Sitkiatnin offers fitness, inclusion through Muay Thai


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Sitkiatnin Muay Thai head instructor David Reese (right) assists with the blessing of the gym’s ring by Thai Buddhist monks on Sunday morning. Sitkiatnin Muay Thai is a Thai boxing gym in the basement of 1918 Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

As a group of local Buddhist monks went through an elaborate, hour-long blessing ritual in the basement of 1918 Murray Ave. on Sunday morning, a group of roughly 40 people crowded around to watch. But these patrons weren’t there for worship or meditation — they showed up to support the grand opening of Sitkiatnin Muay Thai, a new local gym solely dedicated to the art of Thai boxing.

The phrase “grand opening” is a bit misleading in this case. In reality, Sitkiatnin has been operational since February, with a steadily growing clientele since the space was first usable. Sunday’s event just marked the official completion of all the necessary renovations.

“We set up the business in September, and it came together really fast,” co-owner Mike Seamens said. “We have a whole community of people that come already … we have people from all kinds of different lifestyles and backgrounds that feel really safe coming into the gym and feel comfortable there.”

Seamens, who runs the gym with wife Marissa Barr-Hartman and head trainer David Reese, felt that it was necessary for the monks to bless their facility, considering Reese’s Buddhist upbringing and the religion’s customary connection to the sport of Muay Thai.

Muay Thai, as Seamens explained, is a combat sport that originated in Thailand and is often called “the art of eight limbs,” referring to the ways one can strike an opponent — using the fists, legs, knees or elbows. It also incorporates various clinching and grappling techniques, making it a sort of tactical chess game that combines multiple disciplines like boxing, kickboxing and wrestling.

“It’s a very subtle art,” Seamens said. “It really is like upright wrestling.”

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor
A monk from the Pittsburgh Buddhist Center places a mark in the Sitkiatnin gym during its grand opening ceremony. The marking signifies that the area has been blessed.

A career centered on a combat sport may have been a more straightforward path for Barr-Hartman, who grew up participating in martial arts. Reese, too, brought an almost lifelong passion for Muay Thai to the table, having worked as a trainer for decades and competed in nearly 100 fights in Thailand.

But for the now 37-year-old Seamens, a Pittsburgh native and Pitt alum, staking a career in this field would’ve seemed unfathomable until just a few years ago.

Seamens was born and raised in the Wilkinsburg neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He spent much of his youth around Squirrel Hill near where his gym is now — what used to be a video rental store when he was a kid. He briefly attended Oakland’s own Central Catholic High School before graduating from Shady Side Academy. After high school, Seamens chose to pursue photography at New York University.

In Seamens’ first year at NYU — his 15th day living in the City — he happened to be out taking pictures on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I used to get up early every morning to shoot photos when the morning light was nice. I was out taking a walk … shooting photographs, blue sky, early fall, late summer day,” Seamens said. “And I was not in a shadow, and then I was in a shadow, and then I wasn’t in a shadow and I looked up and that was the first plane.”

After that plane crashed into the World Trade Center, Seamens wandered closer to the site. He was just under half a mile away when the second plane hit.

“And so I saw it all, was in the midst of the whole thing, and it was a pretty traumatic experience,” Seamens said. “So I tried to stick it out and stay in school, but I just needed to take a break and come home.”

Seamens took some time off before enrolling at Pitt, where he graduated with a degree in urban planning and development in 2006. From there, he embarked on several stints as a small business owner, including launching a brewery and a record store. It was Seamens’ wife who introduced him to martial arts about a year after the two formally met in 2007. Barr-Hartman was taking classes in jiu-jitsu and kickboxing, and she would take Seamens out to her brother’s boxing gym.

“Then she decided she really wanted to try Muay Thai and was like, ‘We should check this out,’” Seamens said. “And it just sort of took off from there.”

Through their lessons, the duo came into contact with Reese, a seasoned local trainer, in 2014. They struck up a partnership and took their first trip to Thailand with Reese in 2016. Since then, the group travels to Thailand twice a year to train in the homeland of Muay Thai, typically staying for two to four weeks at a time. Seamens credits Reese with coming up for the idea of a gym solely dedicated to this art.

“He wanted to start a sort of Thai-style gym in Pittsburgh and really have it just be Muay Thai — not MMA, not fitness kickboxing, but just really the Thai style of boxing,” Seamens said.

Now, each member of the trio has his or her own role within the gym’s operations. Seamens typically handles the business side, while Reese and Barr-Hartman serve as the head trainers. Together, they run Sitkiatnin under one primary mission statement — inclusion. The gym offers classes for kids, women and those who just want an outlet to stay active, while also training a competitive team that competes in Muay Thai bouts all along the east coast.

“If you’ve never wanted to fight in your life, we want you to come to our gym,” Seamens said. “It is a great way to be in shape, it’s great for self defense and it’s also fun. That’s the big thing that we really want to bring from Thailand to the United States is just like, it’s a fun thing to do.”

The gym is the first of its kind for Pittsburgh, Seamens said, as other facilities in the area offer Muay Thai programs, but none are solely dedicated to its practice. While going all in on a specific sect of martial arts could be seen as a gamble, the sport’s unifying effect can already be seen in Sitkiatnin’s membership base that currently consists of more than 40 people. And with the growing popularity of MMA — along with a nationwide fitness boom — Seamens has high hopes for the art that was foreign to him for most of his life.

“There’s a whole community of gyms in Philadelphia and New York,” he said. “It’s something which has been a little more sustainable in bigger cities up until now, but I think Pittsburgh’s finally ready for a dedicated Muay Thai gym.”