Knocked down to knockout: Model Mia Kang used Muay Thai to find new respect for her body

Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated

Model Mia Kang struggled with eating disorders and body dysmorphia before discovering Muay Thai, which taught her to take care of her body.

Like anyone whose whole is greater than the sum of her parts, Mia Kang doesn't quite compute. Model on the rise? OK. Finance whiz? Sure, throw it on the pile. Black eyes, bruises and lots of sweat? Wait, what?

The 28-year-old half-South Korean, half-British beauty made waves this year when she graced the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in the annual publication's rookie class. But what has turned more heads than her statuesque 5-foot-10 frame is her work in the ring. In early May, "Killa" Kang fought and won her first professional Muay Thai fight in Thailand, and by TKO, no less.

For the curvy, muscular bombshell, it was a beautiful milestone on a long and tortuous road.

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As a middle-schooler growing up in Hong Kong, Kang was anything but an athlete. "I was the kid that was trying to get out of PE class and hated sports and was very unfit," Kang says. When things got difficult at home, the tween ate her feelings, piling on weight until her doctor, concerned about diabetes, intervened. Unfortunately, warning her about the disease was as far as he went, and Kang was left to her own devices to figure out how to lose weight.

"I didn't know, and what I saw was effective was not eating," she says. "So that's what I did. I just stopped eating. It worked."

By "worked," she means she halved her weight through voluntary starvation, purging and using laxatives. By her early teens, the pounds were gone, but she was deep in the grips of body dysmorphia. When the newly thin Kang was discovered by a modeling agent at 13, the pressure only intensified. Within a couple of years she was modeling professionally, and has been working in the industry since. Kang's only hiatus from modeling took place in her late teens through early 20s, when she earned a master's degree in finance and financial law at the University of London. She also pursued commodities trading and derivatives consulting.

Despite a laundry list of achievements, her self-loathing only intensified, and Kang became more ensconced in her disordered eating habits. After eating, she "punished" herself by hitting the gym. Every ad in a magazine -- magazines she was featured in, no less -- was a reminder that her thighs weren't thin enough or her collarbone didn't protrude enough.

"I was very young and very impressionable, and I was thrown headfirst in an industry I wasn't prepared for," she says. "I wasn't mature enough, and I didn't have any guidance, either."

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Photo by Bennett Raglin/WireImage via Getty Images

Mia Kang was featured in the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in 2017.

In 2016, Kang added another accolade to her portfolio, winning Sports Illustrated's Model Search and earning a spot in the 2017 Swimsuit Issue. By any measure, she'd proved she was a force to be reckoned with. But between work and her struggles with her body, she was burned out entirely. She sought refuge in the way of a 10-day retreat to her family's vacation home in Thailand.

There, daily drives to and from her house brought her past one of the country's many Muay Thai gyms. Having been exposed to the popular and brutal version of kickboxing -- an art that uses punches, kicks, knees and elbows -- by a former trainer, she peeked in for a closer look.

Something struck her -- and stuck. She took one class, and then another. Her trainers told her she had talent, and that she should take the combat sport more seriously. "So I did," she says. "I started training twice a day, and then I really got obsessed with the technique."

A 10-day vacation turned into nine months in Thailand, during which Kang trained alongside seasoned fighters, lived in the gym and learned how to treat her body with respect for the first time. Nervous about the number of calories she had to consume to fuel her workouts, Kang stuck to salads at first. But her trainers soon convinced her that lettuce does not a warrior make; without properly feeding herself, she'd never make progress in the punishing sport.

Taking a cue from her coaches and fellow combatants, she slowly began increasing her intake and watched her workouts yield results. The swimsuit model packed 20 to 25 pounds onto her once-slight frame, climbed from size 2 or 4 to a size 6 -- and celebrated her newfound strength.

"In training, you get thrown around, and you get beaten up and thrown on your ass," she says. "And you have to stand back up and dust yourself off and shake [your opponent's] hand. You learn to check your ego at the door." In that way, it's the exact opposite of the modeling world, but Kang prefers to see the two going hand in hand -- ego and humility, physical beauty and technical prowess.

Can't wait to be back in the ring.

A post shared by Mia Kang (@missmiakang) on

Six months into her training, Kang took inspiration from a local fight and decided she wanted to actually compete. "I was watching a match between two girls, and something inside me, I'm not sure what, made me turn to my trainers and say, 'I can do that. I can do that, and I want to do that,'" she says. Soon, she'd attracted the notice of a local promoter and called her agent to deliver the exciting news: She was going to fight.

"She said, 'You have the Sports Illustrated red carpet in two weeks. You're absolutely not going to have a fight.'"

Kang would dutifully defer to her agent on that one, but she soon shuffled her schedule around to accommodate her first pro bout in Thailand last month. It's been like that ever since -- a push and pull between modeling and the bruising, decidedly non-runway world of fight training. There are those on either side who'd like to see her commit fully to one. For now, modeling wins, as she still considers it her full-time career. So when she can't afford a black eye, she takes a break from the ring.

But with new fights on the horizon in Thailand and the U.S., she's increasingly willing to pay the aesthetic price for a chance at another knockout.

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Kang, or rather "Killa," who hit the SI red carpet and would subsequently model bikinis for Sports Illustrated, was changed both mentally and physically. Those closest to her, including her incredulous-at-first agent, were happy to have her back and healthy, regardless of the weight.

"I think everybody around me knew what kind of a bad state I was in before I left for Thailand, and knew how unhappy and honestly how sick I was," she said. 

For those who don't get it, well, Kang has learned to tune them out and listen to her instincts. "I fully understand that I look different from every other model, and people in the fashion and entertainment industries aren't used to that," she says. "But I stand firm in what I believe in, and I try to keep it authentic. I don't want to spend any more of my life trying to conform the industry's standard of beauty."

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