FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — There are few aspects of martial arts fighting that Jerome Wilson hasn't learned in the past two decades.
The 45-year-old specializes in Muay Thai, a sort of kickboxing combat sport developed in Thailand, and he's been a trainer at gyms from Richmond to Washington. He's made it his life's work to help others get more proficient at fighting in the ring, and he's still honing his own fighting skills.
Wilson and his wife Tania own DCB MMA & Athletic training on Wolfe Street in Fredericksburg.
Wilson was once a professional fighter and occasionally inquires about opportunities to compete in matches. But the typical response is that he's a little older than the fighters they're looking for.
On a lark last August, he submitted a video of his fights to a group putting together a reality show in Thailand called "Underdog."
Details about the show were somewhat hazy, though it was clear it would be a competition where dozens of fighters from around the world would train and fight in Muay Thai in Bangkok.
Months went by, and Wilson said he totally forgot about the submission, as his attention was focused largely on keeping his training center above water during the COVID-19 pandemic. It took extra work and quick pivoting to find ways to train customers online or give instruction outside on mats under tents.
On Jan. 5, Wilson checked his phone and spotted a message that said "Underdog Fight Series: You're selected!"
It took him a few seconds to realize he'd made the cut and would join fighters in June to train and film while competing for a cash prize.
Knowing that training to get back into fighting shape would be an effort that would affect his family, Wilson gathered his wife and two teenage kids, Morgan and Isis, to see what they thought.
"I wanted them to know what it would take and to see how they felt about it," said Wilson. "They all told me to go for it, though my son had one condition: I couldn't go on TV with what he called a 'Dad Body.'"
That won't happen, as Wilson has been working out and training extensively since January, dropping from 206 pounds to just over 170.
He's been running and lifting weights in a way that creates muscle without losing flexibility. And for months, he's been eating more sardines, Swiss chard and raw vegetables than he thought was possible.
Training in his home gym complete, he recently left for Bangkok. Thailand protocols require people coming into the country to quarantine in a hotel room for two weeks. Filming and fighting start around June 1.
He said details about how it all will work have been in short supply, to the point that he doesn't know exactly how the competition will work. Or he's not allowed to say because of secrecy required by the reality show.
But he does know the show will be a mix of fighting, training and the fighters getting to know each other as they all live in a training center.
"I know we're getting paid to fight, and that we will all stay until it's all over, and that we can't share anything about how the competition goes until it's all over," said Wilson, who noted that the show will be streamed, though it won't necessarily be live. "The language in the fights can get a little salty, so streaming on-demand probably makes sense."
Those interested in viewing or following the competition can visit the underdog fight website. It's not clear there how to watch episodes, but there are links for more information on the site.
Wilson said he's honored to be taking part in a competition in the martial arts style that he's focused on in the country where it originated.
"I'm just excited to be taking part, to be included in this interesting competition," he said.
Wilson describes himself as a "counter-fighter," who coaxes opponents into moves he can respond to in ways that help him win. But he said there's no glossing over the fact that the kickboxing style has taken a toll on his body, and will continue to. Fighting has left him with arthritis in many joints, and he said it typically takes him a few minutes each morning to get his body to move. Years of delivering—and receiving—blows from elbows, knees, hands and feet will do that.
"There's nothing that hurts quite like taking a foot to the body, back or head," he said.
Although he thinks he has another five years of competition ahead of him, Wilson now has other things to concentrate on. One of them is helping to train his son, and there is the gym, which he credits his wife for making a success.
"At one point we were up to a customer base of about 150 in both kickboxing and fitness, and were hoping to get to 200 in this space," he said of the building that was once a car-repair business. "COVID has been tough, but we're hoping to get back on that sort of trajectory."
He hopes the reality show will provide its own boost, noting that it's already done that for him personally, both in terms of training and his outlook on life.
"To be in Thailand fighting in the Muay Thai that originated there, is really special to me," he said. "Doing well in the fighting would only add to that."