Getting Their Kicks

Plus: The Father Returns

For two kickboxing champs, finding someone to stomp is the hard part

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.

Kornelija Numic and Doyle Gayler each hold five kickboxing belts.
Steve Satterwhite
Kornelija Numic and Doyle Gayler each hold five kickboxing belts.
Father Justin Lucio
Tom Jenkins
Father Justin Lucio

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 Observerfrom 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.

"It was a New Year's Eve party, all right!" Numic blurts out, laughing. "It just happened!"

Now, nearly two years after the happening, both Numic and Gayler have five championship belts and numerous trophies. Still, they know their future is in boxing, not kickboxing. (Gayler is now Numic's kickboxing coach, though.) They train at the Garland police boxing gym, a part of the spanking new(ish) Garland Police Department. Garland's department belongs to the Police Athletic League, which provides trainers and has local and national competitions. Even though Numic isn't with the department, she and Gayler help the trainers there mentor at-risk kids as part of an anti-gang, learn-to-box program. "They look up to you," Numic says, smiling. "It's wonderful." And although they sometimes get to kickbox in events like Bone Brawl--fight nights sponsored by radio station 93.3-FM The Bone--they know that some day, they will no longer get to kick each other. Only punch each other. And that seems to sadden them.

"We both love kickboxing," Numic says as she picks her championship belts up off the floor and hoists them over her shoulder. "It's our passion. But you have to see what's best for us." --Eric Celeste

The Father Returns

Casita Maria, the troubled nonprofit immigrant counseling group dogged by allegations of mismanagement by its founder, Father Justin Lucio, is reopening with a new name and owner, with help from Lucio.

Early last year, The Dallas Morning News alleged that Lucio and other chief administrators at North Texas' largest nonprofit immigration agency had used the fees that poor immigrants paid to Casita Maria for legal advice and lavished it on themselves. A later investigation by the state attorney general found that although bookkeeping at Casita Maria was shoddy, no one at the nonprofit had knowingly violated any laws (see "The Sins of the Father," by Claiborne Smith, September 23). The state's investigation then piqued the interest of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, which withdrew Casita Maria's accreditation to counsel immigrants.

Several weeks ago, with dwindling clientele and the BCIS against it, Casita Maria, a sprawling old house in Oak Cliff, was hemorrhaging the last of its cash to pay its staff and debts. A judge in Austin ordered Casita Maria's property to be sold.

Michael Warrior, a young Dallas attorney who has given pro-bono legal advice at Casita Maria, won the auction by bidding $265,000 for Casita Maria's assets (which include the immigrants' case files). But it was Warrior's intention to keep Casita Maria a low-cost organization with a charitable purpose that caused Garrett Vogel, the receiver appointed by the state to manage Casita Maria's finances, to recommend Warrior's bid to the Austin judge. "I want it to go back to the days when immigrants could learn English there," Warrior says. Vogel says that there will be a "memorandum" drawn up between Warrior and the state to ensure the presence of a charitable aspect at the Warrior Law Firm, as Casita Maria will be known.

Of course, it couldn't have hurt Warrior's chances in the bidding process that his financial sponsor, legal partner and business adviser in the endeavor is successful entrepreneur John Harkey, the CEO and chairman of Consolidated Restaurant Operations, the parent company of such restaurants as El Chico and Spaghetti Warehouse.

Lucio was preparing late last week to re-enter Casita Maria when it tentatively opens this week in its new incarnation. Although Lucio hasn't been told by Warrior precisely what his role in the firm will be, he says that "this new era will be an extension of Casita Maria's mission of being available to the poor in whatever problems they face. I'm looking forward to it in the sense that I will have a function in doing work for the poor." Warrior says that Lucio's title might be something like "director of charitable operations."

That scenario has caused no small amount of consternation for Fernando Dubove, an immigration lawyer and the staff attorney at Casita Maria in its final six months. "It's just basically a Trojan horse allowing Lucio to go back in," Dubove says, adding that Warrior "doesn't have the experience to run an organization of that size." Dubove also made a bid to obtain Casita Maria's assets but says that speaking out against Warrior and Lucio isn't sour grapes. "I was late in jumping into that bidding process," he acknowledges. --Claiborne Smith

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