Seeing fights that occur before or directly after my own bout is an entirely different experience from going to fight night as a spectator. Tuesday night provided just such an opportunity and, having a scheduled border run the following day, not worrying about being tired for training by going out at night allowed for me and my husband to take advantage of that opportunity.
For fights at Kalare Stadium we depart camp at 8:00 PM, getting us to the venue usually a full hour before the first bout is scheduled to commence. As a fighter, you hunker down on the bamboo mat that’s been rolled out on the floor and just chill out. But as spectators, Kevin and I had the freedom to go walk around the Night Bazaar and have a nice dinner before looping back to the stadium.
On our way back through the long stretch of vendors we passed by a guy who works for Kalare Stadium, handing out flyers to the passersby. He gave me a sideways smile and pretended to shrink from me in fear before asking if I’m fighting tonight. I replied in Thai, “not tonight, I watch my friend.” He gave me a thumbs up and a nod before saying, in English, “see you over there.”
When we were just a few hundred feet away from the stadium gate the Royal Anthem sounded over the speakers and, remembering and simultaneously noting the behavior of those around us, Kevin and I stopped in our tracks and stood for the duration of the song. When it finishes you bow and continue on your way. We said hello to the regular men at the gate, taking tickets, both of whom ask me if I’m fighting tonight and I laugh because they are literally holding the fight card right in their hands as they ask me.
Inside the stadium I see that my teammate, Chopper, is in the middle of his oil massage and the first two fighters are circling each other in their Ram Muay. Kevin and I pull up behind the row of betters who lean against the torso-level chain-link fence that divides the “standing section” from the 400 Baht per ticket “seated section.” They excitedly start motioning with their hands to place bets as the fighters touch gloves and begin the first round. These kids are awesome. They’re listed as weighing 43 kg, but I’d guess they’re closer to my size at 46 kg. The kid in the red corner throws headkicks with the frequency that Paquiao throws jabs and when the kid in the blue corner slides backwards the kid in the red leaps forward with a flying knee, crashing both of them into the ropes. There seems to be a high chance for a KO, but it doesn’t happen.
Between rounds I say hello to various regularly attending betters who recognize me and all ask when I’m fighting again. I smile and wai to the promoter as he passes by and he gives me a big smile in return.
In what feels like very little time it’s Chopper’s turn and we all move over to the ring as a camp. We go to the opposite side of the ring from where I always go, to the blue corner. I listen to the Thai announcer and can pick out a few words that indicate that Chopper is being introduced as a fighter out of Kiat Busaba (Lanna Muay Thai’s Thai name) and he notes that he’s from Isaan. I wonder if that’s why he’s in the blue corner, as the red is generally the “home” corner and as a Chiang Mai gym we generally go there. Chopper’s mom asks Kevin to film the fight with her camera phone, explaining that she’s too nervous to handle that task herself. So Kevin climbs up on the corner of the ring and I walk over with Chopper’s mom, sister and nephew to stand behind the row of Thai boys and trainers who are arranging the materials for the corner.
It’s weird standing here. At first it’s just Nook in the corner, doing the things that Andy and Den perform for my fights – removing the Mongkol from his head after the Ram Muay, saying prayers and splashing water on his head and shoulders. I’ve never seen Nook do this and it’s beautiful to watch from the outside like this.
Chopper’s fight is great. The escalation is gradual throughout the rounds and by the third I’m barely breathing. I can’t even shout out the “Oi! Oi!” sounds when Chopper lands kicks to the head and knees to the body of his opponent. He’s totally gassed and not moving much other than to explode into the aforementioned techniques. I’m not afraid he’ll get hurt and I’m not afraid he’ll lose, more than anything I’m unable to breathe because I just want him to come out feeling proud. When his hand is raised as the winner and he has bowed to the judges, he comes out beaming – totally exhausted, but satisfied.
We move as a team back to the mat and I start taking off Chopper’s glove and unwrapping his hand while Off works on the other one. It feels nice to be on this end of it, like I’m part of the team, one of the guys, something like that. A little objective observation suggests that my role in doing this was not entirely appropriate and I can’t know for sure why – my age, my status, my gender, or even just that I wasn’t working his corner. It felt natural for me, but the response by the other Thai kids working the corner suggested that it wasn’t. That’s unfortunate and I’ll have to figure that out as I go.
Afterward I went over to where Den and Daeng were standing because they’re how we get back home. They were talking to the promoter and when I appeared he pointed at me and asked Den in Thai when I was fighting again. Den had scheduled me at another stadium on the 2nd of October and the promoter asked if I could fight on the 12th. I smiled and nodded, something that I’m quite sure is not my place to do so and Den sounded as if he was giving a considerate, “I’m not sure” answer. Presently the promoter disappeared into the seated crowd and reappeared a few minutes later with a young woman about my height and probably within 15 lbs of my weight. They stood her next to me and a group of men – my trainers, some of the guys who work the door and maybe a few betters – stood around making noises in agreement with our comparison. One of the guys, maybe the woman’s trainer, kept saying to her “aow mai? aow mai?” Which is basically asking, “do you want this?” So I smiled and answered, aow (yes, want) and everyone laughed. Nook told us to put up our fists and fight right now as he giggled with delight and after a few minutes the group parted, the woman disappearing back over to near the ring from where she had been collected.
It’s amazing to me that this is how fights can be matched in Thailand. You show up to the stadium, people know you and the promoter and your trainers will straight up just do a visual size comparison to find an opponent. I fully believe that if we’d had shorts and will to do so, that woman and I could have just fought that night.
When I got to the gym on Thursday I saw a second date next to my name, affirming that Den had agreed to the fight at Kalare. I love having two dates written next to my name, I love seeing the progression of the numbers as evidence that one fight leads to another and the physical proof that Den understands my desire to fight. I love that I can show up to watch a fight and leave with one of my own scheduled, like a party favor. I love that I can show up to the gym and see a scheduled fight, without Den having to tell me. And more than anything, I love that my own disappointment and self-consciousness about having failed to perform the way I wanted to in my last fight is like a barely perceivable blinking light in the background of the brightness of the stadium, which hums and glows with the people within it: my teammates, the fighters, the betters and vendors and staff who recognize me on sight for all the things I fail to see in myself at times. If you’re looking for a fight, it’s a fighter you’ll see.