Featured photo by Nancy Sidelinger Herring

In celebration of AAPI month, TCB will be sharing stories by PAVE NC, a local volunteer-run organization that highlights the stories of Asian-Americans in the South for the month of May. Find this and other stories at pavenc.org.

This week, PAVE NC sat down with Theo Rlayang, a 28-year-old professional MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter, gym owner and aspiring entrepreneur in Greensboro. Find a video conversation with Rlayang on the PAVE NC website.

Theo Rlayang was just 8 years old when his father woke him up in the middle of the night to flee their small village. It took them more than a week to travel on foot through the perilous jungle to a refugee camp in Cambodia. They were shot at; there were dangerous animals; some who traveled with them died along the way. 

Theo Rlayang is a wrestler and business owner in Greensboro (photo by Nancy Sidelinger Herring)

Rlayang and his family are Montagnard which means “mountain people” in French. Most people Rlayang encounters know very little about Montagnards, the indigenous people of the Central Highlands in Vietnam known for assisting American soldiers during the Vietnam War. There are about 32 Montagnard tribes in the world; Rlayang is a member of the Bunong tribe.

According to UNCG’s Center for New North Carolinians there are approximately 5,000 Montagnards in North Carolina, which makes the state home to the second-largest Montagnard population in the world.

As a member of this population, Rlayang told PAVE that he wants to serve as a role model for younger Montagnards. 

Rlayang’s early years in Greensboro were challenging, as he and his family tried to adapt to their new home. He was often bullied for being smaller than his peers. But he was drawn to sports — first soccer, then wrestling. His high school wrestling coach saw his potential and encouraged and inspired him. Rlayang eventually discovered mixed martial arts and found his passion. By day, he worked as a nail technician at a salon; by night he fought and trained. 

Rlayang’s parents worry about his safety when he’s fighting, but they’re proud of his accomplishments. Now, Rlayang sees MMA as a way to increase their visibility and to show Montagnard youth that they should pursue their dreams. 

Rlayang operates Jungle Athletics MMA gym in Asheboro, which opened at the end of March, 2023.  Follow on Instagram @jungleathelticsgym.

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