Meet the American “Kung Fu Panda” Fighting for a Muay Thai Title in Thailand
Told by Western promoters he didn't have "the look" they wanted, Steven Banks moved to a different continent, where his unique appearance was embraced.
This article was originally published on FIGHTLAND
Picture this: you're walking down a street in a beach town in Thailand. A large Westerner passes you. He is big, well over 6ft, and maybe 250 or 300 pounds. He's bald, his countenance somewhat intimidating, until he cracks a joke with his friends and breaks into a mischievous grin.
You might dismiss him as another foreign tourist. Maybe you assume he's here for beaches or bar girls, maybe he's just another fitness wannabe sampling a healthy lifestyle that he won't stick with when he leaves this cheap, tropical tourist destination.
If you saw him outside the context of a Muay Thai gym, you probably wouldn't suspect that he's a career fighter, or that this month he's fighting in one of Thailand's most prominent arenas for a WBC super heavyweight title. You wouldn't guess he used to be a cheerleader, or that he interned at funeral homes. You wouldn't know that his looks, which make it hard for him to find fights in the West, are what make him famous in the East.
There's a lot you would not know about Steven Banks if you saw him only in passing.
Raised on a farm in North Carolina and now living in tropical Thailand, Banks is a modern Renaissance man with a dozen identities. I met him last year at Phuket Top Team, where he trains as a sponsored fighter. A foot taller than many of the other fighters and trainers, he was hard to miss. He moved with unexpected speed and precision. The owner of the gym, Boyd Clarke, pointed him out to me and said he was famous in China.
Banks has been a sponsored fighter at Phuket Top Team since 2015, when Boyd Clarke saw him compete at a Kunlun Fight in China. Banks had lost that particular fight, but Clarke surmised he was just out of shape. Clarke learned that Banks was working 10-hour shifts as a doughnut delivery driver in the U.S. "It's hard to do that and be a world champion," Clarke told me, "so we offered to sponsor him." A few months later, in June 2015, Banks started his life in Phuket.
Steven Banks became a professional fighter almost by accident.
The interest started as a child, but the pursuit did not. As a child, his mother told him he'd probably become a martial artist some day. "It's because I was always kicking things," he told me. In his pre-teen years, young Steven often went out into the cow pasture and sought out the dust bag, a large burlap sack containing insecticide that cows rub against for relief from flies. Young Steven was happy to have found a bag to kick, "to give myself something to do." Little did he know that he was mimicking the behaviour of many rural Thai children half the globe away, who use sacks of rice as their own makeshift punching bags.
Despite his interest, he opted to pursue conventional sports such as football, and track and field. After college, his large physique brought him work as a bouncer at nightclubs, and it was a random episode of violence at his club that led him to pursue structured martial arts training.
It was about 10 years ago, when Banks was in his mid twenties, living in Cincinnati, Ohio. On one particular night at work, a fight broke out and Banks hit the ground, uncertain of what to do. Other bouncers quelled the fight, and Banks reflected on the value of training, at least for self-defence.
The MMA gym's training schedule was twice a week, Mondays and Tuesdays. At the end of his fourth session, Banks stood among the group of athletes as their coach prompted all who were planning to compete in a small local MMA promotion in two weeks' time to raise their hand. Thinking nothing of it, Banks kept his hand down. He'd trained only two weeks, way too soon to fight.
The coach noticed his inaction and asked why he didn't raise his hand.
"I don't know," Banks said, caught off guard.
"You're fighting in two weeks," the coach said definitively.
When the fight came, Banks had trained only eight sessions over one month. His opponent weighed in at about 350 pounds to Banks' 310, and was more experienced. "He had 20 wins, three losses, and one draw. There are some things you never forget," Banks told me with a laugh.
This first fight went by in a blur. His opponent, Michael Williams, threw a hard punch and busted Banks' nose. Some observers in the crowd later told Banks he was smiling at Williams when Williams hit him. They then saw Banks counter, backing Williams into the cage, overwhelming him with punches. Williams couldn't get out of range, and Banks threw a series of strikes that caught Williams. He rolled to the ground, and the ref called it.
Steven Banks had just won his first and only fight.
"As soon as it was over and I came out of the cage, I told my buddy who got me into this, 'Oh my god, I want to do this again. I need another one,'" he recalled to me.
In that instant, Banks' perspective on combat sports shifted – fighting and martial arts were no longer just hobbies or simply for self-defence, but the basis for a dream career. He maintained his day job as a doughnut delivery driver, and took fights whenever he could.
Finding fights on his own was difficult and often discouraging, but things improved when Banks connected with manager Billy Olson at a fight in China a few years into his career. This would not be the last time a chance meeting at a Chinese promotion would result in a windfall for Banks. A few years later, in 2015, Banks would meet Boyd Clarke in China, and that would set in motion his eventual relocation to Thailand.
Many of Banks' best fight-related memories are from China, and he has fought there about a dozen times. He loves China, he says openly. And it would seem that China, with its combat sports scene growing by leaps and bounds, loves him too. It was a Chinese announcer, after all, who christened him with his exalted, memorable, honourable (and slightly comical) fight name.
It happened at his first fight in Asia, in 2009. He was in Beijing, fighting for the Hero Legends promotion. Banks submitted his name and stats to the Chinese production crew. Behind the scenes, the Chinese emcee reviewed Banks' status, including his fight name, Lamb Chop, a nickname he'd garnered from his days as a bouncer.
"This isn't going to work," the announcer told him. Banks shrugged, kept his focus on the upcoming fight.
When Banks walked out to the ring, the announcer's voice boomed through the PA system, introducing the large American as, "Gong Fu Xiong Mao!"
The Chinese crowd erupted in cheers. Banks was taken aback. He hadn't understood his new fight name, or why it rallied the Chinese spectators to his side. They applauded loudly when the scores were tallied and the ref raised Banks' hand.
After the fight, Banks discovered that the insightful, marketing-savvy Chinese announcer had dubbed him Kung Fu Panda, named after the monstrously successful DreamWorks animated film released just the previous year. To some it might sound goofy, but for Banks, it was an honour. "I was always told that while you're in Asia, if they give you a nickname, that's what you go by, because it's a very respectful thing," he told me.
He has been Kung Fu Panda ever since.
Just like the animated franchise, Kung Fu Panda's fame in China grew. Chinese audiences turned out in droves to watch him fight. He played to their curiosity and their thirst for entertainment. He was known to laugh at his opponent in the middle of a fight, to smile and stick out his tongue, to wave and interact with the crowd. At the end of his fights, he often did the splits.
For Banks, fighting in Asia feels starkly different than in the West. "When I first started fighting [in the U.S.]," Banks said, "in a lot of places, they would always go, 'Oh, look at this fat guy. He's going to be a big, fat, slow slob.' But in Asia, it's completely different. They actually cheer you on. It doesn't matter what you look like. They just want to see a real show."
He has been recognised at Chinese airports, restaurants, and on the street. Even in Thailand, in his home gym of Phuket Top Team, Banks is occasionally spotted by Chinese fighters who have come to train. He views this attention with modest amusement. Once, at a sauna, he was greeted by a few Chinese fans who had seen his fights on TV. As Banks recalled to me, "They said, 'Oh my God, I can't believe you're here!' And I'm like, 'I can't believe you know who I am!'"
At times, his unexpected fame even overshadows his Thai counterparts. Renowned fighter Lerdsila Chumpaitour regularly fights in China, and often sees his name illuminated on fans' homemade signs. But when fighting on cards featuring Banks, the crowds in his photo-op line are noticeably sparser. "Kung Fu Panda is famous in China, even more famous than me!" Lerdsila told me with an easy laugh. "Everyone wanted pictures with him when we fought on the same card, and I said, 'Hey, I'm Lerdsila. Don't you want pictures with me?' No, they didn't."
Despite the adoration, Banks never claims to be a superstar. He is grateful to his Chinese fans and knows they're partially why he has this life. "I have met a real variety of fans: men, women, little kids, grannies. I've had a couple of them come up and gasp and say, 'It's the Panda! Panda! Panda!' The only reason I'm able to go [to China] is because they like me, so I'm okay with giving back any way I can."
When I ask him, half-jokingly because I already know the answer, if he likes China, he replies immediately, "I love China."
It's not just China he loves, but Thailand and the rest of the Asia he knows. And why wouldn't he? Asia has given him what many consider to be a dream lifestyle. Asia embraces him. Asia gives him the freedom and opportunity to be a serious fighter despite his unconventional appearance. It's something the West doesn't offer.
"In the States, in Europe, I've been told, 'Well, you're good enough, but you don't have what we're looking for.' I got told [recently] that I don't have the look their sponsors want to see."
Banks' non-traditional appearance garners him a special fan base: other would-be fighters who also don't have "the look." One woman contacted Banks last year for advice on diet and training, specifically because of Banks' size. She told him she hadn't expected someone of his size to put himself out there and pursue such a career. Banks later learned that the woman reached out to him because she identified with him. She too was on the larger side.
It's hard not to identify with at least some aspect of Kung Fu Panda. So much of his story resonates with so many: his unlikely origins, facing rejection, finding acceptance, making a new home in the community of his choice. And dealing with bullies.
"Ever been made fun of?" I asked the imposing Banks, as we ate lunch at a Thai café.
"I've been made fun of my whole life," he said. "[People] all say, we've got to stop bullying. But bullying will never stop, because people still support bullies in one way or another."
Since his adolescence as a self-labelled fat kid, Banks has had much practice dealing with bullies. I cannot imagine anyone in his or her right mind picking a fight with this super heavyweight about to compete for a title belt, but Banks assured me it sometimes happens. "That's one of the reasons I don't like going to bars," Banks said.
Like many people who veer outside the cultural or physical norm, Banks has been dealing with bullies since he was a child. Some could argue that Banks, in his pursuit of non-conventional activities in a relatively conservative area of the U.S., brought the negative attention onto himself. For example, football is a socially safe pursuit for a man growing up in the American South, whereas cheerleading is probably not. Banks did both.
A man of his stature would be a natural pick for American football, and Banks played all four years at college. However, in the off-season, Banks cheered at basketball games. Initially, when the cheer coach approached him about joining the squad, he refused. But she persisted, told him to come to camp and give it a shot. Banks acquiesced, and learned how to be the base. Turns out he loved it.
When I asked if he and the squad were respected around campus, Banks laughed good-naturedly and said, "No, they made fun of us." Banks thus developed a stock of comebacks. "Oh, it's so gay you're doing cheerleading," was a common putdown, to which Banks would reply with the male-to-female ratio at cheer camps: fifty men, five hundred women.
Banks may have loved cheer and football, but the pursuits took their toll on his body. He sustained a torn-out shoulder, dislocated collarbone, broken nose, and chipped tooth (mostly from cheerleading). The worst he's suffered from his fight career are cuts above his eyes – standard injuries for a Muay Thai fighter – and a broken hand.
Football, track and field, cheerleading, martial arts... "You've been an athlete your whole life, it sounds," I remark.
"Even though you say you were known as the fat kid."
It seemed incongruous. Banks is still an athlete, even if he does not present the archetypal image of one to the world. At first glance, it's easy to dismiss him as a clunky giant with little body control, a large man who wins fights simply by throwing his weight around. But seeing him spar and train and fight, and exploring his athletic background, one forms a new image of this Panda man, and he becomes even more perplexing.
I asked him once if he had seen the Kung Fu Panda movies, and whether he identified with the panda character Po. He'd seen only the first movie. About his similarities with Po, he said, "We do love food, and we won't quit."
And now this American Kung Fu Panda will take on a Thai champion. It's a first for Banks, who has never faced a Thai opponent (much less a Thai champion). When Banks first got word he was being offered a title fight against a Thai champion at Rajadamnern Stadium, he felt as if he were a football player whose team had just qualified for the Superbowl. To fight in Rajadamnern was a dream he never considered possible due to his weight class.
But on 23 February, Steven Banks will enter the ring with Benz RSM, a trainer and fighter from Bangkok's Rajadamnern Singha Muay Thai Academy. Benz is the current WBC Super Heavyweight Champion, at 118kg (260 pounds) and 1.9m (about 6"3'). Banks himself is only one inch taller and a mere 15 pounds heavier, and is currently ranked third in WBC.
For Banks, the significance is phenomenal: "It's a fight for the WBC title, against a Thai, in the oldest Muay Thai stadium in the world. And everyone knows what that pretty green belt is."
Still, Banks' main concern seems not to be winning the belt, but rather having a good fight. "I want [Benz] to come in the best shape of his life. I want to fight the best, because I want to be the best."
Despite being in his mid thirties, soon to fight a Thai champion who is barely in his twenties, Banks is undaunted by age. He does not definitively state when he will stop fighting. He is not bound by a rigid number of fights he wants to achieve, or a certain belt he wants to display in a trophy case. "I may wake up one day and say, 'You know, I don't want to do this no more,' and I may walk away."
And as for Kung Fu Panda's post-Muay Thai career? Steven Banks has only six more work hours until his mortician internship is completed. Just as his interest in martial arts, Banks' interest in the burial industry has been with him since he was a child. "You know when they ask you what you want to be when you grow up? When I was in second or third grade, I said I want to be the guy who buries dead people. And of course, everyone's like, 'What's wrong with him?' And my comment, in second grade, was, 'Well, somebody's got to do it.'" Little Steven was sent to counselling, and brushed it off as "trying to be an ass."
Mortician internship duties included retrieving bodies, participating in funerals, embalming, and studying eco-friendly burial. "One of the main reasons [I'm interested in this industry] is because there have been two professions that have been around the world since the beginning of time: mortician and prostitution. Don't think I have the look for a prostitute."
Perhaps his familiarity with the funerary industry helps spur him into a fuller life. Like many athletes, Steven Banks is conscious of the inevitable end to a fight career, a way of life that relies so heavily on the fickle strength of a human body. For Banks, it's imperative to live while he can. "I am 35, so I hear a lot of people ask, 'Why do you still do what you do?' Well, why not? Why get a house and a mortgage payment and a wife and kids and be in debt for years? Why wait until I'm 65 to see the world?"