By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
They don't seem like two of Texas' best ass-kickers. Until you look closely.
Doyle Gayler, 21, quiet and polite, shows me inside the apartment where he and his girlfriend, Kornelija Numic, reside. Numic, 28, bounces out of the kitchen wearing a short skirt and a broad smile. She giggles a lot, and her Croatian accent is charming. With her curly shock of reddish brown hair and slight freckles, she looks like a huggable life-size Raggedy Ann. With Gayler's gosh-darn shy manner, he comes across as the kind of guy you could make fun of at a ballgame without repercussion.
Which tells you why first impressions are not only wrong, they can be dangerously so. Gayler and Numic are both two-time defending national amateur kickboxing champions. Nice as they are, they can whip your ass.
There are clues to this fact if you look closely. Start with Numic's legs. Those hard-edged thigh and calf muscles belong to no rag doll. They belong to someone who, despite her sweet nature, has no fear of putting the smackdown on you. This is a woman who witnessed people blown up in front of her by grenades when she was a teenager. Kicking you in the head after that is easy.
Gayler is wearing long pants and a loose pullover shirt on this day, so it's harder to adequately assess how his small frame could pack such a mighty wallop. Until you look at his bulging forearms. Popeye has nothing on Doyle Gayler.
There's a reason it takes a trained journalist to point out the hidden clues to Gayler and Numic's kickboxing greatness. It's the same reason you've never heard of them. It's the same reason they don't fight as much as they used to. (Check that: They don't kick each other in the head as often as they used to.)
It's because Numic (first name pronounced "Cornelia") and Gayler are kickboxing champions who rarely kickbox. Now they spend much of their days locking up criminals (Gayler is a jailer for the Garland Police Department) and investigating crime scenes (Numic works for the Dallas County Sheriff's Office). And when they do step into the ring, they often box rather than kickbox. Because kickboxing is dying as a sport, and these two law-enforcement types still have dreams of using their butt-whipping skills full time, which means they must learn to be as good with their gloves as they are with their feet.
"In kickboxing, even if you're pro, it costs you money to fight," Gayler says. "There's not enough money, not enough fan base, not enough support. Even from the fighters. The competition isn't very good. You see world champions who don't know what they're doing. You could make more money kickboxing 20 years ago than you can now."
Numic understands this better than most. Even when she can find a match, her reputation is such that oftentimes the other fighter wants no part of her.
"When people know who you are, you get into people not showing up," she says, explaining that this is what happened the last time she tried to defend her Texas title. "It's very hard. You train hard, you get pumped up, and then they don't show. Because we have so many knockouts, they're scared. You work for two months, and then on the night of the fight..."
"...That's when they call to cancel," Gayler says, finishing her sentence. "They don't call a few weeks in advance. They wait until the last minute, and it's depressing."
Although the sport is shrinking, the two say that it was kickboxing's insular, small world that led Numic and Gayler to each other.
Numic grew up in the war-torn Croatian border town of Slavonski Brod, a place that saw tremendous fighting during the Serbia-Croatia battles from 1991 to 1995. During the war, she worked on martial arts, which she began at age 11. After the war, a company from Houston arrived to help the soldiers rebuild the town. She was hired as a translator one year out of high school. Through the job, she was able to move to Houston and attend college. She later received a scholarship from the University of Texas at Dallas, and upon graduating from there, she went to work for Dallas County. This led to her current gig: investigating crime scenes (CSI: Dallas, as it were).
A few years ago, when she was trying to decide how to start her kickboxing career, she noticed an advertisement in the Dallas Observer from a trainer looking for kickboxers in Richardson. This became her after-work home.
The man who ran the gym in Richardson (which has since closed) was a longtime friend of Doyle Gayler's father. When his father passed away a few years ago, Gayler began training with Numic, not long after they both won the national titles in their weight divisions (then both light welterweight) in 2002.
"We used to spar quite a bit," Gayler says. "That's how we started seeing more of each other. We started traveling. We would, ah, see more of each other, and then..." He trails off.