above, a photo of the legendary Dieselnoi Chor Thanasukarn advising Sylvie before her fight
A husband’s diary. I cannot, and really should not hide the pride I feel for my wife, seeing her fight her first World Title fight just a few days ago. But, what I really wish to communicate to you, to everyone, is the source of that pride, what it is that makes me just expand, to feel more worthy, more complete as a person – the notion of pride. A certain privilege comes from being so close to what really has been an unending Herculean task – for those that recall the tasks of Hercules, each one an impossibility at the face of it, each one a kind of penance. And to look at it Sylvie is no Hercules. She’s a woman at 100 lbs and some change, soft spoken, keeping to herself in most of her ways. But here she was fighting a top Thai talent 4…four…weight classes bigger than herself, for the very respected WMC World Title. For me it would seem that my wife is just made of impossibilities, and this is but a golden thread of that fabric of which she is woven.
So we are sitting on our mat, laid out on the grass some distance from all the commotion of the event, still hours from when the fights will take place. It’s daylight, the sun has not yet fallen, and milling about are many of the said-to-be one hundred Muay Thai masters who will compose a remarkable, never before assembled ceremony to honor the passing of Thai King Rama 9, and take an oath to the new King, Rama 10. Most of these men are legends in their own right; they all know each other from the decades of the highest level of Muay Thai fighting, some preceding even the Golden Age of the sport. It is like a Muay Thai “class reunion” of class reunions, but in an informal way. The WMC event had been pulled together fairly quickly, and as we heard it, it just kept getting bigger and bigger with more and more people attending. This was, in a sense, the Last King’s Cup as we know it, though with the passing of HM the King Rama 9, it no longer was “the King’s Cup.” It was an event honoring him in memorial, and with it honoring all the King’s Cups that had happened under King Rama 9 since the early 1960s.
I don’t know why, but Dieselnoi seems to have just taken a liking to Sylvie. There is a lot to like, she’s personable and respectful, but this is just some 100 lb American woman fighting in a sport which in many ways defines Thai masculinity. She is a blip in the magnificent history of the sport – decades and decades of man-proving in what some feel is the most violent of the fighting arts. Maybe some of it is the incredible size disparity. Dieselnoi is a Giant. He not only stands uncommonly tall for a Thai at 6’2”, he has a huge personality that is rolling with incessant humor, sarcasm, bemusement, but also has eyes that incandesce, carbon under heat, when he is talking about Muay Thai and fighting. His idle is 100 mph. She is quiet. Serious. Small. She’s trained with him twice and he has just taken to her. Maybe some of it is that he is the King of Knees, the man who lifted Muay Khao fighting to undefeatable reaches and changed the sport, and here is this western lady who has put every drop of her life into one day doing the same. But whatever it is, Dieselnoi is surrounded in a loose circle of other Masters who have gathered for the ceremony, casually shooting the shit, and he sees Sylvie 30 meters away, and I’m looking right at his face and I see it brighten. I see it completely change. I can’t really ever forget this moment. This is one of those unguarded, completely innocent split seconds that just IS what it is. In a beautiful land which is filled with joyfully performed smiles, and the deep importance of paid respect, the artifice of loyalties (all very important and sincere things), there was this moment for me I won’t forget. I don’t care how many belts there are in the world, how high a pedestal one could stack oneself on, they aren’t equal to this moment, this sliver of an unformed second, the moment of recognition when you instantly respond.
He separated himself off from his legendary mates and came over to our mat. He just towers, there is nothing like it. I cannot remember what happened over the next 15-20 minutes or so, but after talking to Sylvie for a bit, through a loose milling around, a general halo of small talk involving several men who were chatting with Dieselnoi exchanging stories, talking in circles, Dieselnoi sat himself down on our mat, next to Sylvie. He’s stiff from his years of fighting, and coming down to the mat isn’t a quick and easy move…but somehow it was graceful, like an enormous bird with great legs suddenly lighting itself down to the surface of water. And once he was down everything changed. It deepened.
It was like Muay Thai royalty had established its place, where he wanted to be.
This is the funny, ironic thing. Here is this incredible Muay Thai show, the production values are off the charts with two huge outdoor screens, a light show, sound systems, impeccably organized by the WMC. And here we are on this little woven grass mat that we got up in Isaan, when fighting with Frances, the mat that we’ve carried everywhere to every fight. For almost 70 fights we’ve had our mat, taking it all over Thailand, to festival fights in far-flung villages, to Isaan stadium fights, to big glamour shows. This mat is what Sylvie has ridden, like a magic carpet. At festival fights, or really any non-posh fights, every fighter and their family has a mat. They are all laid out in a row against the far, makeshift tarp fences that are sometimes put up to keep the non-paying customer out, or against the wall of school gymnasiums. These mats ARE Muay Thai. These mats are where Muay Thai really happens. They are where the family sits together (family and gym are often the same), where fighters nap or hardly move to conserve every molecule of energy, where babies lay and are fanned by older sisters and mothers, where the oil massage is given. The grass of their tight weave has absorbed namman muay, sweat, Vaseline and probably a little blood. It holds it all in its own tobacco-like scent. Every bit of Muay Thai has soaked into these mats, a life of a gym, and the entire social glue of what fighting is made of is performed on these mats. When you join a group, those allied with you, already on mats and have your own mat, you lay your mat down so it touches, like stitching them together. Sitting on someone’s mat is indicating a bond or a relationship, in a subtle but still strong way.
But this is the thing, ours was the only mat we saw. Perhaps some of the fighting Thais had mats far beyond the hedge, across the road, I’m not sure, or somewhere else, but visibly the only mat was ours. For me it was this incredible juxtaposition. This is a huge, sophisticated production. And then here is this small grass mat, set to the side on a grassy stretch. And Dieselnoi just sat down on it, establishing himself. It’s this interesting mix of things. All these Masters, these legends of Muay Thai, they grew up on these mats, as kids. Despite all the nobility and impressive production surrounding the event, there was this mat, the mat of Muay Thai, of the festivals, of the local stadia, sitting there. There is in Thai consciousness often the sense that they want to distance Muay Thai from its more simple roots, its backward history in fields and small towns. It wants to ascend to a certain modernity that is equal to the possibilities as a great nation. This was, in part, what brought about the razing of Old Lumpinee with its broken boards and dirty, creaking structure, and building a polished new version in another neighborhood. And I perfectly understand that. But here, balanced in this moment, was that there was a mat of Muay Thai childhoods that just happened to be there at this event. And on it this curious, small woman…and now Dieselnoi.
Over the next few hours the mat became an anchor as Dieselnoi reclined, sat up, did ab exercises (humorously), stood up, sat back down, all the while holding court with other Muay Thai greats who sat with him, some on the very edge of the mat, some just off it on the grass. There was one occasion when a somewhat swarthy, very strong older man, who everyone knew, very forwardly sat himself down on the mat, and even stretched out a little. It was not well-rewarded and he eventually got up. We had been joined by Karuhat Sor. Supawan, who properly was Sylvie’s corner. Karuhat and Dieselnoi are an incredible pair, each of them skating along a ribbon of ubiquitous humor. One of them small, one of them large. One of them talking boisterously, like a magnanimous regent holding the realm, the other silent, smiling…quietly laughing at the most recent outrageous thing Dieselnoi has said. The two of them held the halo of the mat together, this beautiful constellation of men gathered around.
As Dieselnoi’s affection for Sylvie is somewhat unexplained, so is Karuhat’s. We met Karuhat through Kaensak Sor. Pleonjit, who was Sylvie’s instructor in New Jersey for more than a year. Kaensak cornered for Sylvie during a short visit of his to Thailand and he brought along his buddy. Truth be told we had no idea who Karuhat was, and you would never guess looking at him that he is one of the great Muay Thai fighters of all time. He was very quiet, a man who receded behind reading glasses and a slight and mirthful smile. Kaensak, perhaps one of the 10 best fighters ever, insisted: “He is at my level.” Adding, “When Thais see photos of him in your corner they will become very excited. He is very famous.” It turns out that Sylvie’s fight was a very fast KO, probably the fastest of her career, and it was not long after the gloves were off that he was gone with his drinking buddy in Hua Hin. We thought we would never see or even hear of Karuhat again. But in writing up the story of the fight Sylvie started researching, looking up his fights, and what she saw did nothing short of slowly take possession of her as a fighter. She had never seen someone express whatever that unspoken thing was that made her want to fight, to fight like something. She’s watched his fights 100s of times. As she says now: He is my hero. It’s an indefinable “x” that is intimately stitched into his technique, his persona, that speaks directly to a part of Sylvie that I think all this time has been fighting to get out. He fights like how Sylvie wants to be…if she was free.
And yes, I just don’t know why Karuhat has taken to Sylvie. It was extremely difficult to book a training session with him, though we tried over many months. He is not really an instructor anywhere. Like many former elite fighters he kind of floats around the Muay Thai world, sometimes in gyms, sometimes traveling with fighters, most of the time I have no idea what. But when it came together and she trained with him, she really started unlocking something. He teaches something unspeakable, at least unspeakable to Sylvie. It’s a kind of tempo, timing…a feel for the music of the fight. He’s a fucking Baryshnikov. Twice now Sylvie has trained under him and filmed. And she works constantly to sew what he is into her movements and confidence. This is perpetual self-work, and he is a kind of armature.
And why Karuhat has opened up to corner for her now, I really don’t know. In Thailand to corner for someone is to in some way represent them, and also perhaps more importantly, to be represented by them. The social meanings vary, not everyone would corner for anyone, but he willingly, generously corners for her in some of Sylvie’s biggest events. But it is more than this…and this is maybe hard to describe. As Sylvie’s husband in these shows I’m very, very quiet. I prefer not to really talk to anyone. I prefer to recede. Mostly what I’m doing is just assessing. Is Sylvie safe? Is she in a good spot? Is she in control of her own process? I’m safeguarding, silently, but staying away. I want her to steer herself, to ascend. This is what personally means something to me. In these fights where Karuhat has cornered for her I’ve noticed something. There has been another person doing the exact same thing as I am. Karuhat is there, standing at a distance, just watching. Safe guarding. This isn’t just corner man stuff. He’s watchful of her, as a person. He takes note when the energy starts to move in not a great direction. Mostly humorous are moments when he is watching Dieselnoi prep-talk Sylvie. Dieselnoi talks before a fight exactly how he fought. He’s an impossible thresher. He chews up everything in front of him, he is transported right back to where he was when he was fighting. It is incredible to see Dieselnoi trying to impart not only very sage advice, tactics on how to win as a knee fighter, but also in almost a sci-fi alien sense, transmigrate his powerhouse energy into Sylvie’s mind and small body. He attempts in one way or another a Vulcan Mind Meld, facing the fighter. Urgently he feels all the things that you must feel, and he wants you to feel them. There was really no fighter like him, no man that I’ve ever met. But in these moments you’ll see Karuhat eventually quietly circle around, and watch. And as Dieselnoi really gets going Karuhat inches forward, smiling slightly…gauging if he should subtly intercede. It is my instinct that Karuhat felt that one of the reasons Sylvie may have fought poorly against Loma, in almost an out of body sense detached from herself, was because Dieselnoi impassionately tried to download 40 years of Muay Thai greatness into Sylvie in 10 minutes before the fight, while they were in the hallway. She wasn’t in the right frame mind for it before the fight. I don’t know if that is really a reason, and bless Dieselnoi for exactly that, for caring with incredible passion, that is really who he is, and I wouldn’t want a drop of that to change. But for me, personally as Sylvie’s husband I am very moved by feeling Karuhat hovering around, very watchful of this. He’s a quiet person. He can feel how quiet Sylvie is. The way he takes care of her around fights is unreal, completely unseen except at certain moments.
You can see one of those moments: him watching over here in this video clip, as Dieselnoi is explaining to Sylvie how he wants her to fight, you don’t really have to understand Thai to follow what is going on. Watch not only Dieselnoi who is incredible, but also Karuhat who is very gently shepherding what is happening. The two different caring energies, with Sylvie in between.
So this is the beautiful thing. I’m going to try to sum this up, it takes a big, wide arc. There is this mat on which some of the all-time greats of fighters who have ever fought are sitting. The mat is there, out there on the grass, because Sylvie fights like how these men fought when they were young. She’s fought over 150 times in the country, more times than any western man or woman. The mat is there because she takes it everywhere. She fights everywhere, just like a Thai boy. She is in the process of fighting like a Thai boy, the process that led to these men becoming what they became. She wouldn’t think of not bringing her mat. In a strange mapping of Muay Thai greatness, childhoods and just who Sylvie is, this small oasis, a reef, builds up. Dieselnoi is there, like a prince. Men surround him. Karuhat is there, watching like a guardian. The occasion is this tremendous ceremonial moment that signals the passing of an era that lasted 70 years, everything that ushered pre-modern Muay Thai into its very modern present form. It’s the end of an era that includes the entire lifetime of the Original Lumpinee Stadium, from when it was opened in 1956 to when it was torn to the ground in 2014. These men, these men are the final living memory of that Lumpinee, that Muay Thai – it walks with them even though the building and now very sadly that King is moved on. And they are gathered around Sylvie’s mat. Of all the impossibilities of what Sylvie is, what she is doing, and what she is done, think about that.
Now, I’m going to say something that I hope is clear. But give me a moment to explain. I’ll start with this. The reason why this happened, and continues to happen, is because Sylvie is nobody special. So much of what happens in the world of Muay Thai, and in the Muay Thai of Thailand happens because someone is “special”. This involves gyms being special and seriously connected to powerful forces in the game, orchestrating moves of promotion and the bestowal of belts which indicate how special someone or some gym is. Worldwide this involves instructors or promoters putting a great deal of energy into showing how special they are, everyone in a constant scramble to be on top, to shine at the top. That’s okay, that’s how Muay Thai is. And yes, Sylvie must have her thousands of detractors across the planet, because that is what you get when you actively put yourself out there as a woman, forcibly pushing spotlight onto yourself, a spotlight you hold, because spotlights really don’t favor women, and this is just a fact of the game. When you shine that light all sorts of people who will never meet you will form a variety of opinions about you, some of them very strong opinions, because that is what people like to do. They live in a fantasy world of opinions. That’s okay too. But I’m writing here to tell you my perspective. The reason why there was this quiet, almost unconscious circling around Sylvie’s mat is because of one thing…Sylvie. It’s not because she’s so amazing. In the world of amazing there are always the more amazing…and what surrounded her then was far more luminary than anything she is or will be. She was not a great light pulling other lights to her. It happened instead because she isn’t special. When you are around her, when you train with her, when you know her for any length of time, she possesses a kind of invisibility which makes room for something to happen. Quiet coupled with perseverance. I’m very moved when writing this. You will never meet a person, man or woman, who fights harder, trains harder, tries harder…all the things that people do when they really love something…but that isn’t the secret of her doing things. It’s that she makes room, out of being not special, for great things to happen right there next to her, she kind of possesses an empty hub, becomes a hub of possibility. She tries and tries and tries, but that isn’t what really makes things happen. They happened beside her, beyond her, near her, through her. She generates this stuff out of her character. Understand, this is not a hagiography, this is just a husband talking about the woman he admires and loves, telling you what he sees.
I saw it years ago when I first visited her and her family, our first shared Christmas. I was kind of taken aback to see how suddenly invisible Sylvie became when she walked through the doors of her family home in Boulder, Colorado. Strong, wonderful personalities filled her family, mostly the boys, her brothers, but also her father, her mother. As someone who loved and celebrated her I was pretty surprised to see the woman I loved kind of eclipsed. But then I realized something. She was the silent hub of a wheel with many spokes, the invisible center part. Everything somehow spun around her, with her never being a center of attention. Her absence glued. She kind of held the family together, the smallest, the youngest, mostly silent, throwing occasional sharp-edged jokes into the air.
I’m not doing a very good job of explaining this, but there is this mysterious quality to her that is operating exactly like this in her Muay Thai life. Yes, people no doubt have formed many opinions about her, that’s okay. Some positive, some less so. But this is an incredible person, and one day more will know it. I think it takes the long view to see these things. She’s incredible because she’s nobody special. Indistinct she has fought like nobody before her really has, carving out a path that so many woman will be able to follow if they wish, cutting their own paths. She has no WC belts. She has no glittering jewel. But the Masters of Muay Thai find themselves gathering around her mat, for no accountable reason, other than her uniqueness, which is different than being “special”.
That night Sylvie fought for the 52 kg WMC World Championship Belt, the first time she has fought for a world title – title holders near her weight really will not face her, she’s a difficult fighter to face. She weighed in at her walk-around weight, a mere 47.7 kg, and was fighting technically 4 weight classes above her own. Think about that impossibility. You would not dream of such a thing happening. Why was she in this fight? She had just beaten the WPMF 49 kg World Champion a month before. She had shown she could take down larger opponents at the top of the game, but that was not why. Was it because she had a powerful gym that organized a high profile fight for one of its fighters, growing its reputation? No, Pi Nu at Petchrungruang hardly knew about the fight. Sylvie stayed invisible. It was this: It’s that Sylvie is just Sylvie, she makes room for greatness to appear right next to her. It’s not humility so much as it’s just a silence. A certain kind of stillness, combined with a relentlessness. When you meet her and train with her, you’ll know.
And she fought a great fight against a towering advantage, at times making it look like she could very well pull out the impossible win. She was intensely committed to winning that belt, it was the opportunity that had been brought to her and she really did all she could to meet it. But more was happening in that ring, things that few if any would ever see. Karuhat, her proximate hero, was in her corner. She was accessing rooms in the mansion of her heart and brain whose doors had long been locked. She was freeing herself in inches, in small gestures, in split-seconds that she has been fighting for in training, and in the private spaces of her solitary time. This is the beautiful thing about that event for us, and bless the WMC for presenting it and allowing Sylvie to fight on it, she used the shining lights in that ring, and the will of her opponent to climb higher within herself…towards a Muay Thai that has never existed before for women, a style and an approach that is all hers, that is still only partially formed. She was chipping away at stone.
When she returned to the mat she was saddened. She really thought she was going to win, everything she prepared for was with that eventuality in mind. Dieselnoi agitatedly protested to her on how unfair it is that she keeps fighting opponents that aren’t her size. How come the “farang” (westerner) is always larger than Thai opponents in big shows, and you are the only farang who’s smaller than the Thais she faces? (This isn’t entirely true, but it is generally so.) Sylvie explained that nothing was more important than the opportunity to fight on the King’s Memorial Day, she was happy for the fight. This is worth everything. He understood, but was still vexed, you can see the video clip of some of this below:
In losses, this was such a curious one. One of the most beautiful things about how much Sylvie has fought is that she’s lost more times than most people will ever get into the ring in a lifetime, almost 50 times. For people who fight in favorable circumstances and stack up impressive records, there is a sad side-effect of that success. You don’t know losing. You may say: Who wants to know losing, all that counts is winning! Who wants to be a loser? But think of people who are of substance. Think of the role of suffering in life. Think of what life would be like without suffering. Losing in the life of a fighter is like that. You don’t want to only know losing, just like you don’t want a life brimmed full of unending pain. But I would say, if you don’t know losing you don’t really know winning. It’s like living in a world made only of Light. It is meaningless, without context. My pride swells as her husband because I watched that night Sylvie produce one of the greatest losses I’ve ever seen. Losing takes a piece of you. It could be a chunk of flesh, or just a little skin off your nose. But somehow in that fight Sylvie lost nothing, or what she lost grew back very, very quickly. She exited undiminished somehow. I’ve seen a lot of losses, this is next to impossible to do. It takes tremendous personal skill and investment to lose like that, to know the thing that is beyond winning.
Instead Sylvie ascended secretly working on herself as she always has, and the WMC event grew large. And she took the Masters that surrounded her into her heart to nourish her in the endless hours, months and hopefully years that lay ahead, as she discovers what she can be. Without a map, she traces her way forward, irrevocable in what she becomes. And I couldn’t be prouder.
You can see some of Sylvie training with Dieselnoi here.
As a Patreon Supporter you can watch an hour of her training with Dieselnoi with her commentary here.
You can watch some of Sylvie training with Karuhat here.
As a Patreon Supporter you can watch an hour of her training with Karuhat with commentary here.
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