James “Moonwalker” Moontasri is a mixed martial artist of Korean and Thai descent who has been fighting professionally since 2008.
Prior to becoming a professional fighter, James had a highly decorated Taekwondo career which included him being named 2007 USA Taekwondo Male Athlete of the Year.
Currently holding an overall pro record of 9-3 (2-2 in UFC), the Moonwalker has shown his versatility by moving weight classes (lightweight and welterweight) while also proudly incorporating his 5th dan black belt Taekwondo (태권도) skills in the cage.
We had the chance to catch up with James during his training this past October prior to his impressive first round TKO victory at UFC 193 on November 15, 2015 in Australia to discuss his MMA career and personal background and are pleased to present this interview.
Please note that HalfKorean.com comments/questions are in BOLD.
Background: The Basics on James
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1988. My dad was actually military at that time. I didn’t live in Germany very long as we moved to California and then I grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I moved back out to California when I was 18 and have lived here ever since.
Did you move to California by yourself?
By myself. I grew up doing Taekwondo and was on the National Team for USA Taekwondo and in 2007 I competed in the Pan-Am Games and was the 2007 USA Taekwondo Male Athlete of the Year.
When I didn’t make the USA Olympic team in 2008, that was when I made my transition into MMA.
How did your parents meet?
My parents are divorced. Me and my mother are very close. You know what, I don’t really know how they met.
Do you have any siblings?
I have a sister who is four years older than me. We both grew up like typical Koreans. We used to play piano and I played for 10 years. I used to play trumpet and would travel with symphonies and she used to play flute. My mom actually thought we would be musicians. My sister graduated from Columbia University and is a doctor. I was supposed to be the lawyer but I became a UFC fighter.
How well do you speak and/or understand Korean?
I’ve been to Korea like eight times and I would say that I can read and write but speaking fluently I would say about 40%. Let’s just say I can get us around Seoul and have some really good Korean BBQ and soju.
What is your favorite Korean food?
You know what is kind of crazy is that growing up and having the traditional Taekwondo background and competing against a lot of Latinos, my mom would feed me tomatoes, onions and jalapenos and burritos because she always thought that they were so fast. I used to be really picky with my food so when my mom sent me to Korea when I was 16 I trained at a high school for Taekwondo. Over there in Korea, Taekwondo they train like crazy. I went to that high school and stayed there for three months. I got hit and beat for eight hours a day. It was one of those experiences in life that you are so happy you did it but would never do it again. That whole experience really changed me and before that I never really liked Korean food. When I moved to California at 18 I realized that I had Korean food readily available. Now I spend like $100 a week on groceries. Of course I like the BBQ but I like the oxtail soups and samgyetang (삼계탕). My mom used to make me eat that with all the ginger to make me strong.
You mentioned soju earlier. Do you like soju?
I wouldn’t say that I necessarily like it but it is part of the culture. Doing Taekwondo for so long, I have had my fair share of soju.
What was it like for you growing up mixed Korean?
My mom kept me busy through high school. I knew I had a passion for martial arts. I would go to school and right after I would have piano lessons, trumpet lessons. After that I would have Taekwondo and after that I would do my homework. I really had no social life whatsoever in high school. I was very focused on my athletics. I never went to homecoming, never went to prom. You know how seniors get out one week before graduation? I didn’t even go to my graduation and during that week I went to California to prepare for a tournament. They just mailed me my diploma. My mom used to tell me when I used to compete in Taekwondo that I had to fight until I die. That whole thing stayed in my mind in whatever I do.
We had our friends from Taekwondo and all of them were forced to do music. It was a weird group of people.
Did you ever experience any identity issues while growing up?
Even now I kind of deal with that. I was born in Germany, half Korean, half Thai, USA citizen. You know what is actually funny is that my last fight against Kevin Lee, they put me as “Kevin Lee” thinking that guy with the last name “Lee” was me.
I’ve learned to embrace it and I don’t really look at is a negative thing especially now being in the UFC. There are not that many Korean fighters and to be one of the few is huge. I almost feel like a pioneer and can attribute that to people I look up to like Ben Henderson. His relationship with his mother is very similar to the relationship that I have with my mother. Everything that we do is for them. I actually met him at my first UFC victory in Colorado and he was the main event. It was good to meet him and I look at him like a role model.
When was the last time you have been to Korea?
I was there a couple months ago and I wanted to fight on the UFC Korea card but they were so overbooked and wanted to give preference to full Koreans. Luckily they offered me to fight in Australia on the Ronda Rousey card so if everything goes well maybe they can send me out to Korea for those fights. I would love to be there.
What do people who meet you think your ethnicity is?
When people look at me they think I’m straight from Seoul, Korea! Pretty much until they see my last name. Like the ajushi’s look at me like “ooh” when they hear my last name. As far as the culture I embrace the Korean culture and can’t really say that I know too much about the Thai culture. I think doing Taekwondo and martial arts I embraced the Korean culture much more.
We noticed your Korean tattoo on your chest. Is it your Korean name?
It is my mom’s name, Choi Young Soon (최영순).
Career: Taekwondo / MMA / UFC
Where did the “Moonwalker” nickname come from?
Actually it is from one of my friends who is from Nigeria. A lot of people have a hard time pronouncing my last name and so my friend would say that I’m the Moonwalker. It just kind of stuck. I always walk out to Michael Jackson and it just worked out and stuck. I think just as I signed to UFC was when I finally adopted a nickname.
At what age did you begin Taekwondo?
I started when I was 10 years old and I made the National Team when I was 16.
What made you decide to choose to learn Taekwondo? Was it you or your mom?
It was a little combination of both. I think once I saw the movie “Best of the Best.” That movie changed my entire life.
What degree Taekwondo black belt are you currently?
I’m a 5th dan black belt. I just got it. One of my Grand Masters got it for me from my last trip to Korea.
Were you into any other sports (non-martial arts) while growing up?
I tried to play basketball but I remember I was so bad that my mom told me, “I don’t think you will be 6’4” so I think you should stick with Taekwondo.” Pretty much it was only Taekwondo. My mom would say that whatever I do, be the best at it.
When did you decide to make fighting your profession and career?
It kind of happened on accident. After I won my first Nationals and I went to Pan Am Games and won a silver medal, both of those experiences got me so juiced. After I went to Nationals the next year I wasn’t as excited. Literally at the place where I was training Taekwondo, next door they had an MMA team training over there. And one time the coach asked me to try MMA. I told him that I didn’t know and then he asked me what I do and I told him Taekwondo. He then told me that I would be great at MMA. I literally took a two month crash course on MMA and went straight professional. I didn’t do any amateur fights and I figured if I get my butt kicked at least I am getting paid for it. I ended up knocking the guy out in the beginning of the second round. My first MMA fight I got $250 and I thought that was great money. I was like in my mind I will kick anybody’s ass right now, anytime anyplace. You know, competing in Taekwondo you are not getting paid so I thought it was great money. So that is where it kind of started.
How supportive have your family been with your fighting career?
Oh man. My mom, as any mother would, was strongly against it. She supported my Taekwondo career a lot. But now I think my family is starting to understand that this is obviously my passion. So whether they really like it or not they are letting me do it. Oftentimes my mom she’ll call me J-Lo (Jennifer Lopez) because she was a dancer/singer and was struggling and then how she became successful. So my mom will say go be like J-Lo with your fighting. This is like a daily battle, trust me. Like any mother would, who would want their son to fight, but she understands that this is my passion and is supporting it.
Your first pro fight was at Gladiator Challenge 83 in 2008 but you didn’t fight again until 2011. Was there a specific reason why?
There was a specific reason. I didn’t do any amateur fights and went straight to professional. Luckily I won my first fight but there was one point in the fight where the guy slammed me really hard and I thought if I am going to really good at this, I’m going to have to train a lot more. Once you go professional you cannot go back to amateur so I had to get really good at this.
You currently train at Blackhouse MMA, home of MMA greats such as Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida. When did you start training with them?
My manager is Ed Soares and he takes care of me. He gives me the best opportunities that anybody can ever have. So originally when I first started at Blackhouse was when Wanderlei Silva was fighting Cung Le. They needed someone to emulate Cung Le’s style so for three months I literally got my ass kicked by Wanderlei Silva every single day. You know, being a fan of MMA I would have never have thought in my wildest dreams that I would be able to train with Lyoto and Anderson. I just saw Anderson yesterday and we are friends now. I’m very blessed and I understand the opportunity that has been given to me and I thank God every day that I am able to do what I love. That is what is most important.
Was one of your goals to fight in the UFC?
That was always the goal. I wouldn’t fight for anyone else but the UFC. The UFC is the most prestigious league. Honestly, having guys with traditional backgrounds like Lyoto Machida with his Karate background and Anderson Silva with his Muay-Thai. For me, those guys are my role models. If I were to ever get cut from UFC I would not fight anymore.
What has your experience in the UFC been like so far?
The experience has been a roller coaster. Mentally it tests you. You have to have crazy tenacity. I’ve always had that and every single day I look as a challenge. I can honestly say that the way I have performed in the UFC I couldn’t have been more disappointed in the way I have performed. That is why I am training very hard for this next fight. For me, I don’t want to be a contender if I’m not going to be the best. My record in UFC is 1-2 and for me that is embarrassing. I hold myself at a much higher standard and train every single day with the best fighters so there is no excuse. That is why this fight coming up I have a lot of fire and almost anger going this because I need to separate myself from being a contender, just being a normal guy, to a top fighter.
What are some things you have learned or taken away from the UFC fights?
Like I said it has been a roller coaster. This is a really hard sport. Emotionally and on your body and you have to really love it. For me, the passion is there regardless. I have to succeed because I have sacrificed my body and somewhat my relationship with my family. Being successful is not an option. You just wait until Australia.
What do you think of the challenge of moving up to welterweight at UFC 193 from lightweight?
Yes. That was always a big thing. Growing up in Taekwondo, I would had mixed results in featherweight and lightweight which is 147-158. I went up to welterweight which is 176 for Taekwondo and that was where I won Nationals twice and silver at Pan Am Games. For some reason my first four fights in MMA were at 170 and to cut down to 155 my life has been miserable. My last fight I made the weight but it took so much of my spirit that I didn’t even want to fight and obviously the result on top of that of losing that fight. When I decided to do my next fight I felt like I needed to do what made me happy and I’m going to fight at this weight. I feel like this is a good fight for me. I’m going into enemy territory fighting an Australian. I feel like sometimes you have to have your back against the wall to see what you are really all about.
To make 155 I would have to cut 45 pounds and it just killed me. I never felt like I could get better as a martial artist because my whole six to eight week training camp would be focused towards diet. And now it is kind of weird because I’m walking around lighter than when I was fighting at 155.
That’s why I’m so excited for this fight in Australia. You are going to see my true capabilities. I really have this fire inside of me that I need to let go and release some anger.
Did you want to try to get on the UFC Fight Night 79 in Korea card?
Yeah just through social media and interviews I would mention that I had some interest in fighting in Korea. But for the most part I leave that up to my manager because my job is to fight. Don’t get me wrong, if they were to ask me to go to Korea I would jump on that plane.
What do you think of the UFC/Reebok fight kits?
I stay pretty neutral about that stuff. It is what it is. For me, my job is to fight and sponsorships are just a bonus. First and foremost I get paid to fight. Getting sponsors is not the main reason I wanted to be in the UFC. I love what I do and to just be able to wake up and do what you love is something that a lot of people can’t say. I’m just blessed. It’s a good problem to have.
What other career goals have you set for yourself?
Short term would be to win this next fight. Long term is to stay healthy and do as well as I can in this business. My mom always told me that if you do your best you’ll always win. If I do my best and perform the way I know I can then I know I can compete with the top 10 guys in this division. But right now it is just one step at a time as I’m nowhere even close to that. But long term that is what I’m eyeing.
Do you see yourself staying at welterweight or will you keep lightweight open?
I’ll keep it open. You gotta pay the bills. Any weight, any time, any place. I kind of like that mentality.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
My true passion is teaching children martial arts. Not how to kill each other or fight but the traditional tenets of Taekwondo; courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, indomitable spirit and making martial arts a way of life. I feel like that has helped me so much to get through so many dark points in my life. That’s something I love to teach children. So definitely opening up my own martial arts school along with a study center is my dream.
Are you still teaching when not training for a fight?
I used to teach a lot but right now as I prepare for fights I have a select few students that I do private lessons with. Not as much as I used to but more of on a private scale now.
What’s your current relationship status?
I do have a girlfriend and I’m a father of my lovely dog Mocha.
What do you do to relax?
I like to cook a lot and love watching the Food Network. I’m into these thing called “paint nights” where you go and learn how to paint. Now I feel like I’m a Picasso and paint. Haha! I’m horrible at painting.
You know what is weird? I don’t actually like watching fighting when I’m not fighting.
So do you watch film of opponents during training?
I don’t watch tapes of my opponents. I leave that up to my coaches because first of all I know how everybody is going to fight me. Nobody is going to stand with me so they are going to try to take me down. That is everybody’s strategy. There is no real need to watch them fight. I know that with my style, nobody is going to fight the same style as with the average other guy. I bring a completely different skill set than 95% of athletes in the UFC.
Anybody in particular that you respect?
Definitely my mother is a huge motivating factor in my life and is a main reason I’m doing this. So that she will not have to work anymore.
As far as athletes, being around Anderson Silva is kinda like being around Muhammad Ali in his prime. It’s just that whole entire experience of actually being able to call him a friend is something I would never dream of.
What did you think about HalfKorean.com when you first saw it?
You know I love that. I feel so close to the Korean community. I’m just so happy that there might be a kid out there who potentially may want to pursue fighting. So for me to kind of serve as a role model and to help pave the way is an honor. To be accepted is huge and very motivating.
Any final words that you would like to pass on to the mixed Korean community?
You just have to do what makes you happy. It doesn’t matter about the money, the prestige or if you are a doctor, lawyer, whatever. Do what makes you happy and success will come.
We want to thank James for spending his time with us for this interview and wish him much continued success in his MMA career! We can’t wait to see his next fight!
Make sure to follow James on his official Instagram, Twitter, Facebook.
Interview by: David Lee Sanders