ATLANTIC CITY - Prairie Rugilo had no intention of ever hitting anybody.
The 33-year-old Brick Township native began practicing Muay Thai - a martial art from Thailand - 12 years ago as a way of losing weight.
She entered Saturday's amateur fight against Kylie Noll at Bally's Atlantic City as one of the sport's rising female stars. Earlier this year, Rugilo became the first female Muay Thai fighter to compete at New York's Madison Square Garden. She also was honored by the New Jersey Mixed Martial Arts Hall of Fame as its 2011 Muay Thai Female Fighter of the Year.
"I lost 50 pounds and decided to open an all-women's gym in Toms River called 'Girl Fight,' " Rugilo said. "I wasn't planning on ever fighting, but more and more girls at the gym wanted to compete, so I figured I should learn how to fight if I was going to be their trainer. I was only going to do one or two fights, but I enjoyed it so much that I've had seven in the last year and a half."
Saturday's 14-bout card, which was promoted by Take-On Productions in association with MSG Sports, was the second held at Bally's since the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board established the unified rules of the sport one year ago.
Deputy Attorney General Nick Lembo, legal counsel for the NJSACB, served as chairman of a committee that consisted of the sport's top fighters, referees and judges. Together, they developed a set of rules for both amateurs and professionals that was adopted by the Association of Boxing Commissioners on Aug. 3, 2011.
The art is called "Science of the Eight Limbs" because it allows hand, elbow, knee and foot strikes. All fighters wear 8- or 10-ounce gloves. There are 15 weight classes ranging from 103 pounds to over 220. Class B amateur bouts consist of three two-minute rounds, and competitors are required to wear headgear, mouthpieces and shin pads. No elbow strikes to the head are permitted in Class B amateur fights.
Class A amateur fights also have three two-minute rounds, but only elbow pads are required. Professionals compete for five three-minute rounds with no protective gear aside from gloves and the steel cup that all male fighters must wear.
Muay Thai is the only combative sport with a two-step amateur program.
Competitors also are given the option of performing traditional prefight rituals. Once the bout begins, traditional Thai music is played during every round.
"Muay Thai is huge in Asia and Europe and it's been gaining popularity in the United States, especially on the coasts," Lembo said. "There are some great schools in Philadelphia, New York and North Jersey, and they wanted a place to showcase their skills."
Saturday's card drew an enthusiastic crowd to Bally's main ballroom.
Approximately 800 fans, most of whom seemed to be either family or members of the same gyms as the competitors, showered the arena with cheers during every fight.
Saturday's card included four women's amateur Class B, five men's amateur Class B, two men's amateur Class A and three professional bouts. As with mixed martial arts, there is no sanctioning body, so the two title fights were sponsored by the promoter, Take On.
The fighters came from a variety of backgrounds.
New York native Freddie Cheung (4-1), a 21-year-old who fought in the Class A 155-pound division, took up Muay Thai three years ago. Cheung used to be a standout swimmer, having won state championships in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle while in high school in Brooklyn. He graduated in May from New York University with a degree in sports management.
"If I was going to swim in college, I would have had to go to a D-III (NCAA Division III) school and I wanted to go to NYU," Cheung said. "Plus, my shoulders were kind of shot anyway, so I decided to try something different."
East Brunswick native Spencer Grekoski, 17, who fought in Class A for Take On's 145-pound title, has been training for just two years and has had nine fights (8-1) in a year and a half.
Unlike most fighters in his age group, Grekoski joined a Muay Thai gym rather than pursuing MMA.
"I don't like MMA too much," said Grekoski, who is entering his senior year at East Brunswick High School. "I think there is more respect for your opponent in Muay Thai even though we are trying to hurt each other."
New York native Jay Matias (1-2), a 22-year-old professional 132-pounder, was living in Winter Garden, Fla., outside Orlando, six years ago with his brother, Jesus. He was scanning the channels on TV when he came upon the 2003 action movie "Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior" starring Tony Jaa.
He was hooked.
"I had watched all of the (Jean-Claude) Van Damme movies," Jay Matias said. "Once I saw 'Ong-Bak,' I knew that was what I wanted to learn. The same day we watched the movie, my brother and I were already practicing moves."
Contact David Weinberg: