboxingcoach/.