Jade Hayes first dreamed of excelling in professional sports when she was just a third grader.
While Hayes colored at her desk, her teacher asked the class what they aspired to be when they grew up. Some kids said they wanted to be astronauts; others wanted to be painters.
Young Jade, however, wanted to be something different – a professional athlete.
Fast forward almost 20 years, and Hayes – now 26 years old with two Muay Thai championships under her belt – will see her dream become reality Wednesday.
Hayes, who is part Filipino and has family from Visayas, makes her pro debut at the “Fight for Peace” event at the Resorts World Manila Newport Performing Arts Theater in the Philippines.
During training in San Francisco, Hayes told SFBay she is very excited to fight and believes she has already achieved a personal victory by taking such an opportunity:
“I’ve accomplished one of the goals I’ve wanted since I was eight – being a professional athlete – and that alone is a win in my book.”
Hayes’ eight amateur have all come by knockout. Her pro debut is scheduled against Chinese national Sanda champion Gong Yan Li (13-1).
Aware of the caliber of opponent, Hayes told SFBay that she expects a good, hard fight no matter what the result is:
“Just fighting with the amount of heart that I have now I think is going to really bring out a different side of me in the ring.”
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Jade Hayes honed her craft in Muay Thai – Thailand’s national combat sport – for eight-plus years at World Team USA on Ocean Avenue. She was introduced to the gym by Patti Teran after getting kicked out of high school for fighting.
Since then, her dedication both inside and outside the gym has been unquestionable.
A Bay Area native most of her life, the Pacifica-born Hayes now lives in Lake Tahoe and has been making three to six hour drives from Tahoe to San Francisco and back in recent weeks to prepare for her upcoming fight.
Fellow teammates Ky Hollenbeck and Robby Squyres Jr. are supporting Hayes in her return to the ring as she attempts to rebound from a disappointing loss in her last fight two years ago.
Hollenbeck told SFBay such dedication shows how ready and eager Hayes is to return to the ring:
“I can’t even imagine how much driving that is, but that shows you how badly she wants to fight – making that huge drive and huge sacrifice just to get here to train.”
When she’s not training, Hayes works as a recreation manager at Tahoe’s Resort at Squaw Creek after studying recreation and leisure studies at San Francisco State University.
Hayes said her responsibilities at work have made preparing for the fight more difficult than just the drive down from Tahoe:
“I’m running my own department and there’s a lot of expectations. I’m planning events and I’m hiring and I’m doing all of the things that a manager does. Being a professional athlete is a hobby on the side, which isn’t very easy. But if you want something bad enough, you do what it takes.”
Despite the demands of her day job, Hayes has fun engaging in various activities such as hiking, jogging and bike riding. While life in Tahoe has been amazing for her, she ultimately realized how much she missed fighting and decided to return to the gym to train.
Hollenbeck said Hayes’ training at World Team USA exemplifies her dedication to not just the team, but the art of Muay Thai:
“She really has that kind of faith in this gym, particularly. There are gyms in Tahoe she could go train at, but she knows that she gets the best training she could possibly get here at World Team. The family aspect keeps bringing her back, too.”
Hayes has been training under the tutelage of gym owner and head instructor Kru Sam Phimsoutham (“Kru” means teacher in Thai). He has also been like a father figure to her since her dad passed away in 2006.
Phimsoutham, who has produced over 40 world champions, told SFBay his bond with Hayes is mutual, since he has watched her blossom from the day she started training at the gym as a teenager:
“My goal is for her to be successful inside and outside of the ring, and I want to make sure that she’s happy – that’s the most important thing.”
Phimsoutham also said that training Hayes and his other students is rewarding because he considers it an art – molding them into respectable martial artists:
“They are representing me the minute that they step out this door and inside and outside of the ring. It’s about the character as a martial artist first. It’s not always about the fighting; it’s about the attribute of the martial art and making sure that they can be savages inside the ring, but civilized out in society.”
Hayes told SFBay that she is unsure where her life would be had it not been for the gym – let alone, training under Phimsoutham – and acknowledges him for helping shape her as a person:
“After our private lessons, we’ll sit down and a lot of times, he’ll talk to me and coach me for what I need. He never said verbatim, ‘Oh, I going to be a father figure.’ But he just took it upon himself to really be that person that I turn to in time of need.”
Hayes has been described by her World Team USA family as a natural and a beast inside the ring, as evident by her knack for fighting. While she is known for her ferocity inside the ring, her teammates recognize her loving and colorful personality outside it as well.
Hollenbeck considers her an awesome person and that she can light up an entire room with her personality:
“She’s one of the people that you keep coming back to the gym because of. She makes it fun to come to the gym.”
Squyres also acknowledged Hayes as influential, saying he incorporates her kindness whenever he trains a fellow student:
“When I first started four years ago, she was here and she was already a world champion. By that time, I already knew she was one of the people you have to look up to, so I kind of did. I took her kindness and I kind of implement it. So now that I instruct, I help out and do the same thing. I hold pads for people and just try to get them to that level.”
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Jade Hayes’ biggest inspiration to become a professional fighter came from her mother Gina Abrescy, with whom she has a very strong and close relationship.
As a child, Hayes thought it was cool hearing about her mom knocking people’s teeth out. Abrescy even instructed young Jade to deck somebody back if they hit her.
But she also told Jade to simply do her best in life – a value that Hayes told SFBay still sticks with her to this day:
“When I was younger, I took it as ‘You need to be the best. You need to be the best. You need to be better than everyone else.’ As I got older, I realized what she meant is I need to do my personal best. So that (is what) I’ve really been working on and everything that I do is giving it 110 to 120 percent.”
As she continues gaining recognition from fight fans for her fighting abilities and dedication to the sport, Hayes hopes to one day inspire younger girls to stand up and defend themselves:
“They don’t have to be something they’re not. Just for everyone to realize they don’t have to be something they’re not, I’d rather do that in and out of the ring than anything else.”
Hayes has experienced her share of highs and lows on the road to the “Fight for Peace” event, but she remains grateful for all the opportunities she’s been presented with. She said she is grateful for everybody who has supported her since day one – and didn’t give up on her after she gave up on herself:
“That was the hardest part about my loss. It wasn’t losing; it was giving up and I gave up since before the bell even rang. The fact that Kru doesn’t give up on me even when I give up on me, that my team doesn’t give up on me is fuel for me to succeed and go farther.”
Many words may be used to define Hayes as a fighter, but she told SFBay she simply defines herself as just being Jade:
“What defines me as Jade is that I’m genuine and I love what I do and I do it with my whole heart. Everything I do, I do with all my love – whether it’s fighting or running or working. When I get frustrated, I’m just a passionate person. So the ups and downs, peaks and valleys are very dramatic.”