At 5 feet 7, Brian Cleary is often outsized by his opponent in the boxing ring.
But physical strength is only one piece of the puzzle in Thai boxing, or muay Thai, the ancient martial arts form Cleary has studied for 15 years.
Even more important, Cleary said, is a sharp and focused mental game. At least for him, that has been the key to achieving success in a sometimes vicious martial arts form.
Cleary, 33, brings that same calm and steely disposition to his day job as a Tampa firefighter and paramedic. There, his opponent is the latest emergency — a fire, car accident or cardiac arrest that requires a similar fusion of physical and mental toughness.
Both firefighting and muay Thai depend on accuracy, speed and mental focus.
"When you're going in the ring, you can't be afraid and you can't be angry," he said. Those emotions can cause you to lose focus, which can cause you to lose a fight.
The same lessons, he said, translate on the job.
Now the New Tampa man is training in hopes of becoming a light middleweight champion.
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Cleary was a community college student visiting a gym near his home in Long Island, N.Y., when he learned about muay Thai.
He would travel two hours round trip for lessons. Muay Thai is known as the "art of eight limbs." Fighters are trained to use their fists, feet, knees and elbows as weapons.
In 1998, Cleary moved to Tampa to study at the University of South Florida. But soon after earning a degree in business administration, he decided an office job wasn't for him. He didn't want to wear a shirt and tie to work.
He sought out sparring partners for muay Thai, but the sport wasn't as popular in the Tampa Bay area as karate and tae kwon do.
So he saved his money until he could afford to go to the source, spending six weeks in Thailand in 2002 to train alongside professional fighters.
Muay Thai is that nation's football, and the young fighters are treated like rock stars. Cleary practiced with them seven hours a day, six days a week. At night, they all slept on mats on dusty floors.
In one fight there, he says, his opponent paid dearly for underestimating him. Cleary knocked him out in the fourth round.
"I just outlasted him," he said recently, in his usual matter-of-fact tone. "I surprised him."
After returning from his trip to Asia, Cleary decided to start teaching the craft in Tampa. He received the blessing of his Thai instructors, and their gym endorsement lent him credibility.
He worked as a personal trainer for a while before considering a career that was once on his "when I grow up" list.
Seven years ago, he joined Tampa Fire Rescue, where Lt. Tim Shuman has supervised him off and on ever since.
"He doesn't overlook anything or get excited and get tunnel vision and miss what he's doing," Shuman said, adding that he thinks discipline from muay Thai contributed to that.
In 2007, Cleary launched the Freestyle Muay Thai school in North Tampa, where he teaches classes for men, women and children on weekday evenings and Saturday mornings.
He still finds time to compete at least once or twice a year, amassing a 9-6 record. He is training for his next bout over Memorial Day weekend in St. Petersburg when several mixed martial arts duels are scheduled to take place. If he wins, Cleary said he will earn the title of state champion in the light middleweight muay Thai division.
Shuman has watched Cleary in the ring and says the sport is like nothing he has seen.
"The contact is a lot more intense," Shuman said. "The speed is a lot faster."
Cleary is on a fast track at the firehouse, too. He expects to be promoted to lieutenant by the end of the year.
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Joe W. Nuccio was driving down Busch Boulevard a few years ago when he spotted decals on Cleary's pickup truck advertising his business. Nuccio and a pal, Tim "Chip" Chipley, became two of Freestyle's first members.
When Cleary planned a return trip to Thailand in 2008, both men signed up to accompany him. Chipley was especially excited and spent weeks getting in shape for the rigorous workouts.
The weekend before they were scheduled to leave, he disappeared. He didn't show up for work, and his friends knew something terrible had happened.
When the flight to Bangkok departed on a Wednesday, the two men left without him.
Chip would not have wanted them to cancel the trip, they decided.
"We all kind of went with a heavy heart because he was really excited about going," Nuccio said.
They were in Thailand when they received the news: Chipley's body had been found in a pond near a Carrollwood apartment complex. He had been killed, a mystery that remains unsolved.
Today, Chip is the angel of Freestyle Muay Thai. "I consider him one of the founding members," Cleary said. "It was a team. He was family."
Now one of Freestyle's oldest members, Nuccio has watched the business grow and seen Cleary at work in the ring. "He knows what he's doing and he trusts his instincts," Nuccio said.
Cleary started the Kids Muay Thai program this year partly because he saw the potential benefits for his own children, Gabe, 9, and Trinity, 7.
He wants them to have the confidence to stand up to school bullies and the skills to defend themselves against predators.
During a recent session, Cleary tested the kids to ensure they had all mastered entry-level muay Thai skills.
"I've been working on my punches," Sammie Henjum, 9, said.
"I've been working on my double kicks," her 6-year-old brother, Zach, replied.
The students, all under 9, completed about half a dozen striking and kicking drills in two minutes. Then they turned around to do it all over again.
Cleary stood to the side and coached them.
"Pick it up, pick it up," he said. "Twist your body."
Afterward, Cleary doled out hugs, high-fives and satiny boxing shorts made in Thailand, their prize as official muay Thai beginning boxers.
Tia Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3405.