by Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu
This is the first post in an experiment for 8limbs.us; the idea is to occasionally bring another perspective on the Muay Thai of Sylvie’s journey, to look at this path from another angle. All any of us can ever do is report on, talk about “a” Muay Thai, the Muay Thai that happens to us, and in Thailand where there is such a variety of experiences – from the most resort-oriented experiences of questionable farang match ups, to festival fights in the middle of nowhere with Thai money riding on them – this is even more so the case. Very few people experience a breadth of the spectrum of Muay Thai in Thailand, enough to take it all in. Muay Thai is huge. It’s a sprawling rhizome root that covers the country, preserving, locking in its soil, and expressing itself in a thousand variegated branches. What I think 8limbs.us has been from the very beginning is an attempt to relay to others who don’t have the joy of the experience, the fortune of being in this amazing country, just what it is like…and to encourage a community of others, hopefully women, to come and experience it for themselves, to the fullest.
Sylvie has maybe blogged more than any other person on Muay Thai – over 400 blog posts – all in an attempt to get what is “here” out there where others can feel and think about it. And of course it has turned into something more, it has been about her relating her own epic desires, her own wrenching of herself higher, simply out of the love for the art and the sport, a love that has only grown. Seldom having the comfort of others around her telling her that she was “good”, she’s simply clawed her way to an unprecedented number of fights for a westerner in Thailand, man or woman, and tried her best to relate it to others, trying to both set the path but also pave it for women who’ll come after her and surpass what she is doing.
The amount of her writing has been prodigious in a way. Not because 400 blog posts is some amazing number, but rather because fighters very often are not writers. They are fighters. But also because writing is hard. We’ve seen that some fighters will give it a try for a few months, or will go for long periods without posting new content, (and some like Emma have succeeded beautifully), but the amount of effort that goes into full-time training and fighting just doesn’t leave a lot of emotional space to sit down and express yourself in 1,000 or 1,500 words. It’s hard. But somehow she has done it. Not only does she consistently train like nobody else (that we’ve seen), and fight like nobody else…she writes like no other fighter. I think you can hear the pride in my voice, as I write this. Understand, I’ve sat in the bed and watched her type away, with no less dedication, after 7 hour training days that would physically and emotionally leave others inert. My pride is but a poor mask for my admiration. Sylvie is just an extraordinary woman, and I am simply fortunate to have married her, the woman who has changed my life, and my soul.
But we were talking about that there is only so much a person can do. She can write about what she sees, what she thinks, what happens, but it is only one perspective really. And a fighter is always more than just themselves. A fighter, when she gets in the ring, is an expression of so many who have come together to make that moment possible too. Trainers, gym owners, family, financial supporters, fans, and also in the wide sense, cultures that come together: all of that focuses in her body, her heart, her soul when she dips under that rope. That’s what makes fighting beautiful. If it were just one person throwing fists and knees nobody would care. Fighters fight out of something, they fight for something. That is why we watch.
So we’re thinking that as quietly as I’ve supported her, maybe the site would be even more to others if my perspective as her husband was somehow occasionally added. I’m the guy behind the camera when she fights. I’m the guy sitting in the corner of the gym when she comes out of rounds of padwork. Fighters need loved ones, and I’ve been there with her step upon step, and maybe some of the things I see may add even more richness to what Sylvie is doing, what she is trying to say. In any case, she thought it would be something worth experimenting with.
Me and Muay Thai
I dearly love Muay Thai.
I do not train, nor do I fight. Occasionally I’ll hit the bag for a stretch but in a complicated mix of financial reasons, potential gym politics reasons, and some laziness I’ve tried to stay fairly removed from Sylvie’s training, and that has included not training in the gym regularly myself. I’m older than Sylvie, turning 50 in December, and as much passion as I have for Muay Thai, I have even greater passion for my wife and her path forward. To talk about the finer point, because Thai culture automatically raises up the male, and lowers the female, in Muay Thai contexts it has been best to be at the periphery, though at times we’ve even changed that up when her training just wasn’t cutting it – we’ve done drills together in the Lanna ring in off hours when she just didn’t have sparring partners. But I have always felt that she’s the spearhead, and largely I just have to get out of the way. That being said, I have been present (watching, digesting, thinking) the entire time, from the beginning. 100s of hours in Master K’s basement, along on so many privates, and regular training sessions, I have in a way been cataloging everything trainers have been teaching Sylvie from day 1. She’s had an array of instructors, having no natural gym, and thus a great variety of instruction (some of it in conflict). One thing that I’ve done is keep track of it all, and inject the remembered wisdom of one past instructor to address a difficulty of today. Sylvie and I are constantly discussing the day-to-day aims and achievements, trying to work the lessons of the past back into the present while trying to achieve something new – itself not without its own tensions – and a lot of what I do is bring to bear what anyone else has told her, to help in the synthesis of what she now is becoming. Master K’s opening of the hip and leap, Kaensak’s play, Sakmongkol’s upraised knee guard, Daeng’s head down, Nook’s grasshopper blocks, Nueng’s rock back on the cross, 100s of details are being re-woven in whenever they will fit…and things are at a really incredible point right now, a point of transformation.
All the while Muay Thai itself has become impressed upon me. It is like it has stamped itself on my soul really. I seem to have an odd, projective kinesthetic dimension to my abstract thinking (a kind of synesthesia perhaps), and in many ways it feels like Muay Thai is in my body, like an apparatus or an armature upon which many of my thoughts move. So long have I been thinking through Muay Thai, in how I imagine what is possible for Sylvie, it is now braided in. It has been a remarkable parallel love, watching, admiring and aiding my wife’s inspiring feats, and also actively loving the art itself, with greater and greater intimacy. A double fostering. Something I’d like to write about I think is in the vein of that double fostering within me, as a husband.
One of the things things that changed lately is the breakthrough Sylvie finally had just before the Saya Ito fight. She’s written about it many times, responding to what felt like an epic loss several months ago. As sometimes is the case, it all becomes too much: the repetition and pattern of disappointments, same-path efforts, and unhappiness with oneself, the sum collapses under its own weight. It was too claustrophobic. The reality-on-repeat had become too mean at that point. Sylvie just took some kind of incremental but still gigantic leap and said “Fuck it!” and made a break with her past in August of this year. She decided to own her Self, her fate, her performance. And let me tell you, I’m still in awe. This entire time my sole job as her husband, husband to a fighter, was to make sure that there was always a path (or paths) in front of Sylvie. Whether it was a technical reminder, or a suggestion that we move to Pattaya, I felt like the guy who ran up on an expedition hacking away with the machete so that there were always places for Sylvie to go, to grow. As the sunlight hit her, she would always grow if you gave her space. But there had to be space, a way forward. But now – armed with mental training, and no less importantly, real Thai clinch technique that could defeat advanced opponents – suddenly the dynamic had changed. Now Sylvie was carving out her path, she was burning a hole in the jungle. She was inventing new techniques for herself, new training methodologies, she was not only climbing the mountain, she was making the mountain. She does it now every day, not only in the gym, but also in the ring. After years of trying to measure up to the standards of others, trying to imitate, memorize and duplicate techniques, she was finally creating techniques, expressing herself. Mind blown. It’s more beautiful than I could have imagined to see her just BE. You know when you love someone all you want is to see them do…to be…to express.
So it seems that this perspective (both on my love Sylvie, and of Muay Thai) is one that can finally have a little bit of a voice, at least as an experiment. I’ve struggled as her husband watching how harsh Sylvie has been on herself. A person who fights 70+ fights in 2+ years has to be hard on herself, it is an intense endeavor. It is grueling. It isn’t the fights, it’s the training. It’s pounding yourself through recovery when anyone else would quit. But there has been a shadow to all this. Sylvie has been so harsh on herself, in the gym, mentally, seldom if ever giving herself credit for even a well-thrown punch, or even for being tough, and it has been extremely hard on me. If anyone treated Sylvie (talked to, or even had the disposition towards her) that Sylvie has had regularly towards herself, they would be my mortal enemy. I understand that these habits of harshness are what make Sylvie endure, to be capable of surviving and even thriving in pain and exhaustion, but I always had hoped that she’d find her way through those fires, and come out as new steel. As relentlessly as she has trained, fought and written, she had been even more relentless upon herself. Never giving herself the flower of achievement. It was a long, cold slog up a very wet hill. But all the while she secretly was improving. Deep in herself a reserve was developing, a certain kind of fulgence, that nobody saw. Fight after fight, trainer after trainer not giving her her worth, hours upon hours, she gradually was developing an immunity to the harshness she used to survive and to drive through what she was doing. The negativity was becoming a thick, scaly skin that she was going to be able to slough off. A new, mined, liquid metallic skin underneath.
It would take that loss to Cherry Sityodtong (disappointing multiple trainers and gyms at once) with the immense pressure of possibly disappointing other important people a few days later on the Queen’s Birthday…and it all broke. The first tear in the skin happened, and Sylvie started wriggling free. She finally turned her brilliant gaze inward towards her own negative thoughts, the tight, ugly habits that made a wall to the world, and she incised a line it in. She pressed herself through, like an Alice through a Looking Glass, and she emerged armed.
Now this is important. Abstractly one might say that Sylvie could have started her mental training at any time, but Fate has a funny way of refusing that. Instead there are just windows that open in time, windows when you can make it happen. And that window was made because on one thing. Clinch. Not only had she hit something of a rock bottom, she also had been training in clinch for several months at Petchrungruang and O. Meekhun, with kids her size and smaller that really knew clinch. She had always been a clinch fighter, but nobody had ever taught her how to clinch. In the past people would just throw her around. Off at Lanna, the closest partner her size she previously had known, purposely had broken her nose in clinch practice…twice, out of what one could only call meanness. For more than a year in Thailand she had been clinching in every fight (and often winning) but she didn’t know how to clinch at all. She was just damn strong, and loved knees. But what happened with the Saya Ito fight was that not only did Sylvie make a turn towards the brightness of her mind, she found herself for the first time with a newly forged sword in her hand. Suddenly after some 70 odd scraps in the ring, she had a form of the art that amplified her. Suddenly she was expressing herself in control.
The journey since then has been pretty amazing to behold, and we can only hope that we can stay long enough for her to really learn the art in depth. Suddenly the aim isn’t to just execute this or that technique (and all the yelling that occurs when it doesn’t happen), the aim is to relax, to relax and still be lethal. All kinds of techniques that are buried in the 1,000s of hours of her study are starting to poke through, and it is pretty damn exciting. What is exciting isn’t that she’s going to be better than this fighter or that fighter – people get that all wrong. The excitement is to see what her body and soul is going to do in those ropes, chained down for so long by the weight of mental irons, and gender pains, and ghosts. What the hell is this amazing Sylvie going to do? And that leads to why Sylvie has fought so much. It isn’t the path that others (from the west) have taken, but it was exactly the fire that had to happen to burn off that very thick negative skin. The fire had to be incredibly hot. And I just am amazed at the beautiful, metal woman who has stepped out.
At the Gym
Each afternoon session at Petchrungruang I sit there, in the corner. There are two wood-pew-like chairs that are pressed up at the far end of a long row of bags. The bags hover over large carpet swathes that have been flung over the tile floors, the carpets slip a little when the boys are really kicking hard, a centimeter at a time, so Nak Muay are always stopping to reposition them. The wood chair where I sit is pressed up against a wall opposite an often darkened sauna room, which shares ventilation with the bathroom, and the oddly sweet yet rank odors of human waste drift through cutouts in the wall, when the communal lavoratory gets busy. For this reason, this corner of the gym is not often occupied. But we put our stuff there. Jai Dee – our Thai soi dog with big ears – sits out of the way, lounging, strained on his leash. I mess with the phone, checking messages on the gym wifi, and Sylvie starts to thump the bag a few feet away from me.
I only come to the afternoon sessions because this is what seems best. We found that in Chiang Mai there’s a mixed benefit of my presence. As a male. As Sylvie’s husband, my presence helps cut through some of the gender issues Sylvie might encounter – the outright sexism and sexualization, possibly being ignored – but it also gets in the way. It can prevent trainers from dealing directly with her, and the training magic happens when trainers really get to know her. She’s really unique with tons of qualities that few fighters have, and also a few limitations that few fighters have, so getting to know her, on their own terms, is paramount. The mornings she trains solo, in the afternoons I come to keep her company.
There’s a shadow to my presence too. I’m an intense guy. I’m quiet, but in combat situations roiling inside and Sylvie can feel it. The gym is for me still an adversarial situation. Sylvie is fighting to improve herself, moment by moment. And she is constantly struggling against a never ending tide of Thai sexism. We both love the masculinist Thai culture of traditional Muay Thai, but in gyms it is a constant tide running against what Sylvie is trying to achieve. If she ever stops swimming against it for even a day, she finds herself being washed to the side in a combination of Thai trainer laziness and prejudices.
45 minutes in I look up and see the whole ring full of males sparring. Not only are the youngest Thai boys more or less frolicking in the kind of Kung-fu movie play that they endlessly improvise on, making them loose, joyful and responsive…making them fighters, but also the various farang men are paired up, slugging it out, testing techniques, most of the men with hardly any fights at all or often without any inclination to fight. This is sparring Sylvie seriously needs. She’s on the bag with now almost 90 fights, fighting about every 10 days for more than 2 years, and the ring is filled with males of every age. Kru Nu knows that Sylvie needs to spar, that despite her fight total she has sparred comparatively little, and he has stated that Sylvie needs to spar, but here we are once again with the whole gym sparring and Sylvie on the bag. What the hell?! I’m fuming again. We saw this over and over at Lanna where there was even a Men’s Ring that Sylvie can’t enter. There the trainers would pull all the farang into the Men’s Ring – from absolute beginners, western males who had no thought even to fight, to a few serious student-fighters – to spar or clinch for 45 minutes. Sylvie would just be ignored, left to her bag work, literally forbidden from joining into their space by an odd silence and prohibition. They just didn’t want to deal. It wasn’t purposive, it wasn’t intentional shutting out. It was just the institutional (accidental) washing aside, the way it just happens day after day after day.
And I would then have to go to Sylvie who is working on the bag and say: look around, all the men are clinching or sparring. And she would hate this. She would hate that I’m pointing out a painful truth. And she would hate it even more what it meant. It meant that she would have to break out of her halo of shyness – yes everyone, Sylvie is at heart incredibly shy – she would have to violate her own values of respect and deference to her trainers’ authority – yes everyone, Sylvie is naturally deferential to authority and tradition – and address one of the trainers and ask to have a partner to clinch or spar with, knowing full well that they already had left her out. It may not sound like much, but it is painful. It is painful because it happened after 1 month there, 5 months there, 1 year there, 16 months there, and even 2 years there. Over and over and over. It wasn’t that they didn’t like her, or even care about her. In fact she’s written about how being cared about may undermine her opportunities as a fighter. She just was somehow “invisible” to the natural framework of Muay Thai, and her sex made her less visible than males with hardly a care about fighting or training hard. It was literally impossible to prove herself into the center of their vision, by default. And the same exact thing has been happening here in Pattaya, at a gym we really love, with trainers we really admire. And it makes me terribly angry…quietly, inside. It hurts to see someone you love fight to earn respect, pushing past every visible bar set, and yet to be denied it, or to lose whatever ground is gained, day-by-day. But we also understand that as much as Thailand is covered with a fast, thin layer of modernity, it is still significantly a traditional culture, framed by fundamental hierarchies that themselves are highly gendered, and that Muay Thai – and much that is loved about Muay Thai – grows right out of this traditional bed rock. Only if you are fighting out of highly-touristed gyms, founded upon and focused on western dollars with no Thai fighters, do I suspect you won’t run into many of these boundaries as a woman – and even then you might encounter it in the trainers who come from their own histories, but perhaps you would not realize it was happening. The effect is subtle, seldom blatant. It is more pronounced, perhaps, when the contrast with young Thai boy fighters is the “constant” by which you compare your treatment or how you are considered.
In a gym, at least the gyms we have been to, nobody trains like Sylvie. Thai or farang, they don’t train like her for a day, they certainly don’t do it for months and months on end. She’s been going like this for 30 months straight, pushing herself to her own standard, not taking voluntary time off for more than 2 days and even that is rare. She is a training demon. It began I think out of a mythical sense of “this is how the Thais train” – and the fact that Lanna had a very high training standard on a white board that was no longer used, high on the wall – but more and more it seemed that nobody actually did this, at least not for every long – perhaps deep in Isaan they do, we hear stories, but we haven’t seen it. Instead the training took on its own life, a challenge to herself; in fact she’s gotten better at it as the months and years have gone on. Like an ultra-marathon runner she just knows her body and keeps it going at a very high level, eating up huge miles. If she’s going to have to struggle to be given even 15 minutes of sparring by her trainers – and it is a kind of cultural fight, it still is happening – she’s going to use the extra time that comes from being sidelined to turn her body into armor. Now in fights her shins are so hard she bashes through shin-on-shin clashes with Thai girls and they stop kicking with force early on. Her physical strength is unmatched at her size, probably in the world, and it is a strength she’s carved out of hundreds of hours of training with focus on her own, when Thai trainers have let her slip to the periphery. It is a strength of resistance, and of refusing to be permanently sidelined by a cultural male bias. If you aren’t going to make me a focus, I’m going to train the hell out of myself and do every single thing I can each and every day to improve. I’ve got only a short window of time here in Thailand. I don’t have a decade like the Thai boys, I’m not on a fighter’s holiday like the western fight bros, I’m going to take every single second in the gym and raise myself up with it. That’s her attitude. That’s her commitment, and it pales everything I have done in my life.
So when I go up to her and point out for the 100th time that the boys are clinching now, it is just a rehearsed frustration. She shoots the messenger with her eyes. She hates it every time I push on her comfort zone. But she knows. She’s gotten much better standing up for herself and once again asking: Can I spar? Can I clinch? And in fact her insistences have carved out more space here at this gym, Petchrungruang, than in Chiang Mai, much more. Clinch is more or less regular with boys her size, though it still feels like we are swimming against a masculinist current that without constant maintenance could erode her position in a few days. It’s fine when the boys are 12, but when the teens come there is growing gender resentment all around. The boys are starting to become minor men, and the humor of being bettered by a female even 6 months ago, the elders laughing, suddenly is serious. They start hitting with knee points. Oiii-ing on strikes loudly to dominate, not half-joking as it usually is in clinch play, or they just refuse to clinch, taking a lock and not moving, not kneeing, motionless. As I mentioned, at Lanna one older teen partner willfully broke Sylvie’s nose twice, once with a knee to the face. It’s a jagged edge Sylvie walks. She clinch and/or spar trains every day, but it feels like reluctant time, time she has made out of her urging, and still she clinches and spars not as much as the boys do (which is why we go to a 2nd gym as well). Every time it feels precarious. It feels like she’s interrupting. But the results have been worth it, as quietly uncomfortable as they have been.
For the first time Sylvie is learning clinch at a very fast rate. Clinch is the true, internal art of Muay Thai. It is the “boys club” art, and there are very few Thai women who really know the art. Really only those who have been raised “as boys” for years like Phetjee Jaa really have been inducted into it. Sylvie is cracking the code. Shut out from it at Lanna, winning in the clinch only out of sheer strength before, she’s now is learning with the boys, as a boy. And the results have been incredible. Six months ago a small boy half her size could put Sylvie on the ground with ease, now she is at least holding her own standing up to a current Rajadamnern champion. There is so, so much to learn, years of it, but as I sit back in my wooden chair in the far, far corner of the room, with the heavy bags hung like bodies interfering with my vision, I look out with so much admiration as I see Sylvie fighting in the ring with those boys. This fight is harder than any fight she has had on fight night against a girl. She’s fought her way into a masculine land, in a culture not her own. She asked, begged and proved herself to be going against that kid that hates clinching with her, absolutely hates it, and is trying to end her, to get her to give up. And she doesn’t give up. She is fighting, and fighting and fighting…and lately she has started to do something amazing, she is relaxing. For relaxing is key to clinch. Her confidence has risen to the level where she doesn’t have to fight for every inch. She’s not dangling on a cultural and technical rock ledge. She’s beginning to take the inches and feet as she wants them. And my heart melts.
Sylvie says it many times. Someone is her hero. Well Sylvie is my hero. She is my beacon. She is someone who set an example so beautiful, so hard earned with internal struggles nobody sees, things I only get to glimpse in shadows, and she stands up with it. I am struck by her person. I’ve never met anyone so ethical in all my years. And I mean this in the deepest, widest sense of ethical. Spinoza’s Ethics. She does what she does because it is right. It is good. It is beautiful. I don’t know if people will understand, but she does it out of Goodness. Out of love for what is hard. Who loves the things that are hard…because they are hard? Very few. People often love them despite them being hard, but for her it seems that the very hardness is what she loves. It tests her, it’s diamond on diamond. I am just awash with admiration as she comes out of the ring. Her face wears the war she has with herself, a full-on trench battle with her disappointments, her efforts, her expectations. She cannot see how beautiful she is. She cannot see that she is perfect.
The dog lazily stands up from his half-dead pose laid out from the heat. He arches his back and stretches his narrow feet out forward to her. She is beat. There are always bruises on her shins. She reaches down and gives Jai Dee a pat. The bags of the gym have already died down from their drumming, and only a few pads are thumping in the ring – these are the heartbeats of Muay Thai. The afternoon session is almost over. She sits drenched. The Thai boys have bedraggled their way into the weight room where they will talk and laugh and lift in a beautiful way that only Thai boys can. Sylvie has already done all her conditioning while they were messing around earlier. At this point her fatigue is palpable. It runs through her body like a river. She packs her bag, and zips it closed with a kind of quick force of determination. What few realize when we exit, some of them nodding in affirmation, is that we are heading to another gym, O. Meekhun, for her third full session of the day. Where she’ll do 5 rounds of pads and clinch well beyond when the sun’s down. She is incredible. By the time Phetjee Jaa and her father greet her with smiles, as she gets off the motorbike, and Jai Dee is running through the dirt lot, she will be refreshed. Full of power.
I’ve only written here twice before. The first was after the first year in Thailand, and then again a year later. Both reflections on the previous year. I’m hoping to share more of what it is like to be a husband of Sylvie’s, and a passionate lover of Muay Thai. I’m hoping this adds to the appreciation for the uniqueness of Sylvie’s own path, but more at the same time opens up the Muay Thai conversation about loved ones, how fighters need the support of family, and how women in particular fight for themselves in a sea of men, as fighters. Each of them special.