It is not easy to make it as a professional in the world of Muay Thai in England, and new ONE Championship welterweight Juan Cervantes knows that well.
The 32-year-old – who will face Santino Verbeek in a kickboxing match-up at ONE: IMMORTAL TRIUMPH this Friday, 6 September – spent years trying to make a name for himself on his domestic circuit for meager purses.
However, the representative of Northern Kings gym in Newcastle loved his sport, and continued to plug away until he became a national, and then World Champion to earn his place on the global stage for martial arts.
On the eve of his debut in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the man who became known as “Number Juan” reveals how he gave everything he had to reach the highest level.
Finding Competitive Spirit
Cervantes was born to an English mother and Mexican father in Mexico City, Mexico.
When he was six months old, his parents moved back to the United Kingdom and settled in Bristol, where they raised a big family.
“I’m the oldest of six children – I’ve got two brothers and three sisters. I was very lucky to have a great childhood. I was the oldest, so I was [always first to] all the food,” he laughs.
When it was time for the young Cervantes to go to secondary school, a bursary gave him the chance to go to a boarding school.
His parents had to think long and hard whether to send him away, but the poor standard of education in their city meant they took the financial gamble. It paid off, as their son loved his time there.
“That was a happy time too. The best thing about that was the extra-curricular activities I got. I was always doing a lot of sport and music,” he says.
“I loved rugby, I think that gave me that kind of physical competitiveness. I was a bit of a softie at primary school, but I quickly got that drilled out of me when I got coerced against my will to play rugby when I was about 11!
“I wouldn’t say I was bullied badly, but for a couple of years, I was picked on. By the time I went to secondary school, I had something to prove, and I started getting a love for rugby.”
When Cervantes moved north to Newcastle for university, he started to lose interest in his sporting pursuits.
He wanted a new challenge, so he started to learn “the art of eight limbs” in classes for students run by the man who is still his coach – Muay Thai World Champion Craig Jose.
“I always fancied myself as being able to handle myself, so I wanted to try something – more for self-defense and fitness at first, but I just got the bug,” he explains.
Soon, he went beyond university sessions to practice at a gym Jose ran with a team of martial artists, and that led to his first bouts.
The Englishman became his coach’s top student, so when he decided to open up his own gym, he asked Cervantes to join him as part of the team. He was not enthusiastic about starting a career related to his degrees, so he jumped at the chance.
“I think I was lucky – at the right place at the right time. I did a masters [degree in clinical exercise physiology] because I wanted to stay in Newcastle and keep training – and I kind of didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says.
“When I finished that, Craig was opening Northern Kings and asked if I wanted to help him out.”
Powered By Passion
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Still #numberjuan. Won by tko round 3 with a knee to the body. Massive shout out to everyone who made the trip to Birmingham to support. It means a lot and was great to spend a bit of time with after. Also well done to @0callum_p123 with another awesome performance, you're on a roll! 2 wins out of two for @northern_kings_gym. . . . #numberjuan #teamnk #muaythai #kickboxing #boxing #mma #MartialArts #fitness #gym #workout #training #trainhard #trainhardfighteasy #drillsbuildskills #fight #fightnight #champ #ukmtf #champion #title #championcollide
Cervantes’ mother is a doctor, and his dad a history lecturer at Bristol University. Although he says his career choice was “not exactly part of their plan,” he still had their support.
“My parents always instilled the value of doing something you’re passionate about for a living,” he explains.
“They always reminded us that money is not the most important thing. It’s more important to go down a path that fulfills you.”
It was his passion that saw him through some tough times in the early days of his career. Before he made enough money as a trainer at the gym, he had to work long nights as a doorman at the bars of Newcastle.
He would get home late, but have to be up early to train and fulfill his duties as a coach.
“I ended up working on the doors and helping out in the gym, then started getting [business as a coach], and started slowly building that up so I could quit the doors,” the 32-year-old reveals.
“It was all worth it in the end, but it was quite stressful at times. At one point I just kind of assumed Lily [then-girlfriend, now his wife] would leave me because she would just get sick of me not earning.
“People say it must have been really hard, but it wasn’t as hard as people imagine, because, for me, there wasn’t another option.”
Cervantes was determined to succeed as a professional Muay Thai athlete. His career took him to Thailand’s famous Lumpinee Stadium, and he became Britain’s number one in his weight class with a reputation for spectacular knockouts.
Reaching The Global Stage
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10 days! Heading out to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam fir my @onechampionship debut! Download the #onechampionship app to watch all the fights for free! . . . #numberjuan #teamnk #muaythai #kickboxing #boxing #mma #MartialArts #fitness #gym #workout #training #trainhard #trainhardfighteasy #drillsbuildskills #fight #fightnight #champ #onechampionship #vietnam
With the top spot in the UK secured, Cervantes eyed international success, and got his first opportunity to compete for a World Title last November on short notice.
After only two weeks to prepare, he traveled to his opponent’s homeland of Italy, but walked away with his WTKA Muay Thai World Championship after a dominant performance.
Now with gold around his waist and a 31-9-1 record littered with stoppage victories, the world’s largest martial arts organization came calling.
His first test will come against Verbeek, and the Northern Kings representative is determined to leave everything in the ring and prove he is where he belongs with an exciting win.
“I want to know that I just gave it everything and got as far as I could,” he says.
“I’ve got ambitious goals to be a ONE Championship World Champion in Muay Thai and kickboxing, but as long as I look back when I’m older and know I fulfilled my potential, I’ll be content.”