For many fans of action and martial arts cinema, the Thai movie Ong Bak was groundbreaking as much as it was bone-breaking.
A breakout movie for the impish Tony Jaa, the movie featured actual physical contact with acrobatic stunts that were free from any wirework, prevalent in Hong Kong movies and later seen in Hollywood productions such as The Matrix (which utilized legendary fight choreographer, Yuen Woo Ping). Along with the introduction of a very traditional variation of Muay Thai called Muay Boran, the movie served as a reintroduction to Thai cinema with not so subtle hints littered throughout the movie – all of which were directed at Hollywood heavyweights such as Spielberg.
Amongst all of the antagonists in the film, the one opponent that quickly became a fan-favourite was that of ‘Big Bear’, played by Australian martial arts champion, Nick Kara.
Known as ‘Special K’, this Aussie appeared to the biggest threat to Jaa’s hero, as compared to the other fighters he was easily the largest and most imposing. With a more hulking physique decked out in black attire, Kara’s aggressive and belligerent persona Big Bear illustrated his character as a more fearsome brawler type.
And perhaps somewhat exaggerated for cinematic effect, his no holds barred villain stood out amongst the selection of foes – with an unrefined combat style that in reality a polar opposite to his real life competitive kickboxing style.
Indeed where Ong Bak is concerned there was a series of contradictions, when it came to Nick Kara. In the film he is a rude belligerent Australian, that is quick to temper as well as quick to insult the country’s national sport.
Yet like any smart actor, Kara’s portrayal as a merciless brawler was nothing like the man in real life. In reality, Nick Kara is a lethal fighter with real combat pedigree; but is also a dedicated family man, decorated champion and well respected amongst his peers. Ong Bak’s story was deliberately simplistic, a formulaic good vs. bad, purity in the hero and absolute corruption in the villains; but this deliberateness simply existed to showcase incredible skills of Tony Jaa who is now making waves in Hollywood.
When it comes to the villains, Nick Kara’s character stood out amongst a bevy of underground fighters. His Big Bear resembled an egotistical bouncer, though more of an exaggerated caricature that was quick to violence.
Though Nick’s martial arts expertise was honed by his primary style of Muay Thai, his character was afforded little opportunity to show off his moves – instead given his size and how he towered over the diminutive Jaa, he was presented as a mountain of fearsome aggression and brutality. In many ways he is the quintessential martial artist in the more traditional sense, having honed his lethal striking expertise in The Science of Eight Limbs.
Making the pilgrimage to Thailand in 1996, Nick spent an extensive period refining his technique, having trained with some of the true legends of the sport which include (but are not limited to) K1 champions like Peter Aerts and Jason Suttie, and fellow Aussie Stan ‘The Man’ Longinidis. Evidently the most dedicated of fighters will commit to Siam, as it was once known, braving the tropical climate and an environment completely foreign to anyone from a homogenous western nation like Australia.
The decision to train in Thailand, had certainly served him well if you view his prior ring fights, Nick is a true force to be reckoned with. His opponents are under subject to constant pressure from him, his clinical aggression prevented any counter measures from them – they’d eat a barrage of lightning fast leg kicks, a set of blinding punch combinations, and decimated by a high round kick to the face.
That is, if they could withstand the leg kicks which Nick would throw in quick succession, the power of the punishing low Thai round kicks yet with the speed and agility of a Korean kicker. You’d almost feel sorry for his rivals, but the extent of Nick’s arsenal was so stylish and fun to watch it was satisfying to see him destroy each opponent with such clinical precision.
Yet even as a true showman, Nick would grin at his opponent, perhaps to unsettle them, he’d throw out a jab, dart back and the do a running low kick that would topple over his rival.
As a fighter he was notable for including such quirks of psychological warfare, goading his opponent to predictably throw an attack without considering Nick’s own counter measures. His skills in the ring afforded him various titles including (but not limited to) VABL State Boxing Champion, WKBF State Kickboxing Champion, WKBF Australian Champion ISKA Australian Kickboxing Champion and WMTA World Thaiboxing Champion.
As an effective striker, it is no wonder that he was cast in Ong Bak; though as noted above, the one minor critique is that the movie did not showcase Nick’s own unique striking that made him famous in the ring.
These days, Nick is the Director of FIGHTFIT BOXING CENTRE in Collingwood, Melbourne (Australia) operating this boutique fitness centre and dojo for a large clientele. This dedicated businessman is also a devoted family man, who is as much as enthusiastic husband and father as he is a fight coach. Standing well over 6 feet, he somewhat resembles a young Michael Douglas with shades of Tom Berenger or even James Remar- that is to say if one of these 80s actors possessed lethal striking ability.
I had the opportunity to sit down with the champion known as Special K and the character known as Big Bear to exchange some striking thoughts.
Nick Kara thank you for your time today, can you tell me how you first got involved in martial arts, specifically Thai Boxing?
At a young age I always wanted to do karate and started at primary school for a short time. But when I turned thirteen, I started Zen Do Ki karate, I actually started Thai boxing later on in life but we started using the thigh kicks (through Zen Do Ki) when I was seventeen or eighteen years old.
Was the move to Thailand prompted by as means of enhancing your skills or more to immerse yourself in the origins and culture associated with Muay Thai?
I started to travel to Thailand around the year 1996 to better my skills in the art of Muay Thai.
How long did it take to really become accustomed to the Thai lifestyle, especially given that you had grown up and spent most of your formative life in Australia?
I started to become accustomed to the Thai life more and more each trip. I moved there around the year 2000 for four years then moved back there in the year 2008 for ten years.
In martial arts circles, you are known for your striking expertise can you explain your approach to combat?
I’m known for my striking because I was good at it (laughs) and I really love doing what I do and even more when I started to teach it as a trainer.
Many readers of FCS would fondly remember Big Bear in Ong Bak, can you talk us through how your cast in this role and what it was like working on a feature film?
Well the gym I was at was called the ISS gym in Pattaya and my trainer from that gym was Sifu Robert McGinness. He sent me to BKK to do a casting for a role in a movie as they were looking for a big guy to fill that role. I’ve never done any casting before and didn’t know what to expect to be honest. When I got there they tried to explain what they wanted to see and I nailed it in the end . The role suited me (laughs) We trained for seven days then filmed for three days from memory. It was a great experience and long days.
What was the transition like from being a legitimate full contact fighter to a film fighter? Was the greater challenge remembering the complex choreography or not striking with full power?
I was fine with the transition because I know how to pull my punches and kicks back from always sparring lighter guys in Thailand so I was sweet with the fight scene.
One of the interesting bits of trivia is that you wore a protective helmet (Stack-Hat) disguised under a mop of long hair for Jaa’s finishing elbow move; was the force of this move such that the precaution was needed?
Well Tony Jaa actually hit me so hard that he broke the Stackhat (laughs)! That scene took a few scenes to get it right too so it was quite painful but I didn’t mind as I’m used to pain which helped that’s for sure.
What martial art films are the ones you specifically enjoy and why?
ENTER THE DRAGON and all the other Bruce Lee movies he did. BLOODSPORT was a great film for us youngsters to watch.
You also featured in the documentary ‘Journey to the 100 Man Fight: The Judd Reid Story’, can you tell us about your involvement in this movie?
Judd Reid is an absolute machine and a fantastic bloke. I helped Judd in the mornings with the hill sprints and some of his conditioning / sparring at the gym. What a true legend of the sport and as a person.
You made a conscious effort to step away from movies, but given the resurgence of old school action movies, are you interested in returning to film?
I stepped away from the movies in Bangkok (BKK) because I wanted to focus on my training. Hey if a role came up I would jump on it that’s for sure.
Given your size and stature, were there any offers from any of the wrestling promotions in Japan such as NJPW? Could you see yourself making a transition into the more scripted fight realm of sports entertainment?
No, nothing was offered in wrestling or anything else like that. I stopped ringing the casting agent and went back to Pattaya to live and train. Maybe I should’ve stuck it out in BKK and kept pushing it. I was in the Jackie Chan movie THE TWINS EFFECT as a vampire but they ran out of time on set and had to head back to Hong Kong. They were meant to come back to Bangkok to finish our scenes but they never did. I was in meant to be in another movie (I can’t recall the name) but I walked of set because the director was rude and very disrespectful and I’m not putting up with any of that EVER. Did a few commercials too for Toyota, Pepsi and a couple of others and that was it.
You’re the Director of FIGHT FIT in Melbourne, can you tell me what is it like to operate in the realms of a coach and mentor to a new breed of fighters? What is the most important lesson that you seek to impart to your students?
I’m the owner of FIGHT FIT BOXING CENTRE in Collingwood (Melbourne, Australia). I’m loving this new stage of my life. I’ve always wanted to open a gym but I was loving overseas and just wasn’t the right time. But now it is. The gym is going fantastic. Great atmosphere, members and our trainers are amazing. We have forty-two boxing bags, two full size rings and heaps of cardio machines and weights. We have boxing, kickboxing, strength and conditioning classes too. I LOVE THIS SHIT! (laughs) Nothing beats hard work and we are here to help everyone reach their goals. I have a few fighters coming up to. Come and check us out.
For more information on Nick Kara or to contact him, you can reach him via:
*This interview has been updated to address the correct location of Nick Kara’s gym in the last answer.