That first night, as Mark DellaGrotte lay in the floor on a rice mat, trying to sleep and wondering what he was doing on the other side of the planet, he realized that the creatures brushing by his feet were rats.

Rats and other things. There was no door to the too-small room in which he was packed with 13 others. Anything could scurry in from the 98-degree night.

DellaGrotte himself, for instance.

Twenty-four and traveling the world. Had never left the country, then on a plane and off a plane and into the sweltering dark of a different continent.

How, again, did he get here?

Well, a man back home in Boston had asked DellaGrotte to train him in stick and knife fighting. The year was 1997, and DellaGrotte was devoted to various arts. Weapons intrigued him, but the thing was, not many sane martial artists were up for real sparring with real blades. Couldn't quite meet at the park on Saturday night for too many genuine stick fights either.

DellaGrotte had begun to look for something else. Something given to competition and development. Maybe boxing or kickboxing, maybe Muay Thai, which now was being mentioned by this man in Boston inquiring about training.

"Whoa, whoa," DellaGrotte interrupted. "Did you say you've been to Thailand? To do Thai boxing?"

Yep, the guy said, and soon DellaGrotte was off for Asia.

That was a while after he had already quit his other career, running a Nana's Pizza in town. The pizza business was fine. Steady work, a fairly solid future, but there was this Italian word that liked to hop around the DellaGrotte household: passione.

Passion, of course. To pursue it was the idea, and DellaGrotte did.

Martial arts had taken hold of him as a child. His uncle introduced him to some classical styles, and by the time DellaGrotte was 18, people were trickling down to his parents' basement to train with him. Eventually he began to make a living on teaching. That's when "the pizza dream," as DellaGrotte calls it, "drifted away."

It seems he was always a mixed martial artist of sorts. With Guy Chase, who for years had trained with Bruce Lee's top student, Dan Inosanto, DellaGrotte studied jeet kune do. The JKD philosophy freed practitioners from adhering to any single martial art, and in that spirit DellaGrotte experimented with different forms of fighting. His interest in mixing styles had led him to pre-UFC tapes of Pancrase and Shooto, shootfighting and shootwrestling -- all those forerunners to MMA as we know it now that are so often forgotten in cursory accounts of the sport's history.

Muay Thai, DellaGrotte suspected, was the next step. A style that could be honed in training and competition, then incorporated into a constantly developing system. And that's what had taken him to Thailand, to learn Thai fighting firsthand from the people who invented it, who lived it.

That first night was full of reconsidering. Mosquito bites, too, perhaps, but by the third night he loved it. By then he was eating bugs.

No one expected Westerners to live like native Thai fighters. Plenty of guys visiting the camp preferred hotels, hookers and beaches. Maybe some training when time allowed. Yet it was through training that DellaGrotte realized he had come to the right place.

He learned quickly. Shake your shoes out in the morning, for example. Hard to hit that warm-up jog if you've crammed your foot in on a tarantula. He stayed around the gym, never touching a toe in the ocean. When food was served, here was DellaGrotte surrounded by Thai children, sitting in the ring with them and eating with his hands.

"In order for me to become them, I had to live their lifestyle," he says. "If you truly want to get the essence of what these guys are bred like and what these guys are made of, then you've got to walk a mile in their shoes. Or jog a mile in their shoes."

Or jog shoeless, which is what DellaGrotte did whenever the natives took off without anything on their feet.

At some point he learned that the fighter nearest to him in the floor at night was the camp champion. He was shocked at first, though later he understood. This was a fighter's life in Thailand. The camp was a place of sacrifice, frequented even by champions with money and means, who had homes and beds but chose to lie with their backs against the ground when fights approached.

A month came and went, and DellaGrotte stepped down from a plane, back in Boston. Right then it hit him, homesickness. Except the feeling wasn't for the city where he had been born and raised.

"When I saw what [the Thai people] were doing was what I had always dreamt of doing, what they were was what I had always dreamt of becoming -- at that point," says DellaGrotte, "Thailand was home to me."

He couldn't tell you how many times he's been to Thailand since that first trip in 1997, but he will show you a riddled, retired passport with no pages left for stamps. At least twice a year he has traveled there. Usually for a month, sometimes two -- enough to speak fluent Thai. Never has seen much of the country's beaches.

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