During the summer of 1999, Yia “The Bull” Mua was everywhere. Photos of the young kick-boxer from Fresno, CA were splashed on posters, billboards and the front pages of local media here in the Twin Cities. With a chiseled body and an assortment of championship belts hanging from his broad shoulders, Yia “The Bull” Mua struck an intimidating pose as the centerpiece for a historical fight-event that was to take place during the July 4th weekend.
Having already established a name for himself as a world-class Muay Thai fighter (Thai kick-boxing) on the West Coast, Mua’s popularity was just beginning to take off here in the Midwest.
With a near sell-out crowd in attendance at the Aldrich Arena in Maplewood, MN, “The Bull” did not disappoint as he demolished his much taller opponent, Eli Harding, an acclaimed fighter trained by kick-boxing world champion Marice Smith. According to fight records, Mua broke Harding’s ribs with a swarm of devastating kicks and punches in the second round which caused the fight to end.
Cheers and admiration from the crowd showered Mua as he circled the ring, arms raised victoriously in the air. Hmong pride hit a high note that summer evening, with the name Yia “The Bull” Mua highlighted in big, bold letters.
Whether it’s watching one of his many fights on YouTube or seeing him in one of the movies in which he stars, Mua’s name continues to be one of the most recognizable figures from the Hmong community.
It was a big surprise to all when Mua announced last summer that he had developed liver cancer as a result of complications with Hepatitis-B. Within just a span of six-months, Mua went from being the poster-boy of health to becoming what his mom called, “A dead man walking.”
Yia “The Bull” Mua passed on January 15, 2010 at 10:40AM surrounded by family and his closest friends. He was 34-years-old and leaves behind two young sons, Xavier, 15, and Daylin, 4.
“He fought to the very end,” recalled Khetphet Phagnasay, who was bed-side with Mua during his last breath. “Even when he was in a coma and most of his bodily functions were deteriorating, his heart and mind were strong to the very end. Doctors gave him 4 hours, but he lasted 3 days. He fought all the way-we could hear grunts and felt his kicks to acknowledge that he still heard us. He had tears in his eyes. Because of his training & exercising, his heart was so strong, it kept him alive. He was a true fighter.”
According to Phagnasay, Mua first began to get sick in the summer as they were shooting the movie Finding Hope Now, a full-length feature film shot in Fresno.
“Even though he was beginning to change colors due to his sickness, Yia never complained about his illness. No matter what kind of pain he was in, he still came in to work everyday and never stopped joking around or being the Yia we all know and loved.”
Mua went to get a check-up after he began spitting out blood. He was told by the first set of doctors that he had ulcers and that he didn’t have much to worry about. Within a matter of weeks, however, the bloody vomiting continued to get worse. According to his own words found on his MySpace blog, Mua vomited so much blood at one point that the blood loss caused him to go into shock, temporarily knocking him out.
“I got most of my diagnoses from the doctor,” Mua wrote optimistically in a July 23, 2009 posting. “It’s really not what I want to hear but I’m willing to face it. Look at me. 3 weeks ago I was training, running 3-4 miles a day, and in the best shape. Today I’m facing a terminal illness that I know I can beat.”
Mua’s public postings also detailed the ugly divorce he was going through at the same time he was fighting his illness, compounding the complications he was facing on a daily basis.
If that wasn’t enough grief, Yeng Mua wanted to emphasize the great agony her son was facing after his dad left the family to re-marry in Laos recently.
“Maybe it was all the heartbreak in Yia’s life that finally killed him,” Yeng Mua proposed. “As the only son, Yia felt like he was being abandoned when his father left the family.”
Despite the maelstrom of grief and heartbreak that Mua was facing, the fighter in him never quit. His public blogs constantly reminded readers of how grateful he was to have lived to accomplish the great things he did in his short life. He encouraged others to live out their dreams and to keep their hopes up. But above all, he shared his love for his two sons.
“Life as been good. Really no major complaints. I just learn to accept and make the best out my current situation. I knew this chemo and radiation treatment was going to make me miserable but I can survive this,” Mua posted on December 20, 2009-his last MySpace posting. “I enjoy my boys. I love those two munchkins. The joy of my life.”
Staying positive was important for Yia, not only as a fighter, but to overcome the many challenges in life, in particular towards the end of his life when he was pushed into the maze of the healthcare world.
“To this day, I can’t find one doctor who can give me a straight answer as to what happened to my son,” Yeng Mua explains. “This doctor says to talk to another doctor. When I talk to him, he points me to another doctor. It’s frustrating!”
She ponders whether or not her son would have survived had the first doctors been able to diagnose him correctly.
“They told him he would be fine. Next thing we know, my son is airlifted to a San Francisco hospital because of how severe his condition got.”
With his physical health and mental state at deteriorating levels, and despite pleadings from family members against it, Mua insisted upon making the planned trip to Thailand with his two sons and ex-wife on January 7. Mua would eventually talk his mother into driving the family to Los Angeles to make the flight to Thailand.
Once they arrived at LAX, Yeng Mua noticed that her son had become even more jaundiced, having lost even more color from his skin, “Looking like a dead-man walking.”
Mua would eventually collapse at the airport and spend the next two days in a Los Angeles hospital. He had suffered from over medication, the family would discover. From there, the family transferred Mua to a hospital in Fresno where his family and friends would be able to join him.
He would spend the remainder of his short life-one week from the day he collapsed in Los Angeles–contained to a hospital bed.
“We were blessed every time he would wake up and talk to us, mostly to assure us not to worry about him,” the heartbroken mom tearfully recalls. “At last, he held on to my hands and whispered to me ‘never to let him go’. He told me that he saw a big ocean and was sinking into the water and for me to keep holding his hands. I held his hands for two hours before I let go.”
Those were Yia’s last words. He would be pronounced dead that morning.
Despite their tears, friends and family say they remain positive about the life “The Bull” lived and the scores of people he touched, not only as a fighter in the ring, but also for what he was able to accomplish in the business world and for the cultural pride that he was able to bolster in the Hmong community.
“But above all,” said the grief stricken mother. “I want people to remember Yia as a great father, son and brother.”
Yia: I’m a fighter by nature. I will fight til the end. I never give up. If I win, it would be another one of my triumphs and if I lose, I’m not afraid to die.