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Warrior for the People: BPR Interviews Thomas Evans

Thomas Evans was born and raised in Central Falls, Rhode Island and is striving to give back to his community by running for City Councilman at Large. He is a sixth degree black belt in Kenpo karate and founder of the not-for-profit United Community Martial Arts Institute of Rhode Island. His organization focuses on providing martial arts and fitness instruction to low-income families in and around Central Falls. Evans is also Founder and President of not-for-profit media outlet, Regional Fight Sports (RFS), which provides free media coverage of New England combat sports. RFS’ mission is to promote higher education readiness among young combat athletes, including offering advising and awarding scholarships. A professional combat fighter himself, Evans is on a win streak in his MMA career. This interview is published in memoriam of Thomas Evans’ devoted mother, Carol Evans, who passed away unexpectedly shortly after this interview was conducted. Mrs. Evans courageously battled through multiple medical conditions to be present for her granddaughter Leila’s most formative years. She welcomed visitors to her son’s martial arts academy every night, a cherished presence by the school’s children especially, for well over a decade. Her loss is deeply felt throughout the community. Thomas Evans has since stated that her warrior spirit inspires him to continue to excel in all he does, and never give up.

Thomas Evans and his mother Carol

Amelia Spalter: You’ve been in the martial arts for nearly 25 years, how did you first become involved and what has kept you committed for all this time?

Thomas Evans: Believe it or not, one of the reasons I became a full-time martial artist, and eventually a professional full-contact fighter, is that I was pronounced dead at birth, and once revived, underwent open heart surgery. I was born with a heart condition called transposition of the great arteries. One of the most prominent side effects was that I would almost certainly never be able to participate in contact sports. My biggest thing growing up was to prove that wrong, and demonstrate for myself as much as everyone else, that I could overcome any obstacle that was put in front of me. I carried that with me into my adult life as well, even after overcoming this heart condition and all associated physical challenges.

None of it would have been possible without my parents, though. They always made a point to be positive role models and to push me to put everything I had into bettering myself and my community. It was a long road from being pronounced dead to undergoing the health tests necessary to fight in a cage, but I passed them with flying colors, and went on to be successful at the professional level. I’ll be forever grateful for that opportunity, and for my mother, Carol Evans. She never let me give up and her unwavering strength and support made me into the person capable of beating such extreme odds.

AS: What unique advantages will your background as a professional fighter afford you in serving as an elected official?

TE: Fighting is the ultimate challenge. You are forced to overcome even the toughest obstacles, because they are placed in front of you there and now. You have to learn to adapt under pressure and make wise decisions to stay safe in the ring. Those lessons and skills translate directly into my personal life daily and will be prominently displayed in my run for the city council of Central Falls. We in elected office are going to be regularly faced with extremely tough decisions, and we’ll have to act quickly and decisively, just like a fighter in the ring. I have the ability to be in control of fast-paced situations and navigate around immediate obstacles thanks to my experience as a professional fighter, and I will utilize all of those skills to keep the residents of our city, my own daughter among them, safe and prosperous.

AS: How has your time as a professional fighter conditioned you to cope with adversity?

TE: In 2014 I was signed by the largest profession Muay Thai organization in America. I had the opportunity to fight a six-time world Muay Thai champion, and it was no easy task. I ultimately lost that fight. But despite the outcome, I performed well, and was given the opportunity to sign a three-fight contract with Lion Fight Muay Thai. I was about to have my first child at that time, my daughter Leila, so I was faced with an incredibly tough choice. I had to decide whether it was in her best interest for me to continue pursuing professional fighting or to transition to a less physically demanding profession. I sat down and thought it through with her mother and concluded that it was a great opportunity for not only me, but for the growth of my martial arts community organization, my personal growth, and all other aspects of my life as a whole.

I took a second fight and was knocked out, violently, in the first round. I came out of the cage with a concussion and broken jaw. This outcome made me question all the decisions I had ever made leading up to that, not only in my capacity as a fighter, but in all other areas of my life. I went into a state of depression for a very long time.

However, I am a full-time martial arts instructor. That’s my calling, that’s my number one job, because it provides me an outlet through which to inspire the youth in my community. The foundation on which I try to lead is that I always tell my students to never give up. So I knew, once and for all, I would have to face my demons by getting back in the ring and overcoming the fear and doubt I had allowed to fester because of a single mistake in the ring. Fortunately, I was able to train through that adversity. It took me a little bit of time. I focused on other things, like my career and my family. But I was then able to come back with Lion Fights in 2018 and win by knock out in the first round.

AS: You retired on national television, but have returned to win two more fights since then. What happened?

TE: Once I accomplished overcoming such a difficult period in my life, I thought I was done. I retired in the ring, in front of the press, immediately after winning the fight. It was an incredibly emotional moment for me. Then, a few months later, I was training to run the New York Marathon in my mother’s honor to support her as she ferociously battled type one diabetes. She is a very sick woman, but she never allows that to stop her, and that will always be a limitless source of motivation and inspiration for me to do anything, even run a marathon. So when I got a phone call that another fighter had dropped out and they needed an opponent to complete a match in just nine days, I accepted. I felt like I was in good enough shape, I knew I was in a better place mentally, and if my mother could battle all the sicknesses she was going through and still come into my school every day, this was nothing. So, I won that fight as well.

AS: How does being a caretaker to your elderly parents and a father to a young daughter impact your strategy for coping with the long-term concerns of the city’s youth alongside the immediate needs of the city’s elderly?

TE: I’ve dealt with my mother being disabled for a long time. She courageously battles epilepsy, diabetes, and is on dialysis. My daughter also lives with epilepsy, so it’s a battle we fight as a family. What these experiences have taught me is that it is critically important to take nothing for granted and to live in the now. From our youth all the way up through our elderly, I want to push that home. We as a city council need to make decisions that are going to position us for long-term growth, but that also make immediate impact right now, and that’s exactly what I plan on doing. I want to assure the elderly that with my background supporting loved ones through unfortunate situations, I understand what it takes to be a voice for them. I know where they are coming from, because I come from there as well with my mother.

I’d like to bring in more fitness programs for the elderly. I feel especially confident in my ability to implement these programs, because I already provide all-ages community fitness through my non-profit martial arts organization. One thing that my mom and my daughter both understand as citizens with medical conditions, is that exercise is very important. Even when you’re sick, it needs to be a priority to get moving, as a fundamental part of managing your sickness and taking care of yourself.

Watching all my mom and my daughter accomplish has prompted me to take a step back from my otherwise fast-paced life and slow things down to focus on helping my students of all abilities create sensible goals and make smart decisions in pursuit of those goals that deal first with their safety and mobility.

I believe the city of Central Falls has taken great steps to begin expanding fitness efforts. I have to commend Mayor Diossa and his staff for instituting the community health coach program, it is a great asset to Central Falls. I have heard great things about this coach and her program, so when I am elected as councilman, I plan on working with that health coach to combat the illnesses and physical challenges our citizens come up against on a daily basis.

AS: You served as an educational advisor through the non-profit College Crusade of Rhode Island. How will that experience inform your vision for the education system of Central Falls?

TE: I had the pleasure of working with The College Crusade for years. I was a former College Crusader myself, so I participated in their programs and services as a child. They gave me a great outlook on my future. It is a phenomenal program that has done great things for the youth in our state, especially low-income and underprivileged youth. That experience is going to help me use what I learned as an educational adviser to help our children understand that there are millions of dollars in free scholarship money just sitting there. We need to teach the students of Central Falls the tools and skills to apply and be selected for these scholarships.

There are so many scholarships, millions of dollars’ worth, sitting unused. It is mindboggling to me, so I always make a point to repeat it. As a parent, and as someone who returned to school in adulthood for graduate work, I remain acutely aware that college education prices have never been higher, and yet somehow, continue to go up every year. I commend the state level government of Rhode Island for what they’ve done with the CCRI College Act. That is an unparalleled opportunity for our children.

But I also remain aware that college is not at all the only option for our children. Some of our children are destined to go directly into the workforce by taking on a trade to create an immediate return on their investments after high school. I want to be sure our children are being educated in those opportunities just as much as they are scholarship opportunities, so those students who are not destined for college have the tools they need to avoid slipping through the cracks and to become successful, contributing citizens, in our great city of Central Falls.

AS: How do you plan on implementing that sort of education? 

TE: Thanks to my time working with The College Crusade, I know exactly how to go about connecting our students to the appropriate resources. It will mean a lot to me to be able to help the programs that helped me as a student, such as our high school advising team. Through my hands-on work in college preparatory advising, I know how busy the high school advising team is with their caseloads. To ease the burden on them, I will recruit our high school’s successful alumni to engage as resources for the advisors and guest speakers for the student body, creating opportunities for our students to interact directly with successful Warriors. As an advisor, coach, and mentor myself, I know giving our students positive role models to follow is going to be key. Making our students aware of just how many opportunities are out there waiting for them is critical as well. It is about so much more than educating them on the facts and procedures. Where the actual change is made is sitting down with students one-on-one and guiding them through the decision-making processes as they begin to consider different paths for their futures. I look forward to bringing my passion for educational advising to the city of Central Falls.

AS: How has becoming a parent shaped your perspective on what Central Falls’ youth need most from their politicians?

TE: I have a five-year-old Irish-Columbian-American daughter who attends preschool at one of the best early childhood assets in our city, Progresso Latino. This phenomenal program offers multi-cultural, immersive, dual-language education, and the benefits of this type of learning environment are something all of us as politicians need to embrace and push more proactively, starting with the youngest possible age groups. Science has conclusively proven that as you grow older, it becomes significantly harder to learn a second language, so the longer we wait, the more we put our kids at a disadvantage. Fortunately, many of the children in Central Falls enter school already bi-lingual thanks to the work of their families, but there is no reason they couldn’t learn a third language. The children of this community are capable of anything they set their minds to.

AS: What do you consider the school system’s strongest asset at this time?

TE: Central Falls’ Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) scores are low, but I do not think this is in any way reflective of our students’ actual abilities. Central Falls is arguably the largest melting pot in the state, and it’s only one square mile! Education is always at the front of my mind, because of my young daughter, Leila. I am proud to see her grow up in a culturally diverse community. The diversity of Central Falls shaped who I am today. Graduating from our school system allowed me to have friends of all different races, religions, nationalities, and who spoke multiple languages.

AS: How will you build on that strength to create more opportunities for all different types of Central Falls youth to succeed?

TE: You gain a unique perspective being an inner-city kid like I was; you become attuned to the unfortunate societal barriers our students face based on their race, religion, physical ability, and other identities that really serve to strengthen our city. It is important that we as politicians put ourselves on the front lines of knocking those barriers down. Our children should not have to concern themselves with overcoming cultural barriers in order to succeed. We need to get to a point where the only determining factor of success is how smart and hardworking your child is. That is my goal, not only as a politician and a citizen of this great city, but as a parent who will do anything to foster my daughter’s academic growth.

For the foreseeable future, those barriers are still there. So until we reach a point where race, religion, and ethnicity need not be mentioned, the next best thing we can do is educate our children about these barriers so they are able to overcome any that arise without getting discouraged. As the founder of a non-profit that serves underprivileged youth, I know that persistence and resilience are core components of success. Like I said, first and foremost, I teach my students not to give up.

AS: You’ve used your personal time and resources to bring youth baseball back to Central Falls. Why was this program so important to you, and how will you carry it forward as Councilman?

TE: Youth baseball stimulates the local economy by creating advertising and partnership opportunities for small businesses. But most importantly, I picked up a lot of my core values out on the baseball field as a kid. Baseball is where I learned how to lose, and that’s a skill every child needs to learn sooner than later. Losing is an asset, because when you learn how to lose, you learn how to bounce back. Instilling that ability from a young age will help our kids demonstrate that, win or lose, they are better than the rest.

Of course, I also learned how to win, and that even individual wins are the result of a team, directly or indirectly. Learning to win is learning to work, and anything you’ll ever work for will require cooperating with others and coming together as a team. Teaching our children to become a contributing part of a team as a child prepares them to become thriving members of a community as an adult.

I brought back youth baseball as a citizen, but I want to help all of our sports programs as a councilman. As a parent, it’s of personal concern to me that my daughter have a variety of options to participate in sports, stay physically fit, and socialize with other kids from her community. The best way to do that is by providing governmental support in my role as councilman to all our sports organizations.

AS: Does the youth baseball program offer any other benefits to the community beyond promoting physical fitness?

TE: We know that exercise is incredibly important in childhood development. Youth baseball provides a fun and inclusive atmosphere to get kids burning calories as they push themselves physically, but developing life-skills as they challenge themselves mentally as well.

Team sports keep kids focused on productive goals and away from trouble. Facilitating that camaraderie on the field gives kids another avenue to pursue, helping them realize they don’t have to become a part of a gang, because they are already part of a team. It channels their energy away from fighting over turf or fighting over race by giving them the much more meaningful purpose of fighting for their team with hard work and dedication rather than fighting for their gang with tragic, pointless sacrifice.

It all goes back to putting forth positive role models to serve as an example to our kids. I plan to bring back former Warriors who played on these same diamonds to coach our kids and showcase the success that experience allowed them to go on to achieve as adults. No matter what, I’ll always devote myself to enriching the City of Central Falls. I’ve been fighting all my life and I will never give up on being a warrior for the people.  

*This interview was edited for length and clarity.