Overcoming Tragedy

Aug. 12, 2014, 3:46 p.m. (ET)

By Ryan Lucas

From the Olympic community to the boroughs of the taekwondo world, the populace of Haverhill, Mass., and larger New England to people in cities across the globe, the incident is well known.

On Aug. 23, 2006, a bar fight forever changed Michael Tang’s life.

With all the makings of a nightmare—a defenseless sibling collapsed on the ground, battered, his attackers surrounding him; in the rush to help that brother, a stab wound to the chest; the ensuing struggle to live, a 50/50 chance—the series of events unfolded, wresting all normalcy from the then-33-year-old athlete (for Tang's first-person account of that night, click HERE).

Rather than founder in the depths of powerlessness, however, Tang chose to seize back control. In the years since the incident, the former Olympic hopeful—once fated to wait for the rise and fall of percentages in life and death, like a coin flip’s odds—has achieved a list of milestones.

Tang, who will turn 41 on Aug. 14, is married. He has a 17-month-old son, and his wife is scheduled to give birth to a girl on Aug. 23 (eight years to the day from his brush with death). He operates a school, Michael Tang’s World Class Martial Arts, where he coaches approximately 40 athletes in Olympic combat sports. He’s the head coach for the Harvard University taekwondo program, a job he accepted in 2007.

In addition, he’s training with elite mixed martial artists on a regular basis, providing them tips at their request. Beginning this month, Tang is also now USA Taekwondo’s official liaison to the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC).

A three-time U.S. national champion, U.S. National Collegiate Taekwondo Association team member and coach and two-time member of the USAT Senior National Team (2003 and 2004), Tang is combining his past accomplishments with his coaching skills and multifaceted athletic background to regain a prominent role in martial arts.

Like a linguist, he’s fluent almost everywhere, fitting in among many circles of fighting. Tang is able to translate techniques from one sport into another, fusing styles and adding to his importance with elite players, all while funding his own internal rewards.

Overall, the extensive work he does with each sector of martial arts is an endless source of the combustion in his fire for competition.

“I’ve been doing martial arts with my father since I was 7 years old, and I only started taekwondo at the age of 20,” Tang said. “I have a whole background of kung fu, karate, wrestling and boxing, so I was naturally drawn to mixed martial arts.

“I’ve been able to share my passion for taekwondo with people from all kinds of sports. That’s a big way for me to stay involved. That’s been the biggest thing for me; it’s a way for me to stay involved and keep my passion for taekwondo.”

When schooling Harvard students in the doctrines of taekwondo, Tang is also accruing experience at the helm of a major university program. By donating his salary, he can give back to a sport he loves and set an example of sustained passion.

“It’s customary for instructors to collect testing fees as part of their teaching,” Tang said. “I donate the money back to the club, which allows the club to have more resources and funds to participate with travel and exchanges and things like that.

“I also get a lot out of it, too; I get to coach at one of the most recognized universities in the world, and there’s a lot that comes with that.

“The biggest thing, though, is that it’s so rewarding to teach at the collegiate level. You’re not dealing with kids who are in the program because their parents want them to be in the program; you’re dealing with adults who are juggling the workload of going to a top university and still finding time to train with you.”

As a volunteer, Tang has also assisted Olympic gold medalist Steven Lopez, with whom he lived and worked out with in Texas in 2003. In 2012, Tang served as a training partner for Lopez and his sister, Diana, at the London Olympic Games.

“That’s such a huge honor,” Tang said. “To be asked by somebody who’s the greatest athlete in the history of the sport is unbelievable, and I put 100 percent into being the best training partner that I could be.

“That was another way for me to contribute to and stay involved in the sport. For me, that was my Olympic experience.”

In the early 2000s, when Tang lived and worked out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, he developed a relationship with the Lopez family that transcended the sport. And the threads that first wove the ties of that bond are as strong today, Tang said.

“Even though he’s younger, I’ve always looked up to him,” he said of Steven, with whom he travelled in 2013 as a guest coach at an international event in Greece. “He’s one of the best athletes in the world, and you can’t turn opportunities like that down.

“Now, all the members of the Lopez family are like my brothers and sisters. When I speak to them at any given time, it’s less about taekwondo and more about how the family’s doing and things like that.”

The Lopez family has also helped Tang prepare at every stage of his several attempts at a comeback on the mat.

“Since my accident, I’ve always wanted to return, but I’ve constantly been battling health issues,” Tang said. “I’ve been going to rehab about three days a week since 2006, and every time I started to get healthy again and to a level where I thought I could compete, I always ran into another injury.

“Basically, all of that stemmed from my original accident. I’ve met with all the best doctors—people from Massachusetts General (Hospital) and Harvard University and using the sports science division and the USOC.

“It’s been really depressing; I’ve gone through fits of depression and a lot of the mixed emotions of wanting to be able to participate but not being able to do that. I’ve gotten close a couple times, but it just hasn’t worked out.”

Still, Tang’s drive to spread the influence of taekwondo—whether at 9 or 10 p.m. on weeknights with Harvard students in Cambridge, Mass., or with UFC superstars at elite training centers—is never-ending.

“The Olympic sport of taekwondo pretty much changed my life,” Tang said. “I grew up in a very rough area, and that can be seen in my accident, so taekwondo helped take me out of that element.

“In my early 20s, taekwondo gave me an avenue to get away from that and see the world and be part of an Olympic sport. I owe everything to that, and if I can be an ambassador for the sport in the Olympic movement in a different way, then I want to do that.

“I’m forever indebted to all my mentors and everybody who helped me along my journey.”

Check back on the USAT website in the coming weeks for another story on Tang and his growing influence in the UFC.